Somersetshire: Wikis


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Motto of County Council: Sumorsǣte ealle
('all the people of Somerset')
Status Ceremonial & (smaller) Non-metropolitan county
Origin Historic
Region South West England
- Total
- Admin. council
- Admin. area
Ranked 7th
4,171 km2 (1,610 sq mi)
Ranked 12th
3,451 km2 (1,332 sq mi)
Admin HQ Taunton
ISO 3166-2 GB-SOM
ONS code 40
- Total (2008 est.)
- Density
- Admin. council
- Admin. pop.
Ranked 22nd
219 /km2 (567/sq mi)
Ranked 23rd
Ethnicity 98.5% White
Executive Conservative
Members of Parliament
Somerset Ceremonial Numbered2.gif
  1. South Somerset
  2. Taunton Deane (Borough)
  3. West Somerset
  4. Sedgemoor
  5. Mendip
  6. Bath and North East Somerset (Unitary)
  7. North Somerset (Unitary)

Somerset (pronounced /ˈsʌmɚsɨt/ or /ˈsʌmɚsɛt/  ( listen)) is a county in South West England. The county town is Taunton, which is in the south of the county. The ceremonial county of Somerset borders the counties of Bristol and Gloucestershire to the north, Wiltshire to the east, Dorset to the south-east, and Devon to the south-west. It is partly bounded to the north and west by the coast of the Bristol Channel and the estuary of the River Severn. The traditional northern border of the county is the River Avon, but the administrative boundary has crept southwards, with the creation and expansion of the City of Bristol, and latterly the county of Avon and its successor Unitary Authorities in the north.[1]

Somerset is a rural county of rolling hills such as the Mendip Hills, Quantock Hills and Exmoor National Park, and large flat expanses of land including the Somerset Levels. There is evidence of human occupation from Neolithic times, and subsequent settlement in the Roman and Saxon periods. Later, the county played a significant part in the consolidation of power and rise of King Alfred the Great, the English Civil War and the Monmouth Rebellion.

Agriculture is a major business in the county. Farming of sheep and cattle, including for wool and the county's famous cheeses (most notably Cheddar), are traditional and contemporary, as is the more unusual cultivation of willow for basketry. Apple orchards were once plentiful, and to this day Somerset is known for the production of strong cider. Unemployment is lower than the national average, and the largest employment sectors are retail, manufacturing, tourism, and health and social care. Population growth in the county is higher than the national average.



The name derives from Old English Sumorsǣte, which is short for Sumortūnsǣte, meaning "the people living at or dependent upon Sumortūn".[2] The first known use of the name Somersæte was in 845, after the region fell to the Saxons.[3] Sumortūn is modern Somerton and may mean "summer settlement", a farmstead occupied during the summer but abandoned in the winter.[4] However, Somerton is not down on the levels—lower ground, where only summer occupation was possible because of flooding—but on a hill where winter occupation would have been feasible. An alternative suggestion is that the name derives from Seo-mere-saetan meaning "settlers by the sea lakes".[5] The people of Somerset are first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's entry for 845 AD, in the inflected form "Sumursætum", but the county is first mentioned in the entry for 1015 using the same name. The archaic county name Somersetshire is first mentioned in the Chronicle's entry for 878. Although "Somersetshire" had been in common use as an alternative name for the county, it went out of fashion in the late 19th century, and is no longer used. This is possibly due to the adoption of "Somerset" as the official name for the county through the establishment of the County Council in 1889. However, as with other counties not ending in "shire", this suffix was superfluous, as there was no need to differentiate between the county and a town within it.

The Old English name continues to be used in the motto of the county, Sumorsǣte ealle, meaning "all the people of Somerset". Adopted as the motto in 1911, the phrase is taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Somerset was a part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and the phrase refers to the wholehearted support the people of Somerset gave to King Alfred in his struggle to save Wessex from the Viking invaders.[6][7][8]

Somerset is Gwlad yr Haf in Welsh, Gwlas an Hav in Cornish and Bro an Hañv in Breton, which all mean "Land of Summer".

Somerset settlement names are mostly Anglo-Saxon in origin, but a few hill names include Celtic elements. For example, an Anglo-Saxon charter of 682 concerning Creechborough Hill defines it as "the hill the British call Cructan and we call Crychbeorh"[9] ("we" being the Anglo-Saxons). Some modern names are Brythonic in origin, such as Tarnock, while others have both Saxon and Brythonic elements, such as Pen Hill.[10]


The caves of the Mendip Hills were settled during the Palaeolithic period onward and contain extensive archaeological sites such as those at Cheddar Gorge. Bones from Gough's Cave have been dated to 12,000 BC while a complete skeleton, known as Cheddar man, dates from 7150 BC. Examples of cave art have been found in caves such as Aveline's Hole. Occupation of some caves continued until modern times, including Wookey Hole.

The Somerset Levels—specifically the dry points such as Glastonbury and Brent Knoll— also have a long history of settlement, and are known to have been settled by Mesolithic hunters.[11][12] Travel in the area was helped by the construction of the world's oldest known engineered roadway, the Sweet Track, which dates from 3807 BC or 3806 BC.[13][14]

There are numerous Iron Age hill forts, some of which, like Cadbury Castle[15] and Ham Hill, were later reoccupied in the Early Middle Ages. The exact age of the henge monument at Stanton Drew stone circles is unknown, but it is believed to be Neolithic.[16]

On the authority of the future emperor Vespasian, as part of the ongoing expansion of the Roman presence in Britain, the Second Legion Augusta invaded Somerset from the south-east in AD 47. The county remained part of the Roman Empire until around AD 409, when the Roman occupation of Britain came to an end.[1] A variety of Roman remains have been found, including Pagans Hill Roman Temple in Chew Stoke,[17] Low Ham Roman Villa and the Roman Baths which gave their name to the city of Bath.[18]

After the Romans left, Britain was invaded by Anglo-Saxon peoples, who had established control over much of what is now England by A.D. 600 but Somerset was still in British hands. The native British held back Saxon advance in the southwest for some time longer, but by the early eighth century King Ine of Wessex had pushed the boundaries of the West Saxon kingdom far enough west to include Somerset.[19] The Saxon royal palace in Cheddar was used several times in the 10th century to host the Witenagemot.[20] After the Norman Conquest, the county was divided into 700 fiefs, and large areas were owned by the crown,[3] with fortifications such as Dunster Castle used for control and defence. Somerset contains HMP Shepton Mallet, England's oldest prison still in use, which opened in 1610.[21] In the English Civil War Somerset was largely Parliamentarian.[22] In 1685 the Monmouth Rebellion was played out in Somerset and neighbouring Dorset.[23] The rebels landed at Lyme Regis and travelled north, hoping to capture Bristol and Bath, but they were defeated in the Battle of Sedgemoor at Westonzoyland, the last pitched battle fought in England.[24] Arthur Wellesley took his title, Duke of Wellington from the town of Wellington;[25] he is commemorated on a nearby hill by a large, spotlit obelisk, known as the Wellington Monument.

