According to newspaper reports farmhouse cheese had been made in Caerphilly since the 16th century. This was made by traditional methods and eaten by the family and farm hands with any surplus being sold at market. At some stage this production seems to have largely died out possibly because, with industrialisation, and particularly the development of the coal mines, many people left the land. It is certainly true that by the late 19th century, a considerable amount of Caerphilly cheese was being produced in Somerset, Gloucester and even Glamorgan, much to the annoyance of Caerphilly residents. It was quick to mature and was, therefore, a good cheese for people to make in their villages and it was clearly in great demand and therefore fetched a good price in south Wales. It is said that it became a staple food for miners who used to take it down the mines wrapped in a cabbage leaf, and it was thought that it was a good source, not only of protein, but also helped to replace the salt and other minerals that they lost during their times underground.
Despite the concern about Caerphilly cheese being produced outside of the town, it was certainly still being produced until the second world war in various Somerset villages such as Allerton, Wedmore, Mark and Cheddar, sold at Highbridge market and then taken to be sold in South Wales. Recalling her life in Chapel Allerton, the late Mrs Sully said that “in summer cheese and butter were made every day up to the end of September. If we made Caerphilly it would go to Highbridge market. In 1928, 9p per pound was a good price for the cheese.”
When the Milk Marketing Board was set up in 1933 much of this local cheese production stopped and in 1941 when cheese rationing was introduced, Caerphilly was one of the cheeses that were no longer made, apparently, causing outrage amongst the Welsh miners who were clearly a discerning lot. In 1949 it was said that “there is a consistent demand for Caerphilly cheese. The Welsh miner was not that disposed to processed cheese in his sandwiches.” (Western Daily Mail 30 Sept. 1949)
Seemed like a good idea at the time! In last month’s edition I mentioned day trips to local places including Brean Down. I wonder what that would be like now if this rather ambitions plan had been carried out.
In the middle of the 19th century discussions took place to build a harbour at Brean and in 1861 the Brean Down Harbour Company was set up with the backing of several eminent men and with substantial capital of £360,000.
It was thought that the port would be a valuable asset: it could, for example, import coal from South Wales, a trade which had greatly increased with industrialisation and, more surprisingly, was the suggestion that the port could be used as a transatlantic route since it was nearer to New York than Liverpool!
The plan also included a link to the main railway line and an agreement was entered into with the Bristol and Exeter railway. The foundation stone was laid in 1864 with many speeches, champagne and general excitement. Unfortunately, the ston
e was washed away that same night and seemed to foretell what was to come. Although work was started, constant heavy storms continually destroyed much of the construction work.
Another attempt to revive the scheme was made in 1887 and the “New York Press” carried a long article about it entitled ‘Five Days to Sail to England’ and in 1889 there was a crowded meeting at Weston Assembly Rooms to consider further proposals fo
r the port. One suggestion was to lay down a separate railway from the Down right into Weston Station and this was supported by the Great Western Railway. It was also thought that it would be a perfectly simple matter to construct a bridge over the River Axe and perhaps, one day, to have a tramway-line running right through from the harbour to Weston.
It was not to be. The capital proved hard to raise, and one by one the chief supporters of the scheme either withdrew or died. The extravagant dreams and ideas for the great Brean Down harbour scheme were lost for ever.
Brean Down did, however, feature later in history: In 1897, following wireless transmissions from Lavernock Point in Wales and Flat Holm,Guglielmo Marconi moved his equipment to Brean Down and set a new distance record of 14 kilometres (8.7 mi) for wireless transmission over open sea. Success at last for Brean Down.
Elizabeth Friend Axbridge Archaeological and Local History Society. www.aalhs.co.uk
From Rags to Riches: Axbridge Workhouse. Article written for Catch This magazine
Looking at St John’s Court today it’s hard to believe that the building was once home to the poor and destitute of the parish. Relief for the poor was
provided by their own parish until the 1834 Poor Law amendment Act set up a new system of Unions. Somerset was divided into 17 Unions of which Axbridge was one of the largest covering an area from Yatton down to Highbridge. Axbridge itself was the centre of the Axbridge Union and the workhouse was built in 1836 using stone from the quarries at Shipham. At that time the site was actually in the parish of Compton Bishop and was perhaps chosen so that it was out of sight of the Axbridge inhabitants whose town leaders Hannah More described as “a hard-hearted corporation given to fine clothes and luxury”. That said, the person most responsible for setting up the workhouse was Richard Trew, the Mayor of Axbridge, who became the first Clerk to the Board of Guardians from 1836 until 1867.
