And so to Bath
Country houses, politics, and war, held the centre of the stage in Somerset in the 18th century, the gentry dividing their time between the glittering social round of the London season, sessions of parliament, and the idyll of a country retreat where the Classical outpourings of fashionable architects and decorators somehow blended into the rural scene thanks to the miracle of Nature and the artifice of Lancelot Brown. Add, too, the claims of Bath, where Nash, Allen, and the Woods created a magnet whose field was almost without limit, a field so much more easily accessible through a transport revolution which began with the improvement of the county’s roads.
Somerset’s politicians were not of the stuff of John Pym and Robert Phelips a century earlier, and yet two of the greatest political figures of the century, William Pitt the Elder, and Lord North, had more than casual connections with the county. Pitt sat as M.P. for Bath between 1757 and 1766, but the link was strengthened when the eccentric Sir William Pynsent died in 1765 leaving to Pitt his estate at Burton, near Curry Rivel, hoping he would like it ‘well enough to make it his country seat’. A political opponent said he was thus changed from a brawling orator into an old apple-woman. Within a very short time he extended the rambling old house, raised a colum to Pynsent’s memory, and himself designed a landscape with cedars, plantations, and laurel walks, spending quiet days out of office ‘farming, hunting and planting’. In 1 770 he found himself opposed to the ministry, led by his political rival, Lord North. And North was Pitt’s near neighbour, for in 1756 he married Anne Speke, heiress to £4,000 a year and the Dfflington estates. How often North came to Dfflington is not known, but when he did there were doubtless many place-seekers like Thomas Beedall, a bankrupt Langport boatman, who was quite satisfied with fine words, five guineas, and a dinner with the upper servants—even though it gave him indigestion.
Somerset’s native politicians were not of the same stature. Throughout the century members for the county were respectable Tories whose political opinions kept them out of office, the most prominent being Sir William Wyndham of Orchard. Chancellor of the Exchequer at the age of 26, he lost his post on the death of Queen Anne, was under arrest in the Tower for planning a rising in the West in favour of the Stuarts, and spent the rest of his life as Tory leader in the House of Commons. But countryman rather than politician, he was usually at Orchard when parliament was not sitting, spending his energy encouraging local trade and forming the park on the slopes behind his home, creating walks and vistas among the trees, planting woodland and fruit trees, vines and espaliers, and growing French beans and peas in his walled garden.
Wyndham’s colleagues and successors as M.P.s for the county, such as Thomas Prowse of Berkley, Edwards Phelips of Montacute, Charles Kemeys Tynte of Halswell, and Sir John Trevelyan of Nettlecombe, represented the landowning interest in elections which were more often arranged than contested, though Trevelyan was returned in 1780 largely with backing by local Dissenters. Elections in several of the boroughs caused much more excitement. Bath, Bridgwater, llchester, Milborne Port, Minehead, Taunton, and Wells, each sent two members to parliament. Bath was both independent and respectable, returning George Wade, Ralph Allen’s father-in-law, between 1722 and 1748. One seat at Bridgwater was for half the century controlled by the Dodingtons through their local estates and customs interests, and Bubb Dodington was returned for the borough between 1722 and 1754. Influence over the other seat was arranged between the Tyntes of Halswell, the Pouletts of Hinton St George, the Percevals, Lords Egmont, of Enmore, and the local Balches. llchester was controlled by the Lockyer family, firmly from 1727 until the 1770s, but then with difficulty. A London banker, attempting to build up an interest, forced Thomas Lockyer to spend £30 on each vote in 1784, and in 1789 he managed to capture a seat. Such was the state of affairs at Ilchester, it was said and widely believed, that the banker was then able to dispose of his interest for as much as £40,000. By 1800 one seat could be bought by a prospective member for £8,000, and control over both seats was acquired in 1802 by a Tory borough-monger, Sir William Manners, for £53,000.
The Luttrells controlled Minehead since they appointed the borough constables, the returning officers at elections, but they were usually circumspect, offering one seat to the government. By the late 18th century the Tudways, prosperous West Indies merchants, were the influential family in Wells, and the Wyndhams usually controlled one seat at Taunton, though ‘control’ often involved considerable sums of money and occasionally violence. Lord North’s government was openly involved in buying off the Dissenting woollen and silk manufacturers in the town in 1781 to secure the election of its nominee, a banker with local origins, Benjamin Hammet. Hammet represented the town until 1800. North was also involved in a shady deal at Milborne Port, controlled at the time jointly by the Medlycotts of Ven and Edward Walter. In 1779 North, in order to be rid of one of the two members, Temple Luttrell, who had been an opponent of his policies, employed an intermediary to buy Walter’s property, and then offered it to Medlycott on condition he would accept government candidates at the next election. Such a proceeding, although heavily criticised at the time by the hoodwinked Walter, was not illegal.
