Land Drainage and Westonzoyland Pumping Station

Iain Miles gave a fascinating and detailed talk in February about the Land Drainage of the Somerset Levels and the importance of Westonzoyland Pumping Station.

He introduced the subject by setting it in a landscape context. He explained how the basin at the heart of the Somerset Levels is surrounded on three sides by high ground in the form of Exmoor, the Brendons, the Blackdowns, the Poldens and the Mendip ridge. The rivers originating in these hills flow into the basin and most join the Parrett to flow into the sea to the north of Bridgwater. The silt from these rivers has been deposited in the basin over millennia and the area as we see it today is a flat or level surface rarely more than 10ft above OD and with only a very small gradient on its rivers once they leave the hills. The character of the area and its tendency to flood is therefore partly due to the effect of heavy rainfall on the hills and the inability of the rivers to transport water quickly to the sea, but also to the high tidal range in the Bristol Channel. At times of high spring tides, the sea can penetrate inland and overwhelm a river system struggling to transport its load to the sea. Clyses or tidal doors have been constructed to prevent the sea from penetrating inland and the earliest of these to be documented is the Highbridge Clyse recorded as being already in existence by 1485.

For many years the area was largely uninhabited. Only small islands punctuated what was a largely wetland area and these attracted monks seeking solitude. Monasteries developed from this and initially there was no problem with self- sufficiency. There was fertile land above the flood level and the rivers provided abundant fish and wildfowl. The marshlands also yielded peat for fuel. By the thirteenth century, however, the monastic estates already owned most of the land and their needs had grown to the point where it became necessary to increase production by draining areas. The earliest reclamation took place around the higher land where the alluvial soil was more fertile. Rivers were straightened, primarily for navigation, and raised walls or embankments built to prevent flood water incursions. It is likely that the river Parrett was fixed in its course at this time. The thirteenth century, Iain felt, saw the establishment of much of the modern river system.

Economic conditions in the fourteenth century however deteriorated and little documentation exists for any further monastic activity prior to the Dissolution. In fact, the landscape must have remained largely unchanged until the enclosures of the second half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth. The enclosures brought an increased interest in land improvement and surveyors and engineers became involved. From 1818 experiments with steam pumping had taken place on the Fens and in 1831 local landowners obtained an Act of Parliament entitled “An Act for Draining, Flooding and Improving certain low lands and Grounds within the several Parishes of Othery, Middlezoy and Westonzoyland in the County of Somerset”.  By February 1834 the Taunton Courier is reporting that:-

“…The Steam Engine erected at Westonzoyland has kept the side of the moor from being flooded. The farmers derived great benefit thereby.”

Westonzoyland was therefore the first steam powered pumping station in Somerset and its success was followed by the erection of a second steam engine, this time at Southlake. Further schemes followed and these are all fully documented and illustrated in Iain Miles’s excellent booklet listed below. It was not, however, until the Land Drainage Act of 1930 that a body was created that assumed responsibility for all the main rivers in the County. This was called The Somerset Rivers Catchment Board. Louis Kelting, (pictured below) later the Board’s Chief Engineer, wrote on this period

There was much preparation of grandiose schemes whose main virtue seemed to be that they invoked strenuous opposition from other authorities”.

 None-the-less, he achieved a great deal and in 1941 the first steam plant was replaced with a pair of diesel engine pumps. This was followed, once peace retuned after the war, with more stations being converted from steam to diesel and Westonzoyland was converted in 1950. The Westonzoyland diesel pump is now only used when conditions are bad, normally for 2-3 weeks a year. But, like other diesel pumps in the area it is kept in working order in case of need.

The Westonzoyland Pumping Station today is also a museum and houses the largest collection of stationary steam engines and pumps in the south of England. The fact that so much is preserved is thanks to Louis Kelting who attempted to preserve the redundant steam pumps in their original buildings and, where not possible, stored them at the Old Allermoor Pumping Station.

In his booklet, Iain Miles comments that

“Even people living on or near the levels frequently do not appreciate the organisation, sheer blood, sweat and tears that have gone and are still going into keeping Somerset dry, and safe to live and work in.”

Perhaps those of us who listened to his talk have just a little more appreciation of this than we had at the start of the evening.                                                                                                                                                                                                   Madeleine Roberts


Further Reading:
“…Bogs and inundations….” by Iain Miles
“The Draining of the Somerset Levels” by Michael Williams






Reconstructions at Avalon Marshes Centre

Richard Brunning gave an excellent and well-illustrated talk about the reconstructions both past and ongoing which his team have been doing at the Avalon Marshes Centre as part of a wider project, the Avalon Marshes Partnership, funded by the Lottery.

