National Gazetteer (1868) - Taunton


The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland - 1868

"TAUNTON, comprises the parishes of St. James and St. Mary Magdalene, and is a market and assize town and parliamentary borough in the hundred of the same name, county Somerset, of which it is the county town, 51 miles S.W. of Bath, and 30 N.E. of Exeter. It is a station on the Bristol and Exeter section of the Great Western railway. The town, which is of great antiquity, is situated in a vale called Taunton Dean, on the southern bank of the small river Tone, here crossed by a stone bridge of three arches, and which is now only partially navigable, the locks having been neglected by the conservators since the construction of the Bridgwater canal, which affords readier water communication, and has also a branch to Chard. Numerous early remains are found in the vicinity, including an ancient bridge of one arch, somewhat pointed, called the Ram's Horn, and another bridge on the line of the Roman way to Bridgwater.

In the 7th century it was occupied by the West Saxons, and in 680 was fortified by Ini of Wessex, who built a castle here, in which the Witenagemote, or Great Council, framed the code of laws known as those of King Ini. This castle was, about 722, razed to the ground by Ethelburga, his queen, after having expelled Eadbricht, king of the South Saxons, who had seized it. Subsequently the manor and town were granted to the see of Winchester. It was a mint town, and some of the coins of the reign of William the Conqueror, struck here, are still in existence. In this reign the Bishop of Winchester rebuilt the castle, and fitted it for an episcopal residence. In the reign of Henry I. it was again rebuilt by Bishop William Giffard, and enlarged in 1496 by Bishop Thomas Langton, who added the gateway fronting the Castle-green, which is still standing, and bears the escutcheon of the bishop, with the date 1496. In 1497 the town and castle were seized by Perkin Warbeck, but were abandoned on the approach of the royal troops. In 1642, it was occupied for the parliament; in 1643, by the royalists; and in 1645 by Colonel, afterwards Admiral, Blake, who sustained in it a siege of several months against 10,000 royalist troops, under Lord Goring, till relieved by Sir Thomas Fairfax.

At the Restoration, the inhabitants, having incurred the displeasure of Charles II. for their zeal in the cause of the commonwealth, were deprived of their charter, first granted in 1627, but which was shortly after restored, and finally forfeited in 1792, through the neglect of the corporate body in filling up vacancies. In 1685 the town was occupied by the Duke of Monmouth, who proclaimed himself king. Although now entirely dismantled, the castle still forms an interesting object, with a circular tower at the S.W. angle, and a hall, 119½ feet by 30½, built by Bishop Horne in 1577, in which, until very recently, the assizes were held, and where Judge Jeffreys held his "bloody assize," after Monmouth's capture. The moat was filled up in 1785, and the drawbridge removed. Among the constables of this once important fortress occurs the name of Thomas Chaucer, eldest son of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

The civil government is now under the jurisdiction of the county magistrates, who hold petty sessions twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday, at the Guildhall. The sanitary arrangements of the town are under a local board of health, and the police arrangements under the county constabulary force. The borough, which has returned two members to parliament since the reign of Edward I., was enlarged by the Reform Act, so as to include Ashleigh, Haydon, Holway, North Town, Sherford, and Shoreditch, in the town parishes of St. Mary Magdalene and St. James, and parts of the suburban parishes of Bishopshull and Wilton, and one house in West Monkton. The court leet is held under the lord of the manor of Taunton Dean, at which two bailiffs, two portreeves, and two constables are chosen annually the first are the returning officers.

The population in 1851 was 14,176, and in 1861, 14,660, of which the parliamentary borough contains 14,660, with about 810 electors. The town, which consists of three main streets, diverging from a spacious open area called the Parade, and numerous smaller streets, is near a mile in length. The streets are well paved and lighted with gas, and have numerous good shops. The principal public buildings are the shire hall, an Elizabethan structure, erected in 1858 at a cost of £28,000, from the designs of W. B. Moffat, Esq., architect, and containing marble busts of Admiral Blake and John Locke; the Somerset county gaol, situated opposite the shire hall, with which it is connected by an underground passage, and covering an area of 4½ acres; the old market house, situated on the S. side of the Parade, is a brick building of considerable size, containing the guildhall, and surrounded on either side by arcades, used on market days for corn, and surmounted by a clock; the upper part comprises an assembly room, with a full-length portrait of George III.

The new market house was erected in 1821 at the western side of the Parade, the lower story being used for meat, poultry, and dairy produce, and adjoining it is the fish market; while the upper part is appropriated to the Somerset and Taunton Literary Institution, with reading rooms, library, &c., and to the museum of the Somersetshire Archæological and Natural History Society, which is rich in valuable geological specimens, chiefly of saurians from the lias, Devonian fossils, and cave bones from the Mendip hills, some of the latter specimens being unique; there is also a rich collection presented to the county by John Hugh Smith Pigot, Esq., of drawings of churches and other architectural buildings in Somersetshire.

