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It is thought that the town was originally called Brigg, meaning Quay. In the Doomsday Book the town is listed as Brugie, while Brugia was also used. After the Norman invasion the land was given to Walter Douai (a Norman prince), hence becomming known variously as Burgh-Walter, Brugg-Walter and Brigg-Walter, eventually corrupted to Bridgwater. An alternative version is that it derives from "Bridge of Walter" (i.e. Walter's Bridge).
Bridgwater had a population of 36,000 in 1998 (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.
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 another major engagement nearby at the Battle of Cannington.
William de Briwere, was granted the lordship of the Manor of Brigwater by Henry II. Through William's influence, King John granted two charters in 1200 AD ; one for the construction of Bridgwater Castle, the other for the creation of a borough, as well as a further charter 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 65 feet (20 m) wide in places, flowed approximately along the current streets of Fore Street, 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 12 foot (3.5 m) thick portion of the castle wall and water gate can still be seen on West Quay, and the remains of a wall from 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 catle are buried beneath Homecastle House. For the demise of the castle, see below.
William de Briwere's 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.
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 may 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.
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, while 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.
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. Pilboxes 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 coperative estate near Durleigh. The first council estate to be built was in the 1930s at Kendale Road, followed by those at Bristol Road.
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 9m (30') tidal range on the river, allowed ships of up to 300 tonnes to reach the town centre. As early as 1300 it is known that the port exported maize, 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 hayday, 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 petitioned the government to ban it. The Bridgwater ship the Emanuel was one of three that took part in Martin Frobisher's 1577 search for the North West Passage. In 1828, 40 ships were registered in the port, averaging 60 tons each.
In 1871 the mouth of the docks was spanned by a unique telescopic bridge, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who also designed the dock dredger Bertha. 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 are now 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 its 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. The last ship to built in the town was the Irene, built by F J Carver and Son, which has its own web site. The former associated industry of rope making is commemorated in street furnishings and paving in 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.
Bridgwater also became the leading industrial town in Somerset and a major manufacturing centre for clay tiles and bricks in the 19th century, including the famous "Bath Brick", exported through the port. In the 1890s there were a total of 16 brick and tile companies, and 24 million bricks were exported during that decade alone. These industries collapsed in the aftermath of World War II due to the failure to introduce mechanisation, while 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.
Bridgwater is now a major centre of industry in Somerset, with industries including the production of cellophane, plastics, engine parts, industrial chemicals, and foods. Being close to the M5 motorway and half way between Bristol and Exeter, Bridgwater is also home to two major distribution centres. Excel, the NHS Logistics Authority is located on the Express Park business park, while retailer Argos is based at Huntworth .
Bridgwater is home to the Somerset Brick and Tile Museum .
Nearing Bridgwater on the M5 motorway it's possible to see a striding human figure constructed from willow, sometimes called the Angel of the South (see also Angel of the North). Standing at 12m (39') tall, it was created by sculptor Serena de la Hey and the largest known sculpture in willow, a traditional local material.
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 II listed building in the achitecturally 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 Lyons building on West Quay, constructed around 1730.
Bridgwater is now best known for the illuminated "Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival" that attracts around 150,000 people from around the country and overseas, held on the Friday nearest to November 5th each year. It consists of a dazzling display of over 100 large vehicles up to 100 feet long, festooned with dancers and up to 22,000 lightbulbs that follows a 2.5 mile route over 2 to 3 hours. The carnival is believed to be the largest illuminated carnival in Europe, if not the world. It originated in 1881 and was originally lit by lamps; electric lights were first introduced in 1913. The Web site (see below) contains some photos and video clips.
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".
Towards the end of September, Bridgwater Fair takes place over three days on St Matthew's Field, better known locally as the Fair Field. The fair is now a fun fair, ranked as third largest in England after the Nottingham Goose Fair and ???, however 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.
- Admiral Robert Blake, until Horatio Nelson the most famous of British Admirals, was born in Bridgwater, and attended the local grammar school. His home is now the Admiral Blake Museum and contains details of his career amongst its exhibits of local history and archeology.
- Henry Phillpotts, Bishop of Exeter, was born in Bridgwater in 1778.
- James Sully, psychologist, was born in Bridgwater in 1842.
Members of Parliament
The Bridgwater constituency has been represented in Parliament since it was instituted in1295. After the voting age was changed in January 1970, Susan Wallace became the first ever 18 year old person to vote in the UK, during the 1970 Bridgwater by-election that elected Tom King.
Members of parliament have included:
- Edmund Wyndham (1640)
- Admiral Robert Blake (Short Parliament of 1640)
- Admiral Robert Blake (Barebones Parliament of 1653)
- John Tynte (1661-1669)
- Anne Poulett (1768-1785)
- Vernon Bartlett (Independent anti-appeasement) "Popular Front" (1938-1950)
- Sir Gerald Wills (Conservative) (1950-1969)
- Tom King (Conservative) (1970-2001)
- Ian Liddell-Grainger (Conservative) (2001- )
Bridgwater is twinned with:
- Bridgwater Arts Centre
- Blake Museum
- Bridgwater Carnival
- Bridgwater Town
- A Bridgwater town trail
- Port of Bridgwater
- Bridgwater Czech/Slovak Friendship Society
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