Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys (EUS) The Somerset EUS

Watchet 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 Watchet report

A brief history of Watchet

Pre-Saxon activity in the vicinity of Watchet is suggested by the British origin of the name (gwo coed -under the wood), by the dedication of the church of St Decuman, and by scattered finds of Prehistoric and Roman material (the latter on Cleeve Hill). However, it is not until Saxon times that there is any indication of a semi-urban settlement. The parish of St Decuman, in which Watchet lay until 1974, descended from the royal hundred of Williton; and Watchet would have been the port and trading area associated with the royal estate at Williton itself. There must have been a fort by at least the tenth century, since Watchet is mentioned in the Burghal Hidage, and an associated trading centre referred to as Wecedport in the tenth century may have been in existence by the time of Alfred (871-90). Watchet had a mint from c980, which remained in production into medieval times (except for a hiatus around the time of the Conquest). Coins from this mint are found in Scandinavia: this is probably best understood as Danegeld payments. Watchet suffered repeated Viking raids in the tenth century, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle implies it may have been at least partially destroyed in 997.

At Domesday, a mill and an agricultural estate are recorded at Watchet: the town, fort and mint are not referred to though these must have been in existence. It has been suggested that the gap in the production of Watchet mint (between 1056 and 1080) may reflect a period of transition between an interdependent fort & port and a single settlement. The area was part of the estates of the William de Mohun who built Dunster castle. The manor was subdivided several times in the medieval period, one major reorganisation being in 1388, when the borough itself was split.

The period from the early thirteenth century to the first half of the fifteenth century seems on the whole to have been one of modest growth in Watchet. No charter is known, but it is referred to as a borough by 1225, and in 1222-3 there is a record of Dunster - apparently unsuccessfully - resisting rival Watchet's attempt to set up a market: there is documentary evidence of the presence of Flemish merchants slightly earlier, in 1210. A fair is known by 1244. In c1383 there were 49 burgesses in Watchet, and the appearance of new street names in the documents of this time implies expansion of the town. Although Minehead and not Watchet was the Staple port, the St Decuman's area of Watchet was important in the cloth industry: fulling mills were established by 1318. Most of the other evidence for traded commodities comes from the post-medieval period, but local resources included limestone and seaweed (kelp). Fisheries were also important in the medieval period.

Catastrophic storms in the 1450s virtually destroyed Watchet's harbour and swept part of the town away. Customable trade seems to have ceased for a while after this. But the port recovered somewhat in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The harbour was cleaned out and a new pier built in Queen Elizabeth I's time at the expense of the lords of the manor, Luttrells and Wyndhams. Trade, mainly with Bristol and Wales, grew in salt, coal, wine and livestock; smuggling was also important in the seventeenth century. However, despite further repairs to the harbour in the early eighteenth century, silting became a problem and Watchet declined as Minehead grew. By 1791 it was being described as "formerly a place of considerable trade having now few vessels" (Collinson, 1791).

Collinson's description was copied for Pigot's Directory of 1830, but by 1842 it had been altered to "is a place of considerable trade". Between 1794 and 1840, the directories show a business expansion: new businesses included the foundry and, briefly, shipbuilding. In the mid nineteenth century, the iron ore mines opened on the Brendon Hills. The coming of the railways (West Somerset Mineral Railway, 1858-9; West Somerset Railway to Taunton, 1862, extended to Minehead 1874) and the rebuilding of the harbour (after another storm) and seafront were associated with the growth of the ironstone trade. Although the harbour redevelopment destroyed the old beach, Watchet was nevertheless a minor resort in the 1870s, with hotels and a bathing place for ladies. This was the last marked expansion of Watchet. The harbour was badly damaged again in 1901 and it was in part to enable the repair of this that Watchet Urban District Council was formed in 1902.