Oh! I do Love to be Beside the Seaside!

(British music hall song written in 1907 by John Glover-Kind)

First published in Local Reach
Those of you of a certain age may well remember knitted swimming costumes that sagged once they got wet.  Whoever thought wool was a good material for swimwear was wrong!  Having said that, everyone today would recognise what they were.  If you look back at what women were wearing in previous centuries, however, you would probably not believe that their dresses were, indeed, what they wore to go into the sea.  

In the 1800’s sea-bathing became increasingly popular for women but modesty was all-important and bathing dresses were designed to cover most of the body.   At this time a typical costume would have been a voluminous wool dress worn over bloomers which were named after, but not invented by, Amelia Bloomer.  By the end of the century the dresses were shorter and would have been worn over knee-length bloomers with long black stockings and accessorised with bathing slippers and fancy caps.

Butterick Pattern 1914

Little changed until the 20th century when a little more of the figure was allowed to be exposed but, as the illustration (left) shows it still looked very much like a dress rather than a bathing costume and it was not until women started taking up swimming as a sport that their swimwear started to become the style we would recognise today.

Going back to the 1800’s, it was common then for men to swim nude and it was only in 1860 that this was banned.  Thereafter the design of men’s swimwear was equally constrained by the need for modesty and it was illegal in most places for men to have a bare torso.  

Butterick Pattern for boys 1902

The typical costume resembled an undergarment with sleeves down to the elbow and the legs down to below the knee and was usually made of wool.  Some beaches also required men to have an additional piece of fabric covering their genital area.  Although the length of the legs and arms became shorter over time, it was not until 1936 that men were allowed to swim bare-chested at the Olympics and 1948 before briefs were allowed.

The development of both men and women’s bathing suits owes much to the use of new materials for which we must be very grateful.  No more wet wool!!

Enjoy the summer.

Make Hay While the Sun Shines

First published in Local Reach
Although the end of harvest has been celebrated for a very long time, you may be interested to know that the Victorian tradition of Harvest Home celebrations here in Somerset began in East Brent on the 3rd September 1857, inaugurated by archdeacon George Denison, who apparently decided that the end of harvest should be celebrated and recognised as an official holiday.  In 1861 the Church of England recognised Harvest Home as a fixture in the Church calendar and the idea soon spread to other villages.  It is still an occasion for a knees up in many villages in Somerset although there aren’t so many farmers present as when it started.

Getting the harvest in does, of course, depend on good weather and the expression “make hay while the sun shines” arose as a reminder that the “Dog Days” were coming.  The term traditionally refers to the period of hot and humid weather that occurs at the end of July and the beginning of August in the Northern Hemisphere, the Dog referring to Sirius the Dog Star which rises at this time of year.  In ancient Greece and Rome, the Dog Days were believed to be a time of drought, bad luck, and unrest, when dogs and men alike would be driven mad by the extreme heat. Today, the phrase doesn’t conjure up such bad imagery but The Old Farmers Almanac (1817) says that “when Sirius takes charge of the weather, he is such an unsteady crazy dog, there is no dependence on him”.  

Rainfall at this time was considered in the past to be a bad omen as this verse says

Dog Days bright and clear
Indicate a happy year;
But when accompanied by rain,
For better times, our hopes are vain.

So:  Let’s hope for some sunny Dog Days!

Where could you go in 1886?

First published in Local Reach
With the possibility of Covid 19 restrictions being eased, it’s interesting to know how people entertained themselves in the 19th century.  Several factors contributed to the rise in leisure activities in Victorian times.  The opening up of the railways meant that people could travel further and quicker, and when Axbridge station was opened in 1869 the line went from Yatton (with stops at Congresbury, Sandford, Winscombe, Axbridge,) to Cheddar, and was then extended in 1870 to go to Wells.  In 1876 the Bristol and Exeter line was taken over by the Great Western and in 1878 the line was connected to the East Somerset line at Wells, providing trains through to Shepton Mallet and on to Frome on the GWR main line.  

Changes in working practices with industrialisation such as set annual holidays and half day working on Saturday plus the introduction of statutory bank holidays in 1871 also boosted the tourist trade and the demand for cheap rail tickets.  A look at the Weston Mercury of 5 June 1886 shows a wide array of adverts for excursion train tickets to London, as well as ones for day trips to Bristol and to Chepstow and Tintern.  

The highlight for some was to be the availability of cheap excursion tickets from various stations so that they could attend the Sheep Shearing Match at Axbridge.

