A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 5. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1985.
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The parish of Elworthy lies on the eastern slopes of the Brendon Hills 7 km. north of Wiveliscombe, much of it within Exmoor National Park, (fn. 1) and the whole was probably once part of the minster estate of Stogumber. (fn. 2) With the addition of a small area of Stogumber in 1886 the present civil parish contains 716 ha. (1,768 a.). (fn. 3) The parish measures c. 5.5 km. from east to west, and lies in two irregular but compact parts joined by a narrow strip of land, the two parts perhaps representing the two Domesday estates of Elworthy and Willett. The western part stretches in a band about 1 km. wide from the plateau of the Brendons at 391 m. eastwards down the steep Elworthy combe to Elworthy village and the beginnings of the slope beyond, then south-east along the valley side to the tongue of Stogumber which almost divides the parish. The eastern part of the parish runs north-east from Willett Hill (274 m.), and then south-east across the gentler slopes of Tolland Down, including the village of Willett on the falling ground, and Willett House, Plash Farm, and Coleford Farm on the tributaries of the Doniford stream. The only natural boundary follows a stream south-west of Willett Hill, but the Brendon ridgeway marks part of the boundary in the west and some other boundaries are marked by minor roads. (fn. 4)
Brendon slate is the principal geological formation in the parish, with some small areas of sandstone south-east of Elworthy village and west of Willett and valley gravels in the east near Willett House. (fn. 5) There were small scattered quarries in the 19th century, and a limekiln north of Coleford Farm. (fn. 6)
On Elworthy common, 1.5 km. south-west of Elworthy village, is a round cairn, probably the one opened in 1833, and a Bronze Age barrow was opened in Sparborough field at Willett in 1834. (fn. 7) Fields named Catborough and Great Burrow at Willett and Maunsberry, north-east of Elworthy village, (fn. 8) suggest further prehistoric sites.
There is only slight evidence, from the 16th century, (fn. 9) of open-field arable farming, and after 1831, when Elworthy common and Willett Hill were inclosed, there was no common pasture in the parish. (fn. 10) There were 90 a. of wood in 1086. (fn. 11) By 1840 there were 115 a. including plantations at Tilsey Farm above Elworthy combe, and on Willett Hill. (fn. 12) The tower on Willett Hill was built by 1782 (fn. 13) 'at the expense of the neighbouring gentry' in the form of a ruined church, perhaps to serve as a 'steeple' for riders. (fn. 14) The parkland around Willett House had been created by 1840. (fn. 15) By 1905 the area of woodland had increased to 137 a. (fn. 16)
The former Willett farmhouse (replaced by Willett Farm, built in 1874) dates from the 15th century and was altered in the 1640s. (fn. 17) Plash Farm is of the 17th century or earlier, with 19th-century farm buildings. Elworthy Farm is of the 17th or early 18th century and also has a group of 19th-century buildings.
Elworthy village lies 500 m. north-west of the crossing of the Bampton-Hartrow road and the Wiveliscombe-Watchet road, both turnpiked in 1806. (fn. 18) Elworthy Cross House was a tollhouse belonging to the Wiveliscombe trust, with gates on each road except that leading to the village. (fn. 19) Save Penny Lane was the name given to a route between Brompton Ralph and Stogumber which skirted east of Elworthy village and avoided the tollhouse. It was stopped in 1827. (fn. 20) The old road from Plash to Willett was closed in 1820, probably because it crossed the new park of Willett House. (fn. 21)
There were at least 62 adult males in the parish in 1641 and 244 people were listed for the 1667 subsidy. (fn. 22) By the 19th century the population had fallen considerably although there was a rise from 150 in 1801 to 216 in 1851. Between 1891 and 1901 the population fell sharply from 162 to 110 and between 1961 and 1971 it shrank still further from 82 to 62. (fn. 23)