One of the first projects was to reconstruct wooden trackways at Shapwick Heath Nature Reserve.  The Sweet Trackhas been replicated on virtually the same line as it was originally was in about 3806BC and which probably lasted for about 9 years

What was interesting was that the first trackway that they made rotted fairly quickly and lasted for only about 3 years.  They also found that the path could very quickly become engulfed by the undergrowth and when they left an experimental version untouched for 6 months it had virtually disappeared. Richard thought that this was, perhaps, why they were never used for very long.  The last version (left) which still stands has now been in place for about two and a half years.  Although looking very much like the original would have been, health and safety demands necessitated certain changes to its construction to make is safe, so the planks are kept secure with cross stakes.

The second reconstruction was of the Bronze Age Meare Heath Track, a two-plank walkway that was originally built across a wet bog but is now reconstructed in wet woodland on the nature reserve.
Large oak planks were laid on top of dumps of brushwood with transverse planks that operated like railway sleepers.As Richard pointed out, the trackways were only ever used for foot traffic, not vehicles.



Richard went on to talk about dugout canoes one of which was found under the foundations of the Glastonbury Lake Villagein 1911.  The replica was made of beech and was fitted with a separate transom board at its wider end, like many prehistoric canoes.

The second one they made was an oak example similar to the Shapwick canoe now on display at the Museum of Somerset.  As an experiment it was fitted with an outrigger, which gave it much greater stability. The attachment was made using treenails at the ends, a feature found on the original.   They clearly had fun making these and trying them out but sadly the public can’t use them!

Round Houses.
They have built three replica round houses, but the original one is no longer there.

Interestingly they found that they had originally got the design wrong, as they later found that the original builders had used very thin wall posts which were sunk only a short distance into the ground and that there was no dramatic edge between roof and wall.   They are now building a more accurate version using coppiced hazel which is wound around the posts rather like the construction of a basket. They hope to finish this in the next month or so.  They are also making various pieces of furniture and bits and pieces such as bowls and also a ladder
based on archaeological evidence from the only original ladder that has been found in the UK.  Apparently  there are only 3 known examples in Europe simply because ladders don’t normally survive.  Richard assured us it works very well.  They are also making a bed for the inside of the house and since there is no evidence for Iron Age beds they have used their imagination and made up their own design complete with some typical carvings on the side.

Another reconstruction being done is of a dining room of a Roman Villa complete with hypocaust underfloor heating.  Terracotta tile pillars support the stone floor and hot air is fed from an external furnace and goes up through tubulae built into the walls andout through the roof which is covered with replica Roman roof tiles. The heating has been tested and apparently works well.

On top of the floor screed they have built cob walls which have been rendered on the outside and they have employed typical Roman fakery to make the building look posher that it is.  Inside the walls are plastered and are being painted in colours and styles known from the Roman period.  A typical Roman mosaic floor is also being laid.They have included many carvings and figurative images of deities such as Flora goddess of Spring (not margarine) and Bacchus god of wine and feasting, both based on early images from Italy, while Diana, goddess of the hunt, is based on a 4th century image from Rome. The overall result is incredibly colourful as you can see (above).

Anglo-Saxon Long Hall:   The design was based on Philip Roth’s notes on the excavations of the Anglo Saxon Long Hall at the Kings of Wessex Academy. The work is now nearing completion. The timber frame building is made of green oak. There are wattle and daub infill walls and split oak roof shingles. It stands over 5m in height with a smoke hood. Apparently, there is no archaeological evidence for this so it’s their own invention. There are carved barge boards and although it was not typical of the period they have put windows in the glass and have included some stained glass made by a volunteer.   The wattle and daub walls are lime washed and at one end they have made some plasterwork panels for wall paintings.  There is a raised dais at one end and they will probably make part of the building into a bedroom.  They are currently working on various pieces of furniture including some Viking inspired beds.

And finally, Richard spoke about The Walrus, a full-size replica of a Viking trading ship from Denmark. It now stands beside the Saxon Long Hall.  When erected themast will be about the same height as the Long Hall.

A fascinating talk and a wonderful insight into how to use archaeological evidence and ancient techniques.