The 18th century was largely one of peace in Somerset, but the Industrial Revolution in the Midlands and Northern England spelled the end for most of Somerset's cottage industries. Farming continued to flourish, however, and the Bath and West of England Society for the Encouragement of Agriculture, Arts, Manufactures and Commerce was founded in 1777 to improve farming methods. Despite this, 20 years later John Billingsley conducted a survey of the county's agriculture in 1795 and found that agricultural methods could still be improved.[26] Coal mining was an important industry in north Somerset during the 18th and 19th centuries, and by 1800 it was based around Radstock.[27] The Somerset coalfield reached its peak production by the 1920s, but all the pits have now been closed, the last in 1973.[28] Most of the surface buildings have been removed, and apart from a winding wheel outside Radstock Museum, little evidence of their former existence remains. Further west, the Brendon Hills were mined for iron ore in the late 19th century; this was taken by rail to Watchet Harbour for shipment to the furnaces at Ebbw Vale

Many Somerset soldiers died during the First World War, with the Somerset Light Infantry suffering nearly 5,000 casualties.[29] War memorials were put up in most of the county's towns and villages; only nine, described as the Thankful Villages, had none of their residents killed. During the Second World War the county was a base for troops preparing for the D-Day landings. Some of the hospitals which were built for the casualties of the war remain in use. The Taunton Stop Line was set up to repel a potential German invasion. The remains of its pill boxes can still be seen along the coast, and south through Ilminster and Chard.[30]

A number of decoy towns were constructed in Somerset in World War II to protect Bristol and other towns, at night. They were designed to mimic the geometry of "blacked out" streets, railway lines, and Bristol Temple Meads railway station, to encourage bombers away from these targets.[31] One, on the radio beam flight path to Bristol, was constructed on Beacon Batch.[31][32] It was laid out by Shepperton Film Studios, based on aerial photographs of the city's railway marshalling yards.[31] The decoys were fitted with dim red lights, simulating activities like the stoking of steam locomotives. Burning bales of straw soaked in creosote were used to simulate the effects of incendiary bombs dropped by the first wave of Pathfinder night bombers; meanwhile, incendiary bombs dropped on the correct location were quickly smothered, wherever possible. Drums of oil were also ignited to simulate the effect of a blazing city or town, with the aim of fooling subsequent waves of bombers into dropping their bombs on the wrong location.[31] The Chew Magna decoy town was hit by half-a-dozen bombs on 2 December 1940, and over a thousand incendiaries on 3 January 1941.[31] The following night the Uphill decoy town, protecting Weston-super-Mare's airfield, was bombed; a herd of dairy cows was hit, killing some and severely injuring others.[31]

Yellow/Gray stone bridge with three arches over water which reflects the bridge and the church spire behind. A weir is on the left with other yellow stone buildings behind.
Palladian Pulteney Bridge at Bath

Cities and towns

Somerton took over from Ilchester as the county town in the late thirteenth century,[33] but it declined in importance and the status of county town transferred to Taunton about 1366.[34] The county has two cities, Bath and Wells, and only a small number of towns. In many cases there are villages which are larger than their neighbouring towns; the village of Cheddar, for example, has three times the population of the nearby town of Axbridge. Many settlements developed because of their strategic importance in relation to geographical features, such as river crossings or valleys in ranges of hills. Examples include Axbridge on the River Axe, Castle Cary on the River Cary, North Petherton on the River Parrett, and Ilminster, where there was a crossing point on the River Isle. Midsomer Norton lies on the River Somer; while the Wellow Brook and the Fosseway Roman road run through Radstock, which, along with Midsomer Norton, is now designated as a part of Norton Radstock. Chard is the most southerly town in Somerset, and at an altitude of 121 m (397 ft) it is also the highest.[35]

Physical geography



Much of the landscape of Somerset falls into types determined by the underlying geology. These landscapes are the limestone karst and lias of the north, the clay vales and wetlands of the centre, the oolites of the east and south, and the Devonian sandstone of the west.[36] To the north-east of the Somerset Levels, the Mendip Hills are moderately high limestone hills. The central and western Mendip Hills was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1972 and covers 198 km2 (76 sq mi).[37] The main habitat on these hills is calcareous grassland, with some arable agriculture. The Somerset coalfield is part of a larger coalfield which stretches into Gloucestershire. To the north of the Mendip hills is the Chew Valley and to the south, on the clay substrate, are broad valleys which support dairy farming and drain into the Somerset Levels.

Caves and rivers

Long straight water filled channel, with occasional trees on the left hand bank and grass on the right hand bank.
The River Brue in an artificial channel draining farmland near Glastonbury

There is an extensive network of caves, including Wookey Hole, underground rivers, and gorges, including Cheddar Gorge and Ebbor Gorge.[38] The county has many rivers, including the Axe, Brue, Cary, Parrett, Sheppey, Tone and Yeo. These both feed and drain the flat levels and moors of mid and west Somerset.[39] In the north of the county the River Chew flows into the Bristol Avon. The Parrett is tidal almost to Langport, where there is evidence of two Roman wharfs.[40] At the same site during the reign of King Charles I, river tolls were levied on boats to pay for the maintenance of the bridge.[40]

Levels and moors

Three small brown horses on grassy area. In the distance are hills.
The Exmoor landscape with the native Exmoor Pony.

The Somerset Levels (or Somerset Levels and Moors as they are less commonly but more correctly known) are a sparsely populated wetland area of central Somerset, between the Quantock and Mendip hills. They consist of marine clay levels along the coast, and the inland (often peat based) moors. The Levels are divided into two by the Polden Hills; land to the south is drained by the River Parrett while land to the north is drained by the River Axe and the River Brue. The total area of the Levels amounts to about 647.5 square kilometres (160,000 acres)[41] and broadly corresponds to the administrative district of Sedgemoor but also includes the south west of Mendip district. Approximately 70% of the area is grassland and 30% is arable.[41] Stretching about 32 kilometres (20 mi) inland, this expanse of flat land barely rises above sea level. Before it was drained, much of the land was under a shallow brackish sea in winter and was marsh land in summer. Drainage began with the Romans, and was restarted at various times: by the Anglo-Saxons; in the Middle Ages by the Glastonbury Abbey, from 1400–1770; and during the Second World War, with the construction of the Huntspill River. Pumping and management of water levels still continues.[42]

The North Somerset Levels basin, north of the Mendips, covers a smaller geographical area than the Somerset Levels; and forms a coastal area around Avonmouth. It too was reclaimed by draining.[42][43] It is mirrored, across the Severn Estuary, in Wales, by a similar low-lying area: the Caldicot and Wentloog Levels.[43]

In the far west of the county, running into Devon, is Exmoor, a high Devonian sandstone moor, which was designated as a national park in 1954, under the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act.[44] The highest point in Somerset is Dunkery Beacon on Exmoor, with an altitude of 519 metres (1703 ft).[45] Over 100 sites in Somerset have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.


small boats lined up in harbour. Crane in the background & metal walkway in the foreground.
The marina in the coastal town of Watchet

The 64 km (40 mi) coastline of the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary forms part of the northern border of Somerset.[46] The Bristol Channel has the second largest tidal range in the world. At Burnham-on-Sea, for example, the tidal range of a spring tide is over 12 metres (39 ft).[47][48] Proposals for the construction of a Severn Barrage aim to harness this energy. The main coastal towns are, from the west to the north-east, Minehead, Watchet, Burnham-on-Sea, Weston-super-Mare, Clevedon and Portishead. The coastal area between Minehead and the eastern extreme of the administrative county's coastline at Brean Down is known as Bridgwater Bay, and is a National Nature Reserve.[39] North of that, the coast forms Weston Bay and Sand Bay whose northern tip, Sand Point, marks the lower limit of the Severn Estuary.[49] In the mid and north of the county the coastline is low as the level wetlands of the levels meet the sea. In the west, the coastline is high and dramatic where the plateau of Exmoor meets the sea, with high cliffs and waterfalls.[39]


A thin covering of white snow with rocks poking through it, covering sloping hillsides.
Horner Woods, Exmoor, in winter

Along with the rest of South West England, Somerset has a temperate maritime climate which is generally wetter and milder than the rest of the country. The annual mean temperature is about 10 °C (50 °F) and shows a seasonal and a diurnal variation, but the range is less than in most other parts of the UK due to the modifying effect of the sea. January is the coldest month with mean minimum temperatures between 1–2 °C. July and August are the warmest months in the region with mean daily maxima around 21 °C (70 °F).

The south-west of England has a favoured location with respect to the Azores high pressure when it extends its influence north-eastwards towards the UK, particularly in summer. Convective cloud often forms inland however, especially near hills, reducing the number of hours of sunshine. The average annual sunshine totals around 1,600 hours.

