A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 6, andersfield, Cannington, and North Petherton Hundreds (Bridgwater and Neighbouring Parishes). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1992.
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The parish was probably divided for farming in 1086 into four: Plainsfield, the holding of Alfred d'Epaignes called Stowey, Aley, and the land on the Quantock Hills. Together, the first three had land for 9 ploughs, Alfred's holding comprising more than half the total. Only 9 a. of meadow were recorded, but each estate had some woodland; and the Stowey estate also had 100 a. of pasture. There were 8 villani, 13 bordars, and 9 servi. Apart from a cob at Aley, the only livestock recorded was at Stowey: 9 cattle, 7 pigs, and 90 sheep. (fn. 1) The Quantock holding of Stogursey may not have been included in the Domesday survey.
By 1275 Aley manor had 4 villein tenants owing both rent and works, 130 a. of arable worth between 2d. and 6d. an acre, 17 a. of meadow, and woodland and a park amounting together to nearly half the total area and forming the most valuable part of the estate. (fn. 2) Income from the park declined in the 15th century, expenditure often exceeding income from pigs or from the sale of wood. In the middle of the century cash was raised through the sale of mowing works and of small quantities of wood, meadow, and pasture, but most income was from rents and the farm of the demesne. (fn. 3) Works were still sold in the 1480s on Aley manor, (fn. 4) and mowing services were owed by nine tenants on Plainsfield manor c. 1510. (fn. 5)
On the Quantock ridge tenants of Wick FitzPayn manor in Stogursey and various landowners had grazing rights in pasture and wood within the honor of Stogursey by the late 13th century. (fn. 6) By 1484-5 there were small areas of arable and by 1518-19 rye and oats were being grown. (fn. 7) A century later tillage was still permitted and the tenants of Wick manor in Stogursey claimed exclusive rights to graze 30 sheep each there. Claims by tenants of Plainsfield manor to similar rights were resisted, but by 1614 nine were paying rent to use the common. (fn. 8) In the 1630s the lord of Plainsfield among others received allotments of former Stogursey common on Plainsfield Hill. (fn. 9)
Aley park was divided and let by 1604 (fn. 10) and in 1647 it was ploughed for the first time after a lime dressing. (fn. 11) Grazing was increased at the expense of the woodland on the rectory estate and at Friarn and in 1688 it was proposed to convert former woodland at Friarn into water meadows. (fn. 12) Grain was prominent in some 17thcentury inventories, (fn. 13) but the yeoman who perhaps occupied Aley farm in 1696 had only 50 a. of wheat, barley, dredge, peas, and hay. (fn. 14) A poor husbandman had rented a small piece of hill ground for corn by 1684; more prosperous farmers had small flocks of sheep. (fn. 15) Farming was evidently small-scale: only one house in the later 17th-century inventories had more than four rooms. (fn. 16)
The inclosure of Stogursey commons on the Quantocks in the later 17th century created a new farm of 560 a., later known as Quantock farm, half of which was woodland. The remainder of the commons, some 440 a., was divided and let. (fn. 17) In the early 18th century rack renting began on Aley manor, but the leasing and sub-leasing of small holdings continued. (fn. 18) There is some evidence of farming improvement, such as the growing of clover on Aley farm in 1706, (fn. 19) and a lease of land at Adscombe, for which the rent was to be paid partly in cider and reed, required dunging with 160 seams per acre after four crops. (fn. 20) Nearly half of Quantock farm was heath in 1784, but its arable land was said to be good for corn. (fn. 21) Flax was grown at Bincombe in the 1780s. (fn. 22) In 1800 the vicar commented on the lack of horses in the parish and the continuing use of oxen, and also noted the primitive method employed to sow wheat, the children dropping seed into holes made by men and women with iron-tipped sticks. (fn. 23)
Henry Labouchere in the 1830s bought c. 2,796 a. in the parish, of which 1,625 a. were to form the pleasure grounds of Quantock Lodge. Of the 640 a. outside the Quantock estate, over half was common land belonging to Nether Stowey manor. There were in 1838 only four small freeholds. Plainsfield Court Farm was the largest farm, 234 a., and Aley farm had 206 a., three had 100-200 a., seven had 50-100 a., and four 20-50 a. By that date arable accounted for 819 a., meadow and pasture for 1,099 a. (fn. 24) In 1851 ten farmers employed 54 labourers, and the Quantock estate provided employment and housing for gamekeepers, building workers, and woodmen. (fn. 25) Arable had shrunk by 1905 (fn. 26) but in 1982 the size and number of holdings was almost the same as in 1838. Most land was under grass, primarily for dairying, and the principal arable crop was wheat, followed by turnips and swedes for human consumption. (fn. 27)
Mills. There was a mill on Alfred d'Epaignes' estate of Stowey in 1086. (fn. 28) Its successor may have been that owned by Bridgwater hospital in 1539 (fn. 29) and known as Chapel mill, which descended with Friarn manor until 1655. (fn. 30) No further trace of it has been found. There was probably a mill at Plainsfield in 1508 (fn. 31) and 1655; (fn. 32) one belonged to Plainsfield manor in 1833. (fn. 33) In 1838 it was owned by Robert Hill but had probably ceased milling by 1841. (fn. 34) The surviving leat behind the cottage indicates an overshot mill. Mill Cottage dates from the 17th or 18th century. Aley mill, recorded in 1604 on Aley manor, (fn. 35) was later known, after successive tenants, as Tratt's or Kebby mill, (fn. 36) and by 1838 as Marsh mills. (fn. 37) It was probably demolished when the new road from Plainsfield was built before 1842, and business was transferred to the former silk mill, a short distance northwest. (fn. 38) It was sold as a working mill in 1919, but it was probably not worked later. (fn. 39) A grist mill at Adscombe had been converted from a fulling mill by 1649. (fn. 40) The Perrett family, who operated it, employed an assistant who competed for custom with rival millers. (fn. 41) After 1793 it was sold to Richard Nation, (fn. 42) and from 1805 it was occupied by Thomas Hurley who was succeeded by his son Samuel, the owner in 1838. (fn. 43) Milling appears to have ceased by 1851. (fn. 44) The mill had no pond but was said in 1767 never to want for water. (fn. 45)
