The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century

Chipstable and Raddington annual Bank Holiday fête and sports on 3 August 1914 was but one of a long tradition of public amusements in west Somerset whose origins could be traced back to the wrestling, cudgel-playing and horse-racing events at Maundown above Wivelis­combe at the turn of the 19th century. But instead of the handsome prizes and even more handsome wagers for the successful exertions of Charles Shetler, the cudgel champion of 1806, Chipstable sports were modest and gentlemanly. There were 16 healthy sports for very modest rewards, refreshments organised by the ladies of the parish, sideshows no more thrilling than a shooting gallery and the ‘Electric Shock’ administered by the rector, the whole enjoyed to the strains of the Bampton band. But on that very day war broke out; Chipstable, and every other village of its kind, was never to be the same again.

The First World War involved even the smallest and remotest community, and each war memorial is still eloquent of the huge loss of life. Exton, a parish of under 300 people, sent 44 men to war, and eight did not return; the tiny hamlet of Galmington lost seven men in a single year. Burrow Mump, rising above the Levels near Athelney, serves as a permanent memorial to 11,281 Somerset men who gave their lives.

For those too old or too young to fight the war made great if unrecognised demands. The County Archaeological Society abandoned its annual excursions, and one member lost his luggage when he found himself in charge of civilians leaving Germany in a hurry. The parish council at Compton Dundon called a meeting about the Prince of Wales’s Fund in 1914. In 1915 they supported the parish Relief Committee in raising funds for Belgium, collected £11 11s. 6d. to be shared between the Serbian Relief Fund and the Daily Express Fund for providing tuck boxes for soldiers, and delivered recruitment cards to likely volunteers. At the end of 1917 they bought Scottish seed potatoes from the County Council. That was, as their clerk recorded their business, their official connection with the war, though as churchgoers they had no doubt prayed for victory according to the archbishops’ direction in 1915 and had, perhaps, signed a petition organised by the Morning Post calling on God ‘for the Deliverance of the British Nation from the Godless. Menace and from The present distress and perplexity’.

The young, too, took their share in the burden of the war. The children of Barrington school met a refugee Belgian priest in 1915, and in 1916 were knitting socks for the troops. They sang patriotic songs, flew flags and recited verses on Empire Day; they heard of the death of Lord Kitchener; and actually talked to an old pupil, Driver Tratt, who answered their questions about his work ‘over in France’. They had the day off when the mistress saw her brother off as he returned to the Flanders Front; they knew the White family whose father was killed, and they played with the two boys who went to Taunton when their father returned to a military hospital in Swansea.

A Belgian refugee and several children of soldiers camped in the parish were admitted to Bishops Lydeard school in 1915, but the need for strict economy prevented the award of prizes from central funds. The children raised 10s. 3d. through a penny collection required by the Overseas Club for chocolate and tobacco for the troops, and in 1917 the girls had extra cookery lessons organised by the County Food Saving Association. The children raised 18s. 6d. for Christmas presents for Somerset soldiers in 1917, and in the same year collected 14½ cwt/736.6kg of horse chestnuts in response to a government appeal. All this might have made a welcome change from lessons, but the children could have been in no doubt about the tragedy of war. Early in 1915 their headmaster volunteered for service and joined the Somerset Light Infantry; early in 1919 he died of pneumonia in Bombay.

Peace celebrations in July 1919 left the children of Barrington and Shepton Beauchamp too tired to attend school after two days of jollification. On a more serious note, the war taught the church people of Wilton that private pews and privilege had to go: ‘that any one of the men whose names are . . . on the Roll of Honour (of those who were in uniform) should ever be asked to give place to any one of us’, wrote the vicar in his parish magazine, ‘would not be what we wish’.

The men who returned came back to a changing county. The creation of Somerset County Council in 1889 and the formation of parish councils or parish meetings from 1894 had brought local government into the hands of elected representatives for the first time. The rule of squire and parson was by no means immediately ended, and the first county aldermen and councillors included two Luttrells, a Hood, and a Homer, and five of the seven members of parliament for the county. But it also included men with industrial and commercial interests: a Clark from Street, a Fox from Wellington, a Bradford from Yeovil, and a Dening from Chard, representing shoes and cloth, transport and engineering.

The new council began with six officers and committees covering public works, police, contagious diseases of animals, and the lunatic asylum. Education, welfare and planning were later added to its concerns by national legislation, and one of its members, the Rt. Hon. Henry Hobhouse (member 1889-1937, chairman 1904-24) was a leading figure of national importance in the development of local government. In 1934 the Council commissioned a planning survey of the county which suggested lines along which industry, agriculture and housing might develop in the future, involving improvements in the road system, so much more busy under the growing pressure from the motor car. The survey established the notion of landscape amenity which was proving of growing interest to visitors coming to the county in greater numbers on holiday. But holidays in the country were soon to be forgotten.