Rainfall, tends to be associated with Atlantic depressions or with convection. The Atlantic depressions are more vigorous in autumn and winter and most of the rain which falls in those seasons in the south-west is from this source. Average rainfall is 700 mm (28 in) in the low-lying parts of central Somerset while the Mendip Hills have more than 1,100 mm (43 in) and the Bath-Bristol area has about 800 to 900 mm (31 to 35 in) of rainfall a year.[50] About 8 to 15 days of snowfall is typical. November to March have the highest mean wind speeds, with June to August having the lightest winds. The predominant wind direction is from the south-west.[51]

Yeovilton climate: Average maximum and minimum temperatures, and average rainfall recorded between 1971 and 2000 by the Met Office.
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average max. temperature °CF) 8.1
Average min. temperature
°C (°F)
Source: Met Office

Economy and industry

A small single story building with a pyramid shaped roof, to the side of a road lined with buildings. Some private small cars visible. Trees in the distance with the skyline of Dunster Castle.
The Dunster Yarn Market was built in 1609 for the trading of local cloth

Somerset has few industrial centres, but it does have a variety of light industry and high technology businesses, along with traditional agriculture and an increasingly important tourism sector, resulting in an unemployment rate of 2.5%.[52] Bridgwater was developed during the Industrial Revolution as the West Country's leading port. The River Parrett was navigable by large ships as far as Bridgwater. Cargoes were then loaded onto smaller boats at Langport Quay, next to the Bridgwater Bridge, to be carried further up river to Langport;[53] or they could turn off at Burrowbridge and then travel via the River Tone to Taunton.[40] The Parrett is now only navigable as far as Dunball Wharf. Bridgwater, in the 19th and 20th centuries, was a centre for the manufacture of bricks and clay roof tiles, and later cellophane, but those industries have now closed.[53] With its good links to the motorway system, Bridgwater has developed as a distribution hub for companies such as Argos, Toolstation and Gerber Juice. AgustaWestland manufactures helicopters in Yeovil,[54] and Normalair Garratt, builder of aircraft oxygen systems, is also based in the town.[55] Many towns have encouraged small-scale light industries, such as Crewkerne's Ariel Motor Company, one of the UK's smallest car manufacturers.

Somerset is an important supplier of defence equipment and technology. A Royal Ordnance Factory, ROF Bridgwater was built at the start of the Second World War, between the villages of Puriton and Woolavington,[56] to manufacture explosives. As of April 2008 the site is being decommissioned and is due to close in July 2008.[57] Templecombe has Thales Underwater Systems,[58] and Taunton presently has the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office and Avimo, which became part of Thales Optics. It has been announced twice, in 2006 and 2007, that manufacturing is to end at Thales Optics' Taunton site,[59] but the Trade Unions and Taunton Deane District Council are working to reverse or mitigate these decisions. Other high-technology companies include the optics company Gooch and Housego, at Ilminster. There are Ministry of Defence offices in Bath, and Norton Fitzwarren is the home of 40 Commando Royal Marines. The Royal Naval Air Station in Yeovilton, is one of Britain's two active Fleet Air Arm bases and is home to the Royal Navy's Lynx helicopters and the Royal Marines Commando Westland Sea Kings. Around 1,675 service and 2,000 civilian personnel are stationed at Yeovilton and key activities include training of aircrew and engineers and the Royal Navy's Fighter Controllers and surface-based aircraft controllers.

Translucent plastic container of yellow/brown liquid on a table.
Somerset scrumpy cider

Agriculture and food and drink production continue to be major industries in the county, employing over 15,000 people.[60] Apple orchards were once plentiful, and Somerset is still a major producer of cider. The towns of Taunton and Shepton Mallet are involved with the production of cider, especially Blackthorn Cider, which is sold nationwide, and there are specialist producers such as Burrow Hill Cider Farm and Thatchers Cider. Gerber Products Company in Bridgwater is the largest producer of fruit juices in Europe, producing brands such as "Sunny Delight" and "Ocean Spray". Development of the milk-based industries, such as Ilchester Cheese Company and Yeo Valley Organic, have resulted in the production of ranges of desserts, yoghurts and cheeses,[61] including Cheddar cheese—some of which has the West Country Farmhouse Cheddar PDO.

Traditional willow growing and weaving is not as extensive as it used to be but is still carried out on the Somerset Levels and is commemorated at the Willows and Wetlands visitor centre.[62] Fragments of willow basket were found near the Glastonbury Lake Village, and it was also used in the construction of several Iron Age causeways.[63] The willow was harvested using a traditional method of coppicing, where a tree would be cut back to the main stem. During the 1930s more than 3600 hectares (9000 acres) of willow were being grown commercially on the Levels. Largely due to the displacement of baskets with plastic bags and cardboard boxes, the industry has severely declined since the 1950s. By the end of the 20th century only about 140 hectares (350 acres) were grown commercially, near the villages of Burrowbridge, Westonzoyland and North Curry.[41] The Somerset Levels is now the only area in the UK where basket willow is grown commercially.

Towns such as Castle Cary and Frome grew around the medieval weaving industry. Street developed as a centre for the production of woollen slippers and, later, boots and shoes, with C&J Clark establishing its headquarters in the town. C&J Clark's shoes are no longer manufactured there as the work was transferred to lower-wage areas, such as China and Asia.[64] Instead, in 1993, redundant factory buildings were converted to form Clarks Village, the first purpose-built factory outlet in the UK. C&J Clark also had shoe factories, at one time at Bridgwater and Minehead, to provide employment outside the main summer tourist season, but those satellite sites were closed in the late 1980s, before the main site at Street. Dr. Martens shoes were also made in Somerset, by the Northampton-based R. Griggs Group, using redundant skilled shoemakers from C&J Clark; that work has also been transferred to Asia.

Large expanse of exposed gray rock. Fence in the foreground.
Stone quarries are still a major employer in Somerset

The county has a long tradition of supplying freestone and building stone. Quarries at Doulting supplied freestone used in the construction of Wells Cathedral. Bath stone is also widely used. Ralph Allen promoted its use in the early 18th century, as did Hans Price in the 19th century, but it was used long before then. It was mined underground at Combe Down and Bathampton Down Mines, and as a result of cutting the Box Tunnel, at locations in Wiltshire such as Box.[65][66][67] Bath stone is still used on a reduced scale today, but more often as a cladding rather than a structural material.[65] Further south, Hamstone is the colloquial name given to stone from Ham Hill, which is also widely used in the construction industry. Blue Lias has been used locally as a building stone and as a raw material for lime mortar and Portland cement. Until the 1960s, Puriton had Blue Lias stone quarries, as did several other Polden villages. Its quarries also supplied a cement factory at Dunball, adjacent to the King's Sedgemoor Drain. Its derelict, early 20th century remains were removed when the M5 motorway was constructed in the mid-1970s.[68] Since the 1920s, the county has supplied aggregates. Foster Yeoman is Europe's large supplier of limestone aggregates, with quarries at Merehead Quarry. It has a dedicated railway operation, Mendip Rail, which is used to transport aggregates by rail from a group of Mendip quarries.[69]

Tourism is a major industry, estimated in 2001 to support around 23,000 people. Attractions include the coastal towns, part of the Exmoor National Park, the West Somerset Railway (a heritage railway), and the museum of the Fleet Air Arm at RNAS Yeovilton. The town of Glastonbury has mythical associations, including legends of a visit by the young Jesus of Nazareth and Joseph of Arimathea, with links to the Holy Grail, King Arthur, and Camelot, identified by some as Cadbury Castle, an Iron Age hill fort. Glastonbury also gives its name to an annual open-air rock festival held in nearby Pilton. There are show caves open to visitors in the Cheddar Gorge, as well as its locally produced cheese, although there is now only one remaining cheese maker in the village of Cheddar.

In November 2008, a public sector inward investment organisation was launched, called Into Somerset,[70] with the intention of growing the county's economy by promoting it to businesses that may wish to relocate from other parts of the UK (especially London) and the world.


