Charles Knight

Geography of the British empire : a gazetteer of the United Kingdom and its colonies ; illustrated with steel engravings and maps.

2 vols, 1853. This extract is from Vol 1

BRIDGEWATER, Somerset, a market town, municipal and parliamentary borough, and the seat of a Poor Law Union in the parish of the same name and hundred of North Petherton. It is situated on the banks of the river Parret, in 51° 7′ N. lat., 3° 0′ W. long.; 33 miles S.W. by S. from Bristol, 139 miles W. by S. from London by road, and 151 1/2 miles by the Great Western Railway. The borough is governed by six aldermen, one of whom is mayor, and 18 councillors, and returns two members to the Imperial Parliament. The population of the borough and parish, which are co-extensive, was 10,449 in 1841; it is now, we are informed, estimated at 12,000. The living is a vicarage in the archdeaconry of Taunton and diocese of Exeter. Bridgewater Union contains 40 parishes and townships, with an area of 85,816 acres, and a population in 1841 of 81,778.

Bridgewater is mentioned in Domesday-book under the name of Brugie. It was given by William the Conqueror to Walscin or Walter de Douay, and the borough was, after its new proprietor, called Brugg-Walter, and Burgh- Walter. William de Briwere, to whom Henry II. Had granted the manor, built a castle of considerable strength at Bridgewater, and obtained from King John for the town a market and a fair; he also founded the hospital of St. John, consisting of a master, brethren, and 13 poor persons of the order of St. Augustine. This hospital had very large possessions, and was confirmed by Josceline, Bishop of Bath, in 1219. Its revenues at the dissolution of monasteries amounted to 120£. 19s. 1/2 d. In the west part of the town was a priory of Minorites, or Gray Friars, dedicated to St . Francis, founded by a son of William de Briwere, the site of which was given to one Emmanuel Lukar by Henry VIII. There was also in Leland’s time an hospital for lepers. The founder of St. John’s hospital commenced a stone bridge of three arches over the river Parret; this was completed in the reign of Edward I. By Sir Thomas Trivet, ‘whose arms being a trivet’ says William of Worcester, ‘were affixed to the coping of the structure.’

Bridgewater was one of the towns that were taken by the barons during their revolt against King Henry III. In the civil wars it stood out a long time for the king. It was gallantly defended by Colonel Wyndham, the governor, but he was at length, on July 22nd, 1645, compelled to surrender. Upwards of 1000 prisoners, 44 barrels of powder, 1,500 arms, 44 pieces of ordnance, with a large quantity of jewels, plate, and other articles of great value, which had been sent to the castle for safety (it having been declared impregnable) were taken by the besiegers. The castle was dismantled; the only remains of it now existing are the sally-port and some small detached portions of the walls. The inhabitants of Bridgewater supported the claims to the throne of the Duke of Monmouth, who was proclaimed king by the mayor and corporation. The parish church, dedicated to St . Mary, is a handsome structure, consisting of a nave, chancel, transepts, two side aisles and a tower, surmounted with a lofty spire. The architecture of the church is of a mixed character; the greater portion of it was built about 1300: it is now being restored at a cost of upwards of 2,000£. There is also a chapel of ease in the parish, dedicated to the Holy Trinity. There are places of worship in Bridgewater for Independents, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, and Unitarians. The Endowed Free Grammar school was founded in 1561. The master is appointed by the Bishop of Bath and Wells: four boys are taught gratuitously in the classics, and four in the English language. In 1723, Dr. John Morgan founded and largely endowed a school for the education of the sons of decayed tradesmen, resident within the borough. A spacious school room and a house for the master were erected in 1810. The management of this school is in the hands of trustees. The present number of scholars is 150, of whom 30 are clothed on the foundation. A school was founded by Mr. Edward Tackerell, and endowed by him with the dividends of 3000£. in the funds, and rents amounting to 174£. per annum, for the clothing, educating, and apprenticing the children and grand- children of certain of his relatives. The management is in the hands of trustees. Various other sums have been left by different individuals for the instruction of poor children in the parish of Bridgewater. Some almshouses endowed by Major Ingram, with 18£. per annum, are now appropriated to the poor of the parish, and the 18£. is distributed among poor widows not receiving parochial relief. An Infirmary was established by subscription in 1813. In Willis’s History of Abbeys several chantries are mentioned, and Leland says that there was a chapel at the south side, without the town, placed there by a merchant of Bridgewater. The elective franchise was conferred on Bridgewater by Edward I., in the 23rd year of his reign, since which time it has returned two members to parliament. Its first charter was granted by King John, June 26th, 1200, and 12 other charters were granted to it between that time and 1683.