The Great Eastern

The Great Eastern
We had an excellent talk by Philip Unwin, a volunteer with the SS Great Britain Trust, on The Great Eastern, Brunel’s 3rd and last ship.  As Philip explained, she was huge being twice the length, width and draught of the SS Great Britain.  Her size, however, caused several problems wherever she went and that together with various financial problems and a degree of bad luck led many to think she was jinxed.
She was designed by Brunel to take 4000 passengers to the Far East without refuelling and for this reason had both propellers and paddles as many of the places it was intended to go to had shallow waters.  5 engines were required to provide enough power to drive the ship.

Brunel discussed his design with John Scott Russell, an excellent engineer and shipyard owner in Millwall, who he had met at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and found that Russell had had a similar idea.  He approached the Eastern Steam Navigation Company who agreed to fund the project.  Brunel estimated that the cost of building the ship would £500K but Russell put in a much lower bid which Brunel accepted and, in 1854, they began building the ship on a timber grid, the remains of which can still be seen.  Philip showed us several plans of the design of the ship.

Brunel was, apparently, a difficult man to work with and insisted that he had to authorise every change needed to be made during the ship’s construction but of course this was impossible as he had a lot of other projects to supervise. This was to prove significant.

The ship had a double iron hull which required 3 million rivets that had to be driven by hand, enormous 50ft paddles, and a cast iron screw propeller which was 24 ft in diameter.   When complete in 1854 it was said to be the largest man-made moveable object.

The cost of constructing the ship was enormous and this, together with the amount of time it took meant that the ship had 2 different owners all of whom had lost money before the launch.

Launch Day was set for 3 November 1857.  Because of its size it had been designed to be launched sideways using hydraulic rams.  The first ones they used were inadequate for the job and Richard Tangye from Birmingham was asked to provide stronger ones.  This he did bringing them down from Birmingham – an enormous task in itself but it was very good publicity for him.

Brunel had hoped to launch the ship with a minimum amount of publicity but, as Philip explained many people had been watching the building of the ship and it had been a real tourist attraction.  Even Queen Victoria apparently made a visit although she was most displeased at the stench coming from the Thames.  The directors, who were in need of any money they could get, decided to capitalise on the publicity and sold 3,000 tickets for the event at 5 shillings each.  Brunel was not pleased.

The ship was launched by attaching chains from the ship to two barges which were securely moored so that when the rams pushed the ship down the slip the barges would hold it, but on the first occasion the anchors of the barge dragged and the ship only moved 6 feet.  The next time it was tried there was no movement at all as the chains broke and various people were hurt. In the end it took 3 months before she was floated out and moored. The time taken and the ship’s sheer size led to a lot of mockery and there was a Punch cartoon showing Brunel on board with a hot air balloon, a cattle show and other things which ridiculed the whole process. Ironically this presaged how she would end up.

Brunel himself was annoyed that the launch had not been done the way he had planned and had been humiliated by the launch. He died 10 days later, in 1858, following a stroke.  Although it was said that the ship had killed him he had, in fact, been quite ill for some time and suffered from Bright’s disease and by the time the ship was built he was also exhausted.  The 48 cigars a day he apparently smoked probably didn’t help either.

The total cost of the launch was £170K.  The ship with an estimate of £500K to build had eventually cost £730K and still needed to be fitted out.  Her owner, the Eastern Steam Navigation Company was now in severe financial difficult and a new company, the Great Ship Company, was set up which bought out the original shareholders.  They bought the Great Eastern for £160,000 and had enough capital to pay for the fitting out. Philip said this was a bargain since there was at least that value of iron there although there was less than Scott Russell said he had provided!

 Philip showed pictures of the inside of the ship which was extremely luxuriously fitted out.

It was a very grand ship and was completed in 1859.   Despite the fact that Brunel had intended that the ship sail to the Far East and advised that it should never cross the Atlantic, the first voyage in 1860 was to America with 400 passengers only 35 of whom were paying and so there was no profit. She sailed with a new captain as the original one had drowned in an accident in Southampton.

This was, according to Philip, the first intimation that the ship was jinxed.

In 1861 it made its second trip across the Atlantic, having been chartered to carry 2400 troops to reinforce the British garrison in Quebec in response to American threats to move into Canada. Although this trip did make a profit it also turned into a PR disaster.  The civil war was going on in America and not many people were interested in the ship.  In order to promote it, therefore, the Captain decided to offer paying passengers a cruise.  1500 people signed up, far more than they had crew for and so they hired local labour. The cruise proved to be a total disaster; the local crew members were often drunk and rude to the passengers, there was not enough food and fresh water and there were a lot of complaints.  Fed up with the state of affairs, Philip explained that many people grabbed bottles of booze and got drunk, going onto the upper deck to sleep.  Unfortunately for them there were 5 funnels all belching out black smoke and when they awoke in the morning they were black.  With not enough fresh water to wash themselves, this added to the complaints.  When they got back to New York the ship owners were used by the local press for gross inefficiency and misleading advertising.

