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National Gazetteer (1868) - Somerset

"SOMERSETSHIRE, a maritime county in the W. of England, is bounded on the N. by the Bristol Channel, the estuary of the Severn, and Gloucestershire, E. by Wiltshire, S. by Dorset and Devon, and W. by Devon. It lies between 60° 49' and 61° 30' N. lat., and between 2° 14' and 3° 50' W. long. Its extreme length from E. to W. is 68 miles, and its greatest breadth from N. to S. 43 miles; but its main breadth does not exceed 22 miles. Its area is 1,636 square miles, or 1,047,220 statute acres, of which about 900,000 are cultivated. The population in 1801 was 273,577; in 1851, 443,916; and in 1861, 444,873. At the time of the Roman invasion, the eastern districts, according to Richard of Cirencester, were held by the Hedui, a Belgic tribe, and the western by the Cambri. The Romans included the county in the province of Britannia Prima, and founded the town of Bath, known by the ancients as Aquæ Solis, and also as Thermæ; many evidences of the Roman occupation remain in the neighbourhood of Bath, Yeovil, Ilchester, Glastonbury, and other places.

On the arrival of the Saxons, many important struggles with the Romanised Britons took place in this county, and it was not till 577 that Cealwin of Wessex succeeded in capturing the town of Bath. Seventy years later (658) the entire county became subject to the Saxons, who named it Sumersætas; and Cenwalch, having gained a signal victory over the Britons at Penzelwood, near Wincanton, incorporated it with Wessex. It suffered severely from the incursions of the Danes, who found a secure anchorage for their vessels in the broad estuary of the Severn; but after a long-protracted struggle, they were defeated with great slaughter at the mouth of the Parret, in 845, and again, some thirty years later, at the battle of Edington, near Westbury, when their leader, Guthrum, consented to be baptised at Alre, now Aller.

In 1016, a great battle was fought between Canute and Edmund Ironsides at Penzelwood; and in 1013 Sweyn received the submission of all the W. country at Bath. At the Norman conquest, Sir William Mohun obtained a grant of a large portion of this county with the title of Earl of Somerset, which descended to his posterity till the reign of Henry VI., when it was raised to a dukedom, but was confiscated by Edward IV. in 1472, who attainted the duke for his fidelity to the late king. After having been successively revived in favour of the third son of Henry VII., and of an illegitimate son of Henry VIII., the title was finally conferred in 1546 on Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector, whose descendants still enjoy it. In the civil war of Charles I., several engagements took place, as the fight of Aller Moor, the battle of Lansdown Hill in 1643, and the siege of Taunton. In 1685, this county was the principal scene of the ill-fated Duke of Monmouth's attempt to seize the crown, for participation in which 239 persons were afterwards executed by order of Judge Jeffreys.

Few counties in England exhibit a greater variety of soil and surface than Somerset. The north-eastern district, in which the city of Bath is situated, abounds in rocks, and is intersected by the Mendip hills, a lofty mineral tract, through which, on the N. side, the Avon makes its way sluggishly to the estuary of the Severn; while on the S., numerous rivulets steal their way into the centre of the county, and there form marshes and fens: Towards the W. and N.W., from Taunton to Bridgwater Bay, is a low range called the Quantock hills. The Mendip and Quantock hills naturally divide the county into three parts, the northern, central, and south-western. The northern generally consists of extensive levels, which are in some parts liable to inundation by the sea, and presents a variety of meadows, relieved by hills of considerable altitude, intersected by fertile and well-cultivated valleys. Over 3,000 acres on the S. border of this district are drained into the river Yeo, and are 5 feet below the level of spring tide at high-water within the embankment through which the river flows; and another tract of 4,000 acres are protected from inundation by a wall of masonry 10½ feet above the level of the land.

