Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys (EUS) The Somerset EUS

Bridgwater by Clare Gathercole

This is one of a series of reports on the archaeology of the urban (and formerly urban) areas of Somerset commissioned by English Heritage as part of its Extensive Urban Survey (EUS). The reports were prepared by Somerset County Council in 1994-98. There is a brief history of the town extracted from the report or you can download the whole report and maps in Portable Document Format (PDF).

Download Bridgwater report

A brief history of Bridgwater

Bridgwater is centred on an outcrop of marl (on the highest point of which the castle stood) in an area dominated by low-lying alluvial deposits. There are local deposits of gravels and sand which have been quarried and used in industrial and building processes from the medieval period onwards. Fortuitously, the town also sits at a point on the Parrett at which the river mud has proved particularly suitable for industrial use (the 19th century scouring brick industry). It is also at a convenient crossing point, and within the range of the tidal bore, which carried traffic up to the inland port. The benefits of Bridgwater's situation on the river, however, have had to be fought for. The Parrett is by nature unstable and prone to changes of course, and has only been controlled at this point by a series of drainage schemes from the medieval period onwards: Bridgwater's link to the Quantocks-Poldens routes depends on causeways. Moreover, its increase in status as a port has been linked to artificial measures, such as the blocking of upstream traffic by the medieval bridge.

There are signs that the area was exploited in prehistoric times: aerial photographs show enclosures at sites around Bridgwater. There may have been a route passing across the river and along the Wembdon Hill ridge. However, although there have been scattered finds of prehistoric artefacts in the town, there is little sign of any settlement close to the river, which would in this period have been dangerous ground. Again, there are traces of some Roman activity in the area, although the Roman port was at Crandon Bridge. Scattered pot and coins have been found in the town itself. One small settlement site has been found to the north of the town at Perry Green, but there has been nothing so far to suggest any urban activity.

Although there was no Saxon burh at Bridgwater or in the surrounding area, command of the lands along the river was important. In 1066, the Sheriff of Lincolnshire held the land. There are records of several estate holders in the early 11th century and it is likely that the manors around Bridgwater had Saxon origins, but there is no sign of particular occupation on the site of the town itself.

At Domesday, Bridgwater was recorded as Brugie, which may mean "bridge". It has been argued that the name may instead come from the Old English brycg (gang plank) or Old Norse bryggja (quay), though this idea has been opposed on etymological grounds. The modern name of the town comes from this element, combined with that of the first Norman landholder, Walter de Douai. There is no evidence of any really urban activity in the 11th century: however, at Domesday a five-hide agricultural settlement is recorded, and the church may well have been in existence then. Indeed, a strong feudal focus at Bridgwater is implied by the fact that Bower, Horsey, Hamp and Pawlett were held of Bridgwater in the early medieval period. The parishes of Bridgwater, Wembdon and Chilton Trinity may indeed have originated in a single estate, which was still partly intact at Domesday. The complexities of the old parish boundaries in the area to the north of the town, around Chilton Trinity, probably represent ancient intercommoning on land reclaimed from the unstable River Parrett. To the west, the land was wooded: the Bowers were originally isolated farmsteads in the woods.

It is not clear how much growth around the bridge or quays there was between Domesday and 1200, but by the latter date Bridgwater was seen as having potential. Around 1200, William Brewer (or Briwer) was granted a charter to build the castle; shortly afterwards, Bridgwater's first borough charter was granted to Brewer, giving rights to a free borough, a market and an 8 day fair, and setting out trade and toll privileges. It is likely that the central foci of the castle, church and market, and the bridge, together with the early suburb of Eastover, were laid out swiftly. The town was in a position to supply its own justices to the eyre in 1225.

Bridgwater's charter included rights to both pontage and lastage (bridge and quay tolls). The building of a stone bridge was important to Bridgwater's future as it blocked the direct route to Langport and other upstream ports: the town became the transhipment point for the inland traffic. Bridgwater's subsequent history in this period is one of marked commercial success as a mercantile town. By the 14th century, it was one of the most important towns, and ports, in Somerset (state documents addressed to "ports of the realm" were sent only to Bridgwater and Dunster in Somerset). It was assessed for a greater sum than Bath, Wells or Taunton in the 1312 Subsidy. At its peak, it had four annual fairs, of varying degrees of importance, and produce and livestock markets. Despite a temporary decline of prosperity in the mid 14th century, evidenced by the lack of any merchants at the 1359 midsummer fair, the expansion of the fabric of the town is reflected by the recording of about 650 burgages between 1377 and 1399 (though these may not all have been intensively occupied), and in 1402 the accounts of the port for the first time became separate from those of Bristol.