Travel by sea was also popular.  There were adverts for special excursions to Cardiff from Weston aboard the fast Saloon Steamer “Lady Margaret” and for a steamer from Portishead to Lynmouth and Ilfracombe.  

Other entertainments advertised were the Wrington Vale and Mendip Sheep Shearing Society annual dinner (with first class band), a performance by The Original Pepper’s Ghost and Spectral Opera company at Weston-super-Mare and more fun was promised at the Conservative Fete at Mendip Lodge where there would be “rural games and sports”, and dancing on the green.  At dusk the grounds was to be illuminated by Chinese Lanterns with a firework display also promised.

The leisure and entertainment industry continued to thrive.  People flocked to the Cheddar Caves which the Gough family opened to the public in the 1890’s, Weston-super Mare football team began in 1887 and so on.  

Whatever you are doing or wherever you are going when restrictions end  – enjoy!

The Game of Fives

First published in Local Reach

Fives was, as the name suggests a game for 5 people, originally using hands and later bats or racquets.  Much like squash it involved hitting a ball against a wall.

Originally the game was played against church walls but during the eighteenth century there were attempts by the church authorities to prevent this, not least because of the damage it caused to the fabric of the buildings and the cost of replacing windows! Various methods were used including erecting railings or fences to prevent access, digging up the area and in this 1763 example at Ashwick, the churchyard cross was moved “to the Vifes place… to prevent the Young People from spending so much idle time in that sort of exercise”.

So successful were the church authorities in preventing the playing of fives that a number of secular fives walls were built, often in the grounds of inns.  The remains of several of these in Somerset are still extant.  

This illustration above is an 1808 copy of a painting of 1757 by Alfred Bennett showing a fives court in Axbridge where yellow clay appears to have been used to make a solid floor upon which to play.  The court is next to “Mrs Gallop’s cottage,” which is thought to have been used as a school.  Mr Gallop, seen here with a telescope, was said to have been fond of spying on his neighbours.  Sadly, both the cottage and the fives walls have long since disappeared.

Memorial Lecture for Ken Barton


Following the AGM, our President, David Dawson, gave an excellent talk about Ken Barton whose interest in archaeology began when he volunteered at a dig in Chester.  From there he went on to have a varied and interesting career in museums and an interest and passion for medieval and post-medieval pottery.  He was a founder member of the Post-Medieval Ceramic Research group, later the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology.  Whilst working in Bristol he took part in the excavations of the Star Roman Villa as well as at other local sites with Philip Rahtz.   A keen collector of pots, his collection was donated to the Somerset Museum Service.

Easter Eggs

Image result for victorian easter cards
First published in Local Reach
Many people today celebrate Easter by indulging in a lot of chocolate rather than commemorating the resurrection of Christ.  Chocolate eggs are, of course, a relatively new invention but the Easter egg, as a symbol of re-birth and fertility goes back a long way.

Before Christianity eggs were painted with bright colours to celebrate Spring and it was a popular custom in the Middle Ages.  In the household accounts of Edward I there was an entry in 1307 which recorded a cost of 18 pence for “450 eggs to be boiled and dyed and covered with gold leaf and distributed to the Royal household.”  

In the 18th century people could buy papier-maché eggs which were then decorated and filled with a small gift.  

It was not until the 19th century that a method of making chocolate eggs was devised, initially by the French and Germans and then copied by British manufacturers including John Cadbury who made the first Cadbury Easter egg in 1875.    The first decorated eggs were plain shells decorated with marzipan flowers and chocolate piping.

But it was not all about chocolate.

Image courtesy of the Faberge Collection

In Russia, during the early years of the 20th century, the jeweller Carl Fabergé made highly decorated eggs for both Czar Alexander III and Czar Nicholas II.  The very first was a gift from Czar Alexander to his wife.   It was made of gold and white enamel with a golden yolk, inside which was a golden hen with a ruby pendant inside.  This was so impressive that the Czar ordered Fabergé to make one for the Czarina every Easter and 10 were produced for her between 1885 and 1893.   Alexander’s son, Nicholas, carried on the tradition ordering two to be made every year for his mother and wife. Although the design was left up to Fabergé, each egg had to have a surprise in it. One amazing egg celebrated the opening of the Trans-Siberian railway. It was made of solid silver, with a map of the train route on it. The stations were marked with precious Jewels, and inside was a gold clockwork train! 

Whilst few, if any, of us can afford a Faberge egg at least we can have a chocolate one!

