Friday 1 December 2023

Sir John William Fortescue, British Army Historian

John William Fortescue was born in Madeira on 28th December 1859.  He was the 5th son of Hugh Fortescue, the 3rd Earl Fortescue, and his wife Georgiana.  He spent his childhood at Castle Hill near Filleigh in Devon.  His family owned large areas of Exmoor.  He attended Harrow School 1873-1878 and then went on to study law at Cambridge University in 1878.  In 1880 he was appointed as private secretary to Sir William Robinson, who was Governor of the Windward Islands.  John Fortescue spent 2 years in the Caribbean and then returned to Cambridge to complete his degree and graduated in 1884.  

From 1886-1890 he lived in New Zealand, working as private secretary to Sir William Jervois, who was the Governor of New Zealand.  During this time John Fortescue wrote several articles for Macmillan's Magazine, many of which were on the subject of military history, a subject which greatly interested him.  He was then commissioned by Macmillan to write a comprehensive history of the British army.  This was published in 13 volumes between 1899 and 1930.  He also wrote several other books, including The Story of a Red Deer (a children's book published in 1897), My Native Devon (published 1924) and a biography of the Duke of Wellington (published in 1925).

In 1905 he was appointed as librarian at Windsor Castle by King Edward VII.  He remained in this job until 1926.  He accompanied King George V and Queen Mary on their 1911 visit to India and he wrote the official account of their visit.  

In 1914 John Fortescue married Winifred Beech but they had no children.  He often stayed at Simonsbath Lodge (this is now the Simonsbath House Hotel). He was knighted in 1926. He died in Cannes on 22nd October 1933 and his ashes were scattered at Five Barrows above Simonsbath.  His widow suggested that his family should pay for a memorial cairn.  This was built at the side of the Simonsbath to South Molton road above Drybridge Combe.  The cairn and the land around it now belong to Exmoor National Park and they restored the cairn in 2001.

Sir John William Fortescue's Memorial Cairn

Wednesday 15 November 2023

Cholera Outbreak in Bridgwater in 1849

Cholera is an acute diarrhoeal infection caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae.  It affects both adults and children. Most people infected with the bacterium do not have any symptoms but the bacteria are present in their faeces for up to 10 days after infection, potentially infecting other people.  A minority of people who are infected develop acute watery diarrhoea with severe dehydration. This can lead to death if left untreated.  

Cholera was common in Asia and reached Europe in 1829. The first death from cholera in England was in Sunderland in October 1831.  There were outbreaks in many other towns and cities in Scotland and England in the following months until the end of 1832. 

There was a second epidemic of cholera in Britain, which started in Edinburgh in 1848 and lasted until the end of 1849, by which time it had killed more than 53,000 people in England and Wales. There was third epidemic of cholera in Britain 1853-54 and smaller outbreaks in 1865 and 1893.

In 1849 a cholera outbreak in Bridgwater killed more than 200 people. 88 of the dead lived in the Eastover area of the town and they were buried in a mass grave in the graveyard of the church of St John the Baptist. The site of the grave is marked by an original (now broken and almost illegible) headstone and a modern replacement.  The wording is as follows:

In Memory of the decease of 88 persons from cholera, 1849.                                                    From plague, pestilence and sudden death, Good Lord deliver us.

Original headstone

Replacement headstone

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Combwich and Bridgwater Buoys

A pair of restored 19th century buoys are on display at Combwich Wharf and Bridgwater Docks. 

The plaque on the buoy at Combwich Wharf says this:

"This buoy, one of only a few remaining examples, was constructed in Carvers Boatyard, Bridgwater in about 1860 for use in the Bristol Channel.  The original oak timbers were nearly 4 inches thick and some of these are still intact in this buoy.  

When in use the buoy would have been the other way up and anchored to the sea bed with a light and bell attached to the flat topside.

This buoy was previously sited at Harbour Garage with its pair, now at Bridgwater Docks and was given to the village by Mr Colin Wilkins, who bought the site.