The later history of Ilchester as a parliamentary seat revealed the system at its worst. Despite his huge investment there Sir William Manners was never certain of success, and after elections in 1802, 1812, and 1818, he pulled down houses in the town, as many as a hundred in 1812, leaving only about sixty standing. The homeless were rehoused in a ‘workhouse’ where as lodgers they were unable to vote. Manners threatened even the remaining voters, and said he was prepared even to pull down the ‘workhouse’. The threats were necessary because another borough-monger, this time the Whig, Lord Darlington, had entered the contest. In 1818-19 he put up 38 cottages just outside the town, and perhaps as many as sixty inside. Darlington’s candidates, not surprisingly, won the next two elections. Thereafter Darlington and Manners, by that time Lord Huntingtower, were apparently prepared to share the seats between them, and two of Darlington’s candidates voted for the Reform Bill which in 1832 put an end to such venality. After that date Milborne Port, lichester and Minehead lost both members; Frome gained one; and the county returned four men instead of two. For the rest the new borough members were not to be the tools of a local family or financier, and were to be elected not by curious and clearly undemocratic custom so open to abuse, but by a uniform electorate, the respectable, middle class, £10 householder. The Reform Bill itself was the cause of widespread riots in Somerset as elsewhere, but neither riots nor the opposition of the House of Lords could stem the tide of progress, just as Dame Partington, in Sydney Smith’s memorable phrase in a speech at the Castle Hall in Taunton, could not stem the storm tide at Sidmouth with her mop. Yet the reformed electorate of Taunton did not see fit in 1835 to give sufficient support to a young radical dandy who was standing for parliament for the fourth time. Instead he found a seat at High Wycombe, and Taunton missed the distinction of calling Mr. Disraeli its honourable member.
* * * * *
Somerset men fought on land and sea in the wars of the 18th century, and Somerset bellringers celebrated their victories with liberal allowances of sugar loaf and cider. The 13th Regiment of Foot, created in 1685 to guard prisoners taken at Sedgemoor, fought under Marlborough in Holland, secured and later defended Gibraltar, distinguished itself at Dettingen and Fontenoy, and after garrisoning Minorca between 1769 and 1776 returned to Wells where in 1782 it became the 1st Somersetshire Regiment. In the Revolutionary War it served in the West Indies, Ireland and Egypt. Somerset men were press-ganged or accepted the king’s shilling like any others, and in the crisis of the 1790s parishes had to find money for a bounty for volunteers.
Among the men who fought in the American War of Independence were Major John Dyke Acland of Pixton, who commanded a brigade of Grenadiers and was wounded and taken prisoner at Saragota, and John Wimbridge of Curry Mallet, purveyor to the forces in Spain and Portugal, who died in 1809, his death caused by the fatigues on the march to Corunna. Somerset men, as befits a maritime county, were more successful at sea. Admiral George Rodney, victor of the battle of the Saints in 1782, was created Baron Rodney of Rodney Stoke in recognition of his Somerset origins. Following him were the remarkable Hoods of Butleigh. Samuel and Alexander, sons of the Reverend Samuel Hood, were each raised to the peerage (as Viscount Hood and Viscount Bridport of Cricket St Thomas) for their distinguished naval services. William Cooper and Alexander Litson, among thousands of lower ranks, each accepted £25, as bounty raised by Lydiard St Lawrence and its neighbours, and joined the navy in 1795.
Yet the wars and politics of Europe were remote from most people until the end of the century when the excesses of the French Revolution brought fears that England might be affected. Abbe’ Barbay, once a canon of Lisieux, but living in exile in Nether Stowey, was testimony to the horrors perpetrated across the Channel. And living in the same village for a time was a young couple whose liberal views and behaviour caused the greatest suspicion. The poet Coleridge was described as a ‘Democratic Libertine’, and his wife as a ‘Democratic Hoyden’ by the Tory parson of Over Stowey; and many thought the midnight walks of Coleridge with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, then staying at Alfoxton, were anything but innocent rambles, and they might well have been spying on behalf of Revolutionary France. Fortunately, there were others, like Vicar Newton of Old Cleeve, the curate of Nether Stowey, and, of course, Tom Poole, who saw them for what they were, and thus made no small contribution to national literature by their welcome.
