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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In this section
- LOCAL GOVERNMENT.
Borough. By the mid 13th century the lords of Bridgwater held a court with view of frankpledge and received perquisites both from the borough and from Haygrove; in 1256-7 the income was 32s. 11d. from the borough and 13s. 2d. from Haygrove. (fn. 1) In 1280 the owners of two thirds of the lordship claimed gallows, tumbrel, pillory, waifs and strays, wrecks of the sea, the assize of bread and of ale, vee de naam, return of writs within the county, and a gaol. (fn. 2) By the later 14th century the borough court met 12 or 14 times each year. Views of frankpledge were held at Hockday and Michaelmas and officers were chosen at Michaelmas. The court appointed 2 reeves, 2 bailiffs, 2 aletasters, 2 breadweighers, a janitor for each of the 4 town gates, and keepers or wardens of 12 streets or other areas into which the town was divided. (fn. 3) The court regulated the market and controlled nuisances and offences within the borough, including its meadows and fields at Crowpill and near the castle. The court was being held in 1413 (fn. 4) and probably continued until subsumed in the borough court of 1468. (fn. 5)
A piepowder court was recorded in 1378 (fn. 6) and continued into the 18th century. During St. Matthew's fair seven men were accused in 1735 of failing to pay toll, and receipts from hawkers of nuts, wigs, and lottery tickets were noted in 1736. (fn. 7) The town clerk was steward of the court. (fn. 8)
In 1378 the borough court roll records income from a court called Durneday. The name appears to relate to sealing the doors of burgages whose rent was in arrears. The court was mentioned 1378-88, 1416, (fn. 9) 1474-7, and 1495-6. (fn. 10) In the later 14th century the court met in January or February each year. The name Durneday rent given to burgage rent in the 1470s and a reference in 1495-6 to cash paid for release of suit to 'the lord of Durnaday' were apparently both archaisms.
In the third quarter of the 13th century (fn. 11) the burgesses and community agreed a series of ordinances and sealed it with their common seal. The ordinances established a guild, presided over by two stewards elected annually and assisted by a bailiff. They established fines for members convicted of certain offences, and defined trading times for the sale of meat and fresh fish. They also made members of the guild serving as steward of the altars of the Virgin and the Rood or as steward of the bridge accountable to the guild stewards. The guild stewards themselves were accountable to the community. (fn. 12) They were to dispense justice, regulate the market, and administer communal property. Offences within their jurisdiction were minor: debt, actions outside the borough against burgesses, and false accusation; and fines levied were to be paid to the community. (fn. 13) Probably the ordinances concerned only the burgesses and the guild merchant of the town. In 1373-5 the community's receiver accounted for amercements made in the community's court; (fn. 14) by the 1440s the common stewards were holding regular sessions to deal with cases of debt and the grant of freedom, and they presided over arbitrations sworn before them in the common hall of the borough and sealed with the common seal. (fn. 15)
Specific references to the guild merchant are rare. In 1373-5 the stewards of the guild authorized work on the church; in 1386 a guild meeting levied fines on absent members, and in 1392 the guild stewards leased a tenement associated with the bridge. (fn. 16) In 1394 the guild paid fines and spent money on entertainment. (fn. 17) In 1416 the Crown described the guild merchant as the Holy Trinity guild, perhaps because by then its concerns were limited to the administration of the Trinity chantry. (fn. 18) In 1441-2, however, the clerk of the common stewards of the guild of Bridgwater was mentioned. (fn. 19)
In 1256-7 there were two borough reeves and two serjeants. (fn. 20) In 1299 the burgesses used the seal of the town reeves on a charter permitting building over the west gate. (fn. 21) In 1322 there were two bedels, later called bailiffs, who replaced the serjeants. (fn. 22) By 1373, and no doubt long before, the town had its own receiver, whose income in 1373-5 derived principally from a rate levied throughout the town and from goods given to the chantry of the Rood, together with fines from the town's own court, and charges at the bridge and for the use of the town's measures in the port. (fn. 23) In 1394 income was largely from entry fines, customs, and a collection to meet the M.P.s' expenses; a regular charge was the stipend of the permanent clerk of the community. (fn. 24) In the 1390s the receiver became known as the bailiff of the community; (fn. 25) he accounted to two stewards, known in the 1420s as the common stewards, and once in 1441-2 as the common stewards of the guild of Bridgwater. In 1460-1 John Pole was described as clerk of the stewards and of the community. (fn. 26) By 1428-9 the community's income was principally from port charges, with much smaller sums from rents, fines of the watch, and fines imposed by the stewards in the borough court. (fn. 27)
The lords of the town maintained a common oven within the borough, (fn. 28) together with a hall of pleas and a gaol. The hall was repaired in 1347-8 and again in 1389-90, but by 1394-5 it seems to have been let, and may have been replaced by the adjoining guild hall, which by 1389-90 was being used for inquests before the steward of the estate by order of either of the lords of the town. (fn. 29) The lords of the borough in 1386-7 shared the cost of rebuilding the pillory and thews, both used for offenders sentenced in the borough court in the 1370s. (fn. 30)
