Ilchester (St. Mary)

ILCHESTER (St. Mary), a parish and incorporated town, and formerly a representative borough and a market-town, in the union of Yeovil, hundred of Tintinhull, W. division of Somerset, 4 miles (S. S. E.) from Somerton, and 122 (W. S. W.) from London; containing 1068 inhabitants. This place, called by the Britons Pont Ivel Coit, signifying "the bridge over the Ivel in the wood," was the Ischalis of Ptolemy, and, from having been a Roman station on the river Ivel, obtained the Saxon appellation of Ivelceastre, of which its present name is an obvious contraction. It was anciently a town of much greater extent and importance than it is at present, and was encompassed by walls, and defended by a deep moat: of the former, the foundations are plainly discernible in various places, and of the latter there are still vestiges at Belles-Pool, and also in Yard-lane, to the north of the town. The ancient gates are supposed to have occupied the site of the present entrances from Ilminster and Yeovil, and near the bridge may be traced the stones of a ford across the river. The Roman Fosse-way from London to Exeter, which passed through the town, still forms the principal turnpike-road; and there are some remains of a fortification, which is supposed to have been built by the Romans. At the time of the Norman Conquest it appears to have had 107 burgesses; and in 1088, during a rebellion against William Rufus, it was successfully defended from the attack of Robert Mowbray, a leader of the insurgents.

The town is pleasantly situated on the south bank of the river Ivel, in a rich and fertile parish comprising 664 acres, of which 121 are arable, and the remainder meadow and pasture; it is connected with the parish of Northover by a stone bridge of seven arches. The houses, with few exceptions, are indifferently built; and there are extensive piles of building, originally erected for electioneering purposes, consisting of several stories, and comprising, on each, different small tenements formerly inhabited by burgage tenants at a nominal rent. The market-place is a commodious area, at the lower end of which is the town-hall, and at the upper a handsome pillar of the Doric order, supporting a vertical sun-dial with four faces directed to the four cardinal points. Assemblies occasionally take place in the townhall: the races, held on Kingsmoor, have been discontinued. There are no particular branches of manufacture: some of the females are employed in making gloves for the Yeovil manufacturers; but the town derives its chief trade from its situation as a thoroughfare. The market, on Wednesday, is now disused: the fairs are on the Monday before Palm-Sunday, July 2nd, and Aug. 2nd, for cattle and pigs; but the two last fairs are rapidly falling into neglect. About the close of the 18th century, an attempt was made to render the river lvel navigable to this place from Langport, but after the expenditure of several thousands of pounds, it eventually failed. Ilchester, a borough by prescription, was incorporated by charter of King John, by which the government is vested in a bailiff and twelve capital burgesses. The inhabitants first exercised the elective franchise in the 26th of Edward I., and made regular returns till the 34th of Edward III., from which time its privileges were suspended until the 12th of Edward IV., when it resumed them; it again discontinued until the 19th of James I., from which period it regularly returned two members to parliament until the 2nd of William IV., when it was disfranchised. The corporation have power to hold courts of assize, a privilege they have not exercised for a very considerable length of time; and the assizes for the county, formerly held in the town, are now held at Taunton, Wells, and Bridgwater. At the court leet of the lord of the manor, constables and other officers are appointed. The town-hall is a neat modern structure, containing a large assembly-room; the county gaol is a spacious building, on the northern bank of the Ivel. The election of the members for the western division of the county takes place here.

The living is a rectory, valued in the king's books at £7. 16. 10½.; net income, £282; patron, the Bishop of Bath and Wells: the tithes have been commuted for £51. 10., and the glebe comprises about 45 acres. The church, an ancient building with a small octagonal tower, appears to have been rebuilt at a remote period; in the chancel is a monument to the memory of the daughter of William Evers, servant to Henry VIII., Edward VI., and Queen Mary, and serjeant-at-arms to Queen Elizabeth. There is a place of worship for Independents. The almshouses here appear to have been founded in the reign of Henry VI., by Robert Veal, who endowed them with lands producing upwards of £150 per annum, for aged men; they were rebuilt of stone in 1810, by the bailiff and burgesses. A few years since, in removing part of the old wainscoting in the house anciently occupied by the family of Masters, a beautiful specimen of carved ivory was found, inclosed in a wooden frame in two compartments, and representing the Annunciation of the Virgin; and in digging a garden nearly opposite the house, a ring of massy gold was discovered, in which was set a coin of the Emperor Severus, in excellent preservation. Among the monastic institutions existing here, was a nunnery, originally founded about 1220, by William Dacres, as an hospital for poor travellers, and dedicated to the Blessed Trinity, but which, prior to the Reformation, had dwindled into a free chapel. Here was also a convent of preaching friars, in which the celebrated Roger Bacon, who is usually stated to have been a native of Ilchester, but whose birthplace is uncertain, was educated. Mrs. Rowe, author of Devout Exercises of the Heart, and other works, was a native of the parish. Ilchester gives the title of Earl to the family of Fox.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, published in 1848.