Somerset Compared
UK Census 2001 Somerset C.C.[71] North Somerset UA[72] BANES UA[73] South West England[73] England[73]
Total population 498,093 188,564 169,040 4,928,434 49,138,831
Foreign born 7.6% 9.5% 11.2% 9.4% 9.2%
White 98.8% 97.1% 97.3% 97.7% 91%
Asian 0.3% 1.7% 0.5% 0.7% 4.6%
Black 0.2% 0.9% 0.5% 0.4% 2.3%
Christian 76.7% 75.0% 71.0% 74.0% 72%
Muslim 0.2% 0.2% 0.4% 0.5% 3.1%
Hindu 0.1% 0.1% 0.2% 0.2% 1.1%
No religion 14.9% 16.6% 19.5% 16.8% 15%
Over 75 years old 9.6% 9.9% 8.9% 9.3% 7.5%
Unemployed 2.5% 2.1% 2.0% 2.6% 3.3%

In the 2001 census the population of the Somerset County Council area was 498,093[74] with 169,040 in Bath and North East Somerset,[75] and 188,564 in North Somerset[76] giving a total for the historic county of 855,697. This was estimated to have risen to 895,700 in 2006.[77]

Population growth is higher than the national average, with a 6.4% increase, in the Somerset County Council area, since 1991, and a 17% increase since 1981. The population density is 1.4 persons per hectare, which can be compared to 2.07 persons per hectare for the South West region. Within the county, population density ranges 0.5 in West Somerset to 2.2 persons per hectare in Taunton Deane. The percentage of the population who are economically active is higher than the regional and national average, and the unemployment rate is lower than the regional and national average.[78]

Somerset has a high indigenous British population, with 98.8% registering as white British and 92.4% of these as born in the United Kingdom. Chinese is the largest ethnic group, while the black minority ethnic proportion of the total population is 2.9%.[46] Over 25% of Somerset's population is concentrated in Taunton, Bridgwater and Yeovil. The rest of the county is rural and sparsely populated. Over 9 million tourist nights are spent in Somerset each year, which significantly increases the population at peak times.[46]

Population since 1801
Year 1801 1851 1901 1911 1921 1931 1941 1951 1961 1971 1981 1991 2001
Somerset CC area[79] 187,266 276,684 277,563 280,215 282,411 284,740 305,244 327,505 355,292 385,698 417,450 468,395 498,093
BANES[80] 57,188 96,992 107,637 113,732 113,351 112,972 123,185 134,346 144,950 156,421 154,083 164,737 169,045
North Somerset[81] 16,670 33,774 60,066 68,410 75,276 82,833 91,967 102,119 119,509 139,924 160,353 179,865 188,556
Total 261,124 407,450 445,266 462,357 471,038 479,758 520,396 563,970 619,751 682,043 731,886 812,997 855,694


Stone building with colonnaded entrance. Above is a clock tower.
Weston-super-Mare town hall, the administrative headquarters of North Somerset

The county is divided into nine constituencies for the election of Members of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons. As of November 2007, the constituencies of Bridgwater, Wells, Weston-super-Mare and Woodspring elect Conservative MPs, while Bath, Somerton and Frome, Taunton and Yeovil return Liberal Democrats.[82] Only Wansdyke, which will become North East Somerset at the next election,[83] returns a Labour politician. Residents of Somerset also form part of the electorate for the South West England constituency for elections to the European Parliament.[84]

Local government

The ceremonial county of Somerset consists of a non-metropolitan county, administered by Somerset County Council, and two unitary authorities.

The districts of Somerset are West Somerset, South Somerset, Taunton Deane, Mendip and Sedgemoor. The two administratively independent unitary authorities, which were established on 1 April 1996 following the break up of the county of Avon, are North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset. These unitary authorities include areas that were once part of Somerset before the creation of Avon in 1974.[85] In 2007, proposals to abolish the district councils in favour of a single Somerset unitary authority were rejected following local opposition.[86]


Large ornate gray stone facade of a building. Symmetrical ith towers either side.
The west front of Wells Cathedral

Somerset has traditions of art, music and literature. Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote while staying in Coleridge Cottage, Nether Stowey.[87] The writer Evelyn Waugh spent his last years in the village of Combe Florey.[88] Traditional folk music, both song and dance, was important in the agricultural communities. Somerset songs were collected by Cecil Sharp and incorporated into works such as Holst's A Somerset Rhapsody. Halsway Manor near Williton is an international centre for folk music. The tradition continues today with groups such as The Wurzels specialising in Scrumpy and Western music.[89]

The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts takes place most years in Pilton, near Shepton Mallet, attracting over 170,000 music and culture lovers from around the world, and world-famous entertainers.[90] The Big Green Gathering which grew out of the Green fields at the Glastonbury Festival is held in the Mendip Hills between Charterhouse and Compton Martin each summer.[91] The annual Bath Literature Festival is one of several local festivals in the county; others include the Frome Festival and the Trowbridge Village Pump Festival, which, despite its name, is held at Farleigh Hungerford in Somerset. The annual circuit of West Country Carnivals is held in a variety of Somerset towns during the autumn, forming a major regional festival, and the largest Festival of Lights in Europe.[92]

In the distance a small hill with a stone tower on the top. In the foreground flat land with vegetation.
Glastonbury Tor

In Arthurian legend, Avalon became associated with Glastonbury Tor when monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have discovered the bones of King Arthur and his queen.[93] What is more certain is that Glastonbury was an important religious centre by 700 and claims to be "the oldest above-ground Christian church in the World"[94] situated "in the mystical land of Avalon". The claim is based on dating the founding of the community of monks at AD 63, the year of the legendary visit of Joseph of Arimathea, who was supposed to have brought the Holy Grail.[94] During the Middle Ages there were also important religious sites at Woodspring Priory and Muchelney Abbey. The present Diocese of Bath and Wells covers Somerset and a small area of Dorset. The Episcopal seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells is now in the Cathedral Church of Saint Andrew in the city of Wells, having previously been at Bath Abbey. Before the English Reformation, it was a Roman Catholic diocese. The Benedictine monastery Saint Gregory's Abbey, commonly known as Downside Abbey, is at Stratton-on-the-Fosse, and the Cistercian Cleeve Abbey is near the village of Washford.

The county has several museums; those at Bath include the American Museum in Britain, the Building of Bath Museum, the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, the Jane Austen Centre, and the Roman Baths. Other visitor attractions which reflect the cultural heritage of the county include: Claverton Pumping Station, Dunster Working Watermill, the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton, Nunney Castle, The Helicopter Museum in Weston-super-Mare, King John's Hunting Lodge in Axbridge, Radstock Museum, Somerset County Museum in Taunton, the Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury, and Westonzoyland Pumping Station Museum.

Somerset has 11,500 listed buildings, 523 Scheduled Monuments, 192 conservation areas,[95] 41 parks and gardens including those at Barrington Court, Holnicote Estate, Prior Park Landscape Garden and Tintinhull Garden, 36 English Heritage sites and 19 National Trust sites,[1] including Clevedon Court, Fyne Court, Montacute House and Tyntesfield as well as Stembridge Tower Mill, the last remaining thatched windmill in England.[1] Other historic houses in the county which have remained in private ownership or used for other purposes include Halswell House and Marston Bigot. A key contribution of Somerset architecture is its medieval church towers. Jenkins writes, "These structures, with their buttresses, bell-opening tracery and crowns, rank with Nottinghamshire alabaster as England's finest contribution to medieval art."[96]

Bath Rugby play at the Recreation Ground in Bath, and the Somerset County Cricket Club are based at the County Ground in Taunton. The county gained its first Football League club in 2003, when Yeovil Town won promotion to Division Three as Football Conference champions.[97] They had achieved numerous FA Cup victories over Football League sides in the past 50 years, and since joining the elite they have won promotion again—as League Two champions in 2005. They came close to yet another promotion in 2007, when they reached the League One playoff final, but lost to Blackpool at the newly reopened Wembley Stadium. Horse racing courses are at Taunton and Wincanton.

In addition to English national newspapers the county is served by the regional Western Daily Press and local newspapers including: the Weston & Somerset Mercury, the Bath Chronicle, Chew Valley Gazette, Somerset County Gazette, Clevedon Mercury and the Mendip Times. Television and radio are provided by BBC Somerset, GWR FM Bristol, Orchard FM Taunton, Ivel FM Yeovil, and HTV, now known as ITV Wales & West Ltd, but still commonly referred to as HTV.[98]

Recently there have been proposals for the introduction of an official Somerset flag for the ceremonial county.


