The History of Bridgwater
Bridgwater has a rich and colourful history dating back to at least 800 A.D. when the town was first mentioned in the Saxon Chronicles.
Mediaeval Bridgwater and its origins are well documented and Bridgwater is fortunate to have more mediaeval archive material intact than any other Somerset town. The town was granted borough status by King John’s charter of 1200 A.D. which gave the town its freedom, the right to build a bridge across the river and to build Bridgwater Castle.
The castle survived until the English Civil War when the Royalist held town was taken by Cromwell and Fairfax for Parliament. Just a few small elements of this once huge castle survive today, most notably the Watergate entrance on Bridgwater’s West Quay.
The whole of the 17th century was a period of turmoil across the nation, and nowhere more so than Bridgwater. In 1605, with the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, Bridgwater, along with other towns and villages, celebrated with the traditional bonfire and fireworks displays. But in Bridgwater this tradition was to develop into what has now become the world’s largest night time carnival.
Then in 1645, the English Civil War finally knocked on Bridgwater’s door. The castle was held for the Royalists by Colonel Wyndham, the governor of the castle. His wife, Lady Crystabella Wyndham, on hearing that Cromwell had arrived and was stood on the opposite bank of the river, took a musket up onto the embattled castle wall and fired a shot at the enemy leader, missing him by some six feet and felled his aide de camp.
After heavy fighting, in which all but two houses on the Eastover side of the river were razed to the ground, Colonel Wyndham agreed to terms of surrender and the Parliamentarians took control of the town and its castle. The following year, as with so many castles across the country, Bridgwater Castle was destroyed.
In 1685, the Monmouth Rebellion came to Bridgwater. On Bridgwater’s Cornhill the Duke of Monmouth was crowned the King of England and the number of rebel volunteers were swelled by the addition of local men keen to support his cause. Monmouth’s troops traveled up to Bristol and Bath over the following days, returning to Bridgwater in depleted numbers. Monmouth realised a surprise night attack was required if he was to defeat the King’s troops encamped at Westonzoyland. And so on the evening of July 6th, 1685 Monmouth led his troops into the famous Battle of Sedgemoor, the last land battle fought on English soil. This ended in defeat for the Duke of Monmouth who was later beheaded in the Tower of London.
From its very origins, Bridgwater has been a maritime trading centre. However, in Saxon times, before a bridge crossed the river, ships sailed on by as they journeyed to Taunton and Langport. Now it may seem odd that a place called Bridgwater at one time had no bridge and that requires some explanation.
In the beginning, Bridgwater was simply called Brigg, a Saxon word for quayside, for that was really all there was. So the Bridg part of Bridgwater never had an ‘e’ on the end. Then when William the Conqueror came over in 1066, the land was divided amongst the French conquerors. Brigg was allocated to Walter from Douai in France, and so the town became ‘Brigg of Walter’, or Briggwalter. And so we can now recognise that it is the ‘l’ from Walter which is missing and not the ‘e’ from Bridgwater.
But back to the river and shipping. The docks, river and shipping for centuries were the most important of Bridgwater’s economy. When the bridge was built across the river, the tall masted ships could no longer sail on by but were obliged to moor up at Bridgwater where the goods for deeper Somerset were transferred to barges for the onward journey. Among the exports, huge volumes of bricks and tiles, produced from the local clay soil, were shipped to the far corners of the world. Bath Brick, a fore runner to scouring pads, were produced by the million and could be found across the world especially where the soldiers of the British Empire could be found.
With so much trade, the town needed improved infrastructure for the transport of goods and so in 1840 and 1841 the town’s dock was opened with the completion of the canal link to Taunton and the Bristol to Exeter Railway arrived in the town.
After the Second World War, the local brick industry collapsed to be replaced by the local Cellophane production unit. Today the industries are smaller but more numerous leaving the town less vulnerable to the collapse of single markets.
These details have been provided by Roger Evans, Bridgwater’s local author and historian.