At the period of the Roman Conquest, the district now forming the county of Somerset was part of the territory of the Belgæ, a people of Celtic origin, who had migrated hither out of Gaul, about three centuries before the commencement of the Christian era. Between the native Britons and this tribe continued hostilities existed, the former attempting to regain possession of the territory; but at length, about 250 years after the first settlement of the Belgæ, Divitiacus, King of the Suessones, brought over to them from the continent a considerable army of their fellow-countrymen, and a treaty was concluded, in which a line of demarcation between the territories of each nation was agreed upon. This line consisted of a large and deep fosse defended by a rampart, called Wansdike, parts of which may still be traced. Commencing at Andover in Hampshire, it traverses the county of Wilts, and on approaching Somerset crosses the Avon near Binacre, and again at Bathampton, whence it continues over Claverton down to Prior Park, Inglish-Combe, Stanton-Prior, Publow, Norton, and Long Ashton, and terminates on the shores of the Bristol Channel at Portished, being 80 miles in length. Thus nearly the whole of Somersetshire was included in the territory of the Belgæ; and of the three chief cities of that people, two, Bath and Ilchester, were situated within its limits. In the Roman division of the kingdom it was included in Britannia Prima.
The county is co-extensive with the diocese of Bath and Wells, in the province of Canterbury, and is divided into the archdeaconries of Bath, Wells, and Taunton, the first having no archidiaconal court, and in the two latter the bishop exercising jurisdiction concurrently with the archdeacons. The first contains the deaneries of Bath and Redcliffe; the second, those of Axbridge, Cary, Frome, Ilchester, Marston, Pawlett, and the jurisdiction of Glastonbury; and the last, those of Bridgwater, Crewkerne, Dunster, and Taunton. The total number of parishes is 469. For purposes of civil government the shire is divided into various hundreds. It contains the cities of Bath and Wells; the borough, market, and sea-port town of Bridgwater; the borough and market towns of Frome and Taunton, the market and sea-port town of Watchet, the small sea-port town of Porlock, and the market-towns of Axbridge, Bruton, Chard, Crewkerne, Dulverton, Dunster, Glastonbury, Ilminster, Langport-Eastover, Milverton, Minehead, Shepton-Mallet, Somerton, Wellington, Wincanton, Wiveliscombe, and Yeovil. Under the act 2nd of William IV., cap. 45, the county was divided into the Eastern and the Western divisions, each sending two members to parliament; two representatives are returned for each of the cities, and one for the newly-enfranchised borough of Frome. Somersetshire is included in the Western circuit: the Lent assizes are held at Taunton; the summer assizes at Bridgwater and Wells, alternately. The quarter-sessions take place on January 11th and April 19th at Wells; on July 12th at Bridgwater; and on October 18th at Taunton.
To describe the variety of surface with some degree of perspicuity, it is necessary to consider it as divided into three districts. The first comprehends the northeastern portion of the county, included between the harbours of Uphill and King-road on the west, and the towns of Bath and Frome on the east. The next and central division, which is much the largest, comprising the entire middle part of the county, from the borders of Wiltshire and Dorsetshire to the Bristol Channel, is bounded on the north-east by the Mendip hills, and on the south-west by the Quantock hills and the forest of Neroche. The third forms the remaining western part of the county.
The general surface of the North-Easiern district is finely varied by lofty hills, which command magnificent views over the fertile plains that lie beneath them; the western part of it, however, including the hundreds of Winterstoke and Portbury, consists of low moorlands, as they are called, which are subject to frequent inundation. The extensive mountainous range of the Mendip hills stretches from Cottle's Oak, near the town of Frome on the eastern side of the county, in a direction nearly west-north-west, immediately northward of Wells and Axbridge, to a place called Black Rock, on the Bristol Channel, near Uphill, a distance of more than 30 miles. In the Middle division, the lands on the borders of Wilts and Dorset are high, and chiefly occupied as sheep-walks or in the production of corn. The country around Shepton, Bruton, Castle-Cary, Ilchester, Somerton, Langport, Petherton, and Ilminster, is exceedingly productive, both in corn and pasture, and abounds with good orchards and fine luxuriant meadows; westward of it rise the Polden and Ham hills, with a bold aspect. A distinguishing feature in this middle division is its marshes or fen lands, which are divided into two districts, called Brent Marsh, and the Bridgwater or South Marsh. The two principal bogs of the district, comprising several thousand acres, situated one on each side of the Brue river, a little to the west of Glastonbury, are five or six feet higher than the adjacent lands, and consist of a mass of porous earth, saturated with, and floating in, water: some parts of the drained lands are occasionally subject to land-floods. The South-Western division of the county is about equally divided into lofty hills, and fertile slopes and vales. In the vale of Taunton-Dean, which comprises thirty parishes, and the market-towns of Taunton, Wellington and Milverton, the prospect is agreeably relieved by a mixture of arable and pasture ground. To the north-west are wild and mountainous tracts. The Quantock hills, extending nearly the whole of the distance between the town of Taunton and the sea; the Brandon hills, to the west of these; and others in this part of the county, are noted for their romantic scenery. The loftiest point of the Quantock hills is 1270 feet above the sea. The elevation called Dundry beacon, also situated near the coast, is the highest land in the division and in the county, being, according to the ordnance survey, 1668 feet in height.