Somerset has 6,531 km (4,058 mi) of roads. The main arterial routes, which include the M5 motorway, A303, A37, A38 and A39, give good access across the county, but many areas can only be accessed via narrow lanes.[46] Rail services are provided by the West of England Main Line through Yeovil, the Bristol to Taunton Line, Heart of Wessex Line which runs from Bristol to Weymouth and the Reading to Plymouth Line. Bristol International Airport provides national and international air services.

The Somerset Coal Canal was built in the early 19th century to reduce the cost of transportation of coal and other heavy produce.[40] The first 16 kilometres (10 mi), running from a junction with the Kennet and Avon Canal, along the Cam valley, to a terminal basin at Paulton, were in use by 1805, together with several tramways. A planned 11.7 km (7.25 mi) branch to Midford was never built, but in 1815 a tramway was laid along its towing path. In 1871 the tramway was purchased by the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway (S&DJR),[99][100] and operated until the 1950s.

The 19th century saw improvements to Somerset's roads with the introduction of turnpikes, and the building of canals and railways. Nineteenth-century canals included the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal, Westport Canal, Glastonbury Canal and Chard Canal.[11][40] The Dorset and Somerset Canal was proposed, but little of it was ever constructed.[40]

Station platform with black locomotive.
The West Somerset Railway

The usefulness of the canals was short-lived, though some have now been restored for recreation. The 19th century also saw the construction of railways to and through Somerset. The county was served by five pre-1923 Grouping railway companies: the Great Western Railway (GWR);[101][102] a branch of the Midland Railway (MR) to Bath Green Park (and another one to Bristol);[103] the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway,[102][104][105] and the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR).[102][106] The former main lines of the GWR are still in use today, although many of its branch lines were scrapped. The former lines of the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway closed completely,[107] as has the branch of the Midland Railway to Bath Green Park (and to Bristol St Philips); however, the L&SWR survived as a part of the present West of England Main Line. None of these lines, in Somerset, are electrified. Two branch lines, the West and East Somerset Railways, were rescued and transferred back to private ownership as "heritage" lines. The fifth railway was a short-lived light railway, the Weston, Clevedon and Portishead Railway. The West Somerset Mineral Railway carried the iron ore from the Brendon Hills to Watchet.

Until the 1960s the piers at Weston-super-mare, Clevedon, Portishead and Minehead were served by the paddle steamers of P and A Campbell who ran regular services to Barry and Cardiff as well as Ilfracombe and Lundy Island. The pier at Burnham-on-Sea was used for commercial goods, one of the reasons for the Somerset and Dorset Railway was to provide a link between the Bristol Channel and the English Channel. The pier at Burnham-on-Sea is the shortest pier in the UK.[108] In the 1970s the Royal Portbury Dock was constructed to provide extra capacity for the Port of Bristol.

For long-distance holiday traffic travelling through the county to and from Devon and Cornwall, Somerset is often regarded as a marker on the journey. North–south traffic moves though the county via the M5 Motorway.[109] Traffic to and from the east travels either via the A303 road, or the M4 Motorway, which runs east–west, crossing the M5 just beyond the northern limits of the county.


State schools in Somerset are provided by three Local Education Authorities: Bath and North East Somerset, North Somerset, and the larger Somerset County Council. All state schools are comprehensive. In some areas primary, infant and junior schools cater for ages four to eleven, after which the pupils move on to secondary schools. There is a three-tier system of first, middle and upper schools in the Cheddar Valley,[110] and in West Somerset, while most other schools in the county use the two-tier system.[111] Somerset has 30 state and 17 independent secondary schools;[112] Bath and North East Somerset has 13 state and 5 independent secondary schools;[113] and North Somerset has 10 state and 2 independent secondary schools, excluding sixth form colleges.[114]

% of pupils gaining 5 grades A-C including English and Maths in 2006 (average for England is 45.8%)
Education Authority  %
Bath and North East Somerset (Unitary Authority) 52.0%
West Somerset 51.0%
Taunton Deane 49.5%
Mendip 47.7%
North Somerset (Unitary Authority) 47.4%
South Somerset 42.3%
Sedgemoor 41.4%

Some of the county's secondary schools have specialist school status. Some schools have sixth forms and others transfer their sixth formers to colleges. Several schools can trace their origins back many years, such as The Blue School in Wells, Richard Huish College[115] in Taunton and Oldfield School in Bath.[116] Others have changed their names over the years such as Beechen Cliff School which was started in 1905 as the City of Bath Boys' School and changed to its present name in 1972 when the grammar school was amalgamated with a local secondary modern school, to form a comprehensive school. Many others were established and built since the Second World War. In 2006, 5,900 pupils in Somerset sat GCSE examinations, with 44.5% achieving 5 grades A-C including English and Maths (compared to 45.8% for England).

Sexey's School is a state boarding school in Bruton that also takes day pupils from the surrounding area.[117] The Somerset LEA also provides special schools such as Farleigh College, which caters for children aged between 10 and 17 with special educational needs.[118] Provision for pupils with special educational needs is also made by the mainstream schools.

There is also a range of independent or public schools. Many of these are for pupils between 11 and 18 years, such as King's College, Taunton and Taunton School. King's School, Bruton was founded in 1519 and received royal foundation status around 30 years later in the reign of Edward VI. Millfield is the largest co-educational boarding school, and the largest co-educational independent school in the country, catering for 1,260 pupils, of which 910 are boarders.[119] There are also preparatory schools for younger children, such as All Hallows, and Hazlegrove Preparatory School. Chilton Cantelo School offers places both to day pupils and boarders aged 7 to 16. Other schools provide education for children from the age of 3 or 4 years through to 18, such as King Edward's School, Bath, Queen's College, Taunton and Wells Cathedral School which is one of the five established musical schools for school-age children in Britain.[120] Some of these schools have religious affiliations, such as Monkton Combe School, Prior Park College, Sidcot School which is associated with the Religious Society of Friends,[121] Downside School which is a Roman Catholic public school in Stratton-on-the-Fosse, situated next to the Benedictine Downside Abbey,[122] and Kingswood School, which was founded by John Wesley in 1748 in Kingswood near Bristol, originally for the education of the sons of the itinerant ministers (clergy) of the Methodist Church.[123]

Further and higher education

A wide range of adult education and further education courses is available in Somerset, in schools, colleges and other community venues. The colleges include Bridgwater College, City of Bath College, Frome Community College, Somerset College of Arts and Technology, Strode College and Yeovil College.[124] Somerset County Council operates Dillington House, a residential adult education college located in Ilminster.

The University of Bath and Bath Spa University are higher education establishments in the north-east corner of the county. The University of Bath gained its Royal Charter in 1966, although its origins go back to Bristol Trade School (founded 1856) and Bath School of Pharmacy (founded 1907).[125] It has a purpose-built campus at Claverton on the outskirts of Bath, and has 12,000 students.[126] Bath Spa University, which is based at Newton St Loe, achieved university status in 2005, and has origins including the Bath Academy of Art (founded 1898), Bath Teacher Training College, and the Bath College of Higher Education.[127] It has several campuses and 5,500 students.

