Taunton in the Topographical Dictionary of England (1848)

'Tatchbury - Taynton', in A Topographical Dictionary of England, ed. Samuel Lewis (London, 1848), pp. 303-310. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-dict/england/pp303-310 [accessed 30 November 2016].

TAUNTON, a borough and market-town, and the head of a union, in the hundred of Taunton and Taunton-Dean, W. division of Somerset, 11 miles (S. by W.) from Bridgwater, and 144 (W. by S.) from London; containing 12,066 inhabitants. This place was called by the Saxons Tantun, and subsequently Tawriton and Thoneton, from its situation on the river Thone or Tone. It is of great antiquity; and the discovery of several urns containing Roman coins, in the neighbourhood, has led to the conjecture that it existed in the time of that people. The earliest authentic accounts refer to the period of the heptarchy, when a castle was built here for a royal residence, by Ina, King of the West Saxons, who held his first great council in it, about the year 700. This castle was demolished by his queen Ethelburga, after expelling Eadbricht, King of the South Saxons, who had seized it. The manor is supposed to have been granted to the church of Winchester in the following reign; and another castle is said to have been built on the site of the former, in the time of William I., by the bishops of Winchester, who principally resided in the town for some years. At this period Taunton had a mint, some of the coins, bearing the Conqueror's effigy, being still in existence. In the reign of Henry VII., in 1497, Perkin Warbeck seized the town with its castle, which, however, he quickly abandoned on the approach of the king's troops. In 1645, it again participated in civil war, and became celebrated for the long siege it sustained, and the defence it made under Colonel (afterwards the renowned Admiral) Blake, who held it for the parliament against 10,000 royalist troops under Lord Goring, until relieved by Fairfax; on which memorable occasion a public thanksgiving was appointed by the commons, who voted £500 to the colonel, and £1000 to the men under his command. The inhabitants thus incurred the displeasure of the king, and at the Restoration, their charter was suspended, and the walls of the town ordered to be razed to the ground. James, Duke of Monmouth, was proclaimed king on the Cornhill of Taunton, June 21st, 1685; and many of his followers, including some inhabitants of this place, after his defeat at Sedgemoor, were put to death on the same spot, by the brutal Kirke, without form of trial, besides those who were condemned by Judge Jeffreys at the "bloody assize" which he held here the following September.

The town is situated in a central part of the singularly beautiful and luxuriant vale of Taunton-Dean, and is upwards of a mile in length. The principal streets, which terminate in the market-place, are spacious, well paved, and lighted with gas by a company established in 1821; the houses, mostly built of brick, are generally commodious and handsome, and supplied with excellent water. The respectability of the town, combined with the beauty of the surrounding country, renders it very attractive as a place of residence; and many improvements have been lately effected, amongst which are the erection of a neat crescent and terrace, and the removal of some old houses at East Gate. In 1833, an act was obtained for regulating the market, cleansing the streets, and preventing nuisances; and in 1840 another was passed for the improvement of the place, and for amending the provisions of the several acts for holding markets. In 1845, an act was passed for better lighting the town. The Parade, in the centre of Taunton, is a fine open triangular space, inclosed with iron posts and chains; on the east side of it is a wide street, built by the late Sir Benjamin Hammet, which forms a handsome approach to St. Mary's church. A substantial stone bridge of two arches crosses the Tone, connecting the town with the village of North-town, or Nurton; and several villas, commanding beautiful views, have been erected in the suburbs of Wilton, Staplegrove, West Monckton, and adjoining parishes. The Taunton and Somerset Institution, established in 1823, has a small but valuable library, and a museum, with a spacious public reading and news room. The theatre, in Silverstreet, is usually open two months in the year; and balls and concerts occasionally take place.