The Grand Saloon during storm Sept 1861. Based on a sketch by a passenger, C. F. Hayward

The third voyage also had problems.  During a very bad storm the rudder broke although it was 24 hours before the passengers realised what had happened. The problem was that when the rudder flapped about it damaged one of the paddles necessitating the other paddle to be stopped plus the engines.  Philip read an extract from an account written by one of the passengers in which he described how nothing was chained down, tables and chairs tumbled, mirrors were smashed and broken, the grand piano broke away and in the dining room and galley there was flying crockery, food and cutlery.  It was mayhem and must have been terrifying for the passengers and crew.

One of the passengers, who was an engineer, had a plan to resolve the issue but the Captain refused to listen to him.  The passengers took matters into their own hands and the passenger committee demanded that the Captain try out the plan.  This involved putting chains around the rudder head to control it.  In order to do this it was necessary for someone to go over the side to secure a chain to the rudder.  One brave sailor volunteered and managed to do it.  Once they got underway again, the passengers had a whip round and were able to give him £100.  A sizeable amount in those days.  By the time the ship was repaired, however, the ship was off course.  A small coaster from America came alongside and offered to accompany the ship overnight.  Although this must have been a reassurance to the passengers in reality, as Philip explained, they couldn’t really have done very much.  What they did do, however, was to charge the ship owners demurrage because of the delay they incurred getting to port.  It was yet more expense for the owners.

After the necessary repairs the ship made 3 more voyages but on the last to New York she got a gash in the hull.  This became known as the Great Eastern Rock incident. Although they arrived safely in New York the ship was listing badly and when they examined the ship they found that a section between the hulls was full of water.  Although the gash was very large and bigger than the one that sunk the Titanic, the ship had survived because of the double skin.  Due to her size it was impossible to repair her in a dry dock and so a cofferdam was built to effect the repairs.

There were three more voyages but the company was running out of money and in January 1864 the ship was put up for sale and was bought by a new company, The Greater Eastern Steamship Company with the purpose of laying a transatlantic cable.

In April 1864 the ship was chartered to the Telegraph Construction Company.  The Great Eastern was the only ship big enough to take the length of cable required for this huge operation, and it took five months just to load it.The cable was 2000 miles long and 1 inch in diameter. All this had to be accommodated in the hold and paid out gradually to a depth of about 2 miles. The first attempt took place on 14 July 1865 andthe cable broke 5 times.  Each time the cable had to be brought back into the ship to be repaired.  They had to find cable, then draw it up and as it had to be brought in over the bow they had to turn the ship round each time.  It was very tedious and each time took 12 – 17 hours.  As Philip said, it must have been a soul destroying job.

The second attempt using a lighter and stronger cable was successful and the transatlantic cable linking Ireland to Newfoundland was completed on 1 September 1866.Messages were being sent back all the time reporting their progress and there was much excitement.

It was then chartered to a French company who laid a cable from Brest to New York and also one from Aden to Bombay.  It was then chartered to a French company who wanted to use her as a cruise liner and they put back all the furnishings.  This was never very successful and she was eventually laid up in Milford Haven.

At the end of her life the ship became much like the one lampooned in Punch.  She was, amongst other things, used as a fairground and went up and down the Mersey advertising Lewis’s Department Store. In 1888

she was sold for scrap and was broken up on the banks of the Mersey.  She was so strong that it took 2 years to break her up.

A sad end.


Artist’s Impressions of the Western Mendips

The first talk of the autumn was given on Wednesday 18thSeptember by David Bromwich. David, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the SANHS collections, had put together a fascinating talk based on the illustrations of Somerset held in the Heritage Centre. He explained how, before the camera was invented and in common use, travellers had been in the habit of recording places of interest with sketches. He described how some, doubting their own skills in this direction, even employed professional artists. One such was the Reverend Richard Kay, Dean of Lincoln, who employed the artist Samuel Hieronymus Grimm to travel with him and to make an accurate record of his journey. In addition to this, some wealthy people commissioned art works for their own pleasure and built up what were to become famous collections.

Spargrove Manor, Batcombe, 1829; by John Chessell Buckler (Piggott coll.)

