The Old Armoury, Unitarian Schoolroom and Burial Ground, 68-70 Friarn Street

The Former Unitarian Schoolroom of 1865, from an aerial picture taken between the wars, presumably just before conversion to a garage. The burial ground was in the plot behind. The 1932 aerial views of Bridgwater (Britain from Above) show this building with a garage door, so this picture must pre-date that.

The site now occupied by 68-70 Friarn Street is mentioned in 1625, when what probably became 68 was leased by Richard Willoughbye of London to William Wallis of Bridgwater. The property was described as a ‘decayed tenement and garden’, a quarter of a burgage in width, and had previously been part of the property of one of the chantry chapels inside St Mary’s Church. In 1652 Nicholas Douthwaite of London leased the same plot to William Androse of Bridgwater, along with a burgage plot containing a tenement and garden, which is presumably what became number 70. In 1661 Androse leased both plots to Edward Sealy of Bridgwater. Three years later, presumably after Androse had died, Roger Bourne re-leased the plots to Sealy, now described as a barn and garden. In 1692 Edmond Borne granted a 10,000 year lease to William Sealy of Exeter (Somerset Heritage Centre DD/S/WT/7). The 1835 Bridgwater Borough Property report mentions how the plot had been held by Edward Sealy of Bridgwater in 1661, and was known as ‘Sealy’s Land’, and later ‘Miss Sealy’s Land’.

The full-burgage size plot may be the tenement described as a ‘Messuage and tenement in Friarn Street near Friarn Gate’ in a series of documents dating to 1557-1661, which also mention Androse and Sealy (SHC D/B/bw/CL/69). Friarn Gate was the old entrance to the Franciscan Friary, now obliterated by the Broadway, which was directly opposite the plot.

In 1775 Levi Ames of Charlton and his wife Sarah, nee Sealy, along with her sister Elizabeth Sealy of Bridgwater (evidently joint heirs of some of the Sealy properties in the town) granted the double plot in trust to the ‘Presbyterian Meeting House’ (later Christchurch Unitarian Church) as a place for the congregation’s minister to live.

The double plot on the 1810s town plan. The map implies that there remained two frontages to the street, while the two gardens had been combined. The ‘Friary Gate’ mentioned above was the small passage way directly across the road. The adjoining plot to the east is the site of the so-called ‘Priory’.

In 1835 the property was occupied by the Rev William James, a Unitarian minister. It seems that at this time the property was known as ‘Parsonage House’. (B. Lawrence, Coleridge and Wordsworth in Somerset: 1970, p 39). This name may recall its ownership by one of the chantries of St Mary’s, although given the dubious name given to the adjoining ‘Priory’, which was never the site of such an establishment, we might not read too much into it, beyond the fact a religious leader lived there. We should imagine the actual medieval parsonage house of St Mary’s Church, if there ever was one, to have been nearer the church itself.

While the Unitarians held the land, the rear of the property was used as a burial ground. It is not clear when this practice began: the surviving Unitarian burial register begins in 1833, which was the time a number of other congregations set up small independent burial grounds  around the town (Independents, 1822; Wesleyans 1833; Baptists 1837, Mariners 1837) This burial ground was in use up to 1853, when new burials were then taken to the Wembdon Road Cemetery. The burial ground was closed for new burials by Act of Council in July 1854 and was converted into a garden for the school (Clare Sealey Notes)

The Unitarians also used the property as a school. We find mention of the opening of a Unitarian day school in Friarn Street in 1830, presumably in the ministers’ house. A school room was then built in 1834 and enlarged in 1842. Another school was built at Provident Place in 1850, although that was demolished in 1866 (Dunning, Victoria County History).

Around 1865 both Parsonage House and School were pulled down and both re-built – Reverend Timmins occupied the house. In November 1877 the Unitarians found they could no longer sustain the running of the school, so the building was then rented to the Bridgwater School Board for two years, until December 1879. A plaque on the building recorded its use as the ‘British School’, which presumably dated to these two years.

