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Bridgwater cornexchange staute and church.jpg
Grid reference: ST305370
Location: 51°7’41"N, 2°59’35"W
Population: 33,698  (2001)
Post town: Bridgwater
Postcode: TA5, TA6, TA7
Dialling code: 01278
Local Government
Council: Sedgemoor
Bridgwater & West Somerset

Bridgwater is a market town in Somerset and a major industrial centre.

Bridgwater stands, on the edge of the Somerset Levels, in a level and well-wooded country, having to the north the Mendip Hills and on the west the Quantock Hills. The town The town stands on the banks of the River Parrett, 10 miles above its mouth at Highbridge, which river has been the town's foundation as a trading port.

The town has been a major port and trading centre and maintains a large industrial base. It is on the major communication routes through the South West: it is linked to Taunton by the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal. It stands between two junctions of the M5 motorway. Bridgwater railway station is on the main railway line between Bristol and Taunton.

Historically, the town had a politically radical tendency, being involved in several events of note on the national stage, and was defended by its own castle. The battlefield of the Battle of Sedgemoor, where the Monmouth Rebellion was finally crushed in 1685 is at Westonzoyland nearby. A house in Blake Street, largely restored, was the birthplace of Admiral Robert Blake in 1598, and is now the Blake Museum. The town has its own arts centre and plays host to the annual "West Country Carnival", the Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival.

Bridgwater is in the North Petherton Hundred.

Name of the town

It is thought that the town was originally called Brigg, meaning "quay". It has been argued that the name may instead come from the Old English brycg (gang plank) or others have suggested the Old Norse bryggja, though this latter idea has been opposed on etymological grounds.[1] In the Domesday Book the town is listed as Brugie and Brugia. After the Norman invasion the land was given to Walter Douai,[2] a Norman nobleman, hence becoming known variously as Burgh-Walter, Brugg-Walter and Brigg-Walter, eventually corrupted to Bridgwater. An alternative version would have it that it derives from "Bridge of Walter".[3][4]


Church of St Mary Magdalene

The parish church is St Mary Magdalene's. It has a north porch and windows dating from the 14th century, besides a 170-foot[5] slender spire; but it has been much altered by restoration. It possesses a fine painted reredos, and has been designated by English Heritage as a Grade I listed building.[6]

  • Church of England:
    • St Mary Magdalene
    • St John the Baptist in Blake Place (built in 1843).[7]
  • Salvation Army Citadel
  • Society of Friends: Quaker Meeting House
  • Roman Catholic: St Joseph's


Bridgwater is centred on an outcrop of marl in an area dominated by low-lying alluvial deposits. There are local deposits of gravels and sand.[1] The town is in a level and well-wooded area, on the edge of the Somerset Levels. To the north are the Mendip Hills and on the west the Quantock Hills.

The town stands on the banks of the River Parrett, which then flows on to discharge into the Bridgwater Bay National Nature Reserve. The latter consists of large areas of mud flats, saltmarsh, sandflats and shingle ridges, some of which are vegetated. It has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest since 1989,[8] and is designated as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.[9] The risks to wildlife are highlighted in the local Oil Spill Contingency Plan.[10]


Bridgwater is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and later listed in the Domesday Book of 1086. Its importance as a trading centre came from its position at the mouth of the chief river in Somerset.

In 875 King Alfred's army overwintered in the Athelney marshes nearby before bursting out upon the Dinish invaders. The major Battle of Cynwit in 878 may have been fought at nearby Cannington.[11]

A map of Bridgwater from 1946

William Briwere was granted the lordship of the Manor of Bridgwater by King John in 1201,[4] and founded Bridgwater Friary.[12] Through Briwere's influence, King John granted three charters in 1200; for the construction of Bridgwater Castle, for the creation of a borough, and for a market.[1][5]

Bridgwater Castle no longer stands in the town. It was a substantial structure built in old red sandstone, covering a site of 8 or 9 acres. A tidal moat, up to 65 feet wide in places, ran along the line of today's Fore Street and Castle Moat, and between Northgate and Chandos Street. The main entrance opposite the Cornhill was built with a pair of adjacent gates and drawbridges. The keep was at the south-east corner of what is now King Square, and documents show that the complex included a dungeon, chapel, stables and a bell tower. The castle was built on the only raised ground in the town and controlled the crossing of the town bridge. A 12-foot thick portion of the castle wall and water gate can still be seen on West Quay, and the remains of a wall of a building that was probably built within the castle can be viewed in Queen Street. The foundations of the tower forming the north-east corner of the castle are buried beneath Homecastle House.[13] William Briwere also founded St John's hospital[14] which, by the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, was worth the substantial sum of almost 121 pounds,[15] as well as starting the construction of the town's first stone bridge. William Briwere also went on to found the Franciscan Bridgwater Friary in the town.[16]