Two of these were John Hugh Smith Pigott of Brockley Court, and George Weare Braikenridge of Broomwell House, Brislington. Between them all, they have left a remarkable legacy of drawings, lithographs, prints and watercolours of Somerset covering the period from the end of the eighteenth century through to the end of the nineteenth.

The record left includes some pictures of buildings that no longer exist, such as Holy Trinity, Bridgwater and Holy Trinity, Wellington where today only graveyards remain to show that the churches once existed. Many illustrations, however, record both the exteriors and interiors of churches as they were before the alterations of the Victorian Period. Others show us buildings still recognisable but in the process of change such as the one of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, before the spire was completed. In addition to churches, there were domestic scenes such as a cottage interior at Oare on Exmoor, and several of wider landscapes. A picture of Bedminster High Street drawn sometime in the 1820s or 30s looks almost medieval and is certainly unrecognisable to the casual eye today.

The Avon Gorge with Rownham Ferry in operation featured twice and although still easily recognisable shows the gorge before the Clifton Suspension Bridge was built and at a time when there was an ocean-going schooner navigating the gorge. Likewise, a picture of the Iron Bridge, Bridgwater, showed ocean going vessels on the downstream side of the bridge. Taunton featured twice with a picture of the Market House and Taunton Parade and another of the courtyard of Taunton Castle. David was able to point out the features of the courtyard that still exist today as well as those that are long gone. Closer to home, David showed us a wonderful picture of Cheddar Gorge by Samuel Jackson and was able to point out that the figures in the foreground were not of locals but had been taken from Pyne’s Microcosm, a book of foreground figures for artists.

Finally, David was able to indicate the value of the collections to the modern day by listing the large number of publications that have used them such as the Victoria County History and Somerset’s Millennium Book.

Entrance to Cheddar, 1824; by Samuel Jackson (Braikenridge coll.)



Garden Party 30 June 2019

Garden Party at The George House courtesy of Robin Goodfellow. 

Several members had a very enjoyable visit to Robin’s garden on a lovely sunny day.
Merle (Robin’s dog) had an excellent time showing us around the garden although it was quite exhausting and she did need to take the odd breather.

Fortunately Robin was on hand to talk rather more authoritatively about the planting schemes in the garden and I think I can safely say that everyone was amazed at the amount of work that had gone in to making it so impressive.  Grateful thanks to Robin for hosting the event.     

David Roberts gave an excellent presentation on the archaeological work that had taken place in the upper part of the garden and Madeleine Roberts and the team were on hand to dispense drinks on what was a very hot day. Thanks to all of them for a lovely day and to Jonathan Friend for the photos

Axbridge Weekend May 18 and 19

We had a very successful weekend of events with far more people attending than we expected.  As a result it was considered too hazardous to have a walk around the narrow streets of Axbridge and therefore on Saturday morning John Page gave a talk in the Square and a brief walk to look at some of the houses there. The afternoon saw us in the Church where Dr Jerry Sampson entertained us with an excellent talk about the building and its history and revealed a few of the little things you had never noticed such as a mason’s mark and the remains of coloured plaster work.

On Sunday afternoon two groups led by Madeleine and David Roberts went to consider Madeleine’s evidence for the existence of a port, walking from Axbridge along Bailiff’s wall down to Cradle Bridge on the River Axe and back along Hook wall to Axbridge.  Her theory that there was a port of Axbridge was both very interesting and intriguing.

The photo is of the two groups meeting on their way to and from the River Axe.

The defence of the British Channel


Following the AGM on April 16th the last talk of the season was delivered by Chris Webster, co-author of ‘Somerset and the Defence of the Bristol Channel in the Second World War’ by Dawson, Hunt and Webster (SANHS 2011).

He began by explaining the strategic importance of the West Country and the Bristol Channel in the defence of the nation.  Maritime trade is of crucial importance to the maintenance of supplies and in 1940 a tenth of British imports were coming through the Bristol Channel ports. Somerset harbours, although relatively minor, take on a much greater significance if viewed from the perspective of forming the southern flank of an important waterway giving access to the ports of South Wales, the port of Bristol and a network of waterways leading to the heart of the Midlands. The early concerns were therefore to defend the sea ports and keep the seaways open.

In 1940 however, the Germans occupied northern France and suddenly the West Country, which, inland at least, had been seen as a safe haven away from London, became vulnerable to invasion. Efforts were made to second guess German intentions and attacks were feared from both sea and air. Somerset beaches were feared to be suitable landing strips for aircraft as well as being vulnerable to sea born invasion. The open spaces on the high ground of both Exmoor and the Brendon Hills could likewise be used for landing aircraft and for parachute drops.