The borough court and the community or burgesses's court were probably both subsumed in the court established when the borough was incorporated by the charter of 1468. The new borough court, under the mayor and bailiffs, was to be held each Monday to deal with all offences, and the corporation was to have return of writs, assize of bread and of ale, and of weights and measures. (fn. 31)
The mayor and bailiffs were to be chosen each year on the Monday after 8 September and were to appoint a recorder or steward. The charter, confirmed in 1488, 1495, and 1512, assured to the corporation a guild merchant, market and fair, and the right to collect tolls on the bridge. (fn. 32) The 'brethren of the council' in 1558 comprised the mayor, two bailiffs, the customer and the searcher of the port, seventeen other men, and three women, probably the widows of recently deceased burgesses. (fn. 33) Other borough offices emerged as the corporation's business increased. By 1494-5 the mayor appointed water bailiffs (fn. 34) who levied port charges, received some rents, and, as administrators of the borough's largest source of income in the earlier 16th century, paid fees and the cost of entertainment and repairs to property. (fn. 35) By 1556, after the corporation had bought the former chantry property in 1554, a general receiver was appointed to administer the borough's lands, both within the borough and outside, and to account for the water bailiffs' receipts. (fn. 36) In 1556 also there was a steward. (fn. 37) Two serjeants at mace were recorded by 1535. (fn. 38)
In 1587 a new charter defined the corporation as the mayor, two aldermen, and 18 burgesses. The mayor was to be chosen each year from the capital burgesses on the Monday next before Michaelmas; the aldermen, serving for life unless removed for bad government, were to be chosen by majority vote from the capital burgesses; the capital burgesses were to be chosen for life from the 'best and wisest' of the burgesses of the town by the mayor, recorder, and aldermen, or by a majority, including the mayor and aldermen, of the existing corporation. Two bailiffs were to be appointed each year from the capital burgesses and the corporation was to choose a recorder, a common clerk, a receiver, and as many constables and other officers as it had before the charter was granted. The charter was confirmed in 1614, and again in 1628 when the jurisdiction of the corporation was extended to include the whole parish and the number of capital burgesses was increased from 18 to 24, to be chosen by the mayor and aldermen. (fn. 39)
The charter of 1587 made the borough court a court of record under the mayor, recorder, and the two aldermen; the jurisdiction was defined as the borough, the area under the castle walls known as Castle Ditch, and 'franchises' beyond the east gate formerly belonging to St. John's hospital. (fn. 40) The court, in practice often held before the mayor and a deputy recorder who was usually one of the aldermen, heard pleas of debt, trespass, theft, and other cases under 40s. Its permanent officer was the clerk or protonotary, usually the town clerk, supported by two bailiffs, two or three serjeants at mace, and a crier who was also the gaoler. After 1835 the recorder presided, and the town council appointed a registrar and other minor officials. By then only a few cases of debt were heard. There were no suits in 1838 or 1839 although the court cost the town council £52. In 1847 the court's jurisdiction passed to the county court. (fn. 41) Notes, extracts, and records of the court survive from 1693. (fn. 42)
The charter of 1468 appointed the mayor and recorder for the time being justices of the peace within the borough, and that of 1587 added the two aldermen. (fn. 43) Records of the court survive from 1749. Petty sessions were held weekly; the grand jury was appointed quarterly for all but capital cases. (fn. 44) The borough sessions were abolished under the Courts Act of 1971 and the borough commission of the peace ceased to have effect in 1974. (fn. 45)
In 1683, under pressure from Sir John Stawell and Peter Mews, bishop of Bath and Wells, who wished to secure a Tory majority, and, it was later claimed, 'by surprise and in a surreptitious and clandestine manner', the charter of 1628 was surrendered. (fn. 46) A new charter gave the king in council power to remove members of the corporation, (fn. 47) made the mayor notary public and coroner, and limited the parliamentary franchise to the common council. (fn. 48) It removed the recorder Sir John Malet, an alderman, and ten other burgesses. (fn. 49) The resulting Tory majority secured M.P.s acceptable to the Crown in 1685, but the town's failure to support the Declaration of Indulgence of 1687 is thought to have resulted in the removal of seven burgesses named in the 1683 charter. Those removed included William Masey [? Massey], mayor under the charter of 1683, (fn. 50) who was said to have 'carried himself with that insolency and tyranny to all sorts of people, that the inhabitants, whether churchmen, Presbyterian, or other joined together to ring out the bells for joy at his departure into Ireland where he was preferred and where it is thought he was poisoned'. (fn. 51) In November 1688 the corporation unsuccessfully petitioned for the restoration of their old charter. (fn. 52)
