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Bridgewater in 1836

BRIDGEWATER, a port, borough, and market town, situate on the banks of the river Parret, in the hundred of North Petherton, and county of Somerset, 29 miles south-west from Bristol, 17 west-south-west from Wells, and 125 west by south from London. The limits of the borough are co-extensive with those of the parish, the area of which is 3,580 English statute acres.

Bridgewater, in ancient charters called Brugia, or Brugie, Brugg-Walter and Burgh-Walter, derives its name from Walscin or Walter de Douay, on whom it was conferred by William I. Prior to this it belonged to a Saxon Thane, named Merlesuain, as appears from Domesday Book, in which it is thus surveyed : 'Walscin holds Brugie, Merlesuain in the time of King Edward, and gelded for five hides. The arable is ten carucates, in demesne are three carucates and five servants, thirteen villanes, nine bordars and five cottagers, with eight ploughs. There is a mill of 5 shillings rent, and ten acres of meadow and 100 acres of pasture. When he received it, it was worth one hundred shillings, now seven pounds.

William de Briwere, to whom the manor had been granted by Henry II built a castle at Bridgewater of considerable strength, and through his interest with King John obtained for the town a market and a fair. This William de Briwere also founded the hospital of St. John, for the benefit of the souls of Kings Henry II, Richard I, and King John, consisting of a master, brethren, and thirteen poor persons of the order of St. Augustine. This hospital had very large possessions, and was confirmed by Josceline, Bishop of Bath, in the year 1219. Leland, who visited it in 1538, describes it thus. 'In the Est part of the Town is onely the House, late College of St. John, a thing notable, and this house standith partly without th' est gate. This college had prestes that had the apparell of secular prestes, with a cross on their breste, and to this house adjoined an Hospice for poor folks.' It appears from the Harleian manuscripts in the British Museum, that William Lord de la Zouch and Seymore, and Richard Duke of York and Earl of Ulster and Lord of Wigmore and Clare, were patrons in 1457. Its revenues at the time of the dissolution of monasteries amounted to £120, 19 shillings and 1¼ pence. In the west part of the town was a priory of Minorites or grey friars, dedicated to St Francis, founded by a son of William de Briwere, the site of which was given to one Emmanuel Lukar by Henry VIII. There was also in Leland's time an hospital for lepers. The founder of St. John’s hospital also commenced a stone bridge with three arches across the river Parret, but it was only completed in the reign of Edward I, by Sir Thomas Trivet, 'whose arms being a trivet,' says William of Worcester, 'were affixed to the coping of the structure.’

Bridgewater was one of the towns that were taken by the barons during their revolt against King Henry III. In the civil wars it stood out a long time for the king. The castle was strongly fortified, having forty large guns mounted on the walls, and a moat of great depth and 30 ft. wide, which every tide filled with water. Colonel Wyndham, the governor, defended it a long time against the rebels ; but at last, on the 22nd of July, 1645, he was compelled to surrender. Upwards of 1,000 prisoners, 44 barrels of powder, 1,500 arms, 44 pieces of ordnance, and a great quantity of jewels, plate, and other articles of immense value, that had been sent to the castle for safety (it having been declared impregnable), were taken by the besiegers, amongst whom the booty was divided. The castle was completely dismantled, and the only remains of it are the sally-port and some small detached portions of the walls.

The inhabitants of Bridgewater supported the claims to the throne of the Duke of Monmouth, a natural son of King Charles II, and he was proclaimed king by the mayor and corporation.

The elective franchise was conferred on Bridgewater by Edward I, in the 23rd year of his reign, since which time it has returned two members to parliament. Its first charter was granted by King John, on the 26th of June, 1200 and twelve other charters were granted to it between that time and 1683. There is a civil court, or court of record the jurisdiction of which extends to all personal actions and to any amount. The court sits from Monday to Monday ; but as the expenses are very heavy, very little business is done. There are also petty sessions every Monday. The July county sessions are held here, and the summer assizes alternately with Wells.

The town is pleasantly situated, about 9 miles from the a sea, in a level but well-wooded country ; to the north-east are the Polden and Mendip Hills, and on the west the Quantock Hills. The river Parret, over which there is a handsome iron bridge, divides the town into two parts. The west part is the more respectably inhabited ; the streets are well lighted with gas and paved, and the houses are generally good ; some are built of brick, and others of a good, durable carboniferous limestone found in the quarries of the neighbourhood. The other part of the town, called Eastover, is little more than a suburb, and is meanly built. The town-hall is a good building, and well adapted for business ; over it is a cistern with an engine by which the inhabitants are supplied with water. The gaol is very convenient, and has separate divisions for the male and female prisoners.