A fulling mill and land called Rackhays at Adscombe were conveyed in 1451 by the lord of Plainsfield to John Verney of Fairfield. (fn. 46) The mill, held by Hugh Lawrence in 1547, (fn. 47) had become a grist mill by 1649. (fn. 48) Another fulling mill, in operation at Plainsfield c. 1510, (fn. 49) was still in use c. 1614. A third fulling mill stood at the junction of Ramscombe and Quantock Combe c. 1614, when it was occupied by Richard Lawrence or Dyer; (fn. 50) a fourth seems to have been established at Chapel mill in the 1640s in association with a dyehouse; (fn. 51) and a fifth, called French's, stood at Cockercombe, but had been converted to a dwelling by 1696. (fn. 52) Marsh mills, established between 1648 and 1676, (fn. 53) was evidently occupied by a clothier in 1681 and included a fulling mill. (fn. 54) Fields near the mill were known as Rack close and Rackbridge meadows. The Poole family, occupiers until the early 19th century, were later tanners. (fn. 55)
Between 1812 and 1816 new buildings and a large leat called a 'new canal' were constructed at Marsh mills for a silk mill, probably established by Thomas Ward, a Nether Stowey tanner. (fn. 56) The mill was said to have provided employment for hundreds of women and girls, but in 1839 only a few workers remained. (fn. 57)
Land called the Blademill, part of Aley park, was recorded in 1685. (fn. 58)
Trade and industry. Sales of wood contributed to the income of Aley manor and the Stogursey estate in the 15th century; (fn. 59) in the later 17th there was some conversion of woodland to arable on Friarn farm. Part of Friarn wood was coppiced at 12 years' growth and the product sold to charcoal burners at £4 an acre, while there were also 300 standards. (fn. 60) In 1605 wood worth over £80 was sold on the Quantock land of Wick manor, some for charcoal burning. (fn. 61) The woodland on Quantock farm by 1784 was suitable for oak coppice and for producing bark, charcoal, poles, and faggots. (fn. 62) The bark went to local tanneries, one established in Bin Combe by 1716, whose owner left on his death 111 calfskins, horse hides, and clout leather worth over £66 and equipment worth £39. (fn. 63) In 1838 a tanyard at Marsh Mills was worked by the Poole family. (fn. 64) Among the charcoal burners were at least two generations of the Walford family. (fn. 65) Broom making was of some local significance. In 1851 17 men from 9 households, mostly members of the Palmer family living at Bincombe and Friarn, earned a precarious living as broomers or broom squires. (fn. 66) Demand for their products was said in 1868 to be falling, but broomers remained in the parish until the 1880s. (fn. 67)
Cloth was fulled at Adscombe from the 15th century, and in the 16th there were a dyehouse and racks at Pepperhill. (fn. 68) The Lawrence or Dyer family was engaged in the clothing trade in the later 16th and the 17th century, and the Blakes of Plainsfield in the early 17th. (fn. 69) A clothier was accused in 1631 of stretching his cloth and of using inferior materials. (fn. 70) Several clothiers, weavers, and fullers were active in the later 17th century. (fn. 71) Matthew Poole of Marsh Mills was probably one of the wealthier men in the parish with goods worth over £300, including cloth, wool, and flock worth over £90. The presence of yarn, cards, and other equipment indicates that others probably carded wool and may have been engaged in spinning and weaving. There were 2 racks, 4 pairs of shears, and a smoothing box on the premises. (fn. 72) A weaver's inventory of 1683, with a pair of looms and husbandry tools, suggests that weaving was a part-time occupation. (fn. 73) A weaver was recorded in 1704 (fn. 74) but the cloth trade had probably declined by then. In 1807 an old woman from Aley spun for a Taunton clothier. (fn. 75)
A pottery was established in the 13th century in a field adjoining Nether Stowey parish but locally in Over Stowey. (fn. 76) A potter living in the parish in 1591 and probably originating in Flanders (fn. 77) may have been responsible for introducing a particular continental style into south-west England. Bricks were made at Bincombe in 1780, (fn. 78) and it was perhaps there that what were called Stowey bricks in 1688 were made. (fn. 79)
In the early 19th century the parish was poor and overcrowded. (fn. 80) In 1821 there were only 71 houses for 132 families after the population had increased by over a quarter in ten years. (fn. 81) During the 1830s one pauper family numbering about 40 people had built seven dwellings, little more than huts, on the roadside. (fn. 82) In 1838 there were nearly 60 landless cottages of which 37 were on the waste and often divided into as many as five dwellings. (fn. 83) Even the new cottages on the Quantock estate were cramped, with only one downstairs room and attic bedrooms with sloping ceilings. (fn. 84) Most of the 21 indoor servants at Quantock Lodge in 1881 were recruited outside the parish leaving locals to find subsistence employment. (fn. 85) Among traditional village craftsmen in the later 19th century was a blacksmith. (fn. 86)