Dunne possessed Elworthy T.R.E. and Dodeman in 1086. (fn. 26) During the 12th century it was held by the Elworthy family. In 1166 William of Elworthy held 4 fees of Dunster, two of which were probably Elworthy and Willett, (fn. 27) and Simon of Elworthy held a fee of Dunster in 1201 and 1202. (fn. 28) Philip of Elworthy was lord of the manor of ELWORTHY early in Henry III's reign, (fn. 29) and conveyed the estate with the service of one knight from Plash and Willett to William Malet of Bedgrave, in Weston Turville (Bucks.). (fn. 30) William's daughter Lucy married first Simon of Merriott of Hestercombe (d. after 1276), and secondly Thomas of Timworth. (fn. 31) Lucy had died by 1316 and the manor descended to her son Walter of Merriott, clerk (d. 1345). (fn. 32) Walter's heir was his nephew Simon of Merriott, who died before 1372. (fn. 33) The manor then passed to Margery (d. 1390), Simon's widow, and then to John, nephew of her second husband Thomas Willington. John, a lunatic, died in 1396, leaving as his heirs his two sisters, Margaret, wife of Sir John Wroth, and Isabel, wife of William Beaumont. Margaret received Elworthy. (fn. 34) Her son John died under age and his widow Joyce surrendered her dower. (fn. 35) The manor passed to John's sister Elizabeth (d. 1440), wife of Sir William Palton. (fn. 36) On Sir William's death in 1450 without issue Elizabeth's cousin, Thomas Beaumont, inherited Elworthy. (fn. 37)
William de Mohun also held Willett in 1086. T.R.E. and in 1086 it was held with Elworthy. (fn. 38) The manor of WILLETT continued to descend with Elworthy, except for a period during the 13th century when it was leased to the de la Plesse family, (fn. 39) until 1396 when it passed to William and Isabel Beaumont. (fn. 40) William was succeeded by his son Thomas who in 1450, the year before his death, inherited the manor of Elworthy. (fn. 41)
The manor of PLASH was mentioned in 1238 when it was held by Hugh de la Plesse. (fn. 42) Hugh was dead by 1248 and was possibly succeeded by Richard de la Plesse, who held a fee in Willett in the 1280s. (fn. 43) In 1303 Plash was held by Lucy of Merriott. (fn. 44) In 1396 the manor was in the king's hands on the death of John Willington and by 1424 it had been leased by Isabel Beaumont to William Squire. (fn. 45) From 1396 or earlier Plash was held with Willett, and the names were sometimes used interchangeably. (fn. 46)
On his death in 1451 Thomas Beaumont held all three manors and they descended in the Beaumont family until the end of the 16th century. Thomas's son William Beaumont (d. 1453) was succeeded by his brother Philip (d. 1473) after William's supposed son John had been declared a bastard in 1466, as the illegitimate son of William's wife Joan Courtenay and Sir Henry Bodrugan whom she later married. Philip allowed Joan and Sir Henry the use of the estates during her lifetime (fn. 47) and devised them to his halfbrother Thomas Beaumont. In 1477, however, Thomas released the property to John Bodrugan or Beaumont who, with his reputed father, was attainted for involvement in Simnel's rebellion in 1496. The attainder was reversed after it was discovered that John had died before the rebellion. The manors of Elworthy, Plash, and Willett passed to John's son Henry (d. 1548) who called himself Beaumont, (fn. 48) to Henry's son Humphrey (d. 1572), (fn. 49) and to Humphrey's son Henry. The last Henry died without surviving issue in 1591 and the estates passed through his sister Elizabeth, wife of Robert Muttlebury, to her son Thomas. (fn. 50) In 1608 the property was forfeited temporarily because of Thomas Muttlebury's recusancy, (fn. 51) but he was lord of the manor of ELWORTHY or ELWORTHY AND WILLETT in 1634. (fn. 52) William Lacey (d. 1641) of Hartrow, in Stogumber, bought the estate c. 1635 and was succeeded by his grandson William Lacey (d. 1690), (fn. 53) by that William's son William (d. 1695), (fn. 54) and then by the latter's daughter Sarah, wife of Thomas Rich. (fn. 55) Sarah's son Thomas died in 1727 before his intended marriage to Margaret Hay, to whom he left his estate. On Margaret's death in 1753 the estate passed to her sister Mary (d. 1771) and then to the Revd. Bickham Escott, son of their sister Sarah. A fourth sister Isabel had inherited land in Elworthy which had belonged to the Dodington family in the 17th century and on her death in 1772 her heirs were Bickham Escott and John Francis of Combe Florey. (fn. 56) Bickham Escott died in 1801 without male heirs and in 1811 a considerable estate, including Elworthy manor, was settled on his daughter Elizabeth who married Lt. Col. (later Gen.) Daniel Francis Blommart of Halse. (fn. 57) John Blommart (d. 1890) followed his father as lord of the manor and was succeeded by his sister Mary (d. 1910). (fn. 58) The estate was then or soon after divided, and no later claim to the lordship has been found. In 1979 the manor house belonged to Mr. E. W. Towler.