Taunton, formerly noted for its woollen manufacture, was one of the first towns into which that branch of trade was introduced. The manufacture eventually gave way to the silk-trade, which was begun here in the year 1778; the chief articles made are crapes, persians, sarsnets, and mixed goods, and the business furnishes employment to a great number of persons, principally females. Two patent-lace factories have also been established. The river Tone is navigable, but its course to Bridgwater being circuitous, and the navigation frequently interrupted, the Taunton and Bridgwater canal was constructed, which has given increased activity to trade, considerable quanties of Welsh coal being brought to the town, and, in return, the produce of the Vale of Taunton being exported to Bristol and other parts of England. The Grand Western canal, forming a communication with the river Exe, terminates here; and the Bristol and Exeter railway passes by the town. The markets are on Wednesday and Saturday, the latter day being the principal, and are well supplied with fish from both Channels, with every other kind of provisions, and with fruit in abundance. The old market-house, at the south end of the Parade, a lofty brick building supported on each side by an arcade, contains the guildhall, and a handsome assembly-room, in which is a full length portrait of George III. in his robes, presented by Sir B. Hammet. On the west side of the Parade is a building of freestone, erected in 1821, in the lower part and rear of which, and on the northern side, are the markets for meat, fish, pork, poultry, and dairy-produce; the upper being used as the library and reading-room of the institution before mentioned. It is of the Ionic order, the entablature supported by four columns, and forms a great ornament to this part of the town. Upon the last Saturday in every month is what is called the great market, including the sale of live-stock; there is a fair on June 17th, and in the suburb of North-town one on July 7 th, for horses and cattle.

The town was for several centuries under the jurisdiction of portreeves and bailiffs, chosen at the courts of the bishops of Winchester, as lords of the manor, which was formerly very extensive and valuable; the rental at the time of the Conquest appearing, from a document found amongst the court rolls, to have amounted to nearly £700 per annum. It was, however, divided by William, and portions of it distributed among his favourites. The manor of Taunton, thus diminished in extent, continued in the possession of the see until the year 1822, when it was sold by Bishop Tomline to Thomas Southwood, Esq. It is now the property of Robert Mattock, Esq., at whose annual courts, held in the castle, two portreeves, who collect the lord's rents, two bailiffs, two constables, and six tythingmen, are chosen. A charter was granted to the inhabitants in 1627 by Charles I., which continued in force until the year 1792, when, in consequence of the corporation having suffered a majority of the members to die without filling up vacancies, it became forfeited. The town is now under the jurisdiction of the county magistrates, who hold a petty-session on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the guildhall. The bailiffs usually convene and preside at public meetings, and the constables have the distribution of most of the public charities. The borough is by prescription, and first sent members to parliament in the reign of Edward I., in 1295; the boundaries comprise an area of 742 acres, and the bailiffs are returning officers. The Lent assizes for the county are held in the castle, as are also the Michaelmas general quartersessions. The powers of the county debt-court of Taunton, established in 1847, extend over nearly the whole of the registration-district of Taunton.

The castle, supposed to be part of a stately edifice erected by William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester, in the reign of Henry I., was thoroughly repaired by Bishop Langton, towards the end of the 15th century; and in addition to other improvements, the present assize hall was built by Bishop Home, in 1577, since which period various sums have been expended upon it. The building has a south front, with a gateway in the centre, over which are two escutcheons, one bearing the arms of Henry VII., with the motto Five le Roi Henri; the other the inscription Laus tibi Xte., and T. Langto Winto, 1495: at the east end is a circular tower. The inner courtyard is an irregular quadrangle, the east side being the shortest, and on the north side are the county courts, grand jury-rooms, &c.; the access to it is through an open court, called Castle Green, formerly inclosed with two gates, one of which still remains, surmounted with what was the porter's lodge, now occupied as a dwellinghouse. The moat was filled up, and the drawbridge removed, in 1785. Closely adjoining the town, at Wilton, is the house of correction: it was erected in 1754, and enlarged in 1815; and having again been improved, it was recently determined to make it the county gaol instead of that at Ilchester.