For many people in the 19th century the living was precarious. A bad harvest such as that in 1851 rendered many people destitute and their stay in the workhouse could be relatively short, lasting until the economy recovered. It was also a temporary place for mothers expecting an illegitimate child but there were also long-stay residents with what we would now call mental health problems, as well as the blind and those with physical disabilities. People undergoing family history research are often distressed to find that their relative died in the workhouse, but this could be misleading. There were medical facilities at the workhouse and some people went there because they were seriously ill and, inevitably, some died. They were not all poor and destitute.
Inmates were clothed and fed and were expected to work hard. Men, for example, were engaged in stone cracking or oakum pulling and women were required to do laundry work.
The museum at the King John’s Hunting Lodge has an excellent display on the subject which is well worth a visit when it is open.
Elizabeth Friend, Axbridge Archaeological and Local History Society
Day Trips to the beach. Article written for Local Reach
With the easing of lockdown many of you will no doubt have been going to our local beaches.
In the early part of the 20th century these were also destinations favoured by day trippers and although welcomed by the people offering refreshments, donkey rides etc. they were not always popular with the residents according to Charles Harper (The Somerset Coast 1909).
He writes “ The definition of a tripper, in these parts, is a person who comes across the Bristol Channel from Barry, Cardiff, Swansea, or any other of the South Wales ports, for half a day, and “brings his nosebag with him”; or, if it be a family party of trippers, a family handbag with provisions; including a bottle of beer for mother and father, and milk for the children. Thousands of these family parties came over by cheap steamboat excursions on most fine days in summer, and may be observed on the sea-front at Weston and other resorts, where they are apt to leave an offensive residuum
of their feasts behind them, in the shape of greasy paper and pieces of fat, as often as not upon the public seats.
The unfortunate person who, clad perhaps in a light summer suit, has unwittingly sat upon a piece of ham-fat left behind by one of these gay irrespon
sibles, hates the tripper thereafter with a baleful intensity. But this is only one of that half-day excursionist’s deadly sins, of which the fact that he brings merely his presence and his nosebag—and little money—into the places he favours is one of the deadliest. Another is the circumstance that he is a Welshman. The Somerset folk do not like the Welsh, who are alien from them in every possible way, and it is quite certain that the South Wales colliers and dockers are not a favourable or pleasing type. Thus triply—financially, racially and socially—the trippers from across the Severn Sea are not a success.”
Elizabeth Friend, Axbridge Archaeological and Local History Society
Warning: Men should avoid eating fried potatoes. First published in Local Reach August 2020
In 1836 in Compton Bishop, one Elizabeth Dunn was concerned about her elderly neighbour, John Edney who was extremely unwell, supposedly suffering from an old stomach complaint. Elizabeth and John’s wife, Sophia, gave him orange juice, milk and mutton broth but he just brought everything up. He told Mrs Dunn that the gruel and ginger Sophia made for him burned his mouth and that he had a raging thirst. None of the powders or mixtures Edward Wade, the local doctor, prescribed seemed to improve matters either. In fact, they made things worse.
John complained to another neighbour, Elizabeth Collins, that the doctor’s medicine had ‘burnt his inside out’ and that his throat felt raw and ‘on fire’. According to Mrs Collins he was “in dreadful agonies, twisting and turning himself about, and his features very much discoloured’. John died a few hours later. Edward Wade was suspicious and despite Sophia’s objections, ordered an autopsy. John had told the doctor that he had a burning sensation in his stomach after eating fried potatoes. Wade, suspecting that John may been poisoned with arsenic, took the contents of John’s stomach to Professor William Herapath, the Professor of Chemistry at Bristol Medical School. Wade also collected scrapings from the skillet in which the potatoes had been fried.