Willett House, built in or after 1816 by Richard Carver for Daniel Blommart, (fn. 59) is a square structure with a main south front of five bays and two storeys behind which there is in succession a lower service wing, a courtyard, stable, and coachhouse. A number of closes were destroyed to make a park of 40 a. (fn. 60) Later in the 19th century it was extended and in 1979 was mostly pasture with many specimen trees and an area of formal gardens south-east of the house. A capital messuage called Elworthy belonged in the late 16th century to the Muttlebury family, (fn. 61) and may be the precursor of the present Elworthy Farm.
A small estate at Coleford was held by Dodeman of William de Mohun in 1086 and had been held T.R.E. by Brictuin. (fn. 62) It was probably absorbed by Plash or Willett manor and is represented by the present Coleford farm.
The Domesday estates together totalled 2 hides, of which 3 virgates were in demesne, but there were 170 a. of pasture, 90 a. of woodland, and, among the stock, 172 sheep. A recorded population of 20 villeins, 14 bordars, and 3 serfs, seems remarkably high. (fn. 63) Thereafter there is an almost total lack of evidence of economic activity until the 17th century.
Stock raising, principally of sheep, is recorded in 17th-century inventories. In 1640 a yeoman left sheep and lambs, a bull, cows and calves, horses, pigs, two cheese presses, and corn and malt. (fn. 64) In 1642 another yeoman had sheep, cattle, horses, pigs, and corn, and an inventory of 1648 shows a similar pattern with sheep, cattle, pigs, and corn. (fn. 65) A smallholder who died in 1646 kept bees, a cow, and two pigs, (fn. 66) in contrast with the wealthy yeoman Henry Sweeting, who in 1676 had many sheep, cattle, a horse, and various crops. (fn. 67) A farmer's livestock tended to be worth twice as much as his crops.
There is little evidence of clothmaking compared with the parishes to the north but Rack close lay south of Willett Hill (fn. 68) and the parish supported a large population in the 17th century. (fn. 69) One poor weaver left looms worth only 10s., (fn. 70) and other inventories contain only small amounts of wool and cloth. (fn. 71) In 1831 out of 36 families 30 were engaged in agriculture and only 4 in handicrafts. (fn. 72)
In 1840 the farms were few and large, in contrast to the many small holdings found in neighbouring parishes. The largest farm, Plash and Willett, measured 307 a., Elworthy farm had 202 a., and Higher Willett, Lower Willett, and Coleford farms were each over 100 a. Of the six other farms none was under 35 a. and four were over 60 a. Out of a total of 1,635 a., 1,215 a. were owned by the lord of the manor, Daniel Blommart. (fn. 73) The soil was said to produce average crops of wheat, oats, barley, potatoes, and turnips, (fn. 74) and in 1905 there were still 608 a. of arable land and 586 a. of grass. (fn. 75) By 1976 there were at least 700 a. of grass supporting 846 sheep and 510 cattle. Of the holdings returned, one was over 500 a., two were over 120 a., one over 75 a., and the rest between 5 a. and 50 a. (fn. 76)
There were two mills in 1086, one at Elworthy and one at Willett. The latter paid no rent but the mill at Elworthy was worth 4s. (fn. 77) One mill survived until 1630 or later (fn. 78) but by 1840 both mills had gone. (fn. 79)
The only known record of a manor court is a presentment to the court baron of Elworthy and Willett of 1682. (fn. 80) In 1556 the watch at Elworthy was concerned with firing beacons and other precautions against invasion. (fn. 81) There were two churchwardens and two sidesmen by 1613, (fn. 82) and there is a reference to a meeting of the vestry in 1738, (fn. 83) but no records of parish officers survive earlier than the 19th century. The vestry then nominated to the offices of overseer and surveyor, by 1836 there were two highway surveyors, and in 1858 four waywardens. Road repairs were a major concern of the vestry in the 19th century, and in 1836 there was a scheme for payment to parishioners prepared to assist with the work. In 1832 a special meeting of the vestry was held to decide on precautions to be taken against a possible outbreak of cholera. A room in Tilsey Farm was to be equipped as a hospital, a nurse was appointed, and a board of health set up. (fn. 84)