The mountainous parts of the county have a smooth, undulating, and rounded outline, seldom presenting cliffs or precipitous faces, except on the sea-shore. The line of coast is very irregular, in some places projecting in lofty and rocky promontories, and in others receding into fine bays with low and level shores. Its general direction, from the western extremity until near the mouth of the Parret, is from west to east; here, however, commence the shores of the marshes of the middle district, which, extending in a direction nearly from south to north, form the bay of Bridgwater, so called from the sea-port of that name, situated some miles up the river Parret. The bay is terminated on the north by the promontory formed by Breane down. Beyond this are two smaller bays and promontories, between which and the Avon the coast runs nearly in a north-eastern direction.
For its general fertility, Somersetshire is particularly eminent; and the variety of soil is so great, that almost every species may be found within its limits. In the north-eastern district the proportion of arable land is very small; in the middle division it is greater, but almost wholly on the south-eastern side: in the vale of Taunton, in the western part of the county, there is much arable land. The whole amounts to nearly 300,000 acres. The rotation of crops is various; those commonly cultivated are wheat, barley, oats, beans, and peas. The grass-lands are of very large extent, and the plains are remarkable for their luxuriant herbage, furnishing a supply of produce much more than sufficient for consumption; London, Bristol, Salisbury, and other markets, receiving great quantities of fat oxen, sheep, and hogs, besides cider, cheese, butter, and different other articles, from this county. Potatoes are extensively grown in different districts, more especially on the fertile soils in the vicinity of Castle-Cary, where 160 sacks per acre are a common crop. In the parishes of Wrighton, Blagdon, Ubley, Compton-Martin, and Harptree, in the north-eastern district, teasel is produced, chiefly on a strong rich clay. Woad is also cultivated in this district, chiefly in the vicinity of Keynsham; three or four crops are commonly gathered in the season, and the average produce per acre is about a ton and a half. In the rich tract extending from Wincanton by Yeovil to Crewkerne, a great deal of flax and hemp is grown. The cattle of Somersetshire also form an object of great importance in its economy.
The Woods and Plantations occupy about 20,000 acres. The north-eastern district is but partially covered, and according to the demand at the collieries, the wood it contains is cut at irregular intervals. On the borders of Wiltshire was the forest of Selwood, extending from Penscellwood to within three miles of Frome, and which was disafforested in the reign of Charles I. It appears to have extended over a vale of about 20,000 acres, 18,000 of which have been cleared and converted into arable and pasture land, with a small portion of meadow; the remainder continues in coppice woods, the chief sorts of timber being oak and ash, and the underwood principally hazel, ash, alder, willow, and birch. The county has different Uncultivated Wastes. In the north-western district are several uninclosed commons, the principal of which are Broadfield down and Lansdown, the former containing about 2500 acres, the latter nearly 1000; the surface of Lansdown is perfectly smooth, and it is remarkable for its excellence in feeding sheep. The large open tract called Leigh down, to the west of Bristol, is also subject to a right of commonage, and is chiefly depastured with sheep. More than one-half of the ancient royal forest of Mendip, on the hills of that name, is now inclosed; the remainder is covered to the extent of several miles with heath and fern, and furnishes pasturage for large flocks of sheep. In the middle division, the largest uninclosed upland common is the forest of Neroche, near Ilminster, containing 800 or 900 acres, and upon which different parishes have a right of commonage without stint; the next in size is White-down, near Chard: the low marshy wastes comprise several thousand acres. At the western extremity of the county, and partly in Devonshire (which see), is the great forest of Exmoor, extending from east to west for a distance of ten or twelve miles, and from north to south about eight miles, and containing nearly 20,000 acres. There are several hundred acres of uncultivated land on the Quantock and Brandon hills, and in some other parts; and the wastes of that part of Black-down which lies within this county are supposed to exceed one thousand acres: the occupiers of estates contiguous to these hills stock them with young cattle in the summer months.