The Edneys were clearly an ill-matched couple. Sophia Vane was 16 and in domestic service in Bath when she had met John Edney six years previously; John, a 61-year-old widower, delivered eggs, butter and poultry to the household. Later, the couple settled in the village of Compton Bishop, where John continued with his eggs and butter business and also gathered watercress. They had three children but there were rumours that Sophia had wanted to be rid of her elderly spouse in order to marry a younger man.1
On 12 April 1836, a month after John’s death, Sophia stood trial at Taunton Assizes in front of judge Joseph Littledale. A druggist from Axbridge said that he had sold Sophia arsenic for killing rats. Mr Wade outlined his suspicions at the time of John’s illness and death and Professor Herapath described his tests on the contents of John’s duodenum, which confirmed the presence of arsenic. He also stated that he had found a small amount of arsenic in the scrapings from the skillet.
Sophia was found guilty and sentenced her to death. In prison she was said to have conducted herself ‘with great propriety’ and to have confessed to the crime.She was the last woman to be executed in England before Victoria ascended the throne.
Elizabeth Friend, Axbridge Archaeological and Local History Society
Shipham and Rowberrow Two of the most wretched and depraved villages in the region.
This was the sort of description commonly used at the end of the 18th century. In 1790 Hannah and Martha Moore visited Shipham and were horrified by what they saw: half-naked children, wild men, and coarse foul-mouthed women whose homes were evil smelling hovels. Martha wrote that “the people [were]savage and depraved almost beyond Cheddar, brutal in their natures, and ferocious in their manners. ……. No constable would venture to arrest a Shipham man lest he should be concealed in one of their pits, and never heard of.”
In the 18th century the villages were, almost exclusively, involved with the mining of calamine, a zine ore that was used to convert copper into brass and during the 18th century it became the most important industry on Mendip. In 1791 Collinson wrote in his History of Somerset that there were over 100 mines in Shipham, many of which were “in the street, in the yards, and some in the very homes”. The latter is explained by the fact that calamine was found near the surface and some miners simply hollowed out the earth inside their houses. It was a relatively well paid occupation and Collinson estimated that “a miner with a proper assiduity may earn a guinea a day.” This is equivalent today to about £80 and in 1790 was equal to a weeks wages for a skilled tradesman. However the work was hard and the living conditions of the villagers were very poor. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the miners were notorious for their rough manners and lawless behaviour. Writing in 1915 Frances Knight says that it is not long ago “that there were villagers who, stripped to the waist, fought pitched battles with hostile villagers in the streets of Banwell.”
By the start of the nineteenth century, however, the industry was in decline. New methods of producing brass and cheap imports from overseas meant that the calamine -brass industry was no longer economically viable. In 1839, it was reported that only one or two mines were working and that, by 1853, all operations had ceased. Many of the miners left the area and In the 1860s and 1870s some of the Shipham miners were employed in the leadworks at Charterhouse.
As to the people themselves, I’m pleased to say that by 1915, with a much reduced population, Knight was able to write that “Shipham folk are as honest and kindly a race as one would find in any secluded west country hamlet.”
This article by Paddy Thompson was first published in Retrospect no.426 February 2020 and was reprinted in Local Reach June 2020
The Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette 11 July 1833
To the Editor
Sir – A short time since, being in the neighbourhood of Cheddar with some of my family, I availed myself of the opportunity of visiting the village, for the purpose of viewing the majestic and stupendous cliffs of which I had heard so much. On leaving the inn for this purpose, I had no sooner approached the object of my curiosity than I was surrounded by a tribe of vagrants, consisting of children and women, both young and old, each endeavouring by vociferation, not the most pleasing to the ear, to speak louder than her companions, and to give us a description of the rocks, calling them in a breath by a hundred different names, and each offering for sale specimens of ore and petrification, not one of which claimed a home at Cheddar. The garrulity of these importunate and wretched mendicants marred all our pleasure, and we turned back again to the inn, not a little rejoiced at being relieved from the incessant clamour of this motley group. In two of the caves in these rocks live two wretched old women. They are damp, miserable, hollow recesses, not fit for human habitations, and indeed it would be cruel to confine pigs therein. I hope for the credit of the village of Cheddar that these nuisances will be speedily abated, and that the admirers of Nature’s grand works may be suffered to indulge in their researches without being annoyed by scenes and conduct such as before described.