This restoration and resiting was carried out with the help of Nuclear Electric PLC at Hinkley Point and the base was provided by Combwich Cruising Club.

This project was organised by Otterhampton Parish Council August 1991.                      

Further refurbishment sponsored by Otterhampton Parish Council completed in 2016 by Burnham Marine and Combwich Motor Boat and Sailing Club."

The plaque on the Bridgwater Buoy says this:

"The Bridgwater Buoy was refurbished in 2017 with the support of local people, organisations and companies led by Patricia Robinson.  The bricks on which it sits originated from the old Workhouse."

Combwich Buoy

Plaque on Combwich Buoy

Bridgwater Buoy

Plaque on Bridgwater Buoy

Saturday 14 October 2023

Unusual War Memorials

There is a war memorial in virtually every town and village in Somerset.  However there are a few memorials, which stand out because they are a bit different.  Here are some of them:

Burrow Mump
Burrow Mump
In medieval times a chapel dedicated to St Michael was built on top of the Burrow Mump.  It was still standing in the mid-17th century.  By the mid-18th century the chapel was in ruins and in 1793 rebuilding commenced but the church was never completed.  The church is built of lias with Ham stone and red brick dressings.  In 1836-8 a church (also dedicated to St Michael) was built at the foot of the hill in the village of Burrowbridge. Burrow Mump and the unfinished church were given to the National Trust by Major Alexander Gould Barrett in 1946 as a memorial to the Somerset men and women who lost their lives during the Second World War.
Burrow Mump

Burrow Mump Memorial Plaque
Holford & Kilve's Memorial Copse
Holford and Kilve's Second World War memorial is a copse of Scots pine trees on Longstone Hill on the Quantocks.  The memorial says "These trees were planted to commemorate the men and women of Holford and Kilve who served in the war 1939-45."
Holford & Kilve's Memorial Copse

Holford and Kilve's Memorial Copse

Blagdon Green, Blagdon Hill
"Lest we Forget.  In Memory of the Fallen"
This war memorial is made from a 15" Howitzer shell case.

Dowlish Wake
This memorial is carved onto a Ham stone boulder
"Remember those who died for this country"

Thatched war memorial in Drayton

"We Will Remember Them" mural painted on a wall in Haydon Road, Taunton

The walled garden located at the back of St George's Church in Dunster is a war memorial garden.  It is dedicated to the men of Dunster who died for their country in both world wars. It can be accessed through a gate in the wall on Priory Green just opposite the dovecote. 
Dunster's War Memorial Garden

Royal British Legion Poppy Memorial, Weston-super-Mare
This colourful war memorial was installed at the front of Somerset Legion House on Weston-super-Mare seafront, when it opened in 2007 as a hotel offering holidays for ex-servicemen and women and their families.  The hotel closed in January 2020 and the memorial has now been moved to Grove Park.

Royal British Legion Memorial Bench, Collett Park, Shepton Mallet
This was put in place for the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War in November 2018.

Corfe's memorial to those who died in the First World War but who lie in unmarked graves or have no grave at all.

Martock has a horse water trough, which is now filled with flowers, as a memorial to the 450,000 horses that were killed in the South African War 1899-1902

Sunday 1 October 2023

John Biffen, MP and Government Minister

(William) John Biffen was born in Bridgwater on 3rd November 1930.  His father Victor William Biffen was the tenant farmer at Hill Farm, Otterhampton.  He was educated first at Combwich Village School and later at Dr Morgan's Grammar School in Bridgwater, where he became the head boy. He was awarded a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge University, where he studied history and graduated with a first class honours degree in 1953. He worked for Tube Investments Ltd from 1953-60 and the Economist Intelligence Unit 1960-61.

John Biffen developed an interest in politics at Cambridge University and he was chairman of the university Conservative Association.  He stood unsuccessfully for the parliamentary constituency of Coventry East at the 1959 general election.  In 1961 he won the by-election for the Oswestry constituency (renamed Shropshire North in 1983) and he held the seat until 1997.  He was a Eurosceptic and in 1971 he voted against the UK joining the European Economic Community. 