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Further reading

  • Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911, "Somersetshire".
  • Victoria History of the Counties of EnglandHistory of the County of Somerset. Oxford: Oxford University Press, for: The Institute of Historical Research.
    • Note: Volumes I to IX published so far **1st link to on-line version (not all volumes)
    • 2nd link to on-line version (not all volumes)
    • Volume I: Natural History, Prehistory, Domesday
    • Volume II: Ecclesiastical History, Religious Houses, Political, Maritime, and Social and Economic History, Earthworks, Agriculture, Forestry, Sport.
    • Volume III: Pitney, Somerton, and Tintinhull hundreds.
    • Volume IV: Crewkerne, Martock, and South Petherton hundreds.
    • Volume V: Williton and Freemanors hundred.
    • Volume VI: Andersfield, Cannington and North Petherton hundreds (Bridgwater and neighbouring parishes).
    • Volume VII: Bruton, Horethorne and Norton Ferris Hundreds.
    • Volume VIII: The Poldens and the Levels.
    • Volume IX: Glastonbury and Street, Baltonsborough, Butleigh, Compton Dundon, Meare, North Wootton, Podimore, Milton, Walton, West Bradley, and West Pennard.
  • Adkins, Lesley and Roy (1992). A Field Guide to Somerset Archaeology. Wimborne, Dorset: Dovecote Press. ISBN 978-0946159949. 
  • Aston, Michael; Ian Burrow (1982). The Archaeology of Somerset: A review to 1500 AD. Somerset: Somerset County Council.. ISBN 0861830288. 
  • Aston, Michael (1988). Aspects of the Medieval Landscape of Somerset & Contributions to the landscape history of the county. Somerset: Somerset County Council. ISBN 0861831292. 
  • Bush, Robin (1994). Somerset: The complete guide. Wimborne, Dorset: Dovecote Press. ISBN 187433627X. 
  • Costen, Michael (1992). The origins of Somerset. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0719036755. 
  • Croft, Robert; Mick Aston (1993). Somerset from the air: An aerial Guide to the Heritage of the County. Somerset: Somerset County Council. ISBN 978-0861832156. 
  • Dunning, Robert (1995). Somerset Castles. Somerset: Somerset Books. ISBN 0861832787. 
  • Leach, Peter (2001). Roman Somerset. Wimborne, Dorset: The Dovecote Press. ISBN 1874336938. 
  • Little, Bryan (1983). Portrait of Somerset. London: Robert Hale Ltd. ISBN 0709009151. 
  • Palmer, Kingsley (1976). The Folklore of Somerset. London: Batsford. ISBN 0713431660. 
  • Robinson, Stephen (1992). Somerset Place Names. Wimborne, Dorset: The Dovecote Press Ltd. ISBN 978-1874336037. 

External links

Coordinates: 51°11′N 3°00′W / 51.18°N 3.00°W / 51.18; -3.00

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

SOMERSETSHIRE, a south-western county of England, bounded N. and N.W. by the Bristol Channel, N. and N.E. by Gloucestershire, N.E. and E. by Wiltshire, S.E. by Dorsetshire, S.W. and W. by Devonshire. The area is 1630.3 sq. m. In shape the county resembles an ill-drawn crescent, curving inward where Bridgwater Bay bends south-west and broader at its eastern than at its western horn. It falls into three natural divisions, being in fact a broad alluvial plain bordered by two hill-regions. The Mendip range, breaking off from the high ground near Wiltshire, extends north-west towards the channel, where it ends with Brean Down; while the island of Steep Holm stands as an outpost between the heights of Somerset and Glamorgan. The summit of the Mendips is a long table-land, reaching an extreme height, towards the western end, of 1068 ft. in Black Down, sloping away gently towards the lower hills of the north, but rising on the south in an abrupt line, broken by many coombes or glens; the most striking of which are the cliffs of Ebbor Rocks, near Wells, and the gorge of Cheddar, which winds for nearly a mile between huge and fantastic rocks. South of the Mendips lies a broad plain watered by the Parrett and the Brue, and known generally as Sedgemoor, but with different names in different parts. This plain, intersected by ditches known as. shines, and in some parts rich in peat, is broken by isolated hills and lower ridges, of which the most conspicuous are Brent Knoll near Burnham, the Isle of Avalon, rising with Glastonbury Tor as its highest point, and the long low ridge of Polden ending to the west in a steep bluff. West of Sedgemoor the second great region of hills extends from Devonshire to the sea. It consists of the Black Down, Brendon and Quantock hills, with Exmoor Forest in the extreme west. This entire district is famous for the grandeur of its bare and desolate moors, and the bold outlines and height of its mountains; the chief of which are Dunkery, in Exmoor (1707 ft.); Lype Hill, the westernmost point of the Brendon range (1391 ft.); and Will's Neck, among the Quantocks (1261 ft.). The two principal rivers of Somerset are the Avon and the Parrett. The Avon, after forming for a short distance the boundary with Wiltshire, crosses the north-eastern corner of the county, encircling Bath, and forms the boundary with Gloucestershire till it reaches the sea 6 m. beyond Bristol. It is navigable for barges as far as Bath. The Parrett from South Perrott in Dorset, on the borders of Somerset, crosses the centre of the county north-westwards by Bridgwater, receiving the Yeo and Cary on the right, and the Isle and Tone on the left. Among other streams are the Axe, which rises at Wookey Hole in the Mendips and flows northwestward along their base to the Bristol Channel near Blackrock; the Brue, which rises to the east of Bruton, near the borders of Wiltshire, and enters the Bristol Channel near the mouth of the Parrett; and the Exe (with its tributary the Barle), which rises in Exmoor forest and passes southward into Devon. Some of the Somersetshire streams, especially the Exe and Barle, are in high favour with trout fishermen. Weston-super-Mare is a flourishing seaside resort, and Minehead and other coast villages are also frequented.

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The oldest formation in the county is the Devonian, which extends eastwards from Devonshire across Exmoor to the Brendon and Quantock hills, and consists of sandstones, slates and limestones of marine origin. The Old Red Sandstone, the supposed estuarine or lacustrine equivalent of the Devonian, is a series of red sandstones, marls and conglomerates, which rise as an anticline in the Mendips (where they contain volcanic rocks), and also appear in the Avon gorge and at Portishead. The Carboniferous Limestone, of marine origin, is well displayed in the Mendip country (Cheddar Cliffs, &c.) and in the Avon gorge; at Westonsuper-Mare it contains volcanic rocks. The Coal Measures of the Radstock district (largely concealed by Trias and newer rocks) consist of two series of coal-bearing sandstones and shales separated by the Pennant Sandstone; locally the beds have been intensely folded and faulted, as at Vobster. Indeed, all the formations hitherto mentioned were folded into anticlines and synclines before the deposition of the Triassic rocks. These consist of red marls, sandstones, breccias and conglomerates, which spread irregularly over the edges of the older rocks; the so-called Dolomitic Conglomerate is an old shingle-beach of Triassic (Keeper Marl) age. The Rhaetic beds are full of fossils and mark the first invasion of the district by the waters of the Jurassic sea. The Lias consists of clays and limestones; the latter are quarried and are famous for their ammonites and reptilian remains. Above the Lias comes the Lower or Bath Oolite Series (Inferior Oolite group, Fuller's Earth and Great Oolite group), chiefly clays and oolitic limestone; the famous Bath Stone is got from the Great Oolite. The Oxford Clay is the chief member of the Middle or Oxford Oolite Series. Above these follow the Upper Cretaceous rocks, including the Gault, Upper Greensand and Chalk, which extend into the county from Wiltshire near Frome and from Dorset near Chard. There are apparently no true glacial deposits. Low-lying alluvial flats and peat-bogs occupy much of the surface west of Glastonbury. Caves in the Carboniferous Limestone (e.g. Wookey Hole, near Wells) have yielded Pleistocene mammalia and palaeolithic implements. The thermal waters of Bath (120° F.) are rich in calcium and sodium sulphates, &c. The chief minerals are coal, freestone and limestone, and ores of lead, zinc and iron.


The climate partakes of the mildness of the southwestern counties generally. A high proportion, exceeding fourfifths of the total area of the county, is under cultivation. In a county where cattle-feeding and dairy-farming are the principal branches of husbandry, a very large area is naturally devoted to pasture; and there are large tracts of rich meadow land along the rivers, where many of the Devonshire farmers place their herds to graze. Floods, however, are common, and the Somerset Drainage Act was passed by parliament on the 11th of June 1877, providing for the appointment of commissioners to take measures for the drainage of lands in the valleys of the Parrett, Isle, Yeo, Brue, Axe, Cary and Tone. Cheese is made in various parts, notably the famous Cheddar Cheese, which is made in the farms lying south of the Mendips. Sheep-farming is practised both in the lowlands and on hill pastures, Leicesters and Southdowns being the favourite breeds. In the Vale of Taunton heavy crops of wheat are raised; this grain, barley and oats being raised on about equal areas. Turnips, swedes and mangolds occupy most of the area under green crops. Somerset ranks after Devon and Hereford in the extent of its apple orchards, and the cider made from these apples forms the common drink of the peasantry, besides being largely exported. Wild deer are still found on Exmoor, where there is a peculiar breed of ponies, hardy and small. The Bristol Channel and Bridgwater Bay abound in whiteand shell-fish; salmon and herring are also caught, the principal fishing stations being Porlock, Minehead and Watchet.

