The town of Williton is at present home to the District council of West Somerset, there were plans afoot to remove all the offices to Minehead, which has now been shelved with new offices planned in the centre of Williton where the Red Cross Building is at present. Williton also has a police station, a couple of Public houses, a number of shops, a library, a number of small business as well as a number of clubs and societies to cater for its population of approximately 3500. The town lies between the Quantocks and the Brendon Hills, here the two main roads meet, the A39 from Bridgwater which runs along the northern edge of the Quantocks and the A358 from Taunton, which runs along the western edge of the hills. There is a car park in the middle of Williton which is situated behind the main District Council offices on Fore Street. The town has its own small hospital, two schools, St Peter’s first school which caters for children aged 5 to 9 years and Danesfield a middle school for children aged 9 to 13years. Williton is also a station on the West Somerset Railway.
There are quite a lot of examples of Palaeolithic artefacts as well as Mesolithic and Neolithic, axe heads and remains of flint tools used by the peoples of these times.
”There is definite evidence of a later prehistoric (neolithic/ bronze age) presence at, or near, the site of Williton itself, in the shape of the barrows (Graburrows) of Battlegore, just to the north-west.”
(source: Somerset Urban Archaeological Survey)
There are many different names that have been recorded referring to Williton, Willinton, Widiton, Weleton, Gillitone and Wyllyton are examples of the different spellings from various charters and rolls that refer to the village. The oldest recorded comes from an old Saxon Charter, which suggests that the parish was named after the small stream/river which runs through the town, “The Willite River” or “Swilly” as it was mentioned in a Saxon document regarding a grant of land by the West Saxon King Aethelwulf in AD 854. The next recording concerns a piece of land given by King Eadward to the monastery at Taunton, in this document he asks the monks to arrange for transport to his royal hunting lodges one at North Curry (Curig ) and one at “Willettun” There most likely site for the royal Saxon hunting lodge is where the present day Church or near there.
There are no buildings remaining from Saxon times but a number of field names bear witness to a royal presence in the area: Kingsland, Kyngeswodde, Woodford, and the small Hamlet of Kingswood. Of course there is also a mention in the Domesday book.
By the 12th century Williton was a small busy settlement made up of a number of small farms and joined by a number of tracks, where at key places Crosses were erected. The Manor belonged to the Fitz-Urse family who were made infamous by Reynold Fitz-Urse, he together with another local man, Simon De Brett were 2 of the 4 murderers of Arch Bishop Thomas Becket in the 12 Century. (Reynold as a penance had built the chapel of St Peter’s and gave half his manor to the Monks of the Knights Templar. See Watchet for more information)
During the Middle Ages Williton was made up of a number of small farms and agricultural business, which still continues today, on the old auction market site, Gliddins, who now park their tractors and other farm machinery there. So providing a reminder of the town’s agricultural past.
St Peter's Church
Up until 1902 St Peter’s was a chapel-of-ease, and formed part of the ancient Parish of St Decuman, ( which is now the parish church of Watchet). There was most likely a Saxon place of worship attached to the Royal Hunting Lodge in the vicinity. The first written record of the chapel was the one founded by Robert Fitz-Urse Sir Reginald’s brother. He had been given the Manor House by his brother and found the chapel in expiation of his brother’s crime.
In the early 14th century the chapel was dedicated to All Saints. The core of the building is the medieval nave and chancel, of which only the east and west walls have survived. In 1810-12 the south aisle was added, the Elizabethan windows of the original south wall were incorporated. In the mid 19th century there was the Victorian restoration and the north aisle and vestry were also added. The Rev Samuel J Heathcote was the vicar involved with the restoration and he was one of the longest serving incumbents of the church from 1854 until his death in 1906, 52 years, and the east window is a stained glass memorial to him. During the restorationof the building the roof was also renewed and the bells were rehung in the tower which had a small spire, the spire was destroyed during a violent storm in 1872. The bells were then hung in a small wooden bellcot this was replaced by the existing stone one in 1896.
During the civil war the font was damaged by vandals and the present octagonal font, dated 1666, was made from local alabaster from the cliffs at Watchet to replace it. The initials on the font are throught to be the initials of the church wardens “RW and RP” The other medieval remains is that of a 15th Century Piscina, with cinquefoil headed niche and projecting basin which can be found on the south side of the chancel.