Plans were hurriedly drawn up to thwart any possible German plans and the necessary defences were installed. These defences formed the basis of Chris’s talk.

The Bristol Channel was fortified by the construction of gun batteries at Lavernock in South Wales, Flat Holm, Steep Holm and Brean Down forming a chain across the Bristol Channel to protect the area upstream.

The beaches were all protected with anti-tank obstacles and barbed wire although little evidence of this exists today. Pillboxes were also built to prevent movement inland from the beaches and some of these still exist. For example one can be found on Dunster Beach.

Inland from beaches a series of ‘stop-lines’ was devised primarily as anti-tank devices to impede enemy movement. They connected a series of features such as waterways, escarpments and ditches that in themselves were an obstruction to movement and into them anti-tank obstacles were incorporated turning the stop line into a significant barrier. Many also included sufficient defences to prevent infantry activity. The two most important were the Taunton Stop Line and the GHQ Stop Line.

The Taunton Stop Line ran from Burnham-on-Sea south across Somerset and Devon to Seaton on the south coast and its aim was to prevent movement out of the West Country should the Germans have gained a stronghold in the west.

The GHQ Stop Line ran east from Burnham-on-Sea and was the more important of the two lines.  It was intended as the final line of defence to keep the invader from reaching London and the industrial heartland in the Midlands.

The focus of significant road networks such as Bristol, Taunton and Exeter also had independent anti-tank defences and were referred to as anti-tank islands. All roads into these towns were heavily defended with roadblocks to prevent their use by the enemy.

Airfields such as Yeovilton and Culmhead (Churchstanton) were built from which the area could be defended and these airfields were in turn protected both from land attack and from enemy airborne landings. Guns on the perimeter pointed both ways, into the airfield in case of enemy landings and out from it to protect from enemy tanks should that be necessary.

On Axbridge Hill, a relatively small plateau, a series of ridges was constructed to prevent aircraft from landing.

Bombing decoys or fake cities were set up to confuse the enemy and divert bombing raids away from important sites. Three types of decoy were designed a Q5, QL and SF. A Q5 decoy was a simulated burning city, a QL a simulated badly blacked out city and starfish or SF was a special fire site, an enlarged version of a Q5. Locally a decoy site exists on Blackdown where the ground surface was altered and illuminated to mimic the layout of the British Railway Network in Bristol by night.

Finally, preparations were made for non-fighting roles. These included the building of the Royal Ordnance factory at Puriton where explosives were made, the Hydrographic Office in Taunton that produced essential maps and the Reserve Depot at Norton Fitzwarren where ration packs for the army were put together.

There were also preparations made for the returning wounded with hospitals being established at Hestercombe House in the Quantocks, Sandhill Park at Bishop’s Lydeard and Musgrove Park in Taunton. R.A.F. Merryfield became the receiving station for wounded Americans.

This account represents only a tiny amount of the information imparted by Chris Webster in his talk and available in the book. But, the research published in the book preserves for all time the story of how Somerset prepared for an invasion and how, should the preparations have proved necessary, it would have resisted the advance.

In the event, the Germans had no invasion plan for the south-west. Their only plan, Operation Sea Lion, focused on an invasion in the south-east of the country.

The talk was well attended and attracted a number of visitors.

Madeleine Roberts.




Rev. Dr Thomas Whalley

March meeting.
Chris Stephens gave an excellent talk on his research into the life of the Rev. Dr Thomas Whalley (1746-1828), which he sub-titled A True Story of Georgian Life at the time of Jane Austen.

His interest in the subject was aroused when he was asked to re-build some walls that ran alongside Mendip Lodge, which was built by the Rev. Dr Whalley as a summer retreat.

Much of Whalley’s life is known from his letters edited and published by his great nephew in 1863, but recent research has revealed a far more interesting and complete account.  His life was clearly one of extravagance, generosity and intellectual activity and he spent much of his time with many of the most influential people of the time.

He was the son of John Whalley, Master of Peterhouse College in Cambridge and his mother was the daughter of the Chancellor of Wells Cathedral.  He married a widow, Elizabeth Sherwood, who was the heir to Langford Court and it was her money that enabled him to buy a house in the Royal Crescent in Bath, which he used during the “season.”  Apparently he thought of himself as a poet and playwright and enjoyed living in Bath which was, at the time, a centre of social life and where there were many famous people such as Mrs Siddons, Hannah More, David Garrick and Mrs Thrale (Piozi). Chris used Whalley’s extensive correspondence with these people to inform his research.