In the early 18th century the corporation appointed annually 17 constables, each in charge of an area which had not changed since the Middle Ages, 2 bread weighers, 2 surveyors of the market, 2 shambles wardens, 2 sealers and provers of leather, 3 inquisitors of hides and skins, 3 salt weighers, 1 packer of herrings, and 2 aletasters. (fn. 53) By the 1780s five men were holding all the port and market offices between them, in 1805 four men, and in 1811 three. The street constables were effectively replaced in 1829 by four elected constables and watchmen for the whole borough and parish and by four watchmen at the quays. (fn. 54)
The charter of 1683 remained the governing instrument of the town until 1835. The corporation was then in debt through the failure of the treasurer in private business; opposition was growing because its members did not 'fairly represent' the opinions of the inhabitants and because the mayor and others interfered at parliamentary elections. Members had administered public property fairly, according to government commissioners, and were repaying the debt left by the former treasurer, but expenditure at £945 exceeded income at £936. Income was principally from tithes (£316), turnpikes (£195), market and fair tolls (£145), and rents (£132); the main items of expenditure were £325 from the tithe account, including clergy stipends, and £238 on highway repairs. The commissioners discovered small irregularities in the administration of the Court of Record, found the watch inadequate, and street lighting poor. (fn. 55)
In 1835 the borough was divided into two wards, north and south, and the corporation thereafter comprised a mayor, 6 aldermen, and 18 councillors, elected by the ratepayers. Borough officers included treasurer, recorder, town clerk, clerk of the peace, and coroner. (fn. 56) A committee of the corporation took effective control of the Parrett navigation in 1845, and the corporation took over the market and paving, watching and lighting the streets from the market trustees under an Act of 1857. (fn. 57) Committees were responsible for health from 1867, water supply from 1876, and free libraries from 1877. (fn. 58) By the 1890s there were separate committees for allotments and town improvements, (fn. 59) from 1904 a borough education authority, (fn. 60) and later special committees for specific business such as borough extension, a proposed airport, and wartime emergencies. (fn. 61) Sedgemoor district council assumed the functions of the corporation in 1974 but councillors representing the area of the former borough constitute a body of charter trustees who elect a town mayor each year. (fn. 62)
Arms, seals, insignia, and plate.
In 1952 the borough received a formal grant of arms, taken from the borough seal in use since the later 18th century showing a castle of three stages flanked by turrets capped by domes, above a wooden bridge of five arches. The crest is an ancient ship in full sail bearing the arms of Robert Blake, the supporters are lions holding shields with the arms of Brewer and Trivet, and the motto is 'Opes consilium parit' (Wisdom begets wealth). (fn. 63) In the 13th century and until 1393 or later the burgesses used a seal depicting a castle of three stages with a large central door, standing on a stone bridge of four round arches with water beneath. The round seal, 2 in. in diameter, bore the legend, Lombardic, si[gillum] commune [de] [bri]gwalter. (fn. 64) By 1464 the depiction of the castle, on a seal of the same size and shape, was slightly altered and that of the bridge had been replaced by one of a wooden structure of six arches; it bore the legend, Black Letter, sig[i]llum c[ommune] [v]ille de bri[gwa]lter. (fn. 65) A further change had taken place by 1478 and probably accompanied the new charter of 1468, when, on a round seal 1½ in. in diameter, the castle was flanked by two columns and the castle door was replaced by a raised portcullis above a leopard's face. It was described as the seal of the office of the mayor of the town and bore the legend, Black Letter, sigillum maior . . . [bri]gewat[er]. (fn. 66) The seal in use by the mid 18th century included the three-staged castle, but its flanking columns had become turrets with domed tops placed on the lowest stage of the castle, which itself formed a stone bridge of three arches. (fn. 67) In a later version of the device, current in 1797, the turrets were placed beside the three-staged castle above a wooden bridge of five arches, with a star placed above one turret and a fleur de lis above the other. (fn. 68) The seal made in 1835, 1¼ in. in diameter, incorporating the 18th-century device, bears the legend, Roman, sigillum majoris balliveorum etburgencium ville de brigewater. (fn. 69)
A seal in use by the burgesses on behalf of St. Mary's chantry in the 13th century and 1369 was vesica-shaped, 1½ in. by 2¼ in., and bore the figures of the Virgin and Child with the inscription, Lombardic, sigillum beate marie virginis. (fn. 70) A third seal, used by the burgesses in 1299, was that of the reeves of the town. Round, 2 in. in diameter, it depicted two sailors hauling ropes on a one-masted vessel and bore the legend, Lombardic, sigillum prepositorum de br[ige]water. (fn. 71) It was used by the reeves in the early 15th century (fn. 72) and by the water bailiffs in the early 17th century. (fn. 73)
The burgesses owned a silver mace in 1444-5. (fn. 74) Of three maces in 1991, the largest is of silver gilt made by Thomas Maunday of London c. 1653 and two are of silver, bought in 1654. (fn. 75) All three bore a Commonwealth crown and the cross of St. George, but in 1660 the crown was replaced by a royal crown and the largest mace was inscribed for Charles II. The town also possesses a silver salt, the gift in 1638 of Sir Thomas Wroth, the recorder, and a pair of loving cups, the gift of Margaret Jones, widow, and hallmarked for 1640-1. (fn. 76)
Market house trustees.