Other Industries

Coal, from the Mendips, and freestone, largely quarried near Bath, are the chief mineral products of Somerset, although brown ironstone, zinc, limestone and small quantities of slate, gravel, sand, sulphate of strontia, gypsum, ochre, Fuller's earth, marl, cement, copper and manganese are also found. Lead mining is carried on near Wellington, and lead washing in the Mendips; but these industries, like the working of spathose iron ore among the Brendon hills, are on the wane. The chief manufactures are those of woollen and worsted goods, made in a large number of towns; silk made at Frome, Taunton and Shepton Mallet; gloves at Yeovil, Stoke, Mattock and Taunton; lace at Chard; linen and sailcloth at Crewkerne; horsehair goods at Bruton, Castle Cary and Crewkerne; crape at Dulverton and Shepton Mallet. Tobacco, snuff and spirits are also manufactured; and there are large potteries at Bridgwater, where the celebrated bath-brick is made, and at Weston-superMare; carriage works at Bath and Bridgwater; engineering and machine-works also at Bridgwater. On the Avon, copper and iron are smelted, while several other rivers provide power for cotton, worsted and paper mills. The bulk of the export trade passes through Bristol, which is situated mainly in Gloucestershire, though it has large docks on the Somerset side of the Avon, and others at Portishead.


Somerset is well furnished with railways. The Great Western runs between Frome, Radstock, Bath and Bristol, and from Bristol it curves south-west through Weston and Bridgwater to Taunton, dividing there and passing on into Devon.

Branches leave the main line for Portishead, Clevedon and Minehead on the north, and for Witham Friary via Wells, Yeovil via Langport, and Chard via Ilminster on the south. The South-Western main line from London passes through the south-west of Somerset, running from Templecombe to Axminster in Devon, and the Somerset and Dorset runs from Bath to Shepton Mallet via Radstock. The Kennet and Avon Canal flows from Bradford in Wiltshire to Bath, and there joins the Avon, meeting on its way the two branches of the Somersetshire Coal Canal which flow from Paulton and Radstock. The Taunton and Bridgwater Canal flows into the River Parrett.

Population and Administration

The area of the ancient county is 1,043,409 acres, with a population in 1891 of 484,337, and in 1901 of 508,256. The area of the administrative county is 1, 0 37,4 8 4 acres. The county contains 40 hundreds and two liberties. The municipal boroughs are - Bath, a city and county borough (pop. 49,839), Bridgwater (15,209), Chard (4437), Glastonbury (4016), Taunton (21,087), Wells, a city (4849), Yeovil (9861). The urban districts are - Burnham (2897), Clevedon (590o), Crewkerne (4226), Frome (11,057), Highbridge (2233), Ilminster (2287), Midsomer Norton (5809), Minehead (2511), Portishead (2544), Radstock (3355), Shepton Mallet (5238), Street (4018), Watchet (1880), Wellington (7283), Westonsuper-Mare (19,845), Wiveliscombe (1417). Among other towns may be mentioned Bruton (1788), Castle Cary (1902), Cheddar (1975), Keynsham (3512) and Wincanton (1892). The county is in the western circuit, and assizes are held at Taunton and Wells. It has one court of quarter sessions, and is divided into 22 petty sessional divisions. The boroughs of Bath and Bridgwater have separate courts of quarter sessions and commissions of the peace, and those of Taunton, Wells and Yeovil have separate commissions of the peace. The total number of civil parishes is 485. Somerset is in the diocese of Bath and Wells, excepting small parts in the dioceses of Bristol and Salisbury; it contains 508 ecclesiastical parishes or districts, wholly or in part. There are seven parliamentary divisions - Northern, Wells, Frome, Eastern, Southern, Bridgwater and Western or Wellington, each returning one member; while the parliamentary borough of Bath returns two members, and that of Taunton one member; and the county includes the greater part of the southern division of the parliamentary borough of Bristol.


In the 6th century Somerset was the debatable borderland between the Welsh and Saxons, the latter of whom pushed their way slowly westward, fighting battles yearly and raising fortifications at important points to secure their conquered lands. Their frontier was gradually advanced from the Axe to the Parrett, and from the Parrett to the Tamar, Taunton being a border fort at one stage and Exeter at another. By 658 Somerset had been conquered by the West Saxons as far as the Parrett, and there followed a struggle between the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, decided by a great victory of Ine in 710, which led to the organization of the lands east of the Parrett as part of the kingdom of Wessex. There were still occasional inroads by the Welsh, Taunton Castle being captured in 721, but from the 8th century the West Saxon kings were rulers of what is now known as Somersetshire. About this time the bishopric of Wells was founded, and the monastery of Glastonbury restored by Ine. The next hundred and fifty years were the period of Danish invasions. Egbert, king of Wessex, became Bretwalda or overlord of all England in 827, and under him Wessex with the other frontier kingdoms was organized for defence against the Danes, and later the assessment of danegeld led to the subdivision of Wessex for financial and military purposes, which crystallized into the divisions of hundreds and tithings, probably with the system of assessment by hidation. King Alfred's victory in 878, followed by the Peace of Wedmore, ended the incursions of the Danes for a time, but a hundred years later they were again a great danger, and made frequent raids on the west coast of Somerset. At some time before the Conquest, at a date usually given as 1016, though evidence points to a much earlier and more gradual establishment, England was divided into shires, one of which was Somerset, and tradition gives the name of the ' first earl as Hun, who was followed by Earnulf and Sweyn, son of Godwin. There has been curiously little variation in the territory included in the county, from the date of the Gheld Inquest in 1084 to the second half of the ,9th century, when certain minor alterations were made in the county boundary. These have been practically the only changes in the county boundary for goo years, if we except the exclusion of Bristol from the county jurisdiction in 1373.