Archaeology at National Grid Hinkley Connection Project

First published in Local Reach
As is normal with such major works, archaeologists have been involved with the project since the beginning.  The settlement sits in a wealthy Roman landscape not far from the ancient lead mines at Charterhouse-on-Mendip and the Roman Villa at Wint Hill.

They have made some very interesting finds including the remains of a Roman roadside settlement stretching from the Wint Hill to the north down to Loxley Yeo river to southThe buildings are situated either side of the Roman road which follows the modern Max Mill Lane and which has probably been built and re-built several times over the period.  

Roman coin

Although there is no evidence of industrial activity, the discovery of a commercial sized oven in an antechamber and other finds, suggest that the site might have been a sort of staging post. The site is of national significance and unique in the South West and Britain because of the high level of preservation of the site and the artefacts and its 2000 years of uninterrupted occupation.  The artefacts and types of structures found indicate a higher level of wealth in the settlement than the experts would deem typical for this rural landscape.

Knife handles in the shape of a foot

Among the items discovered are brooches, pottery and coins from 2nd century AD through to 4th century AD. A further significant discovery under the floor of one of the buildings is a Roman baby burial – a typical burial method for ancient Roman people.  

The site is still being excavated and is not accessible to the general public but they expect to complete the archaeology surveys in the Summer and will publish further information about the finds when the work is finished. They also plan to hold an Open Day when the artefacts will be on display.

What to do on Valentines Day

First published in Local Reach

Antique Valentines from the late 1800s to the early 1900s

We associate St Valentines Day now with the exchange of cards and other messages of love.  In the past it seems that it could be a little more complicated for women to ensure that they got the man of their dreams.  William Hone in his “Every Day Book” (vol. 1, p,225, published 1825) recounts what one young girl did:  “The night before Valentines’s day I got five bay leaves and pinned four of them to the four corners of my pillow and the fifth to the middle and then, if I dreamt of my sweetheart, Betty said we should be married before the year was out.  But to make it more sure, I boiled an egg hard, and took out the yolk, and filled it with salt; and when I went to bed, ate it, shell and all, without speaking or drinking after it.  We also wrote our lovers names upon bits of paper, and rolled them in clay, and put them into water. And the first name that rose up was to be our valentine.  Would you think it, Mr Blossom was my man.  I lay a-bed all morning and shut my eyes till he came to our house; for I would not have seen another man before him for all the world.”

In Somerset it seems there was one seemingly less romantic custom for men.  According to Hone, young men in the West Country “used to go out together before daylight on St Valentine’s day with a clap-net to catch on old owl and two sparrows in a barn.  If they brought them to the hostess of the inn before the ladies of the house had risen they were rewarded by her with three pots of purl in honour of St Valentine, and enjoyed a similar boon at any other house in the neighbourhood.”  

Hopefully Mr Blossom was not amongst them!

Note:  purl was basically a mulled ale infused with spices (though originally wormwood)

The History of Brewing in Somerset

Members and friends enjoyed an excellent talk given by Mary Miles. She first of all explained something of the history of beer; one of the earliest recipes that has been found being 6300 years old and written on a clay tablet in Babylon. 

Beer was originally flavoured with herbs such as alecost, bog myrtle, liquorice and coriander and called Ale – the word beer being used after hops were used. 

Although much of the beer was for home consumption, hostelries, monasteries and churches all brewed their own version of ale. Church ales were used to supplement parish income and she showed a photo of Crowcombe Church house which had both brewing and baking facilities. Of course then, as now, people sometimes got somewhat merry and, according to Mary, Thomas Wolsey was put into the stocks by the church warden for being inebriated. Church Ale sales were suppressed in the 17th century and the church houses re-purposed.

In those early days brewing was the preserve of women. “Ale-wife” or “brewster” is a designation from the Anglo-Saxon period in England, between the 5th century and the Norman Conquest, when it was the responsibility of the woman of the house to make sure the men were well supplied with beer. These Ale wives did, however, come into disrepute and were accused of lying, cheating and some were said to be consorting with thedevil. Their reputation was well described by Skelton in his poem “Eleanor Rummyng” (shown left above). 

Following the Norman invasion wine production increased, but ale continued to be the staple drink, being, cheap, sterile and reasonable nutritious. This was of course “small beer” (a watered down version) and Mary suggested that as late as the 1600’s men, women and children were drinking about 3 quarts a day. Following the Protestant Reformation, a temperance movement began to grow as a reaction to Catholic indulgence. Protestant reformers saw ale as yet another area of sin and corruption.