Besides these buildings there are cavalry barracks in Mount-street, with accommodation for 63 men and horses; a savings-bank, at the top of High-street; four commercial banks; several good hotels; philharmonic society; assembly rooms, at Melton's London Hotel; the union workhouse, in South-street, erected in 1837; the Taunton and Somerset Hospital, in East-reach, founded in 1809; the eye infirmary, established in 1816; the lying-in institution; gas and water works; also three silk mills, iron and brass foundries, maltings, breweries, coach-building works, and cabinet manufactories. The woollen manufacture was established here in the 14th century, but has long since decayed, and that of silk, which superseded it, is now on the decline, but a considerable business is done in gloving and machine sewing. Four weekly newspapers are published in the town viz:, the Taunton Courier, Somerset County Herald, Somerset Gazette, and Western News. The county assizes and quarter sessions are held here alternately with Wells, also a county court, which sits monthly at the shire hall. Taunton is likewise the seat of a superintendent registry and of a Poor-law Union embracing 37 parishes and townships in Somersetshire. It is the head-quarters of the 1st Somerset Militia, and of the 2nd battalion of the Somerset Rifle Volunteers.

Taunton gives name to an archdeaconry, and to a deanery in the diocese of Bath and Wells. The livings are St. James's, a perpetual curacy, value £250, in the diocese of Bath and Wells; St. Mary Magdalene's, a vicarage, value £350, in the gift of the Church Patronage Society; Trinity, a perpetual curacy, value £160, in the patronage of the bishop; St. John's, in Park-street, also a perpetual curacy; and St. George's, in the parish of Wilton, a perpetual curacy, value £125.

The church of St. James, which formerly belonged to Bishop Giffard's priory for Black Canons, founded in 1127, is a structure of the 14th century, with a quadrangular tower of the Tudor period, containing five bells, and an octagonal font. The church of St. Mary Magdalene, which stands near the centre of the town, was originally a chapel to the conventual church of St. James, but was made parochial in 1308. It was rebuilt in the reign of Henry VII., and has a tower at the W. end, 153 feet high. The rebuilding, after a facsimile of the original, was completed in 1865. The interior of the church had been restored twenty years previously, and contains a ceiling of bog oak and a carved pulpit, a painted E. window of seven lights, a painted W. window by Gibbs, of London, inserted in 1864, and some specimens of ancient glass saved from the debris of the old E. window, an a now inserted in the side windows, also a peal of eight bells, and a rhyming epitaph on Robert Gray, commencing "Taunton bore him, London bred him," &c. The register dates from 1558.

The church of the Holy Trinity was built in 1842, at a cost of £7,000, and is situated in South-street. The church of St. John the Evangelist is a modern structure, by Scott, erected at a cost of above £12,000. The church of St. George, in Wilton parish, is an ancient structure with a square tower. The register commences in 1558. The Roman Catholics also have a church, erected in 1861, at the top of Billet-street, the highest ground in the town, which, when completed by the addition of a steeple to be placed on the tower, will attain an elevation of 210 feet, and form one of the most striking architectural features of the town.

There are two chapels belonging to the Wesleyans two to the Independents, and one each to the Primitive Methodists, Baptists, Society of Friends, Unitarians, and Plymouth Brethren; of these the most interesting are the Unitarian and Independent, the former for its internal architecture and the latter as standing on the site of Paul's Meeting, once held by George Newton, the Nonconformist minister of St. Mary Magdalene, at Taunton, who was ejected, with 2,000 brother clergymen, by the Act of Uniformity passed in 1662. The convent formerly called Taunton Lodge was purchased in 1807 by the society of religious ladies of the Second Order of St. Francis, who came over from Belgium during the French Revolution and settled at Winchester, from which place they subsequently removed to Taunton, where they devote themselves to educational purposes.

The West of England Dissenters' Proprietary School was founded here in 1847, and is connected by royal warrant with the University of London, and has about 130 pupils. The Wesleyans have a collegiate institution here, built in 1847, by J. Wilson, with a frontage of 250 feet in length and a tower 80 feet high. In Bath-place is the School of Art. The free grammar school was founded in 1522 by Bishop Fox, of Winchester, and endowed by the Rev. William Walbec, the patronage being in New College, Oxford. It has in connection with it a botanical garden, museum, and laboratory. There are National, British, Sunday, and infant schools, also several first-class educational establishments for both sexes, including Fullard's House School, which deserves notice as being situated in a demesne of 20 acres, with 10 acres of cricket and play grounds.

The principal residences in the vicinity are Pyrland Hall, the old seat of the Yea family, Flook House, Longford House, and Belmont. Besides the remains of the castle above described, and the Roman bridges, there are traces of a Carmelite Friary, founded in 1322 by Walter de Meryet; of a Black Priory, at Priory Farm, founded by Bishop Giffard, of Winchester, in 1127; also of a lepers' hospital of the 13th century. The charities are considerable, producing annually about £1,200, including the town lands and the incomes of the almshouses, among which must be mentioned Huish's hospital for 13 poor, with a chapel; R. Gray's almshouses for 18, with a chapel and school attached; also Pope's, Henley's, and St. James's almshouses. Taunton was the birth-place of Samuel Daniel, the poet; of the Rev. Henry Grove, who wrote Nos. 588, 601, &c., of the "Spectator;" and of A. W. Kinglake, M.P., author of "Eothen" and other works. Cardinals Beaufort and Wolsey, while Bishops of Winchester, resided in the castle, and Dr. Joshua Toulmin, who wrote the town history, was a Nonconformist minister here. The races have been discontinued for some years. Market days are Wednesdays and Saturdays, the last Saturday in every month being the chief day for cattle and sheep. Fairs are held on 17th June and 8th July for cattle."

"HOLWAY-EXTRA-PORTAM, a tything in the parish and borough of Taunton, county Somerset, in Taunton."

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