The Mendip hills extend from the coast in a south-easterly direction to the neighbourhood of Frome, being from 25 to 30 miles in length, and at one place, between Stoke Rodney and West Harptree, from 6 to 7 miles broad, with an altitude of 1,000 feet above the sea. The Polden hills are a long, low ridge, extending for 20 miles, and separated from the Mendips, to which they are nearly parallel, by a marshy tract, through which the Brue winds slowly, and which includes East Sedgmoor and the adjacent moors. In the central district, the Brent marshes or fens, lying N. of the Polden hills, are drained by the Brue by means of a barrier, provided with a flood-gate at Highbridge to resist the tides. It is cut into sections by ditches, which are provided in some places with sluices for damming up the water in times of drought. Upwards of 20,000 acres have thus been reclaimed, but a large extent of bog yet remains, and supplies excellent peat fuel to the inhabitants.

The south-western district comprises the Vale of Taunton, a fertile tract of diversified uplands, to the N. of which the Quantock hills rise, extending, in a north-westerly direction, to the Bristol Channel, a distance of 14 miles. They flank the fens, and have an extreme breadth of 5 to 6 miles. Their general elevation is about 1,020 to 1,060 feet; but Bagborough Station, or Will's Neck, rises to 1,270 feet. Most of the county W. of this range consists of an irregular hilly district, called Exmoor, a tract of considerable extent, which reaches into the adjoining county of Devon. It measures about 20 miles from E. to W., and about 12 from N. to S.; the higher portions contain peat swamps of considerable size, and the entire district is almost destitute of trees, except on the banks of the streams by which it is drained. Dunkerry Beacon, the highest point in the county, belongs to this tract, and is 1,668 feet above the level of the sea.

The only harbours of importance in the county are formed by the mouths of the Avon on the N.E. corner, and the Parret. The general direction of the coast is W.S.W. In the eastern portion it is for the most part low and marshy, with occasional interruptions of limestone cliffs. About 9 miles from the Avon lies Clevedon, beyond which the Yeo makes its way through fens and marshes to the sea. Farther on the character of the ground changes, and between St. Thomas's Head and Sand Point, a range of limestone cliffs line the shore for about a mile. A little south of Anchor Head is the favourite watering-place of Weston-super-Mare. Then the coast trends southwards to Brean Down, which is lofty and precipitous on every side, and almost surrounded by the sea. Government works for fortifications are here in progress. Bridgwater Bay, the principal harbour in the county, lies 7 miles farther W., and receives the waters of the Parret, the intervening shore being low and sandy. The bay is about 8 miles broad, and the land bordering on it is in many places marshy.

Towards the western extremity the mountain range of the Quantock hills extends down to the coast, and appears in the form of lias cliffs, which a little farther on rise to the height of 100 feet, and in some places even higher. A marshy district succeeds to these, and is followed by a reappearance of lofty cliffs composed of slate to the W. of Minehead, and they again line the coast from Portlock Bay to the western extremity of the county. The principal river of Somerset is the Avon, which rises in the N. of Wiltshire, shire, but has a course of 30 miles in this county. It is navigable for barges to Bath, and large ships can use it as far as Bristol. At its mouth the spring tides generally rise 40 feet, and occasionally even more. Its most important affluents are the Frome, 20 miles long, from the Mendip hills; the Midford Brook, 10 miles in length; and the Chew. The Yeo rises at Compton Martin, on the skirts of the Mendip hills, and takes a N.N.W. course of 13 miles to the Bristol Channel.

The Axe issues in a little torrent from the Wooky Cavern, near Wells, on the S. of the Mendips, and flows for 21 miles W.N.W. along the upper edge of the fen country before reaching the Channel. The Brue, rising in Selwood Forest, has a course of 36 miles along the marshes between Mendip and Polden hills, and then N.W. to the N. side of the estuary of the Parret. The Parret, which is 42 miles long, is navigable for vessels of 200 tons up to Bridgwater, 16 miles from its mouth. It rises on the borders of Dorsetshire, and through its entire course is sluggish, and in many places canal-like. Its principal tributaries are the Isle, the Yeo or Ivel, the Tone, and the Carey. The Exe rises on the southern side of the Quantock hills, near the N.W. corner of the county, and flows along the borders of Exmoor for 16 miles before entering Devonshire, where it empties itself below Exeter into the English Channel.