During the 11th century Second Barons' War against Henry III, Bridgwater was held by the barons against the King. Other charters were granted by Henry III in 1227, confirmed in 1318, in 1370 and in 1380), which gave Bridgwater a guild merchant which was important for the regulation of trade allowing guild members to trade freely in the town, and to impose payments and restrictions upon others.[4] Bridgwater's peasants under Nicholas Frampton took part in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381,[17] sacking Sydenham House, murdering the local tax collectors and destroying the records.[18]

Bridgwater was incorporated by charter of King Edward IV (1468),[1] confirmed in 1554, 1586, 1629 and 1684. Parliamentary representation began in 1295 and continued until the Reform Act of 1870 when the original borough constituency was disenfranchised.[19]

A Saturday market and a fair on 24 June were granted by the charter of 1201. Another fair at the beginning of Lent was added in 1468, and a second market on Thursday, and fairs at Midsummer and on 21 September were added in 1554. Charles II granted another fair on 29 December. The importance of these markets and fairs for the sale of wool and wine, and later of cloth in declined after mediæval times. The shipping trade of the port revived after the construction of the new dock in 1841, and corn and timber have been imported for centuries.[20]

In the English Civil War the town and the castle were held by the Royalists under Colonel Francis Wyndham, a personal acquaintance of the King's. British history might have been very different had his wife, Lady (Crystabella) Wyndham, been a little more accurate with a musket shot that missed Cromwell but killed his aide de camp.[21] Eventually, with many buildings destroyed in the town, the castle and its valuable contents were surrendered to the Parliamentarians on 21 July 1645. The castle itself was deliberately destroyed the following year, while in 1651 Colonel Wyndham made arrangements for Charles II to flee to France following the Battle of Worcester.[20]

Following the restoration of the monarchy, in 1663 the non-conformist Reverend John Norman, vicar from 1647 to 1660, was one of several 'religious fanatics' confined to their homes by Lord Stawell's militia. A large religious meeting house, thought to have been Presbyterian, was demolished and its furniture burned on the Cornhill in 1683.[22] By 1688, matters had calmed down enough that a new chapel, Christ Church, was founded in Dampiet Street, the congregation of which became Unitarian in 1815.[22][23]

In the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion, the rebel James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth was proclaimed King on the Cornhill in Bridgwater and in other local towns. He eventually lead his troops on a night-time attack on the King's position near Westonzoyland.[24] The surprise was lost when a musket was accidentally discharged, and the Battle of Sedgemoor resulted in defeat for the Duke. He later lost his head in the Tower of London,[25] and nine local men were executed for treason.[20]

Bridgwater became the first town in Britain to petition Parliament to ban the slave trade, in 1785.[26] In 1896, the trade unionists of Bridgwater's brick and tile industry were involved a number of strikes. The Salisbury government sent troops to the town to clear the barricades by force after the reading of the Riot Act.[27]

In a by-election in 1938, an independent anti-appeasement candidate, journalist Vernon Bartlett was elected for the town. Appeasement did not prevent the Second World War, which began in the next year. During the War, the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal formed part of the Taunton Stop Line, designed to prevent the advance of a German invasion. Pillboxes can still be seen along its length. The first bombs fell on Bridgwater on 24 August 1940, destroying houses on Old Taunton Road, and three men, three women and one child were killed. Later a prisoner of war camp was established at Colley Lane, holding Italian prisoners.[28] During the preparations for the invasion of Europe, American troops were based in the town.[29]

The first council estate to be built was in the 1930s at Kendale Road, followed by those at Bristol Road. The 1950s saw the start of a significant increase in post-war housebuilding, with council house estates being started at Sydenham and Rhode Lane and the former cooperative estate near Durleigh.[30]

Port of Bridgwater

Bridgwater Town Bridge

In the Middle Ages, the River Parrett was used to transport hamstone from the quarry at Ham Hill. Bridgwater was part of the Port of Bristol until the Port of Bridgwater was created in 1348,[4] covering 80 miles of the Somerset coast line, from the Devon border to the mouth of the River Axe.[31][32] Under an 1845 Act of Parliament the Port of Bridgwater extends from Brean Down to Hinkley Point in Bridgwater Bay, and includes parts of the River Parrett (to Bridgwater), River Brue and the River Axe.[33]

