Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys (EUS) The Somerset EUS

Minehead 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 Minehead report

A brief history of Minehead

Minehead lies in a relatively sheltered position in the lee of North Hill, at a convergence point of upland, lowland and coastal landscapes. Though separate small settlements in each of these landscapes have physically grown together only comparatively recently to form the town as it appears today, they have long been linked under one name. The various forms of this name have consistently reflected the importance of the sheltering North Hill to the town. The earliest recorded forms of Mineheadís name - Mynheafdon (1046), Maneheve (1086), Menehewed (1225) and Menedun (also 1225) - contain elements allied to both Welsh and Old English words for hill or mountain (Welsh mynydd, passing into Old English as myned; and the English dun).

There is abundant evidence of activity around Minehead long before the historic settlements, though there is only limited evidence suggesting actual occupation in the area of the modern town itself. Earthworks, including the Bronze Age barrows of Selworthy Beacon and the Iron Age enclosure and possible field system of Furzebury Brake, survive on the high ground north of the town. A considerable proportion of the flints recovered from the area also comes from the higher land of North Hill and Higher Hopcott (away from land at times prone to flooding). However, a secondary centre of finds exists in the intertidal area, where the remains of a submerged forest survive together with peat deposits: in this environment a number of flints have been found together with planking suggesting possible structures.

It is possible that the known Iron Age sites on North Hill remained the principal settlements until the 8th or 9th century, for it appears that Roman influence in this area was slight. However, certainly by Domesday (1086) there were agricultural settlements at Minehead and Alcombe. There were also several other hamlets and farmsteads in the area, perhaps including Periton, Staunton and Woodcombe, the names of which suggest that they may be of pre- Conquest origin. Fishing is believed to have been taking place here by this date (though it is not specifically referred to in the Domesday Book), but negative evidence, in the form of Mineheadís omission from accounts of Viking attacks on the Somerset coast, may suggest that there was no harbour - or settlement - of any importance (though there could be other reasons for the omission).

The manor of Minehead, like that of Alcombe to the south, belonged to the Saxon Algar, and was larger than its other neighbours, Bratton and Mene. All these manors passed to the Mohuns after the Norman Conquest and were administered from Dunster Castle, though the manor of Alcombe and part of the manor of Minehead (together with the tithes) were granted to the great monastic houses - Bath Abbey (as Dunster Prioryís endowment) and Bruton - in the early Mediaeval period. But for three hundred years, Minehead remained essentially a small, scattered agricultural and fishing settlement on a feudal estate.

It appears from the available documents that things began to change during the 14th century. A comparison of the c1300 manor survey and the 1383-4 bailiffsí accounts shows that a process of letting out of demesne land and commutation of feudal service for cash rent was under way. This reflects a complex national trend, in which specific events of the 14th century (including the Black Death) played a part. The letting out of blocks of land, and references to waste land reclamation appear to show that the survivors in Minehead were doing well. The Mohuns, on the other hand, had financial problems which forced the widow Joan to sell the reversion of the estates in 1375. Joan herself survived for another thirty years; when she died, her indignant heirs then instigated a lawsuit challenging the sale. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the purchasers, the Luttrells - who were in any case heavily involved in national politics - were slow to take a personal interest in the estates, which were at first primarily a professionally managed source of income for them.

By this time, the harbour at Dunster, which had formerly been most profitable for the Mohun estates, was silting up. It was this which prompted the deliberate development of Minehead as a replacement centre of trade and therefore revenue. In fact, references to a town, port and fair at Minehead occur as early as 1380, before the Luttrells gained full control. But during the 15th century it became, thanks to the influence of its overlord, not only a successful fishing and trading port (with the Luttrellsí connections with France encouraging continental trade), but also one of very few departure points for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostella . There were 120 households by 1435, and a market by at least 1461 (though probably earlier). In 1474, burgesses (and a portreeve) are mentioned, implying that some form of incorporation had already occurred. This reference comes from the period (1461-1485) when the Luttrell estates were attainted (due to their Lancastrian sympathies): though the heirís mother remained in occupation at Minehead, circumstances were a little unusual.

Certainly, Minehead was not a planned civic and commercial venture in the mould of Dunster. The town lacked physical coherence, having already assumed the form it retained until the late 19th century, with three distinct foci: Higher or Church Town (around the newly rebuilt 15th century church); Middle or Lower Town (around the mill); and Quay Town. It was a replacement harbour, not a substitute for the showpiece estate centre of Dunster - and the Luttrells were, as later events showed, correspondingly unwilling to encourage the pretensions of its citizens. From the late Mediaeval period until the late 18th century Mineheadís history is dominated by the fortunes of its quays. The early harbour area lay on a creek some way south of the present quay, at the then mouth of the Bratton Stream. Though this was adequate for small fishing boats and coasters, it was from the beginning difficult to maintain a sufficient depth of water for the ocean going vessels on which Mineheadís international trade depended. There are references to problems with silting as early as the 14th century, and to the construction of jetties in the 15th century, with a proportion of the manorís harbour tolls being left with the townsfolk for their upkeep.