The Kennet and Avon canal connects the Avon at Bath with the Thames, following the course of the former river to the borders of Wiltshire, where it crosses it through the Dundas aqueduct, and passes through the counties of Dorset, Wilts, and Berks to the Kennet. The Somersetshire canal, 9½ miles long, connects the collieries in the neighbourhood of Taunton with the Kennet and Avon canal. The Glastonbury canal follows the course of the river Brue from Glastonbury to Bridgwater Bay. The Bridgwater and Taunton canal, 12½ miles long, opens into the Parret at the former town. There is also a short canal between Chard and Ilminster.

The county is well provided with railway communication, the principal line being the Bristol and Exeter, which is connected at the former town with the Great Western line, and runs past Nailsea, Highbridge, Bridgwater, Taunton, and Wellington, with branch lines to Clevedon and Weston-super-Mare on the one side, and to Yeovil, on the other; a branch is also projected to Axbridge and Wells. The Wilts, Somerset, and Weymouth railway runs into the Great Western near Chippenham, in Wiltshire, passing through Frome and Yeovil. These lines are all on the broad-gauge system, and communicate with the N. of England by means of the Bristol and Birmingham line. The central Somerset railway, which is narrow gauge, runs from Burnham to Glastonbury and Wells, joining at Glastonbury a line which passes Wincanton to Templecombe, and across Dorsetshire to the east of England, and at Wells a line running by Shepton Mallet to Witham on the Weymouth line. The roads are numerous, well laid off, and generally kept in good order.

In the north-eastern part of the county the prevailing strata belong to the oolite formation, and contain many quarries of the famous Bath stone. Most of the eminences in the neighbourhood of Bath belong to this system. The inferior oolite, being the highest of the formations of the district, except those of the diluvium and alluvium, extends over the Bristol coal basins. Broadfield and Leigh Downs, near Bristol, consist of carboniferous limestone, which, crossing the valley of the Avon, again appears in the precipitous rocks of Clifton. Millstone grit, the lowest of the coal measures, forms the S.E. escarpment of Leigh Down. In Broadfield Down are Cleve and Brockley, two precipitous combes or valleys, well wooded, and presenting many attractions.

Magnesian limestone is largely developed on the N.E. side of the Mendip hills, and extends from near Frome towards Keynsham. Wookey Cavern and the Cheddar Cliffs belong to this formation. The higher portions of the Mendips are of Old Red sandstone, which is in some places covered by calcareous strata; and in others lias, consisting of strata of blue slaty clay, upon which rest the marshy lands along the S. of the Mendips, are found above the New Red sandstone. In the western parts of the county, the prevailing formation is the Old Red sandstone, which extends into Devonshire. The moorland of Exmoor Forest consists of slates of the Devonian range. The Quantock hills, which lie to the N. of this district, are of coarse gritstone, also belonging to the Devonian system.

The western coalfield of England lies almost wholly in Somersetshire, and is extensively worked at Keynsham, Bedminster, Frome, and Nailsea. Thirty-five collieries are under inspection, and though the seams are comparatively thin, they will not soon be exhausted. Large quantities of calamine, lead, and other minerals were formerly raised from the Mendip hills, but they are now little sought for. There are slate quarries at Wiveliscombe, and lead is found at Wellington; fuller's earth, marl, and ochre are also met with; and limestone, freestone, and gypsum are extensively quarried.

Somerset is very poorly wooded, the entire extent of woods and woodlands scarcely exceeding 20,000 acres. The ancient forest of Selwood, near Frome, appears to have covered 20,000 acres, which are now for the most part cornfields and pasture, only about 2,000 acres of coppice remaining, chiefly oak and ash trees, and hazel and alder underwood. Exmoor Forest exists only in name, there being scarcely a tree upon it to relieve the expanse of moorland, which covers about 20,000 acres. The county presents a variety of climate, the lands along the coast being so mild that winter is scarcely felt, and the western portion generally being genial and temperate; while on the higher ground of the Polden and Mendip hills, the weather is often very wild and harsh.