The chief mineral productions are coal, lead, calamine, limestone, freestone, and various other kinds of stone. Fullers'-earth, marl, and ochre are occasionally found. The coal-beds are the nearest to London of any yet discovered, and constitute the most southern deposit of that mineral in England; the deposit is comparatively small, and lies northward of the eastern parts of the Mendip hills. These hills, which consist chiefly of limestone of that kind technically called mountain limestone, are famous for their mines, principally of lead and lapis calaminaris. Those of lead, however, are nearly exhausted; at least, the deep working is so incumbered with water that little can be done in them, though, in former times, many thousand pounds were annually paid to the see of Wells for the lord's share (one-tenth) of the lead dug in the forest, in the parish of Wells only. On Broadfield down, also, are veins of lead. The Mendip mines are governed by a set of laws and orders commonly called Lord Choke's Laws, which were enacted in the time of Edward IV., who, on some disputes arising, sent Lord Choke, chief justice of England, down to his royal forest of Mendip, when the laws were agreed upon by the "lords royal of Mendip, viz., the Bishop of Bath, Lord Glaston, Lord Benfield, the Earl of Chewton, and my lord of Richmond, at a great meeting held at a place called the Forge."
The mountain limestone formation near Bristol, which is a feature in English geology, constitutes the hills rising from beneath the red marl to the west of that city, and forms a range of considerable elevation, through which the Avon passes in its course to the Severn. These hills consist of a prodigious number of strata, of different natures, but chiefly of limestone of several varieties, whose dip is about forty-five degrees. Some of the limestone strata contain various organic remains; and an assemblage of numerous strata, called the Black Rock, from the colour of the limestone, which is here quarried for paving-stones, comprises numerous fossils and rounded concretions, penetrated by petroleum, which sometimes exudes from the rock. The strata alternating with the limestone are beds of clay of various kinds, which sometimes contain nodules of coral and geodes of iron-ore: thin beds of ironstone and quartzose sand are also found, and a bed of coal about two inches thick. The mountain limestone incloses Bristol in almost every direction, forming a kind of irregular basin, and reposing on the red-sandstone, which visibly passes beneath it. On the top of the limestone cliffs on the side of the Avon, lies a yellowish sandstone, which has sometimes the appearance of breccia. The red clay in the neighbourhood of Bristol contains gypsum, and abounds with sulphate of strontian in veins and large beds.
The mountainous part of the western district of the county is formed of a series of rocks, differing much in mineralogical character, but a great proportion of them having the structure of sandstones. Some of the finest of these sandstones graduate into a fine-grained slate, divisible into laminæ as thin as paper, and having a smooth, silky, and shining surface. Copper in a state of sulphuret and of malachite, and veins of hematite, are frequently met with; and nests of copper-ore, of considerable size, have been found in the subordinate beds of limestone. The Quantock hills, Grabbist Hill, Croydon Hill, Brendon Hill, and some others to the west of them, consist chiefly of the kind of stone called greywacke, in some places interstratified with limestone; the limestonequarries in the eastern side of the Quantock hills are very numerous. North Hill, extending along the sea-shore from Minehead to Porlock, and forming a bold precipitous coast, is of greywacke; and the whole of the precipitous coast of the county presents a great variety of mineralogical strata. The kind of limestone called by mineralogists lias, and which extends in a direction nearly north-east and south-west almost to the banks of the Humber, commencing in Dorsetshire a little to the west of Ilchester, passes by Bath, and occupies a large tract of this county. The greatest quantity of freestone is raised at Coombe down.
The principal Manufactures are those of woollen and worsted goods, at Frome, Taunton, Wellington, and Wiveliscombe; of gloves, at Yeovil, Stoke, and Martick; of lace, at Chard and Taunton; of silk, at Taunton, Bruton, and Shepton-Mallet; of crape, at Taunton; and of knit worsted stockings, at Shepton-Mallet. Upon the Avon are several mills for preparing iron and copper, and others for the spinning of worsted, and the spinning and weaving of cotton. Many of the lower classes derive cheap and wholesome food from the salmon and herring fisheries of Porlock, Minehead, and Watchet, which are carried on to a considerable extent. The other fish found off the coast, and which are occasionally taken at different places upon it, are tublin, flounders, sand-dabs, hakes, pipers, soles, plaice, skate, conger-eels, shrimps, prawns, crabs, muscles, and starfish.