Historically, the main port on the river was at Bridgwater, where the river's lowest bridge was; the earliest bridge here was built in 1200.[34] Quays were built in 1424; with another quay, the Langport slip, being built in 1488 upstream of the Town Bridge.[35] A Customs House was sited at Bridgwater, on West Quay; and a dry dock, launching slips and a boat yard on East Quay.[36] The river was navigable, with care, to Bridgwater Town Bridge by 400 – 500 ton vessels.[37]

By trans-shipping into barges at the Town Bridge the Parrett was navigable as far as Langport and (by way of the River Yeo) to Ilchester. After 1827, it was also possible to transfer goods to Taunton by way of the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal at Huntworth.[38] A floating harbour was constructed between 1837–1841 and the canal was extended to the harbour.[39] The harbour area contained flour mills, timber yards and chandlers.[39]

Shipping to Bridgwater expanded with the construction of the docks and reached a peak in the nineteenth century between 1880 and 1885; with an average of 3,600 ships a year entering the port.[39] Bridgwater also built some 167 ships; the last one being the Irene launched in 1907.[40] Peak tonnage was in 1857, with 142 vessels totalling 17,800 tons.[41]

Combwich Pill, a small creek near the mouth of the river, had been used for shipping since the 14th century; and a wharf in the 18th century was used for the unloading of coal and the loading of tiles. From the 1830s, with the development of the brick and tile industry in the Bridgwater area, Combwich Wharf was used by two local brickyards to import coal and export tiles to Glamorgan and parts of Gloucestershire.[42] This traffic ceased in the 1930s; and in the late 1950s the wharf was taken over by the Central Electricity Generating Board to bring in materials for the construction of the Hinkley Point nuclear power stations.[43] Hinkley Point A, the nuclear power station, was ordered in 1957, with a scheduled completion date of 1960, but it was not completed until 1965.[44] This was followed by Hinkley Point B nuclear power station which began operation in 1976.[45]

Dunball Wharf

Dunball Wharf was built in 1844 by Bridgwater coal merchants,[46] and was formerly linked to the Bristol and Exeter Railway by a rail track which crossed what is now the A38. The link was built in 1876 by coal merchants, and was originally operated as a horse-drawn railway. In 1875, the local landowner built The Dunball Steam Pottery & Brick & Tile Works adjacent to the wharf.

Although ships no longer dock in the town of Bridgwater, 90,213 tons of cargo were handled within the port authority's area in 2006, most of which was stone products by way of the wharf at Dunball.[47] It is no longer linked to the railway system. The link was removed as part of the railway closures made as a result of the Beeching Report in the 1960s. Dunball railway station, which had opened in 1873, was closed to both passengers and goods in 1964.[48] All traces of the station, other than "Station Road" have been removed. The wharf is now used for landing stone products, mainly marine sand and gravels dredged in the Bristol Channel.[49] Marine sand and gravel accounted for some 55,754 tons of the total tonnage of 90,210 tons using the Bridgwater Port facilities in 2006, while salt products accounting for 21,170 tons in the same year,[47] while the roll-on roll-off berth at Combwich is used occasionally for the transfer of heavy goods for the two existing Hinkley Point nuclear power stations. With the possible future construction of the two Hinkley Point C nuclear power stations by EDF Energy, it is proposed that Combwich wharf be employed to transfer heavy goods to the sites.[50] Combwich Pill is the only site where recreational moorings are available in the estuary.[33]

Sedgemoor council acts as the Competent Harbour Authority for the port, and has provided pilotage services for all boats over 98 feet using the river since 1998, when it took over the service from Trinity House. Pilotage is important because of the constant changes in the navigable channel resulting from the large tidal range, which can exceed 39 feet on spring tides. Most commercial shipping travels upriver no further than Dunball Wharf, which handles bulk cargoes.[33]


Bridgwater was the leading industrial town in Somerset and remains a major centre for manufacturing.[51] A major manufacturing centre for clay tiles and bricks in the 19th century, including the famous "Bath brick", were exported through the port.[52] In the 1890s there were a total of 16 brick and tile companies, and 24 million bricks per annum were exported during that decade alone.[53] These industries are celebrated in the Somerset Brick and Tile Museum on East Quay.[54]

These industries collapsed in the aftermath of Second World War due to the failure to introduce mechanisation, although the automated Chilton Tile Factory, which produced up to 5 million tiles each year, lasted until 1968.[55] The importance of the Bath Brick declined with the advent of detergents and other cleaning products. Dunware ponds used to make bricks and can still be found along the paths.

