Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys (EUS) The Somerset EUS

Wellington 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 Wellington report

A brief history of Wellington

Wellington lies in the broad agricultural vale of the Tone, on a natural communication line to the South-West. However, at this point, there is not one obvious route, but several alternatives, which have fluctuated in importance over the centuries. There is no clear evidence that the specific site occupied by Wellington was of particular importance in the prehistoric periods, though archaeological knowledge of the surrounding area is admittedly limited, consisting of a few cropmark sites and spot finds. Archaeology is increasingly showing, however, that there was Roman settlement in the vicinity of the knoll site now occupied by the mediaeval church. Since one suggested etymology - given fairly wide credence - of the name Wellington is "the settlement in the temple clearing", it is at least possible that this site was a centre of veneration before it enters into recorded history.

Wellington is first mentioned by name in early 10th century charters recording its initial grant to Bishop Asser of Sherborne and its subsequent part in the endowment of the new Bishopric of Wells, though the earlier of these charters is generally regarded with suspicion as a document. The estate was granted out of royal lands and may well have contained a royal vill at Wellington itself, close to the church site. Whether a church existed before the Bishops acquired the estate at present unclear, but there would certainly have been one from shortly after that date. The subsequent history of the church, which had at least one dependent chapel and was richly furnished in the Mediaeval period, suggests a well-established and quite richly endowed foundation. There are few historical clues to the nature and extent of accompanying settlement, but Wellington is recorded in the Domesday Survey as a settlement belonging to Bishop Giso of Wells, linked to West Buckland. The land holding described is relatively populous, but there is no sign that it was anything other than an agricultural village and hamlets.

It was probably not until the late 12th or early 13th century that the town was established as a commercial venture by the Bishops of Wells, for a charter of 1215 records a royal grant of urban status to Wellington (amongst other places). The creation of the borough was accompanied by other reorganisations, including the establishment of a vicarage for Wellington (though the Vicar was to reside at the linked centre of West Buckland for most of themedieval period) and the splitting off of a fraction of the estate to form part of the endowment of the new office of Provost of Wells: this small sub-manor retained a separate existence until the 19th century. Moreover, the medieval town was deliberately laid out afresh to encourage trade, arranged along the (diverted) Bristol to Exeter road with the old church at the east end of the new town, in a manner typical of other contemporary new towns. Occasional references to the borough and burgesses occur during the 13th and 14th centuries and it seems that the town was moderately successful as a centre of local markets and fairs, though its principal subsidiary occupation - the cloth industry - was small in scale.

Until the mid 16th century the town continued moderately prosperous. But in 1548 the main manor and borough was sold - under duress - to the Duke of Somerset. Though the borough was temporarily restored to the Bishops, it was seized along with the main manor - now known as Wellington Landside - by the Crown following the Duke's execution. The loss of the Bishops' protection appears to have exacerbated the difficult effects of national economic trends in the 16th century, for the town went through a period of some decline. By the end of the century, however, the town had found another powerful protector - Sir John Popham, Lord Chief Justice of England.

At first leaseholders, the Pophams acquired the estates and became Lords of the manor in the early 17th century. By this time the town appears to have recovered its fortunes somewhat, for Gerard (1633) describes it as a good market town. Unfortunately, the new Popham mansion - held for Parliament -was destroyed by Royalist troops during the Civil War, though this brief action was more or less the only direct engagement the town saw (except for a possible skirmish on the outskirts). Bypassed by Monmouth, Wellington settled back in the second half of the 17th century into low key economic activity. But it was about to enter into a period of boom, benefitting from fires, and political and labour unrest, afflicting its cloth manufacturing neighbours, Taunton and Tiverton. The town became a desirable base for established clothiers (who were already controlling much of the cottage industry), such as the Weres of Devon, from whom Wellington's Fox dynasty descended.

The growth of manufacturing was still delayed, however, and it is apparent from early 18th century accounts that there was still much poverty amongst the lower classes. Defoe (1724) was beset by beggars on his way into town, and this may have been at Rockwell Green (or Rowe Green, colloquially known as Rogue Green in the 18th century). The problems of this small settlement were relieved during the later 18th and 19th centuries by the growth of the Westford Mills. The establishment of other large mills north of the town at Tonedale led to increasing prosperity, at a time when the cloth industries of other towns were foundering, and Collinson (1791) was able to describe a fine, thriving town.

In the second half of the 18th century and in the 19th century Wellington's communications improved, first through the turnpikes, and then through the building of first the Grand Western Canal and subsequently the Bristol and Exeter Railway to the north of the town. The last two also affected the topography, encouraging the town to spread north towards its mills, which expanded greatly during the 19th century. By this time, both the borough and the manor had been sold on several times, separately, but in 1812 both had become part of the Duke of Wellington's estates. The borough had been leased back to the townsmen until 1876, though this proved a financial strain on the town. In 1883 the newly formed Wellington Market and Town Hall Company purchased the borough outright and in 1894 Wellington's status was confirmed by the establishment of both Urban and Rural District Councils based on the town.

Wellington's independence has been somewhat lost in the 20th century as it has increasingly become a dormitory settlement of Taunton. Indeed, it was joined to Taunton in the 1970s round of local government reorganisation, though it reacquired its own town council in 1977. This strengthening of links has been partly due to the most recent alteration to the town's communications, the construction of the M5; and the presence of the motorway (combined with the closure of the railway station) is once more shaping the town, drawing it southward and eastward.