The chief rivers are the Lower Avon, the Parret, the Tone, the Brue, and the Axe. The Avon, besides constituting the harbour of Bristol, is navigable for small craft as high as Bath, a distance of sixteen miles above that port. The Parret forms the harbour of Bridgwater, and falls into Bridgwater bay at Stert point; the navigable part of it commences at Langport, whence to Stert point is a distance of about twenty miles. The Tone is navigable from Taunton to the Parret at Boroughbridge, about eight miles from Taunton, and near the centre of the county. The Brue is navigable up to Highbridge, a distance of two miles from its mouth. The smaller streams are very numerous; they mostly flow through fertile tracts, and the banks of many of them are adorned with extensive grounds belonging to the seats of the nobility and gentry: some of the principal are the Yeo, the Cale, the Chew, the Frome, the Ivel, and the Barl. The Kennet and Avon canal enters the county from Bradford in Wiltshire, and joins the Avon at Bath. The Somersetshire Coal canal commences in the Kennet and Avon canal at Limpley-Stoke, near Bradford, and proceeds to Poulton; a tramway branches from it in the parish of South Stoke to the collieries at Wilton and Clandown. The Grand Western canal enters the county from Devonshire near the parish of Thorn St. Margaret's, and proceeds to Taunton. There is also a canal from Taunton to Bridgwater. The Great Western railway enters the county at Bathford, about 3½ miles from Bath, and, crossing the Avon on a bridge near the city, proceeds along the southern bank of the river to within a short distance of Bristol, where it is again carried over the Avon to Temple-Mead. It joins the Bristol and Exeter railway, which runs through Somerset in a south-western direction, near the towns of Bridgwater, Taunton, and Wellington, into the county of Devon.
The remains or antiquity are very various. The parish of Stanton-Drew, in the north-eastern district, is remarkable as containing the remains of four clusters of huge massive stones, forming two circles, an oblong and an ellipsis, which are supposed to have constituted a Druidical temple. The ancient boundary called Wansdyke may be traced in several places; and in the vicinity of its course, near Great Bedwin, celts and ancient instruments of war have been discovered. Besides the Roman cities of Bath and Ilchester, there are numerous places which, although their names have been changed or altered, still bear evident marks of Roman origin in the foundations of some of their walls, and in various remains that have from time to time been dug from them. Among the many miscellaneous remains of this people which have been discovered, more especially at Bath, are included temples, sudatories, tessellated pavements, altars, hypocausts, and coins of different ages. Traces of ancient encampments are visible in various parts. The principal Roman road was the Fosse-way, which extends across the county from Bath, in a southwestern direction to Perry-Street, on the confines of Devonshire. In a direction nearly parallel with this, ran another road from the forest of Exmoor, through Taunton, Bridgwater, and Axbridge, to Portishead, whence was a trajectus, or ferry, across the Bristol Channel to the city of Isca Silurum, now Caerleon. On Salisbury Hill are traces of the earthworks thrown up at the time of the siege of Bath by the Saxons. An encampment called Jack's Castle, near Wilmington, is supposed to be of Danish formation. The intrenchments formed by the forces of Harold, near Porlock, in 1052, are still to be seen.
According to Tanner, the number of religious houses in the county, of all denominations,' including two alien priories, was about 44. There are remains of the abbey in the Isle of Athelney, founded by King Alfred; of that of Banwell, established in the same reign; of the abbeys of Bath, Bruton, Cliff, Glastonbury, Hinton, Keynsham, Muchelney, and Wells; of the priories of Barlinch, Barrow, Bath, Berkeley, Buckland, Sordrum, Cannington, Chewton, Dunster, Frome, Hinton-Charterhouse, Ilchester, Kewstoke, Montacute, Portbury, Stavordale, Stogursey, Taunton, Woodspring, and Yeanston; and of the nunneries of Nunney, Walton, and Whitehall. Remains also exist of the ancient castles of Bridgwater, Dunster, Montacute, Stoke-under-Hamdon, Stowey, Taunton, and Walton. Combe-Sydenham, near Stogumber, is a very old mansion, the seat of the family of Sydenham. The more modern seats of nobility and gentry are particularly numerous. Besides the celebrated waters of Bath, there are mineral springs of different properties at Alford, Ashill, Castle-Cary, East Chinnock, Glastonbury, Queen-Camel, Wellington, and Wells; at Nether Stowey is a petrifying spring. In the Mendip hills, and surrounded by wild and magnificent scenery, is Wokey Hole (so called from the neighbouring village of Wokey), an extensive natural cavern, the most celebrated in the west of England, in which the waters of the Axe take their rise, in a clear and rapid stream. In the parish of Cheddar, in the same district, is an immense chasm in the hills, called Cheddar Cliffs, the scenery of which is particularly rugged and striking. Somersetshire abounds with rare and curious plants, and on the hilly wastes occur the dwarf juniper, the cranberry, and the wortleberry, the last being here provincially called hurts. The rocks on the coast have great quantities of the lichen marinus, or sea-bread; in the low moors grows the gale, or candleberry myrtle. The county gives the title of Duke to the family of Seymour.
Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.