It is situated, on the edge of the Somerset Levels, in a level and well-wooded country, having to the north the Mendip range and on the west the Quantock hills. The town lies along both sides of the River Parrett, from its mouth, here crossed by an iron bridge. The town is located between two junctions of the M5 motorway, the southern most of which houses a motorway service station. Bridgwater railway station is on the main railway line between Bristol and Taunton.
Bridgwater had a population of 36,563 according to the 2001 census (up from 22,718 in 1951, 3,634 in 1801, and 7,807 in 1831). Historically, the town had a politically radical tendency, being involved in several events of note on the national stage.
Among several places of worship the chief is St Mary Magdalene's church; this has a north porch and windows dating from the 14th century, besides a lofty and slender spire; but it has been much altered by restoration. It possesses a fine painted reredos. A house in Blake Street, largely restored, was the birthplace of Admiral Blake in 1598, and is now the Blake Museum. Near the town are the three old churches of Westonzoyland, Chedzoy and Middlezoy, containing some good brasses and carved woodwork. The battlefield of the Battle of Sedgemoor, where the Monmouth Rebellion was finally crushed in 1685, is within ; while not far off is Charlinch, the home of the Agapemonites.
Alfred the Great famously burnt cakes when hiding in the marshes of Athelney near Bridgwater, after the Danish invasion in 875, while in 878 there was a major engagement nearby at the Battle of Cannington.
William Briwere was granted the lordship of the Manor of Bridgwater by Henry II in 1201. Through William's influence, King John granted three charters in 1200; for the construction of Bridgwater Castle, for the creation of a borough, and for a market. Bridgwater Castle was a substantial structure built in Old Red Sandstone, covering a site of 8 or 9 acres (32,000 to 36,000 m²). A tidal moat, up to wide in places, flowed about along the current streets of Fore Street and Castle Moat, and between Northgate and Chandos Street. Unusually, the main entrance opposite the Cornhill was built with a pair of adjacent gates and drawbridges. In addition to a keep, located at the south-east corner of what is now King Square, documents show that the complex included a dungeon, chapel, stables and a bell tower. Built on the only raised ground in the town, the castle controlled the crossing of the town bridge. A thick portion of the castle wall and water gate can still be seen on West Quay, and the remains of a wall of a building that was probably built within the castle can be viewed in Queen Street. The foundations of the tower forming the north-east corner of the castle are buried beneath Homecastle House.
Other charters were granted by Henry III in 1227 (confirmed in 1318, 1370, 1380), which gave Bridgwater a gild merchant.
William de Briwere also founded St John's hospital which, by the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, was worth the substantial sum of almost 121 pounds, as well as starting the construction of the town's first stone bridge. One of William's sons went on to found a Franciscan priory in the town.
Bridgwater's peasants under Nicholas Frampton took part in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, sacking Sydenham House, murdering the local tax collectors and destroying the records.
In the medieval period the River Parrett was used to transport Hamstone from the quarry at Ham Hill, having become independent of Bristol and recognised as a port in its own right by 1348. Historically, the main port on the river was at Bridgwater, largely importing coal from south Wales, although by trans-shipping into barges at the town bridge it was navigable as far as Langport and (via the River Yeo) to Ilchester. After 1827, it was also possible to transfer goods to Taunton via the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal. The trade reached its peak in 1857 when there were 142 vessels totaling 17,519 tons. The last vessel built at Bridgwater was the ketch Irene which was launched in 1907. By 1954 only 12 vessels were registered from the town, and of these five were yachts, largely due to the limitations imposed by the size of the dock which was long and wide.
It was incorporated by charter of Edward IV (1468), confirmed in 1554, 1586, 1629 and 1684. Parliamentary representation began in 1295 and continued until the Reform Act of 1870. A Saturday market and a fair on 24 June were granted by the charter of 1201. Another fair at the beginning of Lent was added in 1468, and a second market on Thursday, and fairs at Midsummer and on the 21st of September were added in 1554. Charles II. granted another fair on the 29th of December. The medieval importance of these markets and fairs for the sale of wool and wine and later of cloth has gone. The shipping trade of the port revived after the construction of the new dock in 1841, and corn and timber have been imported for centuries.
The 1605 Gunpowder Plot is thought to have been masterminded by Robert Parsons, born in the nearby village of Nether Stowey. To this day Guy Fawkes is celebrated as a local hero during the carnival season, including a grand illuminated procession through Bridgwater town centre, which culminates in the Squibbing.
