Taunton in 1842
TAUNTON, an ancient town in the south-western part of Somersetshire, situated in a fertile vale called Taunton Dean, and distant 141 miles from London, 44 from Bristol, and 33 from Exeter. Roman coins and other antiquities have been found, from which it has been inferred that there was a Roman station here. Taunton was certainly a place of considerable importance in the Anglo-Saxon period ; and in the eighth century a castle was built here by Ina, king of the West Saxons, in which he held his first great council. The building was destroyed by his queen in expelling one of the kings of the South Saxons. Another castle was built after the Conquest by one of the bishops of Winchester, to whom the town and manor were granted ; and the present remains are believed to be those of a still more recent edifice. Perkin Warbeck held possession of the castle and town for a short time ; and in the civil wars the town sustained a long siege under Colonel (afterwards Admiral) Blake, against 10,000 royalist troops, until relieved by Fairfax.
The town is about a mile long ; the principal streets are well paved, and lighted with gas ; and the houses of brick, of respectable appearance. Apart from the main thoroughfares are some very poor streets, which, before the enlargement of the borough, were inhabited by persons desirous of profiting by the parliamentary franchise. The woollen manufacture was established at Taunton in the fourteenth century, but has long since decayed ; and at present the silk manufacture is carried on, though not to any great extent.
The river Tone flows on the north-western side of the town, and is crossed by a stone bridge of two arches ; but the river is only partially navigable, and in 1811 a canal was projected between Taunton and Bridgewater, a distance of 12½ miles. This canal is of great importance to the prosperity of the town and district, by enabling it to export agricultural and other produce to Bristol and other places, from which it receives groceries, coal, and other commodities in return : there is a branch from this canal to Chard. In July, 1842, the railway from Bristol to Exeter was opened as far as Taunton, so that there is now a railway communication with the metropolis.
The markets, held twice a week, are very abundantly supplied with fish, fruit, and every kind of provisions. The market-house stands in a spacious open area called the Parade, and is a brick building of considerable size ; the upper part comprises the guildhall and an assembly-room, and the lower part consists of an arcade on each side, in one of which the corn-market is held. On market-days the Parade, which is enclosed by iron posts and chains, is occupied by butchers' stalls.
On the west side of the Parade there is a handsome building of the Ionic order, erected in 1521, the upper part of which is appropriated as a library, museum, and reading-room ; and underneath, and in the rear, are the markets for fish, poultry, dairy produce, &c. The Taunton and Somerset Institution, established in 1823, contains a good though not extensive library, and a large public reading and news-room. The theatre is a small neat building. Two weekly newspapers are published at Taunton.
There are three churches. The church of St. Mary Magdalen is a spacious and very handsome edifice in the florid Gothic style. The quadrangular tower at the west end, 153 feet high, is much enriched, and is a work of great beauty. The value of the living, which is a vicarage, is not given in the Reports of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. St. James's church is a plain edifice, with an ancient square tower formerly belonging to the conventual church of the priory. The living is a perpetual curacy, of the annual value of £255. Trinity church was consecrated 18th June, 1842. It is in the Gothic style, built of white lias stone, with dressings of Bath stone, and contains sittings for above one thousand persons. It stands on elevated ground, about half a mile from the parish church, in a poor and populous part of the town. There are two chapels belonging to the Wesleyan Methodists, one erected in 1775 under the direction of Wesley. The Roman Catholics, Independents, Baptists, Quakers, and Unitarians have chapels.
The free grammar-school was founded by Fox, bishop of Winchester, in 1522. The premises are situated within the castle-gate, and consist of a large and ancient school-room, and under the same roof is the dwelling house of the master. The endowment is worth about £36 a year. The number of infant, Sunday, and daily schools at Taunton was stated in 1833 to be very inadequate, and a large number of poor children were at that time receiving no education. There are various almshouses and other charities, all of which are noticed in the Report of the Charity Commissioners (vol. v., p.484-542). The Taunton and Somerset hospital was opened in 1812 ; and there are other medical charities.
Charles I granted the burgesses a charter of incorporation. In the reign of Charles II they were deprived of this charter, in consequence of the town having displayed so much zeal for the parliament, but it was restored, and in 1792 became forfeited by the corporate body having neglected to fill up vacancies. The town then came under the jurisdiction of the county magistrates, and is still without a municipal government. The bailiffs and constables, as the principal officers of the town, take a prominent part in all public proceedings. Taunton has returned members to parliament since 1295 (23rd year of the reign of Henry I). Before the Reform Act the right of election was in the potwallers who had been six months resident and were not in the receipt of charitable relief.
The town having outgrown the ancient limits of the borough, which was wholly within the parish of St. Mary Magdalen, a new boundary was adopted, so as to comprise parts of the following parishes :- St. Mary Magdalen on the east, St. James's on the north, Bishop's Hull on the west, and Wilton on the south. By this extension the population of the borough was increased from 5,580 to 12,148 according to the census of 1831. In 1826 the number of electors polled was 739 ; in 1840 the number on the register amounted to 1,010, including 216 of the old potwallers.
Two members are returned to parliament. The Lent assizes and the Michaelmas quarter-sessions are held at Taunton. There is a court for debts under forty shillings, the jurisdiction of which extends over the hundred. There is no prison, except a lock-up or place of temporary confinement. The county courts and offices are within an irregular quadrangle consisting of the remains of the castle.