In the 1950’s there was further refurbishment, the organ was re-sited together with the font and new choir stalls were made. The glebe land, originally known as “The Chapel Green” is opposite the north door of the chapel and across the road stands the remains of one of the five crosses which stood in various parts of Williton. The upper part of this cross was it is believed, to have been destroyed in the civil war by a raiding party that passed on its way to Orchard Wyndham.
The cottages next to the church are called Church Cottages, part of the group originating in the 16th century and were used for the brewing of church ales.
The government poor law act of the 18xx led to the formation of Williton Poor Law Union. This was formed on 19th May 1836. It was to be overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 41 in number, representing its 36 constituent parishes. ( Bicknoller, Crowcombe, West Quantoxhead, Nettlecombe, Monksilver, Stogumber, Sampford Brett being examples of its constituted parishes)
”The population falling within the union at the 1831 census had been 18,047 with parishes ranging in size from Stoke Pero (population 61) to St Decuman's (2,120). The average annual poor-rate expenditure for the period 1833-35 had been £9,297 or 10s.4d. per head.”
The Board of Guardians had their inaugural meeting in May 1836, and later that year acquired a site for a new workhouse on the north side of Long Street on the eastern side of Williton. George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffat were appointed architects to design the building which was required to accommodate 200 and cost no more than £4,000. The building was completed in January 1840, although it had come into operation several months before.
Once it ceased being a workhouse it became the local hospital closing in 1990 when the new Hospital opened.
For a number of years after it closed as a Hospital the buildings were left in a sorry state of decay but now the whole site has been converted into a number of residential units. The site has been named Sir Gilbert Scott Court in honour of one of its original Architects.
There are two state schools within Williton, St Peter’s First school which takes pupils from 4 to 9 years of age, and Danesfield a middle school for children from 9 to 13years. At 13 the young people go to West Somerset Community College. In February 1996 St Peter’s Church of England school moved to its new site in the grounds of Danesfield. The old school which had been built in 1871 was converted into social housing for the community. The old school was situated on Bridge Street and part of the building is now offices for Magna Housing Group (Magna is a non-profit making group of housing organisations.)
Williton is one of the stations on the West Somerset Railway; it was built on the then edge of the town. The station was completed by 1862 and was the main crossing place for the trains on the line. The main station building still retains the original Italianate chimney and has not changed that much. The two platforms seem to be separated by a rather larger distance than normal this is because the line was originally Broad Gauged.
“The yard usually houses an interesting collection of vintage 1960's diesel locomotives now in the tender care of the Diesel & Electric Group, but access is restricted as this is a workshop area. Also 'off limits', is the large corrugated shed at the Minehead end. Originally part of the Great Western Railway workshops complex at Swindon, this was presented to the West Somerset Railway by Tarmac PLC and is now used for locomotive and coach restoration.”
( source: West Somerset Railway)
The Signal Box was completed in 1875 and is one of only two still surviving today, and was to begin with the only intermediate box on the branch line, originally it used interlocked signalling.
“The present 25 lever frame, of Great Western 5-bar Vertical Tappet type, is the third that the box has possessed, and was provided in 1937 when the track signalling along the entire line was improved to allow longer passenger trains to operate during the tourist season.”
( source: www.signalbox.org)
The Signal box is still working today, it was saved from destruction after the line was closed in 1971, being restored to full working order by the volunteers of the West Somerset Railway. The level crossing is protected by gates, which are worked by hand, although there is an interlocking lever to release the signals when the gates are locked across the road.
The archaeological evidence has shown that there has been people living in the area of Orchard Wyndham for thousands of years, in the hills surrounding the house remains of pre Roman settlement can be found as well as the remains of a small Roman fortlet. In the Saxon times the house was part of a small Saxon settlement which was protected from the Viking raids because of its hidden location. The area was so secret that the compliers of the Doomsday book did not find the settlement, so this is one place that has escaped a Doomsday entry!
The holders of the land were a Saxon family who to this day are remembered in the Houses Name, Orchard, the spelling may be slightly different De Horcherd, but their family retain possession until the male line failed, the daughter Joan married Richard Popham of Alfoxton and their daughter another Joan married into the Sydenham family of Coombe Sydenham, in 1448 and the estate became part of Coombe Sydenham's holdings.
