Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys (EUS) The Somerset EUS

Dulverton 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 Dulverton report

A brief history of Dulverton

Dulverton lies in the deep, wooded valley of the River Barle, at an ancient route convergence and river crossing below the iron age hillfort of Oldberry Castle, itself one of a number of such hillforts in the area. The very name of the settlement as it is first recorded in 1084 (dieglaford-tun = "hidden ford"-tun) (Aston & Leech, 1977, from Ekwall, 1960) reflects the perceived importance of its location at this time, and it is probable that considerable traffic had passed this point for many centuries. Though actual settlement in the valley before the Saxon period is not necessarily implied, the Gheld Inquest (1084) and Domesday (1086) surveys suggest that at least by the Conquest administrative, commercial and perhaps defensive functions for the hill farms were centred in a valley settlement bordering the moor. Domesday records that Dulverton (Dolvertune) was a royal manor before the Conquest, and it is possible that the medieval (and later) pattern of ephemeral aristocratic interests in the area because of its proximity to the Royal Forest of Exmoor was already established: separate holdings at Potesdone (Pixton) and Holme (Hollam) are mentioned in 1086; each of these, together with the later site at Combe, came to contain substantial residences, though only Pixton remained a separate manor.

In fact, the pattern of land holdings in the area became quite complex. The manor of Dulverton retained its integrity until the late 12th century, when the Turbervilles (to whom William I had granted the manor) gave the church and some land to Taunton Priory. The remainder of the manor passed to the Shete family, under whose lordship some embryonic urban functions appeared. In 1306, during her third marriage, Hawisia, a Shete heiress who lived in the late-13th/early-14th century, received Dulverton's first market and fair grant. However, her death, in the early-14th century, saw the effective end of any pretensions that Dulverton may have had, and it is not recorded as a borough in the 1334 lay subsidy. Though she had a son by her second husband (a Boneville), and he inherited her personal share of the manor, the other two thirds of the manor properties reverted to the King. Granted to the Earl of Sarum, the properties were regranted to Taunton Priory in 1336; the Boneville heir also granted his third to the Priory by 1340.

With the entire manor in the hands of Taunton Priory, Dulverton's economy, which was probably based on the wool trade and the local markets for cattle, packhorses and produce, stagnated. Though the markets and fairs were kept up (a 1488 grant reestablished the fair, which had presumably lapsed), the settlement did not grow and may have contracted. Matters did not improve when the manor passed back to the King at the Dissolution, as the settlement now lacked even the limited economic cohesion which Priory management had given it. The mid 1550s saw an attempt by the inhabitants of Dulverton to establish a form of self-government on the model of the boroughs and to revive the market, which may have lapsed. The 1555 Marian grant which they received refers to "the town and borough of Dulverton ... very populous and in decay and the poor inhabitants now in great want". Ten leading inhabitants were empowered to manage the commerce of the town: one of these was a Sydenham, who later purchased the lordship of the manor, a role which the Sydenhams maintained until 1858.

These measures appear to have arrested economic decline to some extent and Dulverton survived as a small market town (as Gerard described it in 1633). A 1568 survey of the estates records eighty messuages, twenty cottages, twenty crofts, six mills, six dovecotes, and thirty orchards, though not all of these would have been in Dulverton itself. The presence of six mills is perhaps the most noteworthy statistic, as it appears to imply an active woollen industry. This continued through the 17th century, relatively little upheaval reaching Dulverton during that century's troubles. At the end of the 18th century, Collinson (1791) described Dulverton as a small market town, with two paved streets, whose inhabitants were principally employed in the manufacture of coarse woollens and blankets, and in husbandry.

A similar picture emerges from Greenwood's 1822 description of a market town with 232 families with roughly half engaged in agriculture and half in trade or manufacture. However, Dulverton's "romantic" situation was also by now encouraging visitors of sensibility. The population at this time was rising and continued to do so until the middle of the 19th century. In the second half of the century, however, a number of hill properties were abandoned, reflecting a series of poor years for farmers. Though this was in part compensated for by tourism, particularly sporting tourism, and the growth of related businesses, the population fell between 1861 and 1891, and only briefly rose again between 1891 and 1911.

The First World War seriously reduced the numbers of sporting gentlemen visiting Dulverton, and between 1911 and 1981 the population continued to fall. However, the town still functions both as a small market and administrative centre and as the "Southern gateway to Exmoor" (and headquarters of the National Park), much as it has since the medieval period.