Minehead succeeded in retaining its deep water facilities into the 16th century and the town became increasingly important as trade grew. Though much of this was local, or with Wales and Ireland (Leland describes the town as full of Irishmen in the mid-16th century), with wool and livestock being principal commodities, Minehead had a significant role in trading on more exotic imported commodities. In Henry VIII's reign, Minehead possessed more ships suitable for naval use than any other Bristol Channel port, and indeed a 1544 sketch of (proposed?) coastal defence measures shows several large vessels anchored in the bay.

At the accession of Elizabeth I, Minehead was one of only two Somerset ports with port and custom officials. However, though on paper trade was healthy, in fact the condition of the harbour was becoming critical. Despite constant efforts to keep the harbour clear (the townsmen claimed to spend £50 a year on it), a receding tidal maximum was encouraging the formation of a shingle bank which impeded access to the quays. It was agreed by all that urgent, drastic measures were required. However, the Luttrells found themselves temporarily unable to finance any large scheme. Buoyed up by their past profits, and eager to escape any part of the Luttrell tolls and levies, the townsfolk opportunistically petitioned the Queen to grant them Borough status in order that they could take responsibility for the repair of the harbour. Perhaps they sincerely believed that they could manage the harbour better than had the Luttrells, who reluctantly acquiesced to the petition (at least at first), stressing the urgency of repairs in a letter to the Queen. The 1559 Charter of Incorporation, which established a free Borough and Parliamentary representation, was therefore made conditional on the fulfilment of the townís obligations with respect to the harbour.

It very quickly became apparent that the mercantile and fishing community of the new town could not afford the radical measures needed to repair the harbour. Appeals were made to the Luttrells, and by 1570 (having left the town to stew for a while) Thomas Luttrell was attempting to raise funds. But he died in 1571, leaving a son, George, in his minority. This, in combination with the naval levies of Elizabethís reign meant that the harbour continued without major repairs for most of her reign, its condition gradually worsening. When George Luttrell was finally in a position to address the problem, his proposals were accompanied by a demand that the Borough charter, which was a real thorn in his side, be revoked. The burgesses were described by him as "but simple and rude handicraftmen who are fitter to be governed than to govern others" - and they had patently failed to fulfill the terms of the Elizabethan charter. The charter was revoked in 1607, after years of petitions, inquisitions and counter-petitions, though the town retained its Parliamentary privilege. However, George had already embarked on the "Newe Key", which forms the basis of the present harbour. This was usable by 1605 and more or less completed by 1616 (it seems he had much more grandiose schemes which never came to fruition).

The new harbour had a dramatic effect on Mineheadís fortunes, though resentment amongst the townsfolk at their loss of status continued and there were periodic petitions for its restoration. Population, which had declined in the later years of Elizabethís reign, began to rise and the town expanded, particularly around the quay and the market, as trade boomed. In 1626, Minehead was one of 24 English and Welsh seaports ordered to fortify against possible Spanish attacks, and in 1630 Gerard described a little market town with a much frequented harbour. The town saw action in the Civil War in 1642 and 1643. Hertford and his Royalist volunteers escaped through the port in 1642 - at some risk to life and limb, since they had misjudged the mood of the manor and town. The next year Minehead was blockaded and raided from the sea. Though Thomas Luttrell pragmatically backed down at Dunster when the Royalist army threatened, the sympathies of Minehead town remained Parliamentarian.

In the years after the first Civil War, Minehead was extremely busy, sending troops to Ireland and trading. A number of important merchant families established themselves in the town in this period, as did many smugglers. Most trade was still with Wales, the Bristol Channel ports and Ireland, but in the 1670s a fishing fleet went to Newfoundland every year. However, the quay was silting up again by the late 17th century. The harbour accounts from this period (from 1666 to 1800) have survived, and these show how expensive the harbour was to maintain. Works undertaken in 1682 enabled the harbour to take larger vessels, but did not address the root problem and though trade continued to flourish, it was - again - on borrowed time.

A further harbour scheme by the Luttrells was accompanied by a c1701 ďSurvey and Description of the Defects of the Pier at MineheadĒ which survives, with maps. This latest set of improvements, though accompanied by Parliamentary support guaranteeing duties to finance it, was dogged by ill fortune: finally completed around 1714, it was immediately ravaged by storms, and thenceforth required constant repairs, as high water level continued to drop. It is true that trade boomed in the early 18th century (with cloth and livestock still the main commodities), and that Defoe (1724) described Minehead as the safest harbour on the south side of the Bristol Channel and a fine port. However, this took place against a background of soaring costs, passed on to the merchants wherever possible, and growing friction between the merchants and the Luttrells. Whilst the latter constantly needed to increase duties to maintain the harbour, the former saw these as increasingly exorbitant. So, for example, a failed attempt was made by a group of merchants to make Watchet a staple port (to avoid the Luttrellsí expensive weigh beam), and the townsmen continued to petition (somewhat unrealistically) for the restoration of their charter. Extra spice was added by the anti-establishment attitudes of a number of Quakers - including influential merchants - in the town. On the other hand, the Luttrells increasingly manipulated the election of Members of Parliament to their advantage, and maintained a tenuous control.