For the next 80 years the house was known as Orchard Sydenham they added their mark to the house by enlarging and adding the new great hall, the room now known as the parlour as well as the room that now houses the library. When again two sisters were left as heiresses to the estate. The youngest Elizabeth married John Whynham of Felbrigg Norfolk, (John's sister married Andrew Luterell of Dunster Castle) a good marriage for both as John’s father was Vice admiral of England and related to 3 of Henry VIII ‘s queens. After their marriage in 1528 they brought Elizabeth’s sisters portion and begun enlarging and adding their stamp on to the house, the ceiling in the upstairs room called the solar a fine example of the workmanship and materials of the time was built to commemorate their marriage, this ceiling has recently been fully restored, it was made from Watchet Lime and is a fine example of the plaster work of the period. From this marriage the House took on it’s present name and has been the home of the Wyndhams and their forbears since.
John Wyndham was knighted at the coronation of Edward VI in 1547. He died in 1572, during the reign of Elizabeth I. His son married the famous Florence Wadham, who was the lady of legend who had collapsed and was due to be buried at St Decumans church Watchet when the unscupless sexton tried to steal her rings and started to cut her finger which woke her up!! And the sexton fled empty handed and Florance decided to walk back to Kentsford Farm where she and her husband were then living. She went on to have one son born in 1559, he went on to have 9 sons and 6 daughters from whom it is believed that all the living branches of the Wyndham family are descended from.
The Wyndham family had many famous sons one Thomas Wyndham took a squadron of three ships to Morocco in 1552 under Master John Kerry of Minehead. Another the third baronet was very much involved in the Jacobean plots which failed in the early 18th century. Sir William Wyndham was the 3rd Baronet born in the house in 1687; he was a Tory Member of Parliament from 1710 to 1740, a close friend of Henry Saint John who was the 1st Viscount Bolingbroke. Partly because of this friendship Sir William was appointed secretary of War in 1712 and then Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1713 he then became head of the Treasury in 1714. He was also very much part of Bolingbroke’s intrigues with James Edward Stuart the Old Pretender, on the death of Queen Anne in 1715, when these failed he was dismissed from office, and imprisoned. During the reign of King George 1, once freed, Sir William became the leader of the opposition fighting for his high Church and Tory principles against The Whig Prime minister Sir Robert Walpole.
Sir William died in June 1740. His first wife was Catherine, daughter of The 6th Duke of Somerset, Charles Seymour. By her he had two sons, Charles (1710-1763), who became the 2nd Earl of Egremont in 1750, and Percy, who took the name of O'Brien and was created earl of Thomond in 1756. Charles followed his father into Parliament he was a member from 1734 till 1750, he was appointed Secretary of State for the Southern department, Horace Walpole did not have a very high regard for Egremont's talents “…Egremont’s had neither knowledge of business nor the smallest share of parliamentary abilities.” His son, George O’Brien Wyndham at the age of 11 became the, 3rd Earl of Egremont. He was known as a patron of the arts and his House Petworth in Sussex was full of the works of the most famous artists of the day, artists like Turner and Leslie and the sculptor Flaxman.
Generous and hospitable, blunt and eccentric, the earl was in his day a very prominent figure in English society. Charles Grevile says, he was immensely rich and his munificence was equal to his wealth; and again that in his time Petworth was like a great inn. He married his mistress Elizabeth Ilive in 1801 by whom he had 4 illegitimate children, his nephew was the successor to the title, The Earl of Egremont's natural son Colonel George Wyndham, inherited the Petworth property in Sussex, the legitimate nephew inherited the Egremont title and Orchard Wyndham.
The house is a mixture of styles which reflect the fashion of house building through the ages. There are remains of the medieval house in the beams of oak that can be found in one of the upstairs corridors,this is all that remains of the original great hall.
The present hall is the focal part of the house with rooms surrounding, the Hall with the main staircase was one of two open courtyards, which was brought into the house during the early part of the 18th century. The present entrance to the house is very unpretentious and found at the back of the property, the first major sight on entering the house besides the littlest room is that of the cellar with it’s Portuguese spiders. The cellars stretch out under the grounds but are not open to investigation because of the danger of collapsing ceilings. The spiders are certainly very large and are known to be poisonous this years heat wave (2006), has seen a slight increase in numbers but they seem to like the cellar and have not been seen in other parts of the house or grounds.
