Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys (EUS) The Somerset EUS

Street 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 Street report

A brief history of Street

Street lies on the edge of high ground, looking towards the Glastonbury moors and the Tor itself. Its situation gives access to good communication lines, to the various resources of the Levels and to beds of blue lias (building stone), all of which are known to have been exploited from at least the Roman period. The extent of prehistoric activity is less certain, though there have been occasional artefact finds. Street lies a little way from the famous Brue Valley settlement sites at Glastonbury and Meare, and from the known trackways. Though the later importance of the crossing between Street and Wearyall Hill suggests that there may also have been a prehistoric crossing point, this remains unproven.

There is more evidence of Roman occupation on the hills south of Street, with known villa sites near Marshall's Elm and Ivythorn, which were on the fringes of the belt of villas surrounding Ilchester. It is possible that there was also a Roman building on the churchyard site, probably where the route from sites on Wearyall Hill and at Glastonbury (see the Glastonbury report) hit the high ground en route to the Foss Way and Ilchester. It is often assumed that Street is named after this Roman road, but there is in fact little archaeological evidence for a paved highway until a later period, and no evidence of the use of the name Street until still later.

Somerset has produced a number of Roman occupation sites, some with their own cemeteries and/ or shrines, which were reused for Christian burials in the post-Roman period. This may have been what happened at Street, where at some point before the 7th century (possibly by the 5th) a religious site was established on the knoll of raised ground now occupied by the churchyard, its direct successor. The form of the later churchyard, and the name - Lantokay - by which the site is referred to in charters recording its 7th century transfer (with three hides of land) to Glastonbury Abbey, suggest parallels with early church sites (llans) found in Wales and, less frequently, in the South-West peninsula. The name Lantokay ('the sacred enclosure of Kay') also implies that the site was already associated with a Celtic saint by the 7th century. According to the Glastonbury chronicles, a chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity, the predecessor of the medieval parish church was subsequently founded here, nominally by St Gildas.

That Lantokay, lying just beyond the bounds of the Glastonbury Twelve Hides, remained an important sacred site in the Saxon and then the medieval period is shown by its status as one of the Seven Churches (which were subject to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Glastonbury Abbey rather than that of the Bishop), and by the fact that it was mother church to the chapel on the important neighbouring estate of Walton. It was in Street church that King Edward I and Queen Eleanor held assizes in 1278 (because to have done so within the bounds of the Twelve Hides would have been a breach of Glastonbury's privileges). However, in other respects, the estate was just another outlying possession of Glastonbury and was accorded no special treatment. At Domesday, it was poorer than both its neighbours, Walton and Butleigh. Moreover, by this time the ancient name had fallen out of use, and Street appears in the Domesday Survey as neither Lantokay nor Street, but as Leigh.

The name Leigh is believed to have been a collective name for the hamlets of Higher, Middle and Lower Leigh, the names of which suggest that they began as separate clearances in the woodland and waste; it is possible that there was also some settlement, associated with Lower Leigh, by the church. For at least part of the medieval period, the Leighs were administered directly from the Abbey Grange, though the tenurial history of the estate is complex. The Abbey surveys and national tax records suggest that though the farming community at Leigh was poorer than its neighbours, it became relatively prosperous in the medieval period, the implication being that agricultural land was being improved around Street, as it was around Glastonbury.

Higher, Middle and Lower Leigh remained separate settlements, consisting almost entirely of farms and cottages, until the late 19th and early 20th century: they are still identifiable elements of the town of Street. However, if there was any additional settlement closer to the church, this would have been displaced in the 12th or 13th century by the realignment and rebuilding of the road and causeway to Glastonbury. The immediate reason for the road improvements may have been the reconstruction of Glastonbury Abbey after its destruction by fire in 1184, which entailed the transport of considerable quantities of blue lias from the Street quarries to Glastonbury. It appears to be only in the late 12th century that references to settlement on the Street (or strata), settlement which was still technically part of Lower Leigh, begin to occur, and it seems plausible that these are references to the new medieval highway.