Yet the fear of France was well founded. ‘A great revolution once more in France. That rascal Buonaparte is returned from Egypt, having stolen away from the army and left ’em to old Nick. Some say that he means to declare in favour of Royalty but he is too great a scoundrel for that. However they have made him Captain-General of all the forces and in short the Dictator. The Directory is set aside . . .’ So Parson Holland confided to his diary in 1799. And as the threat of invasion grew, John, 4th Earl Poulett, Lord-Lieutenant of the county, was moved to action. Already in 1794 he had raised the Somerset Fencible Cavalry and become their leader. In 1803 he became colonel of the 1st (East) Somerset Militia, both drawn from local people as part-time defenders of their homeland. Then, on the last day of December 1803, he issued instructions to his deputies in each division of the county, which made clear that invasion was imminent.
If an Enemy should land upon our Shores, every possible Exertion should be made immediately to deprive him of the means of Subsistence.
The Navy will soon cut off his Communications with the Sea; the Army will confine him on Shore, in such a Way as to make it impossible for him to draw any Supplies from the adjacent Country.—In this Situation he will be forced to lay down his Arms, or to give Battle on disadvantageous Terms.
But if unforeseen and improbable Circumstances should enable him to make some Progress at first, a steady Perseverance in the same System will encrease his Difficulties at every Step; sooner or later he must inevitably pay the Forfeit of his Temerity.
How much the Accomplishment of this Object will be facilitated by driving away the Live Stock, and consuming, or in Case of Absolute Necessity, destroying all other Means of Subsistence, in those parts of the Country which may be in imminent Danger of falling into his Possession, is too evident to need any Discussion.
And so, a superintendent appointed in each parish in the emergency was directed to make a survey of all live and dead stock in his parish for future indemnification should they be lost, and each tything man was to list men willing to serve, to find millers able to produce extra flour, and secure the offer of horses, vehicles and livestock. Thirty-one men at Dowlish Wake were prepared to serve, but had no arms; the miller could produce no more flour unless rain came, and horses and vehicles were not forthcoming.
At the same time all was in train to drive livestock to safety. The details of Somerset’s plans have not been found, but the farmers of north Devon were ready either to drive their cattle to Dartmoor should the French land in the east, or bring them into Somerset, to the rich grasslands below Somerton, whence they would eventually be taken to London. But the invasion did not take place, for the enemy fleet never achieved command of the sea, and was finally shattered at Trafalgar.
News came (wrote Parson Holland on 6 November) full of Buonaparte’s exaggerated boasting of success over the Austrians and the important news of Lord Nelson’s victory over the combined fleets … off Cadiz … but what has struck a damp on the whole is the death of the Gallant Nelson …
* * * * *
And standing aloof, almost above politics and war, was Bath. Celia Fiennes had not been impressed, in the 1680s, finding its houses ‘indifferent’ and the baths making the town unpleasant, ‘the air thicke and hot by their steem’. Even so the bathers, the better sort dressed in stiff yellow canvas which did not reveal their shape in the water, were’ escorted by guides to and from their lodgings, the whole business controlled by a sergeant who kept spectators in order. Order, particularly social and architectural order, was the secret of Bath in the 18th century as much as the healing properties of its waters; order established ‘by Richard Nash, ‘Beau’ Nash, who came to the city in 1702, and soon established himself there as the arbiter of elegance, Bath’s Master of Ceremonies. With the medical advice of Dr. William Oliver, the business acumen of Ralph Allen, and the architectural achievements of the two John Woods, Nash created at Bath the social centre of the fashionable world.
Elegant terraces, squares and crescents rose to provide lodgings for folk who came to bathe and gamble, to attend balls and routs, and generally to be entertained in surroundings created by the Woods, Thomas Attwood, Robert Adam and Thomas Baldwin, the leading architects of the day. This was the world of Sheridan and Smollett and Jane Austen, the place where the famous and the fashionable came as much for entertainment as for cure. Plaques on houses in the centre of the city and memorials in the Abbey record their names; the elegance they sought still survives.
But Bath could not have been the great attraction, especially to those from London, without a vast improvement in communications. For generations the principal road from London to the West Country hardly touched Somerset at all, passing only through Wincanton, Yeovil, Crewkcrnc and Chard in the extreme south. It was the main route of the posts from London to Exeter and beyond, and in the early 17th century Thomas Hutchins, the postmaster at Crewkerne, was the first man to make any part of the postal system profitable. In 1677 the western post route had stages at Crewkerne and Chard, and the Bristol route served Frome along a by-post from Marlborough. The first cross-post in the county linked Bristol with Exeter via Bridgwater and Taunton.
