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  • Yeovil in 50 Buildings by Bob Osborn

    Millennium Blue Plaque (Supplied by author)

    It is frequently difficult to establish the history of an old building unless there is early documentary evidence. I recently came upon such a case with the building 1&3 Princes Street, Yeovil, Somerset (which features in my book Yeovil in 50 Buildings) on the corner of today’s Westminster Street. Until recently the earliest known occupant of the building was a printer named William Porter around 1830 and a Millennium Blue Plaque was erected on the building to this effect. However, a chance purchase of several old leases on an internet auction site enabled me to uncover much of the unknown earlier history of this building.

    Although there has undoubtedly been a building on this site for centuries, the date of the present building is difficult to ascertain. From one of the leases, dated 1835, the earliest known occupier of the site was a saddler, John Reeks (died pre 1764), and his family during the early eighteenth century. Very little is known of John Reeks the Elder. It is known that in 1716 John Reeks, 'Sadler of Yeovil' took on Jos, son of Samuel Lester, as an apprentice. The Poor Rate of 1729 recorded that John Reeks paid 1½d Poor Rate on property in the Manor of Hendford. At this time 1½d was ‘average’ so unlikely that it would have been such a large building as the present 1&3 Princes Street. Between 1737 and 1739 he served as a Churchwarden at St John's church.

    John Reeks the Younger (1713-1770) was presumably the eldest son of the above John. He was baptised at St John's Church on 31 December 1713. John the Younger attended Pembroke College, Oxford, and matriculated in 1731 aged 18. He was awarded a BA from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 1734 aged 21, an MA in 1737-8 aged 24, a Bachelor of Divinity in 1745 aged 32 and a Doctorate of Divinity in 1756 aged 43. He was Rector of Stratford St Anthony cum Hanny, Berkshire, in 1769 but died the following year, aged 57. Although he would probably have inherited his father's property, the saddlery would most likely have been taken on by John Reeks the Elder's younger son Thomas, who was also a saddler. He had presumably served an apprenticeship with his father that worked alongside him and finally assumed the business after his father's death.

    The Reeks family was followed by Samuel Toms (a deed of 1770 notes that a farrier by the name of Samuel Tomes was active at this time). In turn, he was succeeded by a solicitor and banker Samuel Watts the Elder.

    My 1835 lease refers to Samuel Watts the Elder "who erected and built the said messuage or dwellinghouse". Samuel Watts the Elder was born in 1734 and died in 1820, so it is logical to suppose that he had the building constructed around, say 1760.

    Samuel Watts the Elder's son, Joseph Watts, is known to have 'modernised' the building prior to his leaving Yeovil in 1812. Assuming he carried out the alterations around 1810, this would have meant that the building was then some fifty years old and therefore a fashionable facelift would not have been unreasonable. The building was re-fronted by Joseph Watts in the then-fashionable Regency style and had a new low pitch roof with wide eaves at the same time.

    Nos 1 and 3 Princes Street, seen from the High Street. (Yeovil in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Yeovil Bank, probably founded around 1810, was a private bank established by Samuel Watts the Elder (when aged about 76) and it is very likely that his bank was located in this building. Certainly, his sons' bank was later located here and it is surely not unreasonable to speculate that the bank of the sons was a continuation of the bank of the father, albeit under different names.

    A reference in the London Gazette in 1812 refers to the bank as Watts Marsh & Co (run by Samuel the Elder's sons, Samuel and Joseph Watts, and Thomas Marsh). In 1815 it was announced that this banking partnership was dissolved by mutual consent under the signatures of Samuel Watts the Younger, Thomas Marsh, Thomas Bullock, and James Glyde. In 1856 a writer referred to Yeovil's third bank as “the Bank of Messrs Samuel (and) Joseph Watts and Cayme." By 1822 (Pigot's Directory) the bank had become Samuel Watts & Co. It would then have gone out of business on 8 November 1823, when Samuel Watts the Younger, scrivener and banker, was declared bankrupt.

    My earliest lease of the property, dated 9 November 1815, was made between Thomas Bullock, Gentleman, James Glyde, Gentleman and Samuel Watts the Younger, Gentleman, (all of Yeovil) of the one part and Markes Lambe, Surgeon of Yeovil, of the other part. James Glyde and Samuel Watts were brothers-in-law (Glyde married Watts' sister Mary) and Thomas Bullock was the brother of Watts' mother, Mary née Bullock.

