Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys (EUS) The Somerset EUS

Milverton 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 Milverton report

A brief history of Milverton

Despite Milverton's sheltered location amongst the low hills at the edge of the fertile Tone Vale, there is very little sign of early settlement on that particular site. From the surrounding area have come flint concentrations, and finds of Roman pottery and coins. These certainly indicate nearby activity, and perhaps settlement, but it is not until the Saxon period that we find evidence of settlement at Milverton itself.

Most of our evidence for Saxon Milverton so far comes from historical references, but the name of the place - interpreted by most sources as meaning "settlement at the mill ford" - also illustrates the original function of the site, which began as a tun on a royal estate. The existence of a mill in the pre-Conquest period is confirmed by the Domesday Survey. The Domesday description of Milverton is of particular interest because, although its picture of the 11th century settlement is fairly rural in character, it notes the existence of a market (one of only seven in Somerset in 1086). This implies that Milverton had been or still was a town, and the fact that it gave its name to a hundred and had several sub-manors attached to it during the Saxon period further implies that it was - or had been - a place of some importance. Though there is no direct reference to burgesses at Domesday, there are occasional references to the 'third penny' (a tax on urban profits) of Milverton being paid from nearby settlements. Just before the Conquest, the settlement was held by Queen Edith, who appears to have been taking a reduced rent. This may mean that the town was particularly in favour, but is often interpreted as signifying financial difficulties in the late Saxon period.

Domesday also records a separate church estate served in 1086 by the King's chaplain. Separate church land holdings in Domesday sometimes indicate the relic of minster estates and this may have been the case at Milverton, which had at least one dependent chapel in the medieval period. But Queen Edith had been in the process of granting control of the church estate to Wells in 1065, and it had been returned to the Bishop's control by the late 12th century. It appears that the estate may have been made up of individual tenement parcels and their rents, as well as agricultural land, for there are later references to the re-granting of some of these tenements, some of which also may have later formed part of the endowment of a chantry in Preston Bowyer.

Milverton itself continued to be held by the Crown, though later in the medieval period it was leased out to various absentee sub-tenants. It had become a borough at least by 1280, when it was represented by its own jury at the Eyre, and it was taxed as a borough from 1306. Probably the economic basis of the town was its market and cloth-working, but both were in decline in the late medieval period. This was slowly reversed from the second half of the 16th century onwards, as a second cloth trade in coarse woollens grew. Yet the Commonwealth Commissioners' survey of 1652 reports the discontinuance of the market. A new market grant (with two annual fairs not referred to in any medieval document) was received in 1708 - a year of rather mixed fortunes since it also saw a quite serious fire in the town (which fell short, however, of wholesale destruction, destroying thirteen properties)[[in Sand Street: info from Howard Davies, pers. comm., 3/98]].

By the late 18th and early 19th century some in Milverton had done very well, and it must have been on the back of the revived commerce of the borough that the Georgian suburb of North Street was created (from an earlier, less crowded, merchants' suburb). But even as the houses were going up - or being refronted - the cloth trade was failing: indeed, Collinson describes it as lapsed by 1791. Problems were increasingly caused by the expansion and mechanisation of the Wellington mills, to which the outworkers of Milverton had previously sent their work for finishing. To some extent the problems were relieved by a silk mill at Preston Bowyer, and by the coming of the railway, which encouraged quarrying and lime-working around Milverton. However, after the closure of the silk mill in the mid 19th century, the population fell, and general stagnation set in, the fairs also being discontinued around that time.

In the 20th century, Milverton has acquired only a limited suburban fringe, despite its proximity to Taunton, and its earlier economic failure has left a well-preserved, attractive little town.