During the 19th century, Castle House (originally named Portland Castle after Portland cement), reputedly the first domestic house in the United Kingdom to be built from concrete,[56] was constructed in 1851 by John Board, a local brick and tile manufacturer. The building is now Grade II* listed,[57] and in 2004 was featured in the BBC television programme Restoration.[58]

In the 19th century, Bridgwater was also home to a number of iron foundries. George Hennet's Bridgwater Iron Works worked on bridges, railways and machinery for Brunel and Robert Stephenson. This location allowed the import by boat of raw materials from Glamorgan and the dispatch of finished work to south Devon using the Bristol and Exeter Railway. The carriage workshops for the latter were on an adjacent site. The works passed to his son and then traded as Hennet, Spink & Else. Some of the ironwork was produced for the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash, Cornwall. In 1873 it became the Bridgwater Engineering Company Limited but this failed in 1878.[59] W&F Wills Ltd produced steam locomotives and fingerposts.[26]

At the start of Second World War, the government built a factory to manufacture high explosives at Puriton near Bridgwater.[60] Called ROF Bridgwater, the plant eventually closed after decommissioning was completed in July 2008.[61]

Bridgwater is now a major centre of industry in Somerset, with industries including the production of plastics, engine parts, industrial chemicals, and foods. Bowerings Animal Feed Mill is now the only industry still located at the docks. Being close to the M5 motorway and half way between Bristol and Exeter, Bridgwater is also home to two major distribution centres.


King Square
  • Somerset Brick and Tile Museum, built on part of the former Barham Brothers site
  • Castle House was built in 1851 and was one of the first to make extensive use of concrete demonstrating "an innovative interpretation of traditional masonry features in concrete".
  • Blake Museum in Blake Street is a largely restored house, believed to be the birthplace of Admiral Robert Blake in 1598. The house was built in the late 15th or early 16th century, and has been designated as a Grade II* listed building.[62] Blake's statue was cast in 1898 by D W Pomeroy and stands facing down Cornhill.[63]
  • Sydenham Manor House was previously a manor estate built in the early 16th century, which was refronted and rebuilt after 1613.[64] It now stands in the grounds of the former British Cellophane plant. Its owners were on the losing side in the Civil War and again in the Monmouth Rebellion.[65]
  • The public library by E Godfrey Page dates from 1905.[66]


Nearing Bridgwater on the M5 motorway, one may see the Willow Man sculpture, a striding human figure constructed from willow, sometimes called the Angel of the South. It stands 39 feet tall and was created by sculptor Serena de la Hey; it is the largest known sculpture in willow, a traditional local material.[67]

The Bridgwater Arts Centre was opened on 10 October 1946, the first community arts centre opened in the United Kingdom with financial assistance from the newly established Arts Council of England. It is in a Grade I listed building in the architecturally protected Georgian Castle Street, designed by Benjamin Holloway for the Duke of Chandos, and built over the site of the former castle.[68] Holloway was also the architect of the Baroque-styled Lions House on West Quay, constructed around 1730.[69] Bridgwater Arts Centre was the venue for the first post-war meeting of the Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne in 1947.[70]

Annual events

"Genghis Khan" float in the West Country Carnival

Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival attracts around 150,000 people from around the country and overseas. Now held annually on the Friday after the first Thursday of November (which is to say the nearest Friday to 5 November). It consists of a display of over 100 large carnival floats up to 100 feet long, festooned with dancers (or team member in tableaux) and up to 22,000 lightbulbs, that follows a 2½ mile route over 2 to 3 hours. Later in the evening of the Carnival, there is the simultaneous firing of large fireworks (known as squibs) in the street outside the town hall, known as "squibbing".[71]

'Bridgwater Fair normally takes place in September, on the last Wednesday in September, and its lasts for four days. The fair takes place on St Matthew's Field, better known locally as the Fair Field. The fair is now a funfair, ranked as largest after the Nottingham Goose Fair. The fair started in 1249 as a horse and cattle fair, lasting for eight days near St Matthew's day (21 September), giving the venue its name.[72]

Somerfest, an annual arts festival, is held in Bridgwater. The event includes an extensive programme of rock, jazz and classical music, dance, drama and visual arts with national and local participants.[73]


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Further reading

  • "Bridgwater with and without the 'e' " ', Roger Evans, ISBN 0-9525674-0-7
  • A History of Bridgwater, J.C. Lawrence, ISBN 1-86077-363-X
  • Bridgwater Victorian Days, Philip James Squibbs, ISBN 0-9501022-1-0
  • Somerset in the Age of Steam, Peter Stanier, ISBN 0-86183-481-X
  • "Remember Remember". The Story of Bridgwater Carnival, written by Chris Hocking who is president of Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival Committee
  • A History of the County of Somerset: Vol 6: Bridgwater (1992)
  • The Somerset Urban Archaeological Survey: Bridgwater, by Clare Gathercole

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Bridgwater)