The whole house is very much a home with many items of family memorabilia, portraits and photographs of the family can be seen in most of the rooms, the death of Katherine in 2006 who had done so much work on keeping the house and restoring the rooms to their former glory, she is very sadly missed. It is hoped that the house and Gardens continue to remain a family home. At present tours are continuing usually conducted by members of the family and their friends. The house is still very much a private family house, Tours are only available during the month of August and appointments must be made.
West Somerset Free Press
Williton is the home to its own newspaper which was founded in 1860 by Samuel Cox of Williton. Originally he worked as a printer, but he continued his activities along with his new publishing venture. The paper remained in the family’s ownership, with the editorship which remained with the Cox’s family through Samuel's son Herbert, his son Frank and, in turn, his son Norman. With Norman's death in 1969, the editorship passed to Free Press journalist Jack Hurley MBE. The current editor is Gareth Purcell. In 1980 the company was acquired by Sir Ray Tindle CBE, the present chairman, who has continued to run it as a family business.
Today the Free Press is a modern newspaper with traditional values, continuing the original concept of a local newspaper serving its community. They also publish, the West Somerset News-Trader, Wiveliscombe Messenger, Park Life, West Somerset Diary, West Somerset Info and a range of holiday publications - Exmoor Visitor, Tarka Country Visitor, West Somerset Visitor and Somerset Visitor. It is the only paper published in the West Somerset Area.
(source: Exmoor Today)
Just along the A39 to the west of Williton lies Washford Cross, here is the home of the 3 large radio masts which provide a major landmark in West Somerset. Now you can see Pirate Ships, and hear children enjoying themselves.
In the 1930’s there was a big increase in the number of Radio listeners in the West Somerset Area, when the Washford Transmitting Station was built. The building was completed in May 1933 and marked the end of the first stage of the ’Regional Scheme’. This was the completion of Capt. P.P. Eckersley idea, which he had proposed in 1924, the Capt was the first Chief engineer of the BBC. He had proposed that to improve the coverage of the radio signal, a number of high powered transmitters need to be built around the country. The first one built was at Daventry in 1927, followed by one in the London region in 1929, the north was servered by one built at Slaithwaite opened in 1931, Westerglen which was to be the Scotish Regional was opened in June 1932. Washford was decided to be the best place for the South Western Regional as the coverage would cover South Wales as well as most of the South West, because of it’s position close to the Bristol Channel.
Building began on the 23 acre site in January 1932. The building was very similar to the Scottish transmitter, and the architect for the building was L.Rome Guthrie with modifications by the BBC civil Engineer M.T. Tudsbery. The main difference in the building of Washford was the addition of a large octagonal roof light instead of windows for the transmitter hall, also the main entrance was slightly less grand. The building was built in brick with large external concrete blocks which were cast to resemble punched Portland stone. The large keystone bears the BBC logo with the date 1933. The BBC coat of arms with their inscription “Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation” ( designed by Lt.-Col.G. Val Myer Architect of Broadcasting House) can be found high on the front wall.
The front part of the building has two floors, the ground floor housed the two control rooms a garage, offices and the tuning fork drive room. On the first were the mess room, kitchen, a battery room, a small motor generator room for the charging the control rooms batteries as well as a small studio. The studio was set up for testing purposes or broadcasting if there was a complete failure of the programme lines. It was actually only once used for a live broadcast that was when Dr William Temple, who was the Archbishop of York in the 1930’s, broadcast whilst holidaying in Bicknoller.
Transmissions began in May 1933 and the station was officially opened on Sunday 28th May 1933. This was also the day that the Cardiff and Swansea transmitters were closed and dismantled soon after. The station was staffed up until 1983 when it was converted to un-attended condition this made the front part of the building redundant, and it was going to be demolished, but the whole building was given Grade 2 Listing by English Heritage on 25th January 1984 as it was considered a good example of 1930’s industrial Architecture especially with its early use of concrete which was unusual for such a large building.
Various suggestions were made, for use of the building; one was to turn the front part into a public swimming pool! In the late 1980’s the building was leased to a small group of locals and in May 1989 The Tropiquaria, a small wild life park, was opened. This has proved very successful, there are a number of exotic animals now housed in the old transmitter room with monkeys and birds roaming over the octagonal roof light. In 1993 Mr N Wilson opened his radio museum in one of the old modulation transformer enclosures. Here you can see photographs of the station and some fine examples of early radio equipment.
History A History of the County of Somerset Volume V Edited by R.W. Dunning
The Mason's Arms