The town is pleasantly situated, about nine miles from the sea, in a level but well-wooded country; to the north east are the Polden and Mendip hills, and on the west the Quantock hills. The river Parret, over which there is a handsome iron bridge, divides the town into two parts. The principal part of the town is on the left bank of the river: the streets, although rather irregular, are of good width and paved; the houses are generally well built: the town is lighted with gas. The town-hall is a good building, well adapted for business. The jail is convenient in its internal arrangements. The market house is a rather handsome structure, surmounted with a dome and lantern. Eastover, that part of the town which is on the right bank of the river Parret, has greatly increased since the formation of the Bristol and Exeter railway, the station of which is in Eastover. It possesses a very handsome church dedicated to St. John the Evangelist.

The river Parret is navigable as far as Bridgewater for vessels of 700 tons; but it is subject, like some other rivers in the Bristol channel, to a rise of nearly six fathoms at spring tides. The flow of the tide is preceded by a head- water commonly termed the ‘bore,’ which often produces much inconvenience among the shipping. The principal imports to Bridgewater are grain, coals, tallow, and timber. Coals are imported from Wales, and conveyed into the interior of the country by means of the river Parret and a canal. The Parret is navigable as far as Langport; the canal runs to Taunton, and thence into Devonshire. The foreign trade is principally with Russia, the United States, Canada, Newfoundland, and the West Indies. The number of vessels belonging to the port as registered on December 31st, 1849, was, under 50 tons burden, 54 vessels, tonnage, 2,063: above 50 tons, 67 vessels, tonnage 8,168. The number and tonnage of vessels entered and cleared at the port of Bridgewater during the year 1849 were as follows: Coastwise, inwards, 2,712 vessels, 117,378 tons: outwards, 1,262 vessels, 54,723 tons: Colonial, inwards, 13 vessels, 3,545 tons ; outwards, 8 vessels, 770tons: Foreign, inwards, 51 British ships, 6,545 tons: 22 foreign ships, 5,544 tons; outwards, 3 British ships, 1,141 tons; 1 foreign ship, 325 tons.

A manufacture peculiar to, and constituting the staple trade of Bridgewater, is the fabrication of that kind of white brick known as Bath Brick; this branch of industry gives employment to many of the inhabitants. There are markets on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; that on Thursday being the principal market for provisions, and especially for cheese, for which the neighbourhood is celebrated. Fairs are held on the first Monday in Lent, July 24th, October 2nd, and December 27th. The fair on October 2nd, called St. Matthew’s Fair, which is held by royal charter, was formerly the mart of Somersetshire and the adjoining counties, and is still of considerable importance. Bridgewater possesses a savings bank. A county court is held in the town. Petty sessions are held weekly for the borough, and monthly for the county. The July quarter sessions are held in Bridgewater, and the summer assizes are held here alternately with Wells. Bridgewater was the birth-place of Admiral Blake, who received his education at the grammar-school in the town. In the neighbourhood of Bridgewater is the Isle of Athelney.

(Collinson’s Somersetshire; Harleian MSS.; Corporation, Ecclesiastical, and Charity Reports, tc.; Communication from Bridgewater.)

Transcribed by Tony Woolrich.