Taunton comprises the parishes of St. James and St. Mary Magdalene, the former containing 4047, and the latter 8019, inhabitants; but many houses extend into the adjoining parishes of Wilton and Bishop's-Hull. The living of St. James's is a perpetual curacy; net income, £254; patron, the Rev. Dr. Cottle; impropriator, Sir T. B. Lethbridge, Bart., whose tithes have been commuted for £420. The church, which was the church of the priory, was lately considerably enlarged and improved, at a cost of more than £2000, through the exertions of Dr. Cottle, formerly incumbent, and now vicar of St. Mary's; and is an elegant and commodious structure, containing 1400 sittings, upwards of 600 of which are free. The living of St. Mary Magdalene's is a vicarage, also in the gift of Dr. Cottle: the impropriate tithes have been commuted for £380. There is an afternoon lecture on Thursday, endowed by Thomas Poyntington, who bequeathed property in 1732, now producing about £50 per annum, which sum is paid to the vicar agreeably with the will of the donor. The church, standing near the centre of the town, was originally a chapel to St. James, but was made parochial in 1308, under Walter Huselshaw, Bishop of Bath and Wells, and is a magnificent edifice in the decorated and later English styles, consisting of a chancel, nave, and four aisles. At the west end is a quadrangular tower, an elegant structure in four compartments, containing thirteen windows, which, by the variety of their ornaments, add much to its lightness and beauty; it is 121 feet in height, exclusively of its pinnacles of 32 feet, which are richly adorned with carved work. The restoration of this church was completed at the close of 1845, at a cost of £7000, chiefly defrayed by the vicar. Another church has been erected in the early English style, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and containing 1100 sittings; the stone is a beautiful white lias, and the structure has a neat tower. The living is a perpetual curacy, in the gift of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, with a net income of £150. There are places of worship for Baptists, the Society of Friends, Independents, Unitarians, and Wesleyans; and the Roman Catholics have a handsome chapel with a portico of two Ionic pillars, and also a convent of Franciscan nuns. The nuns emigrated from Brussels during the French revolution in the last century, and settled at Winchester, until they became possessed of their present residence, a noble building at the east end of the town, near the entrance from London, originally intended for a public hospital.

The free grammar school was established in 1522 by Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester, and was endowed in 1554 by William Walbee, clerk, with about 96 acres of land in eight different portions, now producing about £100 per annum. The premises include a large and ancient schoolroom, situated within the castle-gate; and under the same roof is a dwelling-house for the master, who keeps the building in repair and pays the taxes, and who is allowed to take private pupils. The Wesleyan Collegiate Institution, about a mile from the town, in the parish of Trull, is a handsome structure whose principal front, 250 feet in extent, presents a regular elevation in the Tudor style: in the centre is a tower 80 feet in height. Some almshouses at East Gate, for ten women and seven men, were founded in 1635, by Robert Gray, a native of the town, and endowed by him with £2000, since augmented with other benefactions. The almshouses on the north side of Hammet-street were founded and endowed by Richard Huish, for thirteen men, one of whom is president, and reads prayers daily in a chapel attached to the building; the income is £350. Of the remaining charities, the principal is that arising from the Town Lands, consisting of some property to which no claimant appeared after a plague had raged in Taunton, and which, with land and houses purchased under bequests by John Meredith and Margery Acland, produces about £360 per annum. The income from the Town lands is distributed among the poor of the parish of St. Mary Magdalene; that from Meredith's bequest, in clothing; and that from Aclaud's to widows. The Taunton and Somerset hospital was founded in 1809, in commemoration of George III. entering upon the fiftieth year of his reign, and was opened on the 25th of March, 1812. An eye infirmary, established in 1816, is supported by voluntary contributions; and there is a society for the relief of lying-in women. The poor-law union comprises 38 parishes or places, all in the county of Somerset, except one which is in Devon; the whole containing a population of 33,422. Taunton is the birth-place of Samuel Daniel, the-poet, born in 1562; and of the Rev. Henry Grove, born in 1683, an eminent dissenting minister, who, in addition to other works, contributed some excellent papers to the Spectator. Amongst the bishops of Winchester who made it their occasional residence, were Cardinals Beaufort and Wolsey.