In the English Civil War the town and the castle were held by the Royalists under Colonel Sir Francis Wyndham, a personal acquaintance of the King. British history might have been very different had his wife, Lady (Crystabella) Wyndham, been a little more accurate with a musket shot that missed Cromwell but killed his aide de camp. Eventually, with many buildings destroyed in the town, the castle and its valuable contents were surrendered to the Parliamentarians on July 22 1645. The castle itself was deliberately destroyed the following year (1645), while in 1651 Colonel Wyndham made arrangements for Charles II to flee to France following the Battle of Worcester.
Following the restoration of the monarchy, in 1663 the non-conformist Reverend John Norman, vicar from 1647 to 1660, was one of several 'religious fanatics' confined to their homes by Lord Stawell's militia. A large religious meeting house, thought to have been Presbyterian, was demolished and its furniture burned on the Cornhill. Matters seem to have calmed by 1688 when the Dampiet Street Unitarian chapel was founded.
In the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion, the rebel James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth was proclaimed King in various local towns including on the Cornhill in Bridgwater. He eventually lead his troops on a night-time attack on the King's position near Westonzoyland. Unfortunately surprise was lost when a musket was accidentally discharged, and the Battle of Sedgemoor resulted in defeat for the Duke. He later lost his head in the Tower of London, and nine locals were executed for treason. Allegedly, until recently members of the Royal Family would not pass through Bridgwater without drawing the blinds of the Royal Train as a result of this escapade.
Bridgwater became the first town in Britain to petition the government to ban slavery in 1785.
In 1896, the trade unionists of Bridgwater's brick and tile industry were involved a number of strikes. The Salisbury government sent troops to the town to clear the barricades by force. This was the first use of the Riot Act in the UK in an industrial dispute, and not the UK miner's strikes of the 1980s as is commonly stated.
In World War II the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal formed part of the Taunton Stop Line, designed to prevent the advance of a German invasion. Pillboxes can still be seen along its length. The first bombs fell on Bridgwater on August 24 1940, destroying houses on Old Taunton Road, and three men, three women and one child were killed. Later a prisoner of war camp was established at Colley Lane, holding Italian prisoners. During the preparations for the invasion of Europe, American troops were based in the town.
1950 saw the start of a significant increase in post-war housebuilding, with council house estates being started at Sydenham and Rhode Lane and the former cooperative estate near Durleigh. The first council estate to be built was in the 1930s at Kendale Road, followed by those at Bristol Road.
Bridgwater is a county constituency represented in the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It elects one Member of Parliament (MP) by the first past the post system of election. Following its review of parliamentary representation in Somerset, the Boundary Commission for England has finalised the proposals which expands the existing Bridgwater seat into a new Bridgwater and West Somerset division. The current MP is Ian Liddell-Grainger, a member of the Conservatives.
Bridgwater is centred on an outcrop of marl in an area dominated by low-lying alluvial deposits. There are local deposits of gravels and sand. Bridgwater is situated, on the edge of the Somerset Levels, in a level and well-wooded country, having to the north the Mendip range and on the west the Quantock hills. The town lies along both sides of the River Parrett, from its mouth, here crossed by an iron bridge, which then flows to discharge into the Bridgwater Bay National Nature Reserve.
Along with the rest of South West England, Bridgwater has a temperate climate which is generally wetter and milder than the rest of the country. The annual mean temperature is approximately and shows a seasonal and a diurnal variation, but due to the modifying effect of the sea the range is less than in most other parts of the UK. January is the coldest month with mean minimum temperatures between and . July and August are the warmest months in the region with mean daily maxima around .
The south-west of England has a favoured location with respect to the Azores high pressure when it extends its influence north-eastwards towards the UK, particularly in summer. Convective cloud often forms inland however, especially near hills, reducing the number of hours of sunshine. The average annual sunshine totals around 1,600 hours.
Rainfall tends to be associated with Atlantic depressions or with convection. The Atlantic depressions are more vigorous in autumn and winter and most of the rain which falls in those seasons in the south-west is from this source. Average rainfall is around –. About 8–15 days of snowfall is typical. November to March have the highest mean wind speeds, with June to August having the lightest winds. The predominant wind direction is from the south-west.
