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 Burnham report
For much of prehistory, this part of Somerset was under the sea and it is only in the last few thousand years that the land has been emerging: the area around Burnham and Highbridge has therefore been particularly vulnerable to the vaguaries of sea and river. Not surprisingly, the history of settlement in the area has been partly conditioned by natural and artificial changes in the coastline and the drainage pattern. For at least a thousand years and perhaps longer there have been drainage cuts altering water flow from the Levels. There has also been a gradual process of land reclamation to the south of Burnham and west of Highbridge.
There is only the possible barrow in south Burnham to suggest prehistoric activity there, though an iron age lake settlement existed to the south of Highbridge, at Alstone. Occupation at Alstone continued into the Roman period and, indeed, there appears to have been a focus of Roman activity in what is now Highbridge and south Burnham. Settlement was concentrated on the slightly higher land inland of the dunes, north of a somewhat deeper, wider inlet (Nash, 1973), and south of a now vanished river (Leech, 1981). A number of sites in this area have produced evidence of dressed stone buildings and a possible warehouse. There may have been some kind of commercial activity here, since the postulated shape of the late Roman inlet (Nash, 1973) suggests that there would have been natural harbour sites either at the neck or further up its northward arm.
However, there is no evidence of any such activity under the Saxons, perhaps partly because of receding waters and/or a breakdown of drainage control. The process of land reclamation was slow, but some of the places which, from archaeological evidence, must have been flooded in late Roman times (Nash, 1973) were settled by Domesday. The parishes of Burnham and Huntspill were certainly formed in this period, their common boundary running along what is now the Westhill Rhyne. The northern boundary of Burnham follows the course of the vanished river, named as the Siger in 663, which may have been the principal waterway in the Roman and early Saxon periods (Leech, 1981). Land at Burnham (though not necessarily a settlement) is mentioned in the late 9th century in King Alfred’s will (Rippon, 1994) and the name of the old settlement of Huish, on which the Medieval manor covering north Highbridge centred, comes from the term hiwisc, which usually signifies a Saxon farmstead: this one is mentioned in a 10th century charter.
Burnham and most of Highbridge were in the same parish, but Burnham manor was separate from Huish. The church at Burnham, and surrounding land, was given to Gloucester Abbey in the 12th century and later became part of the Wells estates. Burnham then remained static throughout the Medieval and Post-Medieval period, a largely agricultural settlement in good grazing land, with a communal rabbit warren north of the church. Collinson says that there were 50 houses around the church (writing in 1791), but roughly contemporary maps suggest fewer. Other settlements were scattered through the parish, amounting to quite dense overall settlement. There were changes in drainage and coastline in the Medieval and post-Medieval periods which perhaps affected Highbridge more than Burnham. There was a continuous process of sand deposition and silt build up at the inlet mouth. All the minor sea inlets referred to in the 10th century charter were blocked by early Medieval times (Nash, 1973), as was the River Siger. This process peaked in the 14th century, but continued until the 18th century, leading to a gradual expansion of settlement.
In the 13th century the Pillrow was cut and sea defences constructed. It may have been as part of the same schemes that the high bridge (first referred to in 1280) and the sea dam below it were built. The bridge was at the obvious, and probably the old, crossing point of the watercourse. It secured Highbridge's communications role. The early turnpike to Bristol came through Highbridge in the 18th century, although the route was liable to flooding.
Highbridge's wharves were also influential in its early development: the town’s name may originally have been Hythe Bridge (Anon, 1903). The wharves shown on the 1797 enclosure map are extensive areas of bank east and west of the bridge and Locke describes Highbridge at the turn of the century as a "delightful seaport village" with 24 houses altogether and an inn.
At the end of the 18th century, the enclosures around Burnham and Highbridge signalled the onset of the first phase of growth of Burnham and Highbridge. Traders were already congregating in Highbridge and a cattle market was started in 1797, a direct result of the changes in farming practice. The enclosures were followed by drainage schemes. Some of these were injurious to Highbridge, leading to silting around its early quays. The Brue drainage cut (1806) dramatically altered the river and enabled the construction of new wharves. However, Highbridge remained a small harbour in the first three decades of the 19th century. The coming of the Glastonbury Canal in 1833 profited the town (initially) and from the 1820s onwards, the effects of improvements to the turnpike route were felt in the shape of increased traffic through Highbridge. These communications improvements laid the foundations for the second phase of 19th century growth.
Meanwhile in Burnham, a quite different path of growth was being pursued. The sale of his private lighthouse gave the vicar, Rev Davies, funds to "improve" the little settlement. Close to the church he built a spa complex and, although the spa was never nationally important, a steady trickle of visitors to Burnham led to the first real nucleated settlement at Burnham, with elegant housing to provide lodgings.
It was the coming of the railways that accelerated the growth of both towns. The Bristol and Exeter reached Highbridge in 1841, and opened its station in 1842. In the same year, the new Wells turnpike opened. Subsequently, the Somerset Central reused the line of the canal, and its line from Glastonbury was opened in 1854. When this became the Somerset and Dorset in 1862, Highbridge became a railway town with the opening of the works. This led to the building of railway housing in both Highbridge and south Burnham. There were also several brickworks in the area, and many clay pits.
The directories show the growth of trade and exports to Wales - mainly brick and tile, cheese and cattle - from Highbridge. An attempt was made at Burnham to emulate this growth. Although the main line bypassed the town, the Somerset Central was extended to Burnham by 1858 and ran onto a pier constructed for the purposes of trade, not leisure. Paddle steamers ran during the later 19th century, but the pier was not a commercial success. The rail connection, however, proved crucial to the 19th century expansion of Burnham as a holiday resort.
In the first decades of the 20th century, Burnham's growth continued, despite severe floods. Holiday camps, housing and municipal facilities formed the bulk of this growth. Highbridge, too, prospered as a dock and railway town. However, subsequent closures of the railway works, the creamery and the docks cast Highbridge into a trough from which it has only begun to emerge since the construction of the M5. Burnham, too, despite the passing of the heyday of English seaside towns, has profited from the improved communications, and is now a commuter town, linked to Highbridge by ribbon development along the old road.