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Wells in 1843

WELLS, an ancient city and bishop's see, and parliamentary and municipal borough, 120 miles from London, in the hundred of Wells-Forum, in the county of Somerset. It is situated in a valley at the foot of the Mendip Hills, near the source of the river Ax, and also near that of another spring, called St. Andrew's Well, from which the place is supposed to derive its name. Hills rise at a little distance nearly all round the city.

The founder of the first church at Wells is said to have been Ina, king of Wessex, in 704. In the reign of Edward the Elder, in the beginning of the tenth century, the town became the seat of a bishopric. About 1091 John de Villula, who, by the practice of physic at Bath, and by other means, is said to have earned the means of purchasing the see from William Rufus, obtained the bishopric, and removed the episcopal seat to Bath, and called himself bishop of Bath only. This led to bitter disputes, which were settled by Bishop Roberts, the successor of Villula, who, about 1139, determined that the diocesan should be styled bishop of Bath and Wells, and be enthroned on his admission in both churches. He repaired the cathedral, which his predecessor had allowed to go to decay.

In 1202 King John granted a charter erecting the town of Wells into a free borough, constituting the men free burgesses, and granting a Sunday market and five annual fairs. The governing charter, up to the time of the passing of the Municipal Corporation Act in 1835, was the 31st of Elizabeth, under which the corporation, a self-elected body, consisted of a mayor and recorder, seven masters or aldermen, sixteen capital burgesses, and an indefinite number of burgesses. In 1835 the number of freemen was 460, and the mayor, recorder, and senior master acted as justices for the borough.

The remodelled corporation consists of four aldermen and twelve councillors, and the number of burgesses on the roll at the first open election was 325. The borough magistrates are now the mayor, ex-mayor, and another. The income of the corporation in 1840 was £1,088, of which £517 arose from borough and gaol rates ; £149 from tolls and dues ; and £170 from rents and fines on renewal of leases. The borough expenditure for the same year was £1,309, of which £171 was for police and constables ; and £660 for public works, repairs, &c. The amount of borough rate levied was £442 ; and in the same year there were £343 levied under local acts. The corporation was £1,700 in debt.

The limits of the borough have been extended, so as to comprise the actual city and suburbs, and they now coincide with the limits of the parliamentary borough, which were enlarged when the Reform Act was passed in 1832, but only include that part of the out-parish of St. Cuthbert adjoining the city which is built on. The number of parliamentary voters on the register in 1839-40 was 414 : in 1837 there were 103 freemen, who were not burgesses, though they were entitled to vote for the members of the city. Wells has returned two members to Parliament since the reign of Edward I, and the Reform Act made no alteration of the number.

The city is situated in a large parish called St. Cuthbert, which contains many hamlets, and extends in every direction beyond the city : the parish of St. Andrew, which comprises the precincts of the cathedral, is extra-parochial. The population, according to the census of 1831, was as follows :-

St. Andrew, extra-parochial : 381
Parish of St. Cuthbert, in : 3,430
Parish of St. Cuthbert, out : 2,838

The Corporation Commissioners in 1835 remarked that Wells was not then so flourishing as it used to be, and that there were fewer persons of property living in it than there were 25 years before. The silk trade had been wholly given up, but there was still one large stocking manufactory, which within the two preceding years had employed as many as 1,500 persons. The corn-market had decayed ; but the market for cheese was still the largest in the west of England.

Wells is cleansed, lighted with gas, watched, and supplied with water, under local acts. The January quarter-sessions for the county are held at Wells, and the summer assizes are alternately held there and at Bridgewater. There is a gaol to which felons and others are temporarily committed, and in which the prisoners are lodged who are brought for trial at the assizes. The town hall was built in 1780, and stands on one side of an extensive area which communicates by an ancient gateway with the cathedral close.

The cathedral, which is one of the finest structures of the kind in England, forms a striking object as seen from all the great roads leading to the city. It is in the usual form of a cross, the principal limb or bar, which extends from east to west, being 371 feet in length, and the transept measuring 135 feet from north to south. The tower, which is over the junction of the nave and transept, rises to the height of 160 feet from the floor ; and two other massive towers, each 126 feet in height, crown the extremities of the west front. This facade is remarkable for its tracery and sculptured figures: there are about 150 statues of the size of life, and above 300 others of smaller size ; and although many of them are a good deal mutilated, the effect is very striking.

The present cathedral was begun in the early part of the reign of Henry III (1216-1272) by Bishop Joceline de Welles, who also made Wells his place of residence, and in other respects restored it to the precedence which, in everything except the name of the see, it has since enjoyed. The entire body of the church, from the west end to the middle of the present choir, is supposed to have been the work of this bishop. The two western towers were added about the end of the 14th century, that at the south end by Bishop John de Harewell, and that on the north by Bishop Bubwith, twenty years later. The church had been previously completed to its eastern extremity, and the great central tower erected, soon after the commencement of the 14th century. The Ladye chapel is the glory of Wells cathedral, and by many it is said to be the most beautiful specimen of ecclesiastical architecture in England.

There are several ancient and other remarkable monuments deserving of notice. The cloisters form a quadrangle attached to the south side of the cathedral, the sides severally measuring from 150 to 160 feet. The chapter-house is a handsome octangular building, 52 feet diameter in the interior, the roof being supported by a single central pillar.

The episcopal palace stands at a short distance south from the cathedral, and with its lofty and embattled wall, enclosing an area of about seven acres, and surrounded by a broad moat filled with water, resembles an old baronial castle.

The deanery-house is north-west from the cathedral, and beyond are twenty houses called the Vicar's College or Close, an establishment consisting of two principals and twelve vicars.

The net revenue of the see of Bath and Wells for the three years ending 1831, was £5,946. The parish church of St. Cuthbert is a large and handsome edifice in the later pointed style. The living is a vicarage, in the gift of the dean and chapter, of the gross annual value of £688, net annual value £564. The Independents, Methodists, and Baptists have places of worship : the number of Sunday-school children belonging to the different denominations in 1833 was as follows : Church, 122 ; Independents, 90 ; Methodists, 43 ; and Baptists, 40.

The endowed charities are numerous, and in 1840 they amounted to £1,853, administered by nine trustees. The principal are an almshouse for thirty men and women, with a chaplain ; several other alms-houses on a smaller scale ; two schools, called the Blue Schools, for 34 boys and 20 girls, twenty of each being clothed, the boys apprenticed, and an outfit being provided for the girls on going to service or otherwise entering upon some occupation. The collegiate grammar-school is partly supported by the dean and chapter, who allow the master a salary of £30 a-year, with apartments, and a school-room in the cathedral cloisters. In 1829 an infant-school was established, which in 1833 was attended by 52 males and 53 females.

The market-days are Wednesday and Saturday ; and there are fairs in May, July, October, and November.