Bridgwater had a population of 36,563 according to the 2001 census (up from 22,718 in 1951, 3,634 in 1801, and 7,807 in 1831).
|Population since 1801 - Source: A Vision of Britain through Time|
The River Parrett was until recently at the centre of Bridgwater's trade, and the town grew to become a major seaport for the south west of England. The tidal range on the river allowed ships of up to 300 tonnes to reach the town centre.
As early as 1300, the port exported wheat, peas and beans to Ireland, France and Spain, and by 1400 was also exporting cloth from Somerset and the adjoining counties. By 1500 it was the largest port in Somerset, later becoming the fifth largest in England until eclipsed by Bristol in the 18th century. In its heyday, imports included wine, grain, fish, hemp, coal and timber. Exports included wheat, wool, cloth, cement, bricks and tiles. Unlike Bristol, Bridgwater was never involved in the slave trade and, in 1797, was the first town in Britain to petition the government to ban it.
Bridgwater was the leading industrial town in Somerset. A major manufacturing centre for clay tiles and bricks in the 19th century, including the famous "Bath brick", were exported through the port. In the 1890s there were a total of 16 brick and tile companies, and 24 million bricks per annum were exported during that decade alone. John Sealy & Co exhibited their product range at the 1851 Great Exhibition. These industries are celebrated in the Somerset Brick and Tile Museum on East Quay.
These industries collapsed in the aftermath of World War II due to the failure to introduce mechanisation, although the automated Chilton Tile Factory, which produced up to 5 million tiles each year, lasted until 1968. The importance of the Bath Brick declined with the advent of detergents and other cleaning products.
During the 19th century, Castle House (originally named Portland Castle after Portland cement), reputedly the first domestic house in the UK to be built from concrete, was constructed in 1851 by John Board, a local brick and tile manufacturer. The building is now Grade II* listed and in 2004 was featured in the BBC television programme Restoration.
In the 19th century, Bridgwater was also home to a number of iron foundries. George Hennet's Bridgwater Iron Works (closed 1878) worked on bridges, railways and machinery for Brunel and Robert Stephenson, while W&F Wills Ltd produced steam locomotives and fingerposts.
At the start of World War II, the government built a factory to manufacture high explosives at Puriton near Bridgwater. Called ROF Bridgwater, the plant is today owned by BAE Systems and is scheduled to close after decommissioning is complete in July 2008.
British Cellophane Ltd, a joint venture between La Cellophane SA and Courtaulds opened a major factory producing cellophane in Bridgwater 1937. The factory produced Bailey Bridges during World War II for the invasion of Europe. Bought by UCB Films in 1996, the town suffered a blow in 2005 when Innovia Films closed the cellophane factory. At one time the factory employed around 3,000 people, although at the time of closure this had been reduced to just 250. However recovery has begun with the establishment of new businesses on the Express Park business park including the relocation of Gerber Juice and new enterprise Toolstation and Interpet.
Bridgwater is now a major centre of industry in Somerset, with industries including the production of plastics, engine parts, industrial chemicals, and foods. Bowerings Animal Feed Mill is now the only industry still located at the docks. Being close to the M5 motorway and half way between Bristol and Exeter, Bridgwater is also home to two major distribution centres. The Excel centre for the NHS Logistics Authority is located on the Express Park business park, while retailer Argos has a regional distribution centre based at Huntworth. Work on the new Regional Agricultural Business Centre is due to start in 2006/7.
Bridgwater is home to the Somerset Brick and Tile Museum, built on part of the former Barham Brothers site (brick and tile manufacturers between 1857 and 1965).
A house in Blake Street, largely restored, was the birthplace of Admiral Robert Blake in 1598, and is now the Blake Museum. It was built in the late 15th or early 16th century, and has been designated by English Heritage as a grade II* listed building. His statue from 1898 by D W Pomeroy has been repositioned from the front of the Corn Exchange to face down Cornhill.
The public library By E Godfrey Page dates from 1905.
As trade grew docks were built in the town, linked to an extension of the canal, with both opening in 1841.The docks was dredged by a scraper-dredger Bertha similar to the one Brunel had designed for the Bristol Floating Harbour. June 14, 1841 saw the opening of the Bristol and Exeter Railway from Bristol to Bridgwater. The railway also opened a coach and wagon works in the town; the last of the buildings is currently in 2005 scheduled for demolition. Bridgwater railway station, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel is now a Grade II listed building.