There was a poorhouse in Cott Lane, in Elworthy combe, west of the village, by 1829. (fn. 85) In 1858, when it comprised four cottages, it was ordered to be sold, and it may have been demolished c. 1859. (fn. 86) The parish was part of the Williton poor-law union from 1836 and of the Williton rural district from 1894. Since 1974 it has formed part of West Somerset district. (fn. 87)
A church was mentioned in 1233. (fn. 88) The living was a rectory until 1969 when it became a chapelry within the parish of Monksilver, as part of the united benefice of Monksilver with Brompton Ralph, Nettlecombe, and, from 1977, Stogumber. In 1979 the church was declared redundant and vested in the Redundant Churches Fund. (fn. 89)
The advowson was quitclaimed in 1233 by William Malet to the Knights Hospitaller. (fn. 90) The prior presented to the benefice in 1509, (fn. 91) and presumably until the order was dissolved in 1540. In 1563 the advowson was granted by the Crown to Thomas Reve, William Revet, and William Hechins, (fn. 92) and by 1579 it was in the hands of William Lacey of Hartrow, thence descending with the manor to Margaret Hay. In 1727 she leased the advowson to David Yea and John Morley with the proviso that Morley's son Alexander, then rector, should be succeeded by one of his own sons. (fn. 93) Alexander died in 1731 when his sons were under age, and Yea presented a successor, but John Morley, one of the sons, was in 1746 presented by David Yea. In 1804 Sarah Escott, greatniece of Margaret Hay, sold the advowson to William Lock, who conveyed it to the Revd. Thomas Roe in 1820. (fn. 94) In 1835 the advowson was sold to Mrs. Clarkson, probably the mother of Christopher Clarkson, rector and patron from 1835 to 1844. In 1844 the advowson was conveyed in trust for John Eddy, rector and patron 1845–68. (fn. 95) In 1891 it was sold by trustees to Mrs. Simms, who transferred it to the rector, James Sanger, in 1897. (fn. 96) In 1919 the patronage was transferred as a free gift by Mrs. Somerset Gardner McTaggart, probably mother of the incoming rector of Monksilver with Elworthy, to the dean and canons of Windsor, patrons of Monksilver, pending the union of the two parishes. (fn. 97) The dean and canons became joint patrons of the united benefice. (fn. 98)
In 1291 the church was valued at £4 6s. 8d., (fn. 99) in 1535 at £6 18s., (fn. 100) and c. 1668 at c. £20. (fn. 101) In 1831 the average net income of the benefice was £244, (fn. 102) and in 1840 the tithes were commuted for a rent charge of £230 12s. (fn. 103)
In 1613 there were 69 a. of glebe both in the parish and in Stogumber, (fn. 104) and nearly 63 a. remained in 1840, (fn. 105) a small portion having been exchanged in 1831 during inclosure of the commons. (fn. 106) The glebe remained intact until 1910 but had been disposed of by 1931. (fn. 107)
There was a rectory house with garden, barn, and orchard in 1606, (fn. 108) and in 1698 it had 14 windows. (fn. 109) In 1827 the rector was said to be non-resident because the house was 'not in a fit state' although the curate lived in it (fn. 110) and it was declared fit in 1831. (fn. 111) A new house, in landscaped grounds, probably built c. 1838, was originally small and symmetrically planned with a south-west front of three bays. It was later extended, and has been a private house since c. 1919.