I am, Sir, your obedient Servant,
Wells, July 9 1834
PS. By the way, it will not be ill-timed to remind the Waywarden of Cheddar how desirable to travellers a few fingerposts would be in and about the roads leading from the Cliffs, and diverging from the main road.
* The discrepancy of year dates is in the original.
Lady Day (25th March) was widely observed in England and, until 1752, when the government adopted the Gregorian calendar it was also New Year’s Day and marked the beginning of the agricultural year. Agricultural tenancies were normally for one year running from Lady Day and the Fair was also a hiring fair for agricultural labourers and domestic workers.
The Fair would have been one of the highlights of the year for many people and one can imagine that they were lively affairs. In 1805 an article in the Gentleman’s Magazine (vol. 75 issue 1) states that the Axbridge fair was “attended by an immense concourse of servants of both sexes. The fair usually continues for 2 or 3 days; and many of the fair fille-de-chambres, dairy maids, and even fat cooks and greasy scullion wenches are so civilly greeted by their amorous swains, that this fair is much business for the county justices and their clerks, parish officers and midwives.”Lady Day
In 1839 the Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser (03.04.1839) reported that “The pleasure fair was plentifully supplied with the happy countenances of the county folk, looking and harkening in to the various stories told by the persons who begin with ‘walk up ladies and gentlemen, and see the most wonderful of all wonders etc.’ and supplying themselves with new shoes and their sweethearts with ribbons and other finery.”
Of course then, as now, such events also attracted crime and by the mid 19th century concern was being expressed in the newspapers. This report (Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser 03.04.1850) concludes that “for the size of the town, there is no other place in the kingdom so much infested by pickpockets and gamblers of the lowest description as this during the fair” and the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette (01.04.1852) said that “the fair has long been notorious for the gross licence which reigns among the lower classes who collect on these occasions.”
In the same year the Wells Journal (16 October 1852) reports that, “the pleasure part of the Axbridge Lady Day Fair has degenerated into a positive nuisance, of which the respectable neighbours have loudly and unanimously complained. In consequence a movement, of which the initiative was taken by our esteemed and influential townsmen Peter Fry and Henry Symonds Esq, has been made to abolish it.”
Clearly this failed and the Fair continued, albeit in a different form. I’m sure many readers will have good memories of attending some of them. Hopefully not causing a nuisance!!
In writing an article about the Axbridge Lady Day Fair I found the following connection to Billy Butlin (1899-1980): Apparently his parents met at a travelling fair in Gloucester. After some years and after her failed marriage his mother travelled around summer fairs in her caravan running a gingerbread stall for her brother Marshall Hill. In 1921 Billy joined his uncles in Bristol and, with their assistance, set up a small hoopla stall at a cost of 30 shillings. His first fair was in Axbridge and apparently business was good and he made £10 clear profit on the day. He went on to run stalls at fairs for several years before starting the holiday camps. You can read the rest of his story on www.butlins-memories.com.
In 1949 according to an item in the Well Journal (2 September 1949) he donated £25 towards the purchase of a playing field in Axbridge.
A Tale of Peas, Beans and other assorted crops
Did you know that Axbridge was once famous for growing early peas? In 1805 an article said the following:
“The warm situation of [Axbridge] renders it peculiarly adapted for the cultivation of early vegetables; the town and parish being situate, as it were, in a dwell, which forms a kind of amphitheatre ….. Green peas in particular are here to be had as early in the season of any place in the Kingdom; and they are frequently sent to Bristol, Bath and sold at 16s* and 18s per peck*; and the premium given by the Corporation of Bristol for the most early peas brought to market is generally carried by the Axbridge gardeners.
The walks near the town in the Spring season are rendered very pleasant, from the variety of the crops which are raised in the fields adjoining by the gardeners (or, as they are here called, cropers); where may be seen at one view a great variety of culinary plants, proper for the kitchen garden, disposed in large beds and ridges, interspersed with ridges of wheat, barley, beans, peas, oats etc.
*Note: a peck was approx. 12lbs and in 1805, 16 shillings was worth approx. £37 today and was the equivalent of 5 days wages for a skilled tradesman