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Bridgwater (St. Mary)

BRIDGWATER (St. Mary), a port, borough, market-town, and parish, having separate jurisdiction, and the head of a union, locally in the hundred of North Petherton, W. division of Somerset, 35 miles (S. W.) from Bristol, and 137 (W. by S.) from London; containing 10,449 inhabitants. This place was given to Walter de Douay, one of William's followers, at the time of the Conquest, and was thence called "Burgh Walter" and "Brugge Walter," by which names, both signifying Walter's burgh or borough, it is designated in various ancient records. William de Briwere, to whom it was granted in the reign of Henry II., built a castle in the following reign, combining the strength of a fortress with the splendour of a baronial residence; and obtained from King John the grant of a market and a fair. He founded the hospital of St. John, for a master, brethren, and thirteen poor persons of the order of St. Augustine, whose revenue at the Dissolution was £120. 19. 1¼.; he also constructed the haven, and began to erect a stone bridge of three arches over the river Parret, which was completed by Sir Thomas Trivet in the reign of Edward I. His son William founded a monastery for Grey friars, about 1230, and dedicated it to St. Francis. The barons, during their revolt against Henry III., took possession of the town in 1260.

In the civil war of the 17th century, the inhabitants embraced the royal cause; and the castle being strongly fortified, the people of the surrounding district deposited therein their money, plate, &c. The parliamentarians under Fairfax invested the town, and laid close siege to the castle: both were resolutely defended; but the town being fired on both sides of the bridge, the garrison capitulated on terms of personal indemnity, and surrendered the fortress, with all the treasure in it, and 1000 prisoners, into the hands of the enemy. The castle, having sustained considerable damage during the siege, was demolished in 1645, and the sally-port and some detached portions of the walls are all that now remain. In the reign of James II. the inhabitants favoured the pretensions of the Duke of Monmouth, who, on his arrival from Taunton, was received with great ceremony by the corporation, and proclaimed king. He remained for some time in the town; and having, from the tower of the church, reconnoitred the royal army encamped on Sedgemoor, he rashly resolved to hazard the battle that terminated so fatally to his ambition. His adherents in the town suffered greatly for their attachment to his cause, under the legal severity of Jeffreys, and the military executions of Kirke.

The town is pleasantly situated in a well-wooded and nearly level part of the county, the view being bounded on the north-east by the Mendip hills, and on the west by the Quantock hills: the river Parret divides it into two parts, connected by a handsome iron bridge of one arch. The streets are spacious and well paved, and the town is lighted with gas, under an act obtained in 1834: the houses, chiefly of brick, are uniform and well built; and there is an ample supply of excellent water from springs. The western part is particularly clean. In the eastern part, termed Eastover, very great improvement has been effected. There is a foreign trade, consisting in the importation of wine, hemp, tallow, and timber; but the trade of the port is principally coastwise. Coal is brought free of duty from Monmouthshire and Wales, and is conveyed into the interior of the country by a canal to Taunton, Tiverton, Ilminster, and Chard, and by the river to Langport and Ilchester: in 1837, an act was obtained to enable the company of proprietors to continue the line of the canal below the town. That portion of the Bristol and Exeter railway, extending from Bristol to Bridgwater, was opened June 14th, 1841; and the remaining portion of the line, between Bridgwater and Exeter, was completed in May, 1844. In 1845 an act was passed for improving the navigation of the river, extending the quays, and making a short railway between the quays and the Bristol and Exeter railway; and another act, passed in 1846, authorises a railway from Bridgwater to Stoford, on the coast, where a harbour has been projected. The quay is accessible to ships of 200 tons' burthen, and furnished with every appendage requisite for the convenience of commerce. A principal source of employment is the making of bricks for general use, and scouring-bricks; the latter composed of a mixture of clay and sand deposited by the river: they are usually called Bath or Flanders' brick, and this is the only place in the kingdom where they are made. The market-days are Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; Thursday's market is for cheese, corn, and cattle, and is much frequented. The markethouse, lately erected, is a handsome building, surmounted with a dome and lantern, and having a semicircular portico of the Ionic order. The fairs are on the first Monday in Lent, July 24th, October 2nd (which continues for three days), and December 27th.

The first charter of incorporation was bestowed in the reign of John, and others were subsequently granted by Edward II. and III., Henry IV., VII., and VIII., Mary, Elizabeth, James I., and Charles I. and II. Under the act of the 5th and 6th of William IV., c. 76, the corporation now consists of a mayor, 6 aldermen, and 18 councillors; the number of magistrates is 13. The borough first sent representatives to parliament in the 23rd of Edward I., since which time it has continued to return two members. The right of election was formerly vested in the householders resident within the borough (which comprised 158 acres), paying scot and lot; but it was extended, by the act of the 2nd of William IV., cap. 45, to the £10 householders of an enlarged district containing 742 acres, which, both for parliamentary and municipal purposes, forms the present borough: the mayor is the returning officer. The corporation hold quarterly courts of session for the trial of all offenders, except those accused of capital crimes; and a court of record for the recovery of debts to any amount. The powers of the county debtcourt of Bridgwater, established in 1847, extend over the registration-district of Bridgwater. The summer assizes, alternately with Wells, and the summer-sessions for the county, are held here. The judges' mansion is a handsome modern edifice, containing apartments for the judges, the borough court-rooms, and a room for the grand jury. The borough prison contains distinct departments for debtors and criminals, the latter of whom are only confined here previously to trial, or to their committal to the county gaol.

The living is a vicarage, with the rectory of Chilton Trinity united, valued in the king's books at £11. 7. 6., and in the patronage of the Crown, with a net income of £342: the impropriation belongs to the corporation. The parish church is an ancient and handsome structure, with a square embattled tower and a lofty spire: it has a rich porch in the decorated style of English architecture, and the altar is embellished with a fine painting of the Descent from the Cross, found on board a captured French privateer, and presented by the Hon. A. Poulett. An additional church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, was erected in 1840, at an expense of £4000, and was consecrated on the 16th of June, in that year; it is a substantial structure in the later English style, and contains 1100 sittings: a good altar-piece was presented by Mr. Baker, an artist. The living is a perpetual curacy, in the Vicar's gift; net income, £150. The church of St. John the Baptist, Eastover, completed in April 1845, and consecrated in August 1846, was built by the Rev. John Moore Capes, at a cost of nearly £10,000, and is a very handsome structure in the early English style, with stained-glass windows; it has an organ which cost £600, presented by another member of the Capes family. An ecclesiastical parish is annexed to it under the 6th and 7th Vict., cap. 37, and the living is a perpetual curacy in the gift of the Bishop of Bath and Wells; net income, £150. There are places of worship for Baptists, the Society of Friends, Independents, Wesleyans, Roman Catholics, Unitarians, and others. The free grammar school was founded in 1561, and endowed by Queen Elizabeth with £6. 13. 4. per annum, charged on the tithes, to which two donations of £100 each were added: it is under the control of the corporation, who appoint the master, and under the inspection of the bishop of the diocese. A school, now conducted on Dr. Bell's system, was established by Dr. John Morgan, in 1723, and endowed with 97 acres of land; the management is exercised by charity trustees appointed by the lord chancellor, under the Municipal act. A school was also instituted in 1781, by Mr. Edward Fackerell, who endowed it with the dividends on £3000 in the three per cent. consols., and rents, producing together an annual income of £174, for educating the children of his relatives. The infirmary, a commodious building, was established in 1813, and is supported by subscription. The union of Bridgwater comprises 40 parishes or places, with a population of 31,778. Admiral Blake was born here in 1599, and received the rudiments of his education in the grammar school.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.