Thomas and his wife went to France in 1783 ad let their house, Langford Court,  When they  returned in 1787 he built Mendip Lodge because Langford Court had been let you during their absence from England.  No expense was spared building the house and the cost of landscaping the grounds alone was, according to De Quincy, about £30,3000.  The equivalent to day of about 30 million,

In 1801 Thomas’s wife died and in 1803 he married a Miss Heathcote who was also very rich but sadly she died in 1807.  Although relatively wealthy, the upkeep of Mendip Lodge and his somewhat extravagant lifestyle meant that it made sense for Thomas to marry for a third time and in 1815 he married the widow of the wealthy General Horneck.  Unfortunately, as Thomas found out, Mrs Horneck herself was not well off, having been left out of the will of her late husband.  The marriage was not to last long and the couple separated in 1819. Quite what the reasons were for this are unclear but his wife’s accusation of cruelty led Thomas to seek a legal separation.

In 1819 he sold Mendip Lodge to Benjamin Somers, a relative by marriage of his first wife, but had to buy it back in 1822 when Somers failed to keep up the mortgage payments.

After his separation from his third wife, Thomas retired from public life in Bath and in 1820 was living in La Fleche, in France where his niece, Frances, and her husband lived.  Until his death Thomas seems to have divided his time between various places in Britain and in France.  He died in 1828 and was buried in La Fleche.

The Queen of Bath, Frances Sage

Thomas had a sister, Elizabeth, who he adored and who married an East India Company man called Isaac Sage.  When she died in 1778, she left a daughter Frances who was then 7 years old and since her father was in India, Thomas and his wife took care of her. Frances grew up to be a very accomplished and popular young lady and it is her who was to become the Queen of Bath.

The well-known figure, Richard Beau Nash was the self-appointed “Monarch of Bath” and logically he needed  “Queen.”  Various people held the post until, in 1788, aged 19 years,

Frances was hailed as the next Queen and stayed as such until 1790.  Why her tenure was so short is not known but Chris speculated that perhaps her behaviour had not been all that it should be!  She was described as spirited, independent and worldly.

In 1790 she married William Mullins, an Irish widower with 2 small children. However, although from a rich family and due to inherit a title and fortune, it seems that William had very little money and the couple had no settled home.  The marriage was clearly not a happy one and In 1795 Frances left William who divorced her on the grounds of infidelity.  She had, in fact, gone away with Captain Abel Rous Dottin, the eldest son of wealthy parents, who were plantation owners in Barbados.  It would appear that the two had known each other for many years and it is supposed that the whole “adultery” charge might have been staged. Whalley remained friends with William Mullins for many years and Dottin married 3 years after this event and became an MP with the help of Isaac Sage, France’s father.  A divorce was granted in 1796 and Frances received a settlement of £1000 per annum for life.

A mere three weeks after the divorce Frances married Rev. Robert Boyle Sullivan.  The suggestion is that France had fallen in love with him hence the staged adultery. Sullivan was a curate at Winscombe for a time but was removed for neglecting his duties.  Influential friends meant that he was able to obtain a curacy at Bradford on Avon.  In 1815 following the Battle of Waterloo, however, the Sullivans were in France. Although they appeared to live quite well it is unclear whether Robert had any employment or what exactly their financial situation was.  Frances did, of course, have her annuity.

In 1818, when her father died he left her only £1000 in his will, thinking that she was well provided for.  However in 1824 when her first husband died she lost her annuity and when Robert Sullivan died in 1826 Frances was in dire need of financial assistance.  She appealed for help to her uncle Thomas and he bought her a house in  in France and left her £1000 in his will.

Around 1830, with growing unrest in France, Frances sold the house and returned to England.  In 1841 she is recorded as residing in a lodging house (possibly her own) and in the 1851 census she is described as a an annuitant.

She died in 1857 aged 86 and is buried in Bath Abbey.

Chris ended with a question, which was whether Frances Sage and Thomas Whalley were known to Jane Austen.  He suggested that, as Austen knew Bath very well, that the families might have been known to each other and that Frances might well have been a source for some of her characters.  Chris surmised that one of the characters in  Lady Susan,Austen’s first bookwritten about 1794, was indeed modelled on Frances.

An intriguing thought to end with!

Chris has done an enormous amount of research in writing this book, which is available at a bargain price from the King John’s Hunting Lodge.