At the Conquest Somerset was divided into about 700 fiefs held almost entirely by the Normans. The king's. lands in Somerset were of great extent and importance, and consisted in addition to the ancient demesne of the Crown of the lands of Godwin and Earl Harold and the estates of Queen Edith who died in 1074. The bishop of Winchester owned a vast property of which Taunton was the centre, and about one-tenth of the county was included in the estates of the bishop of Coutances, which were akin to a lay barony and did not descend as a whole at the bishop's death. The churches of Glastonbury, Athelney and Muchelney still owned vast lands, but Norman spoliation had deprived them of much that they had held before the Conquest. Among the great lay tenants who divided the conquered lands were the count of Mortain (the Conqueror's half-brother), Roger de Corcelles, Walter de Douai, Roger Arundel and William de Mohun. About this time or a little later many Norman castles were built, some of which have survived. The castles at Richmont (near West Harptree), Nunney, Farleigh, Bridgwater, Stoke Courcy, Taunton and Dunster were probably the most important. Somerset was very rich in boroughs at the time of Domesday, which points to a considerable development of trade before the Conquest; Bath, Taunton, Ilchester, Frome, Milborne Port, Bruton, Langport and Axbridge were all boroughs in 1087, and there was the nucleus of a borough at Yeovil. Somerton, Ilchester and Taunton were successively the meeting-places of the shire court. There were joint sheriffs for Somerset and Dorset until 1566 when a separate sheriff for each county was appointed. In the 7th century Somerset, as part of the kingdom of Wessex, was included in the diocese of Winchester. The new bishopric of Sherborne, founded in 704, contained Somerset until 910 when the see was divided into the dioceses of Salisbury, Exeter and Wells, the latter including the whole county of Somerset. The diocese was divided into three archdeaconries, Bath with two deaneries, Wells with seven and Taunton with four. Disputes between the chapters of Bath and Wells as to the election of the bishop led to a compromise in 1245, the election being by the chapters jointly, and the see being known as the bishopric of Bath and Wells. There has always been a strongly marked division of the county into East and West Somerset, a relic of the struggles between the Welsh and Saxons, which was recognized for parliamentary purposes by the act of 18 3 2. Somerset contained 37 hundreds in 1087, and now contains 41. There have been considerable modifications of these hundredal divisions by aggregation or subdivision, but since the 15th century there has been little change. The meeting-place of the hundred courts was at the village or town which gave its name to the hundred in the cases of Bruton, Cannington, Carhampton, Chew, Chewton, Crewkerne, Frome, Glaston Twelve Hides, Huntspill, Kilmersdon, Kingsbury East, Milverton, North Curry, North Petherton, Norton Ferris, Pitney, Portbury, Somerton, South Petherton, Taunton, Tintinhull, Wellow, Wells Forum and Winterstoke. The hundred of Abdick and Bulstone met at Ilford Bridges in Stocklinch Magdalen, Andersfield hundred court was held at the hamlet of Andersfield in the parish of Goathurst, Bath Forum hundred met at Wedcombe, Bempstone at a huge stone in the parish of Allerton, Brent and Wrington at South Brent, Catsash at an ash tree on the road between Castle Cary and Yeovil, Hartcliffe and Bedminster at a lofty cliff between the parishes of Barrow Gurnes and Winford, Horethorne or Horethorne Down near Milborne Port, Whitstone at a hill of the same name near Shepton Mallet, Williton and Freemanors in the village of Williton in the parish of St Decumans, and Whitley at Whitley Wood in Walton parish. In the case of Kingsbury the meeting-place of the hundred is not known. The great liberties of the county were Cranmore, Wells and Leigh, which belonged to the abbey of Glastonbury; Easton and Amrill and Hampton and Claverton, which were the liberties of the abbey of Bath; Hinton and Norton, which belonged to the Carthusian priory of Hinton; Witham Priory, a liberty of the house of that name; and Williton Freemanor, which belonged for a time to the Knights Templars.

The chief families of the county in the middle ages were those of De Mohun, Malet, Revel, De Courcy, Montacute, Beauchamp and Beaufort, which bore the titles of earls or dukes of Somerset from 1396 to 1472. Edward Seymour was made duke of Somerset in 1547, and in 1660 the title was restored to the Seymour family, by whom it is still held. The marquess of Bath is the representative of the Thynne family, which has long been settled in the county, and the predecessors of the earl of Lovelace have owned land in Somerset for three centuries. Hinton St George has been the seat of the Poulet family since the 16th century. The De Mohun family were succeeded in the 14th century by the Luttrells, who own great estates round Dunster Castle. The families of Hood, Wyndham, Acland, Strachey, Brokeley, Portman, Hobhouse and Trevelyan have been settled in Somerset since the 16th century.

Somerset was too distant and isolated to take much share in the early baronial rebellions or the Wars of the Roses, and was really without political history until the end of the middle ages. The attempt of Perkin Warbeck in 1497 received some support in the county, and in 1547 and 1549 there were rebellions against enclosures. Somerset took a considerable part in the Civil War, and with the exception of Taunton, was royalist, all the strongholds being garrisoned and held for the king. Waller was defeated at Landsdown near Bath in 1643, and Goring at the battle of Allermoor in 1645. This defeat was followed by the capture of the castles held by the royalists. Bridgwater and Bath fell in July 1645, Sherborne Castle was taken in August, and after the capture of Nunney, Farleigh and Bristol in September 1645 the whole county was subdued, and very heavy fines were inflicted upon the royalists, who included nearly all the great landowners of the county. Somerset was the theatre of Monmouth's rebellion, and he' was proclaimed king at Taunton in 1685. The battle of Sedgmoor on the 4th of July was followed in the autumn by the Bloody Assize held by Judge Jeffreys.

Somerset has always been an agricultural county. Grain was grown and exported from the 11th to the end of the 18th century. Cider-making has been carried on for centuries. Among other early industries, salmon and herring fisheries on the west coast were very profitable, and mining on the Mendips dated from the preRoman period. Stone quarrying at Hambdon Hill and Bath began very early in the history of the county; and the lead mines at Wellington and the slate quarries at Wiveliscombe and Treborough have been worked for more than a century. Coal has been mined at Radstock from a very remote date, but it did not become of great importance commercially until the county was opened up by canals and railways in the 19th century. Sheep-farming was largely carried on after the period of enclosures, and the woollen trade flourished in Frome, Bath, Bridgwater, Taunton and many other towns from the 14th to the 19th centuries. Glove-making was centred at Stoke and Yeovil at the end of the 18th century and became an important subsidiary occupation in many country districts. The county was represented in the parliament of 1290 and probably in the earlier parliamentary councils of Henry III. In 1295 it was represented by two knights, and twelve boroughs returned two burgesses each. There have been many fluctuations in the borough representation, but the county continued to return two members until 1832, when it was divided into Somerset East and Somerset West, each of which divisions returned two members. Two additional members were returned after 1867 for a third - the Mid-Somerset - division of the county, until by the act of 1885 the whole county was divided into seven divisions.


The great possessions of the bishopric and of the abbey of Glastonbury led to a remarkable lack of castles in the mid part of the county, and also tended to overshadow all other ecclesiastical foundations. Even in the other parts of the county castles are not a prominent feature, and no monastic churches remain perfect except those of Bath and its cell, Dunster. At the dissolution of monasteries Bath was suppressed, the monastery of Glastonbury was destroyed, as were most of the smaller monasteries also. Of those which have left any remains, Woodspring, Montacute (Cluniac) and Old Cleeve (Cistercian) are the most remarkable. Athelney, founded by Alfred on the spot where he found shelter, has utterly perished. Montacute and Dunster fill a place in both ecclesiastical and military history. The castle of Robert of Mortain, the Conqueror's brother, was built on the peaked hill (mons acutus) of Leodgaresburh, where the holy cross of Waltham was found. The priory arose at the foot. Dunster, one of the few inhabited castles in England, stands on a hill crowned by an English mound. Besides these there are also remains at Nunney and Castle Cary. In ecclesiastical architecture the two great churches of Wells and Glastonbury supply a great study of the development of the Early English style out of the Norman. But the individual architectural interest of the county lies in its great parish churches, chiefly in the Perpendicular style, which are especially noted for their magnificent towers. They are so numerous that it is not easy to select examples, but besides those at Bath, Taunton and Glastonbury, the churches at Bridgwater, Cheddar, Crewkerne, Dunster, Ilminster, Kingsbury, Leigh-on-Mendip, Martock and Yeovil may be specially indicated. Of earlier work there is little Norman, and hardly any pre-Conquest, but there is a characteristic local style in some of the smaller buildings of the 14th century. The earlier churches were often cruciform, and sometimes with side towers. In domestic remains no district is richer, owing to the abundance of good stone. Clevedon Court is a very fine inhabited manor-house of the 14th century, and the houses, great and small, of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries are very numerous. Indeed, the style has never quite gone out, as the gable and the mullioned window have lingered on to this day. Barrington Court in the 16th century and Montacute House in the 17th are specially fine examples. There are also some very fine barns, as at Glastonbury, Wells and Pilton.

See J. Collinson, History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset (Bath, 1791); W. Phelps, History and Antiquities of Somerset (London, 1839); R. W. Eyton, Domesday Studies: Analysis of the Somerset Survey (London, 1880); F. T. Elworthy, West Somerset Word-Book (Dialect Society, London, 1886); Roger, Myths and Worthies of Somerset (London, 1887); C. R. B. Barrett, Somerset Highways, Byways and Waterways (London, 1894); C. Walters, Bygone Somerset (London, 1897); Victoria County History: Somerset; also various publications by the Somerset Record Society, the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, and Somerset Notes and Queries.

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