The political turbulence of the town in the 18th century cannot have helped when the problems of the harbour - its state of repair and its high duties - combined with the failure of the local woollen industry (on which much of Mineheadís trade depended) really began to bite. Trade and the fisheries declined dramatically in the later 18th century. Collinson, writing in 1791, says: "About the beginning of the present century upwards of forty vessels were employed to Ireland. Many others were engaged in the West India, Virginia and Straits trade; and four thousand barrels of herring were at that time shipped here annually for the Mediterranean. But all this is now nearly at an end; the trade is lost; the herrings have left the coast; and there are at present only five or six vessels belonging to the port." This decline was mirrored in the general fortunes of the town and the late-18th/ early-19th century was a difficult time for Minehead. The town contracted, despite attempts - which included the setting up of the Turnpike Trust - to revive it: there were 34 fewer recorded households in 1783 than in 1705. Then in 1791 the first of two serious fires took place, destroying much of Lower Town. Minehead hit rock bottom. Though grandiose schemes for rebuilding Lower Town were quickly announced, little was actually done: there are descriptions of blackened shells still remaining five years later - and indeed much of the town was not finally rebuilt until well into the 19th century. Many of the worst affected, who had nowhere to live and nowhere to work, simply moved away, and the population once more fell (from 2000 in 1790 to 1480 by 1830). The Luttrells were blamed for their agentís failure to relieve the suffering of the townspeople and there was increasing unrest. Confident of their control of the Parliamentary Borough, the family must have been shocked by the vitriolic opposition they encountered in the closely fought election of 1796. Ironically, the Luttrell comeback, during which they had virtual control of the Parliamentary Borough from 1802 onwards, sealed Mineheadís fate: it was classed with the rotten boroughs in the 1832 reform act and disenfranchised. In 1834 injury was added to insult: the port lost its jurisdiction, when Bridgwaterís limits were extended to cover Mineheadís old waters.

On the other hand, sea bathing became fashionable in the 18th century, and Mineheadís development as a resort had already beginning before 1800. The 1794 Universal British Directory says that "a number of persons of fashion have been induced to visit it as a bathing-place" , and several other heady descriptions of its environs exist from the turn of the century. Minehead, offering not only sea-bathing but also relative isolation (despite the new turnpike road which made it newly accessible), was at first an exclusive resort for persons of romantic sensibility, catering for "the pensive or rational pleasures of them who choose to enjoy Nature..." rather than "felicity hunters, the teasing insects of fashion" (Rev. Richard Warner, c1800). Savage (1830) also says that visitors "will not be annoyed by the company of the frivolous part of the fashionable world of whom so many are to be found in some of our watering places at particular seasons of the year." On the other hand, Minehead was short of "gracious lodgings". Many cheaper lodgings existed, a reminder, perhaps, of the townís heyday as a port. Though not considered entirely suitable for the better class of visitor which was anticipated, these lodgings were perfect for gentlefolk in reduced circumstances. Hence, by 1851 the town was already becoming a retirement centre.

A belated campaign of municipal works from the 1860s onwards - at Luttrell expense - transformed the town, particularly Lower Town. The town centre and the main 19th century suburbs were laid out on the ruins of the old town, providing for visitors. Puddle Street became the Parade; Watery Lane became the Avenue; gas lighting, water and sewers were all provided, as was a new church. The coming of the railway - relatively late, after a long campaign by the town - in 1874 had a dramatic effect on Minehead. For the first time, day trippers en masse had direct access to the town (though steamboats and coaches had been coming for some time) and, inevitably, something of its original character as a resort was lost. On the other hand, its economy benefitted enormously. Minehead grew rapidly (the population rose from 1,542 in 1851 to 2,782 in 1901) and in 1894 the Urban District Council was first elected. Its jurisdiction was extended in 1916 to include Alcombe, together with the intertidal area. Though Alcombe was still separate from Mineheadís three foci at this time, the townís rate of growth promised to absorb it.

This promise has been fulfilled in the 20th century, though Mineheadís development has taken one or two unexpected turns. Until the Second World War, it continued along the path set in the 19th century. The resortís facilities expanded, with the opening of the pier in 1901(enabling pleasure steamers to call at the town, which they did regularly throughout the 1920s and 1930s), the provision of electricity in 1903, and the establishment of a number of pleasure gardens and a cinema.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, a flood of evacuees began to pour into the town and the population rose dramatically. The pier was demolished, as part of the coastal defence preparations, and was not rebuilt after the war, so that the bigger boats could no longer visit Minehead. Not until 1951 when the harbour was given to the Urban District Council by the Luttrells and cleared yet again, did pleasure boats return. However, any diminution in Mineheadís holiday appeal has been reversed since 1962 when Butlins opened. Originally conceived as a small camp, it has risen to be Butlins "flagship" and draws thousands of visitors to the town each year. The permanent population has also risen as large numbers of people have retired or been relocated to the sprawling suburbs of the modern town which have now covered most of the low lying land and swallowed the historic settlements.