Settlement at Leigh-in-Street was still in no way urban, consisting of farmhouses, cottages and small smithies. There was little sign of settlement nucleation and no (official) market, the settlement being completely overshadowed by Glastonbury. The Dissolution of Glastonbury Abbey in the 16th century did not materially alter this situation. It led instead to the splitting of the estate (with centres at Ivythorn and the Grange), and to frequent changes of landlord, none of whom was of any great wealth or status. Indeed, Street's only claim to fame, or notoriety, in the succeeding century and a half is that the first fatal skirmish of the Civil War is reputed to have been fought at Marshall's Elm, in August 1642.

It was also in the mid-17th century that Quakerism took root in Street, creating a small, close community from which both the leading families in the industrial developments of the 19th century eventually came. But throughout the 18th century agriculture remained predominant, with quarrying the major industrial activity (and a cottage industry of knitting and weaving outwork providing the principal occupation for women). At the end of the 18th century there was very little remarkable about Street (except for the fossils which were increasingly being recovered by collectors from the quarries and which eventually provided the inspiration for the town's emblem). Collinson's travelogue, published in 1791, the same year as the final detachment of Street Farm (the Grange) from its manorial rights, says very little about the settlement, and one of the early directories[[Pigots, year not noted]] calls it an 'inconsiderable village', adding that 'nothing worthy of notice is attached to the place', though it was by this time a turnpike staging post, which must have enjoyed considerable traffic.

However, since 1801, Street's population has been steadily increasing. In the first part of the 19th century, this increase was based on agriculture: as in many rural settlements, agricultural improvements and enclosures (at Street, from 1798 onwards, though some of the Glastonbury enclosures were somewhat earlier) provided the spur to this increase. But whereas the population of Street's neighbour, Walton, peaked in the mid-19th century and then tailed off, that of Street continued to rise, despite the collapse of the woollen industry.

Street's continued growth was a direct result of the industrial developments of first the Clothiers and then the Clarks, who founded the tanning and shoe-making enterprises on which its expansion was based: 19th century directories show the proliferation of tanners and shoemakers. It has not been possible to study the industrial developments in detail for this report, but accounts of the families' enterprises are available elsewhere. The first major development was the opening of Arthur Clothier's tanyard in 1810. Young Cyrus Clark, the descendant of Quaker farmers became first an apprentice and later a partner in the tanyard. Shortly after his marriage, he inherited property on the High Street from his glover father-in-law and set up on his own, subsequently taking his younger brother, James, into partnership. The Clothiers tannery continued to operate, whilst the Clarks diversified into rug-, mop- and glove-making and then boot and shoe manufacture: the latter was to prove most successful.

The village had to expand physically to accommodate the increasing numbers of labourers (at first including outworkers, but later almost entirely factory staff as Clarks became mechanised), and the hamlets began to coalesce. Alongside the piecemeal workers' housing developments a number of larger houses were built and Braggs' Directory of 1848 describes "the rapidly improving village of Street, [where] several good houses have lately been built and others are in the course of erection". But until the second half of the 19th century, Street remained a straggling medieval settlement complex, albeit an increasingly polluted one.

Having weathered two major cash crises, in 1863 Clarks' entered a golden age under William Clark (James' son): both the factory and the settlement continued to expand. The process of change was accelerated in the Vestry Road area by a fire in 1863 which destroyed many of the cottages there. Later in the century, there were also planned housing developments and deliberate urbanisation by the Clarks themselves, who erected public buildings and were instrumental in improving the infrastructure of the incipient town. Gas street lighting was established in 1885; in 1895 Street acquired an Urban District Council, and by the early 20th century, it was virtually a company town.

In fact by 1921, Street's population exceeded that of Glastonbury (just). It has continued to grow as a centre of manufacturing and, more recently, retail enterprise centred on the Clarks' Village shopping centre.