The soil is in general fertile, producing luxuriant herbage, and is suitable for grazing purposes and dairy husbandry. Crops of the finest wheat are raised in the alluvial tracts and in the Vale of Taunton. Potatoes, flax, and hemp are also much grown, and woad and teasel are cultivated in some places. Hops are slightly grown. More attention is given to grazing and the rearing of cattle. The breeds most approved of are Devour, Herefords, and shorthorns. Dairies are numerous, and large quantities of Cheddar cheese are made from the pure milk without the addition or subtraction of cream. It is now principally made in the marshes around Glastonbury, the name being derived from the village of Cheddar, in the Mendip hills, where it was first produced. The stock of sheep is estimated at 500,000, generally of the Southdowns or Leicester breeds, or crosses of these with Cotswold sheep, and fed upon the hilly districts and rich pastures in the centre of the county. A good breed of Welsh pigs is much attended to; the hogs are in many places fed on whey. Geese and poultry are reared in large numbers. Estates and farms are numerous, and of all sizes. Large quantities of cider are made. Wild fowl and fish are abundant and good.

The woollen manufacture was formerly extensively carried on at Taunton; but the silk trade was introduced there in 1778, and has since occupied the principal attention. Shepton Mallet is also a seat of the silk trade. Handloom broad-cloth is made at Frome, Ilminster, and Chard; cassimeres at Frome; serges at Wellington; linen fabrics at Crewkerne and Yeovil; hair cloth at Castle Carey; there are cement mills at Bridgwater and in other parts; and stockings, gloves, shoes, crapes, blankets, paper, glass, and leather-are made at various places through the county. The commerce is almost concentrated at Bristol, there being a small business done also at Bridgwater, Watchet, Minehead, and Porlock. Somersetshire consists of 40 hundreds, in two divisions. The population of the eastern division in 1861 was 172,712, and that of the western was 159,551.

In the ecclesiastical arrangement it is nearly coextensive with the diocese of Bath and Wells in the province of Canterbury, and constitutes three archdeaconries-Bath, Wells, and Taunton. The first contains the deaneries of Bath and Chew, in the other two the bishop has jurisdiction equally with the archdeacons. The county contains 466 entire parishes, and parts of two others. The civil government is entrusted to the lordlieutenant and custos rotulorum, high-sheriff, about 65 deputy lieutenants, and 280 magistrates. It is in the western circuit. The spring assizes are held at Taunton, and the summer assizes alternately at Wells and Bridgwater. There is a county gaol at Ilminster, one also, with a house of correction, at Wilton, near Taunton, besides a house of correction at Shepton Mallet. The city of Bath has its own gaol, and there is one in the borough of Bridgwater, and a city and county lock-up house at Wells. The gaol for the city of Bristol is at Bedminster, in this county. County-courts are held at 16 places, and quarter sessions at Bath, Bridgwater, Taunton, and Wells. There are asylums for the insane at Wells and Taunton, and the Somerset hospital is at the latter place. The county is in the western military district.

Before the passing of the Reform Act, it returned 16 members to Parliament. The number is now reduced to 13, of whom two are returned for the eastern division-constituency, 11,867, in 1865, and two for the western-constituency, 8,632; two are sent from each of the following boroughs, Bath, Bridgwater, Taunton, and Wells, and one from Frome. Wells is the place of election for the E. division, and Taunton for the western. The county abounds in seats and richly-wooded demesnes, of which the principal are Farleigh, of the Duke of Somerset; Brimpton, of Earl of Westmoreland; Longleat, of the Marquis of Bath; Butleigh, of Lord Glastonbury; Wilsham, of Lord Somerville; Ashley Lodge, of Lord King; Hardington, of Lord Poltimore, besides many others belonging to baronets and private gentry. At Stanton Drew are the remains of a Druids' circle, consisting of four groups of stones, arranged to form, when complete, two circles. The Roman remains are most interesting, including camps, stations, tesselated pavements, baths, arches, and other remains, more fully noticed under the places where they occur; also ruins of the abbeys of Glastonbury and Langport, of the priories of Woodspring, near Weston-super-Mare, Stavordale, near Wincanton, a Carthusian priory, near Bath, and of Montacute Cluniac priory, near Yeovil. The Duke of Wellington took his title from the town of that name in this county, near which an obelisk, 120 feet in height, has been erected to his honour. Roger Bacon was born at Ilchester, Blake at Bridgwater, Cudworth at Aller, Fielding at Sharpam, and Locke at Wrington."

[Description(s) from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868)
Transcribed by Colin Hinson ©2003]

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