The interior of the parish church dedicated to St Mary is handsome, consisting of a nave, chancel, and two side aisles. The outward part of the structure is mean and ill-built, there is a tower at the west end, surmounted by an ill-proportioned spire. The altar-piece, which is much admired was presented by the Honourable A. Poulett, many years member of parliament for the borough. It represents the descent from the a cross, and was found on board a captured French privateer. The painter of it is uncertain. The living is a vicarage united with the rectory of Chilton Trinity, in the archdeaconry of Taunton and diocese of Bath and Wells. The crown is the patron of the living, the net income of which is £342.

The river Parret is navigable as far as Bridgewater for vessels of 200 tons ; but it is subject, like some other rivers in the Bristol channel, to a rise of nearly six fathoms at spring tides. The flow of the tide is preceded by a head water commonly termed the 'bore,' which often produces much inconvenience among the shipping. The principal imports to Bridgewater are coals, twine, hemp, tallow, and timber. Coals are imported from Wales, and conveyed into the interior of the country by means of the river Parret and a canal. The former is navigable as far as Langport : the canal runs to Taunton, and thence into Devonshire. The foreign trade is principally with the U.S., Canada, Newfoundland, and the West Indies. The number of vessels belonging to the port (as stated in the Report of 1828) was forty, of an average burden of sixty tons. Many of the inhabitants are occupied in the fabrication of a peculiar sort of white brick, which is made of all sizes, and the common brick. The great market-day for provisions, and especially for cheeses, for which the neighbourhood is celebrated, is on Thursday. There are also smaller markets on Tuesday and Saturday. The market-house is a fine building, surmounted by a dome and a lantern. Fairs are held here on the first Monday in Lent, the 24th of July, the 2nd of October, and the 27th of December. The fair on the 2nd of October, called St. Matthew's Fair, was heretofore the mart of Somersetshire and the adjoining counties, and is still of considerable importance.

The population of Bridgewater in 1831 was 7,807, of which 4,124 were females.

There are places of worship for Baptists, Quakers, Independents, Wesleyan Methodists, and Unitarians. The free grammar-school was founded in 1561, and endowed by Queen Elizabeth with £61, 13 shillings and 4 pence per annum, charged on the tithes of the parish, to which a donation of £200 was afterwards added. It is under the control of the corporation, who appoint the master, and under the immediate inspection of the bishop of the diocese : four boys are taught gratuitously in the classics and four in English. In 1723 Mr. John Morgan founded a school (now conducted on Dr. Bell's system), and endowed it with lands to a considerable amount. The management of the school is vested in the hands of trustees, amongst whom are the archdeacon of Taunton and the vicar of Bridgewater : in 1816 a spacious a school-room and a house for the master were erected. The present number of scholars is about thirty, some of whom are clothed. A school was also founded by Mr. Edward a Tackerell, and endowed by him with the dividends of £3,000 in the funds, and the rents of certain messuages, amounting to £174 per annum, for the clothing, educating, and apprenticing the children and grandchildren of certain of his relatives. The management of this school, which was the subject of a Chancery suit, is now in the hands of trustees, whose accounts are annually audited by a master in chancery. Several sums appear from the 'Reports on Charities' to have been left by will for the instruction of poor children : £52 by Richard Holworthy ; £41, 10 shillings by Dorothy Holworthy ; Richard Castleman left £200, and James Stafford £40, - all for the like purpose. Some alms-houses endowed by Major Ingram with £18 are now appropriated to the poor of the parish, and the £18 is distributed among poor widows not receiving parochial relief. An infirmary was established by subscription in 1813. In Willis's ‘History of Abbeys,' several chantries are mentioned - St. George's chantry ; the Virgin Mary's chantry, to which belonged ten messuages, eight acres of land, and £40, 1 shilling in Bridgewater and Trinity chantry. Leland also mentions a chapel at the south side without the town, 'which,' says he, 'was buildid in hominum memoria by a merchant of Bridgewater, cawllid Poel or Pole.'

Bridgewater was the birth-place of Admiral Blake, and he was educated at the free grammar-school there.

In the neighbourhood of Bridgewater is the Isle of Athelney.