Daniel Defoe

Description of Bridgwater 1727

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) was a writer, trader and spy. This account is taken from his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, which was published in 3 volumes between 1724 and 1727: precisely, Vol 2, Letter 4, Part 2: Somerset and Wiltshire.

From hence the winding shore brings us to Bridgewater. This is an antient and very considerable town and port, it stands at the mouth of the river Parrat, or Perot, which comes from the south, after having received the river Tone from the west, which is made navigable up to Taunton, by a very fine new channel, cut at the expence of the people of Taunton, and which, by the navigation of it, is infinitely advantagious to that town, and well worth all their expence, first by bringing up coals, which are brought from Swanzy in Wales by sea to Bridgewater, and thence by barges up this river to Taunton; also for bringing all heavy goods and merchandizes from Bristol, such as iron, lead, oyl, wine, hemp, flax, pitch, tar, grocery, and dye stuffs, and the like; their tobacco they generally received from Barnstable by land, which is about sixteen miles west.

This town of Bridgewater, is a populous, trading town, is well built, and as well inhabited, and has many families of good fashion dwelling in it, besides merchants. The famous Admiral Blake, was a native of this town. Here it was, that the Duke of Monmouth, finding himself defeated in his expectation of the city of Bristol, and repuls’d at the city of Bath, and press’d by the approach of the king’s troops, who endeavour’d to surround him, made his retreat; where, finding the king’s troops followed him, and seem’d resolved to attack him, he went up to the top of the steeple, with some of his officers, and viewing the situation of the king’s army, by the help of perspectives, resolved to make an attempt upon them the same night, by way of prevention, and accordingly march’d out of the town in the dead of the night to attack them, and had he not, either by the treachery, or mistake of his guides, been brought to an impassable ditch, where he could not get over, in the interval of which, the king’s troops took the alarm, by the firing a pistol among the duke’s men, whether, also, by accident, or treachery, was not known; I say, had not those accidents, and his own fate, conspired to his defeat, he had certainly cut the Lord Feversham’s army (for he commanded them) all to pieces; but by these circumstances, he was brought to a battle on unequal terms, and defeated: The rest I need not mention.

This town was regularly fortified in the late civil wars, and sustained two sieges, if not more; the situation of it renders it easy to be fortified, the river and haven taking one chief part of the circumference; over the river, they have a very good bridge of stone, and the tide rises here, at high water, near six fathoms, whereof, sometimes it comes in with such furious haste, as to come two fathoms deep at a time, and when it does so, by surprize, it often does great damage to ships, driving them foul of one another, and oftentimes oversetting them. This sudden rage of the tide, is called, the “boar,” and is frequent in all the rivers of this channel, especially in the Severn itself; ’tis also known in the north, particularly in the Trent, and the Ouse, at their entrance into Humber, and in several other places.

In this town of Bridgewater, besides a very large church, there is a fine new-built meeting-house, that is to say, built since the Toleration, in which ’tis remarkable, that they have an advanced seat for the mayor and aldermen, when any of the magistrates should be of their Communion, as sometimes has happened. Here, also, is a college, or private academy, for the Dissenters to breed up their preaching youth; the tutor was one Mr. Moor, a man who, it is own’d, was a master of good literature; what talent he had at erudition, I can give no account of, for it is not every master of learning, that makes a good instructor of others, as I shall observe on some other occasions.

From Bridgewater, there is a road to Bristol, which they call the Lower Way; the Upper Way, and which is the more frequented road, being over Mendip Hills. This Lower Way also is not always passable, being subject to floods, and dangerous inundations, I mean, dangerous to travel through, especially for strangers: All this part of the country, viz. between Bridgewater, and the sea, and on northward upon the coast, lies low, and is wholly imployed in breeding and feeding of cattle, as are also the moors, or marsh grounds, which extend themselves up the rivers Perrot, and Ivill, into the heart of the country; of which in its place.

This low part of the country, between Bridgewater and Bristol, suffered exceedingly in that terrible inundation of the sea, which was occasioned by the violence of the wind in the great storm, anno 1703, and the country people have set up marks upon their houses and trees, with this note upon them, ” Thus high the waters came in the great storm”: “Thus far the great tide flowed up in the last violent tempest”; and the like.

And in one place they shewed us, where a ship was, by the force of the water, and the rage of the tempest, driven up upon the shore, several hundred yards from the ordinary high water mark, and was left in that surprizing condition upon dry land.

As this country is all a grazing, rich, feeding soil, so a great number of large oxen are fed here, which are sent up to London; so that now we come into the reach of my former observation, viz. That every county furnishes something for the supply of London, and no county in England furnishes more effectual provisions, nor, in proportion, a greater value than this. These supplies are in three articles.

1.Fat oxen (as above) as large, and good, as any in England.
2.Large Cheddar cheese, the greatest, and best of the kind in England.
3.Colts bred in great numbers in the moors, and sold into the northern counties, where the horse copers, as they are called, in Staffordshire, and Leicestershire, buy them again, and sell them to London for cart horses, and coach horses, the breed being very large.

As the low part of this county is thus imployed in grazing and feeding cattle, so all the rest of this large extended country is imployed in the woollen manufactures.

[Account of the textile industries of Somerset omitted]

Tony Woolrich