Thanks to the Georgian Society and Bath City Council for the pictures

The Severn Railway Bridge Disaster

The February talk on The Severn Railway Disaster was given by Paul Barnett, a maritime historian and former Royal Marine. Paul became interested in the bridge disaster when he failed to find documentary evidence to support the stories about the event circulating in the area. The research that he undertook resulted in an exhibition in 2010 to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster. It also led to the erection of two memorial stones on the banks of the Severn, one at Lydney Docks and one at Purton.

The bridge was constructed between 1875 and 1879 by the Severn Bridge Railway Company primarily to carry coal from the Forest of Dean to the docks at Sharpness, the Lydney docks being too small to cope with the growing volume of trade.  It continued in use for freight and some passenger services until 1960, the time of the disaster. It was designed by George Baker Keeling and constructed by Hamilston’s Windsor Ironworks Company Ltd of Garston, Liverpool. The bridge carried a single track railway and trains had to complete the return crossing from Sharpness to Lydney in reverse. It had been hoped that the line would attract tourist traffic as well as local passengers but seven years later the Severn tunnel was opened and, from early on, this threatened the bridge’s financial viability.

The bridge had twenty-three spans and over the years a number of vessels had collided with the piers as a result of the difficult conditions in the estuary. However, Paul wondered wryly whether the fact that the bridge wa
s covered by insurance could have had something to do with the number of collisions. The bridge was, after all, on the route of vessels heading for the breakers yard.

On 25th October 1960, two tanker barges, the Arkendale H and the Wastdale H collided in heavy fog near Sharpness. Both vessels had missed the entrance to Sharpness harbour and found themselves further upstream than they should have been. The result was that they had to battle against an incoming tide to regain the harbour entrance. The estuary narrows to the north of the harbour entrance and consequently the tide runs much faster at that point and has a back eddy. The skippers of the vessels lost control, their barges collided and as a result crashed broadside into pier 17 of the bridge. Part of the bridge collapsed hitting the barges. The Arkendale was carrying 191 tons of black oil, the Wastdale 252 tons of petrol. The result was a serious conflagration with five of the eight men on board the two vessels losing their lives. It could however have been even worse for, three days earlier, work had commenced on strengthening the bridge and, prior to the commencement of the programmed welding, the gas main which ran across the bridge had been disconnected. It was also fortunate that the six British Rail men employed to strengthen the bridge were off duty and busy listening to a boxing match at the time or they too could have been caught up in the disaster.

The accident left a 168ft gap in the 4,162ft. bridge and it remained in this state for seven years while decisions were made about whether to repair or demolish it. The decision had finally been made to go ahead with repairs when a capsized tanker caused further damage to pier 20 and the extra cost that this would have incurred made repair uneconomic. The decision to demolish was taken and demolition was completed between 1967 and 1970. Today all that remains to be seen are several piers on the embankment and, at low water, the wreckage of the two barges which remain on the river bed.

The bridge had been of a box girder design with only one other, the Tay Bridge, being of a similar construction. This too had failed leading to the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879.

During the course of Paul’s investigations some fascinating memorabilia came to light. The first was a set of thirty-nine glass sepia photographic plates that had been taken by Keeling in the early days of the bridge’s construction and had been used by him to publicise the project and to raise sponsorship. They had been rescued from a skip by someone who was fortunate enough to be aware of their significance. Only one other set of plates is known to exist and this is in the possession of the Cardiff Institute of Engineering.

The second find was a painting of the bridge measuring 14ft. by 4ft. It was an artist’s impression of the project prior to construction and this too had been rescued from a skip! It is known that investors in the project were each to be given a painting of the bridge and seventy-two watercolours were commissioned. Could this painting have been one of them? It seems possible.

In spite of a having a long journey back to Gloucester, Paul stayed for refreshments and spent time enthusiastically talking to members and answering questions.


Geophysics Survey at Allerton

After a brief introduction from Elizabeth Friend on the reasons why Poolhayes was chosen as the site of the recent survey, Liz Caldwell and Nigel Harvey spoke about the techniques they used and the results of the full survey which was done in October 2018,  Although nothing conclusive was found there were a few anomalies suggesting  ditches and a number of curvilinear lines which were not consistent with the current field boundaries and which seemed to leading up to the field beyond Poolhayes.  This is much higher than the village and the activity seen could, they suggested be evidence of an earlier settlement there.

Liz went on to outline the use of geophysics and illustrated this with examples of work that they have done.

The results of the survey will form part on an exhibition at the King John’s Hunting Lodge Museum in Axbridge which will open at Easter.The field is numbered 144 on the Dean and Chapter map 1786