    From the 1835 indenture it is known that the property was divided by another lessee, Thomas Sydenham - "which said messuage or dwellinghouse hath been lately divided by the said Thomas Sydenham into two Dwellinghouses with front Shops and the same are now or later were in the occupation of the said Thomas Sydenham and his tenant Thomas Hain." It is known that by 1829 the building, or at least the southern half of it, was occupied by William Porter (see above), therefore Sydenham must have divided the property between 1825 (the date of my third lease which only speaks of a single property) and 1829 when Porter was in occupation – which brings us to the known history of the building as described on the Millennium Blue Plaque.

    Bob Osborn's new book Yeovil in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.

  • More Somerset Tales by Jack William Sweet

    In the Introduction to my latest book More Somerset Tales - Shocking and Surprising, I have quoted from Somerset Ways - a guide book published by The Great Western Railway Company over a century ago, which declares that:

    'Somerset is Home.

    For it is here in Somerset that the longest journeys end, and the greatest wanderers come to rest at last.  The land of peace and stillness.

    There is no call of homing like that which comes from the land 'twixt Mendip and the Western Sea. For this country, above all others, has kept the spirit men call homeliness, the spirit of warmth and welcoming.  Not a cottage in the whole of the great span but invites the wanderer in, nor a rick nor hedge for the roofless ones but seems kindlier than the shelters of other lands.

    Three things one finds here: an oldness, a kindness, and a wisdom: things in part of the countryside, in part in the dwellers in it. Things most plain to see in the slow West Country courtesy, the natural gentleness which seems a heritage of all those born in sight of Glastons Tor. Kind folk they are, with the kindest accent of any of our race. One feels that the folk here do not change; to-day they are the same at heart as when they, of all England gave Alfred shelter, not because he was King, though they were loyal people, but because he was homeless and alone.'

    More Somerset Tales 1 Beneath this peaceful Somerset scene lurked shocking, surprising and strange events. (More Somerset Tales, Amberley Publishing)

    However, there is another Somerset to be found beneath this idyllic description, and More Somerset Tales, which follows Somerset Tales - Shocking and Surprising - published by Amberley in 2011 – brings to life true events, often shocking, doubtless surprising, and occasionally downright strange.

    For example, there is the brutal, but unsolved murder of young Betty Trump (no relation to Donald T) in the remote Blackdown Hills village of Buckland St Mary in 1823, and the use of witchcraft to seek to prove the guilt of the suspected murderer.

    The vicious murder of an elderly shopkeeper, and the near death beating of his wife by two thugs, whose robbery only netted them a loaf of bread, some tobacco, and 8s. 6d., at the quiet village of Nempnett Thrubwell in 1851.

    A farmer is left for dead in a robbery near Wedmore, late on an April evening in 1845, and some 34 years later in 1879, two lads, seemingly acting out the roles of highway men, shoot a local businessman at Milborne Port, thankfully without causing serious injury.

    In the air, a novice balloonist flies across the Bristol Channel, panics, jumps out near Weston-super-Mare, and drowns. Late in 1945, four crew, and 22 military passengers on their way to India die when a converted Liberator bomber of RAF Transport Command crashes in the Blackdown Hills near Castle Neroche, but two soldiers who should have been on the plane escape death by arriving late and missing the flight.

    Gales, blizzards, and floods caused havoc and death, and people lose their lives in boating accidents off the Somerset coast, and drown in pleasant Somerset rivers.

    SONY DSC The ‘prodigious eel’ emerged from its lair in the River Yeo to eat the farmers’ hay. (More Somerset Tales, Amberley Publishing)

    A strange beast emerges from the River Yeo, near Yeovil, and the river becomes an open sewer in the 1870s.

    At Bedminster in 1827, a novice keeper enters a sleeping lion's cage to wake it up, and suffers the consequences - death, and is almost eaten.

    Following a nation-wide hunt in 1896, two dangerous London villains are traced to Bath, and, following a fight, are arrested for the robbery and murder of an elderly recluse in Muswell Hill. A two and a half hours 'bare-knuckle' prize fight for a golden sovereign near the Kennet and Avon Canal results in the death of one of the contestants.

    In 1835, two members of a notorious Bath criminal gang escape from the prison van taking them to Portsmouth for transportation to Australia, and are never recaptured.

    A train crash at Yeovil Pen Mill Station in 1913 is recalled with graphic contemporary photographs.

    These are some of the shocking, surprising and strange stories and events which have happened, and which I have brought to light, in this beautiful county – the Land of Summer between Mendip and the Western Sea.

    9781445664514

    Jack William Sweet's new book More Somerset Tales is available for purchase now.

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