Celebrating New Year and another Christmas.

Published in Local Reach January 2021
Celebrating New Year and another Christmas.

Extracts from the Taunton Courier (7 Jan 1920), suggest that New Years day was celebrated in Somerset with an exchange of gifts although “this custom is not so closely observed as in the past”.  The edition also mentions some curious customs associated with Somerset and New Years Day.   Apparently, you should “Never wash anything: if you do wash one of the family away” was an old saying and “trimming the nails is as much to be avoided on New Years day as it is of a Sunday of which the rhyme is often quoted “Cut ‘em on Sunday you cut ‘em for evil.  For the rest of the week you’ll be ruled by the Devil”.

Several rhymes about the weather were also quoted and apparently “The natives of Somerset always taught that the weather of the first three days of January ruled the coming three months.”  “In January should sun appear, March and April will pay full dear.”

One of the best-known customs associated with New Year is, of course, that of first footing in which “The first person that crosses the threshold on New Years day, if he be a dark man, brings luck.”  Although better known in the northern part of Britain it was apparently also a Somerset tradition.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many people in Somerset actually celebrated Christmas on January 6th.   “Old Christmas” as it was called originated because, in 1752, legislation decreed that the calendar was changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and, as a result, 11 days from 3 to 13 September disappeared and Christmas Day moved back from January 6th to 25th December.   In many, particularly rural areas, people protested at this “theft” of these eleven days and demanded that the government “Give us back our 11 days”.  It is strange to think that nothing whatsoever happened in British history for 11 days!

It was, apparently, “considered wicked by some Somerset folk to work on Old Christmas Day.!”   That said, they were not averse to having fun since wassailing traditionally took place on this day and the paper reports that “The custom of wassailing the apple trees is, perhaps, one of the best advertised Somerset and West of England customs — the whole world knows something about placing toast in the forks of apple trees and pouring some of the best cider about the roots to propitiate the fates and thus lead to a good apple bearing season.  Of course, there is singing …. and as the Wassail bowl circled around, the good old folk sang one or other of the wassail songs lustily enough to bring luck to both the trees, the owner and his wife and children [and] in some places guns were fired to ward off the evil spirits.”  The reason that many people now wassail on 17 January is, of course, because that was the Old Twelfth Night.

Whether you celebrate New Year or Old Christmas, I hope 2021 will be a good one.

Christmas for the poor and the rich

published in Contact magazine December 202o
Christmas for the poor and the rich

Who would have appreciated their dinner the most

Christmas Day at the Union Workhouse:  On Christmas Day the inmates of the workhouse received a substantial remembrance of the great Christmas festival.  Beef with vegetables and one pound of plum pudding, were distributed to each inmate.  The old women had also half-an-ounce of snuff each, and the children were regaled with sweets and fruit.  The workhouse pudding consisted of 280 lbs of flour, 125 lbs of raisins, 83 lbs of currants, 100 lbs of suet, 84 lbs of sugar, with other ingredients.

From the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette 31 December 1857
Christmas festivities at Windsor Castle:  The Christmas holidays were observed at court with princely festivity.  The royal table on Christmas night was laden with a magnificent display of viands, set out with taste and splendour.  The baron beef was there in all its glory, as well as the boar’s head, crested with bays and rosemary; and the sideboards were surmounted with stately Christmas trees, glittering with pendant bon bons.
From the Bristol Mercury 01 Jan 1848

In 1860 The Times reported that a favourite dish was a raised pie featuring a woodcock stuffed inside a pheasant inside a chicken inside a turkey and then baked in stuffing ad pastry.  So many mincemeat pies are to be baked the Castle cellars send up 24 bottles of brandy.  For the Christmas meal fifty turkeys are prepared.

Wells Journal
One of the prettiest of Christmas customs is the Norwegian practice of giving on Charismas day, a dinner for the birds.  On that morning, every gable, gateway or barn door is decorated with a sheaf of corn fixed on the top of a tall pole, where-from it is intended that the birds shall make their Christmas dinner.  Even peasants will contrive to have a handful set by for this purpose and what the birds do not eat on Christmas -day remains for them to finish at their leisure through the winter

Christmas Day in the Axbridge Union Workhouse

published in Local Reach December

Deck the Halls with Boughs and Holly

Christmas Day in the Axbridge Union Workhouse.

Whilst conditions in the workhouse were less than ideal those in charge do seem to have done their best to provide some Christmas cheer for the inmates.

Nineteenth century newspaper accounts such as this from 1883, describe the wards as being “draped in greenery, and festoons of evergreens, with various devices in holly, gave a cheery and seasonable look to each apartment.  The entrance hall was suitable embellished and taken altogether the decorations may be pronounced successful and effective.”

More importantly for the inmates, I suspect, was the fact that their normal meagre and basic diet was replaced with a Christmas dinner. The Weston Mercury and Somerset Herald December 29th 1883 reports:  “Christmas-day …  at Axbridge Union Workhouse, was, in every respect, a signal success, and “the powers that be” may take unto themselves much praise for the admirable arrangement which undoubtedly made it so.  In the first place, the meat was of such excellent quality, and so thoroughly well cooked by that extremely useful officer, who assumes the double role (no pun intended) of baker and chef-de-cuisine, that a gourmand to say nothing of an epicure, might have been satisfied with the result; and what has been written about the meat is applicable to the vegetables; potatoes and parsnips being done, we can hardly say, to a turn, so let us write to a bubble.  The dining-hall was .. decorated in an attractive and cheerful manner; whilst garlands of flowers, and festoons of green leaves, interspersed with many brightly coloured flowerets, gave a finish to the seasonable “fit up” that was highly effective.  Of the number of inmates who partook of, and who thoroughly enjoyed the repast provided, there were men,74; women, 50; and children, 31; making a total of 155 ….. As for the plum puddings, they were in every respect capital, and the full justice that was done to them proved, without a doubt, that quality and quantity were duly appreciated by the partakers thereof; everyone was loud in his or her praise of the good and ample fare provided for the occasion.”

Here’s hoping your Christmas meal is equally enjoyable.

Elizabeth Friend, Axbridge Archaeological and Local History Society  www.aalhs.co.uk


Caerphilly cheese – made in Somerset and sold in Caerphilly!

Article written for Local Reach November 2020

Caerphilly cheese – made in Somerset and sold in Caerphilly!
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.

Shepton Mallet Journal 1913
Highbridge cheese market 1930’s

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)





Brean Down Project

Article written for Local Reach

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.

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

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.

Weston circa 1910

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

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

Article written for Local Reach July 2020

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.”



Cheddar 1833

 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.