Bridgwater's medieval success was based in part on the cloth trade, of which it was a centre. It had its own form of broadcloth, called Bridgwaters, and prominent trades in the town included dyers, tuckers, spinners and weavers, as well as goldsmiths. Apart from wool and finished cloth, it also traded commodities such as agricultural produce, hides and wine with France, Spain, Wales and Ireland. It was a cosmopolitan merchant town, housing a small community of Jews. Its mercantile focus was independent of shipping in this period: there were comparatively few ships belonging to the town and, indeed, many of the goods brought in big ships and traded via Bridgwater were actually landed at its sister port of Combwich further downstream. Other shipments were unloaded on the banks between the two ports in order to evade quay duties.

The town's fortunes began to fluctuate again in the 15th century. For one thing, national affairs impinged more directly on the town's business. In the earlier medieval period, the presence of the castle in the town had not led to direct involvement for the town in military action, despite the uneasy relationship of the Crown with the local landowners, the Mortimers. The major disturbance had been a local riot in 1381, following on the Peasants Revolt, but in fact prompted by the aggrandising activities of one of the religious houses, St John's Hospital. In the 15th century, Bridgwater was touched by the Wars of the Roses: Stafford was executed there in 1469, and the constable, Daubeney, rebelled against Richard III in 1483. Shortly after, the town was affected by the campaigns to stop Henry Tudor's landing. The town was also part of the 1497 rebellion which ended at Blackheath.

Economic distress had, however, begun before most of these events. In 1460, the town petitioned for a reduction of the annual payment on the grounds of poverty. The lingering effects of the plague may have been a factor, but Bridgwater also did not have a solid base for its mainstay, the cloth industry, lacking fulling mills in the town. This led to the partial withdrawal of the cloth trade to other centres in the mid 15th century. At this time, Bristol exported up to 7,000 broadcloths per year, whilst Bridgwater rarely exported more than 200. The situation improved somewhat between 1480 and 1510, but then worsened: in the 16th century Leland described a town suffering urban decay.

Despite these problems, or perhaps because of them, it was in the mid 15th century that the merchant guild was founded (1453) and the town became independent of the lords' stewards and won the right to a mayor (1468).

Trade fluctuations continued throughout the post-medieval period, and trade guilds were formed in this period of economic pressure. The acquisition of the monopoly on the import and redistribution of Welsh millstones in the 1560s began the general upward trend in the importance of the port. From 1600 on trade again increased, much of it being coastal, and more of it involving raw materials such as timber, iron, glass and salt. There are references to Bridgwater's role as a coal importer in Defoe. By the end of the 17th century, the cloth industry had also temporarily recovered, and the first customs officials were employed in the port to deal with the volume of trade. Cock Fair was established in the late 17th century, and the town continued to be an important market centre, with several further charters strengthening the power of the merchants and burgesses.

The erratic nature of the port's growth can be ascribed in part to the town's eventful history in this period, particularly in the 17th century. Bridgwater was involved in significant military actions during the Civil War. Sympathies in the town were divided. It was briefly occupied by part of the retreating Parliamentary garrison of Taunton, and then taken and garrisoned by the Royalists. In 1645, the town was besieged and taken by Fairfax and the New Model Army (camped in the fields of Eastover), whilst the southern and eastern outliers of Sydenham and Hamp were used as headquarters. The town, particularly the suburb of Eastover, was badly damaged in this engagement: contemporary estimates of the damage varied from a third of the buildings to most of the town. The taking of the town was followed by the slighting of the castle defences, and a garrison remained until 1648, with Bridgwater being used as a base for the expedition to Ireland.