The main routes within the county can be traced by the late 17th century from the road maps of William Ogilby and from a fascinating survey of inns and stabling undertaken for military purposes after the Monmouth scare had revealed shortcomings, in the army’s communications system. Towns on the main roads offered plenty of accommodation for both men and horses, while smaller places on frequented roads were simply provided with ample stabling for changing horses. Chard thus had 91 beds and stabling for 342; Crewkerne 54 beds and stabling for one hundred and thirty. Wincanton had fewer inns and only 50 beds, but its stables could take 254 horses. Wells, still the largest town in the county, offered 492 beds and stabling for 599, followed by Bath, Taunton and Bridgwater. Pensford, a small village on the Bristol Road, and Bishops Lydeard, still not a town, were both remarkably well endowed with inns, the former with 60 beds, the latter with only 20, but with room for 102 horses.
Apart from the main London-Exeter route, the principal east-west roads in the early 18th century were through Castle Cary, Somerton and Taunton towards Exeter; or through Frome, Shepton Mallet, Glastonbury and Bridgwater, and thence either to Taunton or over the Quantocks to Minehead. The two roads south and south-west of Bristol were neither ideal: the way between Axbridge and Bridgwater was often impassable in winter along the undrained flats of the Parrett, and of the two routes south of Wells, the direct way over the Mendips involved the steep hill at Dundry where extra horses were needed for heavy loads. A new east-west route was canvassed in the 1760s from London via Andover to Wincanton, Somerton, Langport, and Taunton. The route had the support of influential Wiltshire figures like Alderman Beckford and Mr. Hoare, the banker, and Lord Chatham was asked by the sponsors for his encouragement, which they hoped would be forthcoming since the route passed in front of his house at Burton Pynsent. The idea came to nothing, but a similar route was established in the early 19th century from Andover and Wincanton through Ilchester, the foundation of the popular A303. One of the sponsors of that route was Sir William Manners, whose interest was less in the improved journey than in the safety of his parliamentary seat at Ilchester.
Regular maintenance of even major roads was until the 18th century the responsibility of the parishes through which they passed, and under such circumstances any general improvement was unlikely. The creation of turnpike trusts allowed stretches of road to be maintained instead by local bodies who could raise money for the purpose and charge travellers for the use of the road. In Somerset the Bath Trust was formed in 1707-8, and another, based on Bristol, in 1731. From 1753 most of the county’s principal roads were maintained in such a way, and the consequent improvements were obvious. Entirely new lines of road were created to avoid steep hills, new bridges and causeways were built, and some old routes, like the Great Road across the Quantocks between Nether Stowey and West Quantoxhead, were virtually abandoned. From 1816 the road surfaces themselves were vastly improved by the work of J. L. Macadam, who first advised the Bristol and Bath trusts in 1815-16, and who, with his family, dominated the Somerset road system in the 1820s and 1830s.
Improved communications demanded improved facilities en route, and every inn worth the name, like the Lovington inn on the Somerton Castle Cary road (now Brue Farm), or the George inn at Crewkerne, on the Exeter road, was extended around a yard where fresh horses were always ready for the next stage of the, travellers’ journey. Coaches and carriers, often organised if not owned by enterprising innkeepers, plied between towns, vying with each other for speed, often at the risk of their passengers or goods, and the importance of such routes to the towns themselves was considerable. The great brick stable block at Barrington Court, built in 1674, Sir William Portman’s 11 ‘house’ horses and seven coach horses at Orchard Portman in 1690, and the five coach houses and stabling for 25 horses at Burton Pynsent are but three examples of the way the more prosperous organised their journeys from place to place.
Whatever the state of the roads, news travelled fast enough, and Dr. Claver Morris of Wells (1659-1726) made a good living as a doctor whose practice stretched into Wiltshire and Gloucestershire in the east and to Exeter in the west. Wet weather was the great hazard for those for whom speed was essential, or a heavy load a responsibility. Young Gapper, a Somerton doctor’s apprentice, took a risk when he carried off Ann Virgin’s daughter in a chaise from Langport in October 1768. Other eloping couples used the London-Exeter road for speed, and found the isolation of the little church at Cricket St Thomas, hidden from view by the hillside and the trees, entirely suitable for their clandestine weddings.
The improvements effected by turnpikes were real, and were to last until the motorway movement of the 1970s brought the M5 snaking inexorably if elegantly through the county. In December 1800 the Staniforth family of Liverpool, travelling from Cornwall, commented on the ‘very good’ road through the county, and their progress bore witness to its quality. They left Exeter at 9 o’clock one Monday morning, changed horses at Cullompton, at the Castle in Taunton and at the King’s Head in Bridgwater, and reached the ‘clean and comfortable’ Piper’s inn at 6 o’clock after a journey of 40 miles. They left there at 9 the next morning, but the weather was too wet to allow them to leave their coach at Glastonbury. They changed horses at the Swan at Wells and stayed long enough to visit the cathedral, but found the next stage to Bath rather long, for no horses were available at the Old Down inn. They arrived at the White Hart at Bath at 3, a leisurely six hours for 30 miles; entirely satisfactory.