Development plans for a brave new world when the depression should end were shelved in the face of the second world crisis of the 20th century. Somerset was seen as a safe haven should hostilities break out and, in September 1939, 10,336 children arrived at Weston super Mare station from Bushey, Eltham, Limehouse, Poplar, and Kennington, half to be billeted on the town, half to be found homes in the neighbouring villages. Children from the London area, from Bristol and South Wales were distributed in their thousands among Somerset schools, usually having classes on a shift system.

The traditional harvest homes at Sandford, Mark, Churchill, and many another place were cancelled; so, too, were the North Somerset Yeomanry sports and gymkhana at Hutton. Cairns of stones and iron stakes were placed on beaches to slow down an invader, road signs were taken away, trees were felled in level fields, committees for home defence were set up in every village, and units of the,Home Guard took over every available hail. Three of the familiar vessels of the White Funnel fleet at Weston went down at Dunkirk; the first bombs fell outside Taunton in June 1940, and every child at school, equipped with gas mask, was instructed in proper action in the event of an air raid. At Burnham they were to shelter under the Esplanade; at Withy­comb.e to seek refuge in the rectory garden; at South Petherton to march to the cricket field and lie under a hedge with the teachers; at Shapwick to sit under desks and sing. The children at Pill, near Bristol, were either to go home or to the church; the church was later bombed.

In war the countryside changed: by night all was dark; by day farmers were ploughing grassland, digging for victory. Forty-eight thousand acres were added to the arable total before war broke out, and 13,000 more people found jobs on the land. By 1942 the arable acreage was doubled as less and less food could be imported. The last great drainage enterprise on the Levels, the Huntspill river, was cunningly achieved at the same time, since it provided essential water for the Royal Ordnance factory at Puriton. Thirteen airfields in the county, which served as bases for allied forces preparing the long build-up to the D-Day landings in France, have largely disappeared, but the Admiralty at Bath, and the American 67th General Hospital at Taunton, now Musgrove Park, are reminders of the military presence in the county, and country houses and their parks still bear scars from their use as training camps and munition dumps Fields still have traces training of searchlight batteries, barrage balloon bases, storage depots, and the Pillbox tell-tale pillboxes which formed possible lines of defence across the county. In the towns there are still faint traces of paint on signs which once pointed to an A.R.P. post or recruiting office. The sacrifice and the effort of Somerset people can never be accurately assessed, but the bombing suffered at Bath in 1942 and the vast sum of nearly £8 million raised in Taunton alone in the various savings campaigns affected the lives of countless people.

Post-war Somerset, like post-war Britain, is a story of widening government involvement at national and local level against a back­ground of austerity, recovery, boom and crisis. Closure of railways and coal mines affected employees, consumers, and the countryside. The importance of that countryside has figured prominently in development plans in the county, though the balance between various interests still causes controversy. The creation of Exmoor National Park in 1954 and the declaration of the Quantocks as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1957 were the beginning of a process whereby areas of the county have been preserved in various ways. Woods, heathland and marsh have been set aside because of their interest to naturalists, and a large area of West Sedgemoor was in 1983 the latest subject of concern.

The notable growth of population in the north of the county had been recognised in the 1930s and by the 1960s Bristol was clearly the economic focus of a wide area of Somerset. Local government reorgani­sation, which came into effect on 1 April 1974, transferred a large and populous area north of the Mendip scarp to a new county of Avon, creating a boundary which in some cases ran arbitrarily through ancient parishes. The new creation was not popular among many people on both sides of the boundary, and returning to Somerset continues to be the aim of some, prompted both by a larger rates burden and by a deep loyalty to a county which seems to be offended by an action against a thousand years of history.

Somerset's Local Government Boundaries, 1974
Somerset’s Local Government Boundaries, 1974

Historic Somerset still continues, whatever the governing veneer. For a thousand years and more the people living between the Bristol Avon and the Mendips were Somerset folk, as well as those living beyond Mendip. Theirs was a heritage which was affected neither by the creation of Somerset County Council in 1889, nor by that of Avon in 1974. That heritage is a story of gentle change, not of a stagnant past. The long-established manufacture of cloth throughout the county has given place in modern times to shoes, cellophane, and aircraft; its small-scale production of teazel or rope to micro-manipulators whose precision measurements have made them essential in cancer research and in the analysis of moon rocks at the N.A.S.A. space centre in the U.S.A. The rich grassland which became a war-time airfield at Yeovilton in 1919 was the home base of men who saw service in the Falklands in 1982, and the Fleet Air Arm museum there displays not only Concorde 002, but also trophies from the South Atlantic. Cheddar cheese has recently received an accolade from Continental experts which Somerset folk have given it for generations, and soft cheeses are coming from dairies at Cannington and near Crewkerne, a proper challenge to makers across the Channel from the county which has such a long tradition of milk products. Farming is still Somerset’s major industry, but tourism is not far behind. The county’s tradition, so clear to see in the buildings of its towns and villages, so charming to hear from Somerset people, so exciting to explore in its countryside, is the key to its attraction to increasing numbers of people who visit it every year.