After the Restoration, there was a marked growth of nonconformity in the town. Much trouble resulted from the attitude of Ralph of Stawell, the militia commander, who fiercely opposed this trend. A meeting house, probably belonging to the Presbyterians, was destroyed in 1683. In 1685, national events again came to the fore: Monmouth was proclaimed king in Bridgwater, with his army camping on Castle Field, and some of his troops fled back there after the Battle of Sedgemoor. The town suffered somewhat from the defeat of his rebellion, though very few local individuals seem to have been directly involved. The town was garrisoned for the following year. These events temporarily limited the expansion of the town as the damaged areas were rebuilt.

Bridgwater's industrialisation began early. The brick and shipbuilding industries existed in a small way in the late 17th/ early 18th centuries. In the 1720s, the process was boosted by the schemes of the Duke of Chandos, which included the construction of the glass cone, as well as the redevelopment of the castle area. The terraces of Chandos Street and Castle Street were intended for the moneyed tradesmen the Duke hoped to attract. In the event, he himself did not prosper and his schemes failed. Nevertheless, the elegance of his housing developments reflects the transition of the town from a mercantile centre to a focus of the professions and "society": with the acquisition of the August assizes in 1720, the town acquired its "season".

In 1791, Collinson described the town as having several good streets and a commodious quay. After its precocious industrial development in the early 18th century, Bridgwater had faltered and was somewhat stagnant at the end of the 18th century, operating as a market town, a coaching halt and a port. From the start of the 19th century onwards, however, the emphasis was again on the growth of industry, and commensurate improvements in the town's communications. The growth was dramatic: the population rose from about 3000 in 1801 to 14,900 in 1901, an increase of some 400%, much of this growth taking place in the first half of the century. Population growth was accompanied by the construction of large Victorian working class suburbs of increasingly high quality.

Though the cloth industry had recovered, the impetus was lost as new mill technology was rejected in the west from the 18th century onwards, and the focus shifted north. Instead, there was a huge expansion of the brick and tile industries. The brick industry had begun by the end of the 17th century, but escalated in the late 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1840s the brick and tile works and the Bath brick plants employed about 1300 men in the summer season. By 1850 there were many brickworks north and south of the town, and these prospered for the rest of the century. This meant that Bridgwater grew east-west in order to avoid the areas of clay pitting.

The growth in the brick industry was complemented by the establishment of vastly improved communications systems and port facilities in the first half of the 19th century. The creation of the Tone Navigation (in the 18th century) was followed by the early 19th century drainage schemes and the creation of a series of canals, which linked Bridgwater to Taunton, Exeter, Chard and Westport. The Bridgwater and Taunton Canal, opened as far as Huntworth in 1827, was extended in the 1840s to form part of the new dock complex to the north of the medieval town, which finally allowed all traffic to dock in Bridgwater rather than Combwich. The railways also arrived in Bridgwater in the early 1840s, and the Bristol and Exeter Railway Carriage Works formed part of an influx of engineering industries to the town. Shipbuilding also flourished. Business in the docks peaked in the 1870s, but after this date trade gradually declined: in part this was because the railway company had acquired the docks and was running them down, in part because of the construction of the Severn Tunnel (1885). There was also a strike in the brickyards in 1896. Nevertheless, a new quay was built in 1903-4 to facilitate the export of building materials.

Apart from its industrial port, Bridgwater continued to be an important market and civic centre for the county. Market activity increased with the establishment of additional market days. It had the county's most important corn, livestock and cheese markets. In 1835, the Town Corporation was established.

Though Bridgwater's heyday was in the 19th century, its principal industry, the brick making industry, continued to flourish throughout the first half of the 20th century. Though the demand for Bath bricks ceased in the first part of the century, the brick and tile works were mostly reopened after World War 1. The brickyards declined in the 1960s and the last one closed in 1970, due to exhaustion of the best clay and the availability of cheaper alternatives. The port, too, gradually declined, with the canal closing for business c1907, the dock and Edington railway branches closing by the 1950s, and the docks themselves in closing in 1971.

Population increase has nevertheless continued, though not at the same rate. Bridgwater has continued to attract new industries, such as the Cellophane works and, more recently, light industry. Road traffic has replaced much of the water- and rail-borne trade. The new communication route of the M5 has restored the town's wider links. The suburbs have continued to grow, gradually absorbing parts of the surrounding parishes. The Corporation was dissolved in 1974, with the creation of Sedgemoor District Council.