The 1865 Schoolhouse, presumably taken sometime between 1865 and 1879. Kindly supplied by the Blake Museum, Bridgwater.

In 1880 the Unitarian’s received an application from the Officers of the town’s Volunteer Force to rent the Friarn Street property (Clare Sealey Notes). In John Whitby & Son’s Handy Directory of Bridgwater and Neighbourhood of 1883, the building is described as ‘Armoury of the I&K Companies, 2nd Volunteer Battalion Prince Albert’s Light Infantry’ (p.5). On the 1888 Ordinance Survey Town Plan the building is described as ‘Armoury (2nd Somerset Rifle Volunteers) with the rear of the property being marked as ‘drill ground’. Prior to 1880, the armoury seems to have been kept somewhere in the markethouse on the Cornhill. E.R.Kelly’s County Topographies: Somerset (1875) mentions:

The Corn Exchange was opened on 19 May 1875. The contractor for the building was Mr Thomas Searle, and the architect Mr Charles Knowles, late borough surveyor. The building presents an elegant appearance. The site is immediately behind that portion of the Market House formerly in use as a Corn Market; the Old Fish Market, and the staircase leasing to the Armoury of the 5th Somerset Rifle Volunteer Corps, being also converted for that purpose.

The Friarn Street Armoury was still in use in 1913, when it is mentioned in connection to National Reserve (Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser 20 August 1913, Shepton Mallet Journal 22 August 1913). It presumably ceased to function when the Unitarians were forced to sell the property in 1920. The Armoury then was moved to Blake Street, behind the old County Police Station.

It seems the Armoury became a garage in about 1924. By 1932 a garage door had been inserted below the two main windows (Britain from Above EPW039922). In 1944 the death of Mr Andrew Reed, aged 59 of East Bower, was mentioned as ‘proprietor of the motor garage at the Old Armoury, Friarn Street, where he had carried on his business for 20 years’ (Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser 29 July 1944). By 1948 the business was referred to as ‘the Old Armoury Garage (Western Gazette 02 April 1948). In 1960 and 1967 Andrew Read, motor engineer, lived in the property, although E.G. Gunningham was listed as the proprietor – the Gunninghams having taken over from the Reads (Kelly’s Directory of Bridgwater, 1960, 1967-8).

In 1970 ‘a senior member of the Unitarian congregation recalled that the site of the petrol pumps was formerly a burial ground and that years ago she saw two old tombstones leaning against a wall of the house’ (Lawrence, Coleridge and Wordsworth, p.39).

Gunningham’s garage closed in the mid-1980s, as did the adjoining John Warren Car Sales, and the site became the centre for the Small Industry Group, run by a Mr Fred Weslake. An industrial steel building was erected on the car sales forecourt, which was occupied by former Clarks workers, after the Redgate factory closed. This was a cooperative, called Sew Unique (Pers Comm, Roy Snook).

In the 1980s and by 1987 the building was used as a photography studio and picture frame gallery, run by Arthur Woolaway.  The business later moved to St Mary Street, first to the Inshops shopping centre in the Marycourt (now the Carnival Inn) where it operated until 2019 (Bridgwater Journal 14 February 1987; Bridgwater Mercury 6 December 2019).

The building remained derelict for a number of years in the early 1990s. In October 1992 68 bodies were exhumed from the burial ground and reburied in five coffins in two plots in the Quantock Road Cemetery (pers comm, BTC). Although the bones were preserved, there is no record as to what happened to the other artifacts, such as any recovered tombstones, coffin furniture or grave goods.

The building was demolished in about 1996 as part of the Priory Court development: apparently bomb disposal had to be called as live ammunition was found from the time the building had served the Volunteer forces.

MKP March 2021

With kind thanks to Bernice Lashbrook for sharing the notes of Clare Sealey, former Treasurer for the Unitarian Christchurch Congregation of Dampiet Street; Roy Snook for detailed notes on the later history of the site, along with Barney Bramble, John Boyland, Peter Kearle and Anne Caddick.

McCarthy and Stone were contacted to see if they had any record of the exhumations, but no records were apparently kept.