An end to the unequal competition between rail and canal came in 1867 when the Bristol and Exeter railway purchased the canal. Four years later, in 1871, the River Parrett was spanned by a unique steam-powered telescopic bridge, to allow the railway to serve the docks, last used in 1953(?). A number of local branches were also built, for example to serve the Northgate Brewery (now replaced by a car park north of Angel Crescent) and the former British Cellophane factory. The Somerset and Dorset branch line to Edington was opened in 1890. Its former Bridgwater station is now occupied by J Sainsbury.
The importance of shipping and the docks started to decline after 1886, the year in which the opening of the Severn Tunnel caused a severe drop in coal imports by sea. The situation worsened as the railways were extended into Somerset and beyond, and ships became too big for the port. The last commercial use of the docks was when coal imports ceased on July 31 1971, and although they now house a marina they are currently little used. The surrounding quays have been developed for housing, although the remains of wooden quays on the riverbank can still be seen. All but a small remnant of the mump (a huge mound of spoil from the original dock excavations) was removed in the 1980s to make way for the development on the north side of the dock.
Due to the port, ship building was also an important industry, and around 140 ships were built in the town during the 19th century by companies including David Williams, Joseph Gough, Watsons and William Lowther. F J Carver and Son owned a small dry dock on East Quay and constructed the last ship to built in the town - the Irene - which has its own web site The former associated industry of rope making is commemorated in street furnishings and paving on East Quay and in the name of Ropewalk street.
Under an 1845 Act of Parliament the Port of Bridgwater extends from Brean Down to Hinkley Point in Bridgwater Bay, and parts of the rivers Parrett (to Bridgwater), River Brue and River Axe, Somerset. Although no ships now dock in the town, in 2001 103,613 tonnes of cargo were handled within the area of the Port Authority (compared with more than 200,000 tons in 1878), most of which were stone products through Dunball
Among several places of worship the chief is St Mary Magdalene's church; this has a north porch and windows dating from the 14th century, besides a slender spire; but it has been much altered by restoration. It possesses a fine painted reredos, and has been designated by English Heritage as a grade I listed building.
The Church of St John the Baptist in Blake Place was built by John Brown in 1843.
Elim Pentecostal Church on Church Street was a public house after being used as a church and is now a shop.
There is a Salvation Army Citadel located in Moorland Road, on the Sydenham Estate
The Bridgwater Arts Centre was opened on October 10 1946, the first community arts centre opened in the UK with financial assistance from the newly established Arts Council of England. It is situated in a Grade I listed building in the architecturally protected Georgian Castle Street, designed by Benjamin Holloway for the Duke of Chandos, and built over the site of the former castle. Holloway was also the architect of the Baroque Lions building on West Quay, constructed around 1730.
Bridgwater Arts Centre was the venue for the first post-war meeting of the Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne in 1947.
Castle Street was used as a location in the 1963 film Tom Jones.
Horror writer and film journalist Kim Newman was educated at Dr Morgan's school in Bridgwater, and set his 1999 experimental novel Life's Lottery in a fictionalised version of the town (Sedgwater).
Bridgwater is now best known for the illuminated "Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival" that attracts around 150,000 people from around the country and overseas. Now held annually on the Friday after the first Thursday of November (ie - the nearest Friday to November 5). It consists of a dazzling display of over 100 large vehicles ("Carnival floats") up to long, festooned with dancers (or team member in tableaux) and up to 22,000 lightbulbs, that follows a route over 2 to 3 hours. Later in the evening of the Carnival, there is the simultaneous firing of large fireworks (known as squibs) in the street outside the town hall, known as "squibbing".
Bridgwater Fair normally takes place in September - it starts on the last Wednesday in September and lasts four days. The fair takes place on St Matthew's Field, better known locally as the Fair Field. The fair is now a funfair, ranked as second largest in England after the Nottingham Goose Fair. It originated in 1249 as a horse and cattle fair, lasting for eight days near St Matthew's day (September 21), giving the venue its name.
During the first weekend of July, the annual "Somerfest" arts festival is held in Bridgwater. The event includes an extensive program of rock, jazz and classical music, dance, drama and visual arts with national and local participants.
Bridgwater & Albion RFC are Somerset's highest- placed rugby team, playing in National League 3 South and are based at College Way. Founded in 1875 they have had previous homes in Bridgwater including the site now occupied by B&Q.