The first known rector, John de Massingham, instituted in 1310, was licensed to be absent for study from 1311 to 1313 and in 1314 to serve the prior of St. John of Jerusalem for a year. (fn. 112) John de Sutton, instituted in 1346, was licensed to follow the king's service for a year, but Walter de Chadelshounte, presented in 1349, was warned by the bishop in 1351 to take up residence. (fn. 113) William Dickes, rector 1589– 1635, was accused in 1603 of setting up too many seats in the chancel. (fn. 114) John Selleck, rector 1643–5 and again from the 1660s until 1690, was ejected for loyalty to the king and was later involved in helping Charles II to escape. After the Restoration he became a canon of Wells and rector of Clifton Campville (Staffs.) and was responsible for ransoming English subjects held at Algiers in 1662. (fn. 115) Both Alexander Morley, 1712–31, and his son John, 1746–86, lived in the parish, (fn. 116) and Samuel Willis, 1786–1818, was also resident, but by 1815 took only weekday services because of 'infirmities of age'. Services on Sundays, Good Friday, and Christmas Day were taken by the rector of Sampford Brett. (fn. 117) Thomas Roe, rector 1818–35, was also rector of Brendon and was assisted in the parish by curates (fn. 118) including William Chilcott who also served as curate at Monksilver where he was later rector. In 1827 the curate lived in the rectory house and took services on Sundays. (fn. 119) Roe's successor from 1835 was resident and held two services with sermons and administered communion four times a year. (fn. 120) In 1851 30 people usually attended morning service and 60 the afternoon service. The 15 Sundayschool children attended both services. (fn. 121) Under Matthew Pierpoint, rector 1868–90, celebrations of communion were increased to once a month. (fn. 122) In 1951 monthly services were held at Willett. (fn. 123)
A fraternity of St. Martin was mentioned in 1531 and 1536, and there were lights of St. Martin, St. Mary, St. Anthony, and All Souls. (fn. 126) A tenement, garden, and 1 a. of arable were given for a light in the church. (fn. 127)
The church of ST. MARTIN was so dedicated by 1531. (fn. 128) It stands on a steeply sloping site overlooking the village and has a chancel, nave with south organ chamber and vestry, and north porch, and battlemented west tower with external stair to the ringing chamber. The nave, which retains a lancet at the west end of the north wall, and the tower date from the 13th century, and the porch and the nave roof from the late 15th century. The chancel was rebuilt in 1695, and again in 1846, when the nave was also restored and reseated. (fn. 129) The organ chamber probably dates from 1846. The alabaster font is of the mid 17th century, evidently from Watchet. The altar rail and table are late 17th-century and there is some glass from the same period in the north-west window. The screen is a 19th-century creation incorporating a frieze dated 1632 and some 17th-century tracery with the arms and crest of the Lacey family.
There is a cup of 1573 by 'I.P.' (fn. 130) Among the four bells one is medieval, from the Exeter foundry, and another is by Roger Semson of Ash Priors (1530–70). (fn. 131) The registers date from 1685 and are complete. (fn. 132)
The lord of the manor (fn. 133) and members of the Green family were presented for recusancy at various times between 1613 and 1665. (fn. 134) The Greens had estates in the parish until 1717 or later. (fn. 135) In 1776 there was said to be one papist. (fn. 136)
There was no school in 1818 (fn. 137) but 20 children were attending school daily in 1826, and in 1831 a free Sunday school was started with the same number of children. (fn. 138) In 1839 a school was built in Elworthy village in union with the National Society and supported by voluntary subscription. (fn. 139) In 1847 16 boys and 14 girls attended the day school, and 20 boys and 16 girls the Sunday school, which was also supported by school pence. (fn. 140) In 1870 and 1872 the vestry decided to raise a voluntary school rate and repair the school. (fn. 141) The school appears to have closed between 1875 and 1883 and another was opened in a cottage at Willett for 40 children. (fn. 142) In 1892 a National school opened in the old school house in Elworthy village for 30 children; 42 children were enrolled. Numbers fell sharply during the next three decades and by 1933 there were only 12 children attending the school. In 1937 it was closed and the children went to Monksilver and Williton. (fn. 143) Until 1951 the building was used for church purposes, and later the site was conveyed for a village hall. The hall closed c. 1965, (fn. 144) and in 1979 it was a private house.
CHARITIES FOR THE POOR.
An estate at Willett consisting of a messuage, garden plot, and 1 a. of land, perhaps the endowment of a pre-Reformation light in the church, was held by trustees in 1676. The issues were payable to the churchwardens for the church, the poor, or other charitable purpose. (fn. 145) The property was exchanged for land in Elworthy village in 1831 (fn. 146) but there is no further record of the charity.