In 1778 a general meeting of inhabitants agreed to build a market house, to improve St. Mary Street and the approach to Cornhill, and to pave and light footpaths. The corporation offered a sum of £500 and a toll on some market goods; paving and lighting were to be financed either by an extra Sunday toll on turnpikes or by a rate. In 1779 an Act empowered named trustees, together with investors of £20 or more, the mayor, the recorder or his deputy, the aldermen, and the corporation's receiver and bailiff to buy buildings for demolition, to build a market house, to regulate markets, and to pave, cleanse, light, and watch the streets. (fn. 77) A market house had been built by 1791 but no other improvements seem to have been made. (fn. 78) In 1825 the corporation ordered the trustees to demolish part of the house for road widening. (fn. 79) In 1826 the trustees obtained an Act to enlarge the building and to widen and improve the streets, with power to curb nuisances, improve drains, water streets, and contract for gas lighting. (fn. 80) In 1857 an Act placed all the markets under the corporation as a single body of trustees. (fn. 81)
The lords of Bridgwater claimed the same franchises in the foreign or manor as in the borough. (fn. 82) For Bridgwater or Haygrove manor five courts were held during the year 1347-8, two between January and Michaelmas 1382, two, called halimotes, in 1389-90, three halimotes in 1394-5, and one in 1413. (fn. 83) Court rolls survive for 1371-2, (fn. 84) 1400, (fn. 85) and 1407-8. (fn. 86) By 1400 courts were held four or five times a year; an aletaster and a hayward were appointed each summer, and much of the business concerned drainage in the fields around the town and Castle Ditch. (fn. 87) The court, described as that of Bridgwater Castle manor, was meeting twice a year by 1539 and its concerns included its customary tenants in Durleigh and Dunwear as well as in Haygrove. A will was proved in the manor court in 1553. (fn. 88) Court rolls survive for 1538-9 (or 1539-40) (fn. 89) and for one session in 1541. (fn. 90)
Records of what had been the Zouches' manor of Bridgwater or Haygrove comprise a copy of court roll for 1662 (fn. 91) and court books for 1683- 5, (fn. 92) 1709-36, (fn. 93) and 1782-1839. (fn. 94) Courts leet and baron and view of frankpledge were normally held each autumn in the later 17th and the 18th century, and the court appointed a hayward and a tithingman. The court was concerned with agriculture, repairs to buildings, and maintenance of roads. The manor possessed a bakehouse in the town, and the manorial pound was to be repaired in 1814, 1816, and 1817.
Court papers for West Bower manor survive for 1610 and several years 1710-85. The court met principally for tenurial business, but it appointed a hayward in 1772 and made orders several times for rebuilding the pound at Hamp Green and for defending the green against encroachments. In 1727 a juryman was fined for leaving a session and abusing his fellow jurymen. (fn. 95)
About 1270 Henry of Erleigh released Athelney abbey from suit to the hundred and manor courts of North Petherton, but required the tithingman of Hamp to attend the hundred twice a year. The abbey was to continue holding its own courts at Hamp. (fn. 96) After the Dissolution, Bristol corporation held views of frankpledge and manor courts each year until the mid 17th century. Court books record regular sessions 1549-1650, mostly in summer or autumn until the 1630s, and then less frequently. The corporation's surveyors, sometimes with the city chamberlain, presided over what was described as a view of frankpledge with manor court. In the mid 16th century the court was often called that of Hamp and Adscombe, apparently because the income from it included a payment from Adscombe in Over Stowey. A tithingman and a hayward were usually chosen in the court; tenants served as tithingman in rotation. Most of the business of the court concerned drainage, building maintenance, and the control of strays, and a committee to survey rhynes was sometimes appointed. In 1583 the court fined two men for not wearing caps on Sundays as required by the statute, and admitted a guardian to lands on condition that he maintained his ward at school and sent money each year to the city chamberlain as a trust fund for the boy. In 1584 the court seized a silver-gilt pestle belonging to a felon for delivery to the city chamberlain. In 1587 the court ordered the stocks and butts to be repaired, and in 1585 a tenant was accused of playing bowls and other games during service time. In 1609 customary tenants were reminded that they were not to sue each other for debt or trespass out of the manor court for a sum less than 40s. without leave; the lords were reminded that it had been the custom to entertain the jury to dinner. The butts were again reported as in decay in 1639, and the pound in 1646; in 1647 order was given to set up a cucking stool and stocks. (fn. 97)
No court roll of St. John's hospital has survived. An extract of a court with view of frankpledge of the former hospital's manor in 1567 records a grant in reversion by the chief steward. (fn. 98)
After the corporation acquired the rectory in fee from the Crown in 1706 (fn. 99) the estate became known as the manor of Bridgwater and in 1732 the town clerk was appointed its steward, to preside over a view of frankpledge and court baron. (fn. 100)
Although the charter of 1628 extended the jurisdiction of the borough to the whole parish, parochial and borough government remained distinct. In the earlier 18th century the parish met annually to elect 4 churchwardens, 4 overseers, and 4 highway surveyors. Two of each operated within the town, one in Dunwear and Bower and the east, and one in Hamp and the west. (fn. 101) By 1827 the parish meeting was known as the vestry, and in the early 1830s it was open, a select vestry having been tried and abandoned. (fn. 102) In the late 1820s it met monthly, but by the earlier 1830s only 'when expressly assembled'. Each year it chose three of the four churchwardens, the fourth being nominated by the vicar. In 1844 it was discovered that wardens had not submitted accounts for many years. The overseers employed the governor of the workhouse as their assistant. A salaried poor-rate collector appointed in 1839 was known as assistant overseer from 1847. From 1842 the vestry appointed a salaried road surveyor. (fn. 103)
In 1693-5 the south gate almshouse was rebuilt and part may have been used thereafter as a workhouse. (fn. 104) The whole building was a parish poorhouse in 1820, (fn. 105) and in 1834 was well regulated, in 1831 holding an average of 86 people. (fn. 106) In 1836 the house was investigated by a House of Lords committee because of the high mortality rate there. (fn. 107) In 1837 it was replaced by the union workhouse in Chilton Road, which in 1948 became a hospital. (fn. 108)
In 1694 the corporation permitted Richard Lowbridge of Stourbridge (Worcs.) to take water from the Durleigh brook by means of an 'engine or waterwork' and to convey it to a cistern to be built over the high cross. George Balch, whose family had the lease of part of the brook, called Friars, from which the water was taken, acquired the system from Lowbridge in 1709. (fn. 109) The water was conveyed in hollow elm pipes. (fn. 110) From 1879 a public supply was brought from Ashford in Spaxton via the reservoir on Wembdon Hill. Reservoirs were built at Durleigh in 1938 and at Hawkridge in Aisholt in 1962. (fn. 111) Gas was produced in the town from 1834 (fn. 112) and electricity from 1904. (fn. 113)
The borough police force was established in 1835; its headquarters were in Fore Street until 1875 when they moved to High Street. A new police station was opened in Northgate in 1911, near the site of the present station, opened in 1966. (fn. 114)
George Bubb Dodington gave the town a fire engine in 1725 which was at first kept in the parish church and was maintained by the parish. (fn. 115) The parish kept the engine beside the poorhouse near the south gate in the 1830s. (fn. 116) In the 1880s the engine was kept at the rear of the town hall, where a new station was opened in 1906. (fn. 117) In 1964 the new station was opened for the county fire service in Salmon Parade. (fn. 118)
In 1813 an infirmary, known in 1990 as Bridgwater General hospital, was opened in Clare Street. It was removed in 1820 to Salmon Lane, later Salmon Parade, and was extended in 1876, 1894-5, and 1934. (fn. 119) In 1840 there was an eye infirmary in Victoria Street and in 1872 an infectious diseases hospital was opened. (fn. 120) The former union workhouse was transferred in 1948 to the National Health Service and became a hospital known in 1990 as Blake hospital. (fn. 121) Between 1920 and 1988 there was a maternity unit in Castle Street. (fn. 122)