He served as Chief Secretary to the Treasury (May 1979-January 1981), Secretary of State for Trade (January 1981-April 1982) and Leader of the House of Commons (April 1982-June 1987).  He made remarks that upset the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and he was dropped from the Cabinet after the 1987 General Election and returned to the back benches.

John Biffen married Sarah Wood in 1979.  He was made a life peer in June 1997 and moved to the House of Lords.  His title was Baron Biffen of Tanat in the County of Shropshire. He died on 14th August 2007, aged 76.  He is commemorated in Combwich with a blue plaque on the wall of Otterhampton Village Hall.

Blue Plaque in Combwich

Thursday 14 September 2023

Luke Jerram: Withdrawn, Leigh Woods & Gaia, Taunton

Luke Jerram is a Bristol based artist, who creates sculptures, installations and live art projects.  In 2015 he was commissioned by the National Trust's Trust New Art programme in partnership with Forestry Commission England's Forest Art Works to create an art installation in Leigh Woods.  He gave it the title Withdrawn.  It was a flotilla of five old  fishing boats in the middle of Leigh Woods and was on display from 18th April to 6th September 2015. Its purpose was to promote discussion about climate change, extreme weather, falling fish stocks and our impact on the marine environment. The boats were called Gloria Jean, Joanne Marie, Martha, Seahorse and Grey Gull.  The boats were purchased from Ebay and Gumtree.  The installation was used as a venue for a series of events during the summer of 2015. At the end of the installation the boats were given away to organisations in the Bristol area who turned them into play equipment, storytelling and performance spaces.

In April 2023 Gaia, another of Luke Jerram's art installations, was on display in Taunton Minster, as part of a worldwide tour.  Gaia is a model of planet Earth and is 7 metres in diameter.  It was created from NASA imagery of the Earth's surface.

Joanne Marie

Martha and Gloria Jean

Grey Gull


Grey Gull

Joanne Marie

Gaia in Taunton Minster

Gaia in Taunton Minster

Friday 1 September 2023

Packhorse Bridges

Packhorse bridges were built so that horses and ponies carrying loads could cross rivers and streams.  Most were built before c1800 and are just wide enough for one laden horse to pass over them.  Many of them were originally cobbled and they often have low parapets, so that they didn't interfere with the panniers carried by the horses.  Somerset has about 30 surviving examples, many of them on Exmoor because the bulk of goods were carried by packhorses in upland areas.

Gallox Bridge, Dunster - over the River Avill
This bridge possibly dates back to the 15th century

Allerford - over the River Aller

Allerford's medieval packhorse bridge

Hacketty Bridge, Horner - over the Horner Water
This bridge possibly dates back to the late medieval period

Hacketty Way Bridge, Horner

West Luccombe - over the Horner Water
This bridge was built in the late medieval period

West Luccombe

Ramshorn Bridge, Taunton
The Galmington Stream has been diverted and no longer flows under this bridge.

Bow Bridge, Bruton - over the River Brue

Bow Bridge, Bruton

Kentsford Farm, Watchet - over the Washford River

Robber's Bridge - over the Weir Water

Bury Bridge - over the River Haddeo

Bury Bridge

Bury Bridge and Ford
Medieval four-arched bridge

Malmsmead Packhorse Bridge and Ford over the Badgworthy Water
This bridge was built in the 17th century

Smithy Bridge, Winsford - over the Winn Brook
This single arch packhorse bridge dates back to the medieval period and was restored in 1952.

Packhorse bridge next to Vicarage Bridge, Winsford
This two-arched bridge is probably medieval in origin.  It was rebuilt in 1952 following flood damage.

Packhorse bridge next to Vicarage Bridge, Winsford

Edbrooke Packhorse Bridge over the River Exe near Winsford
This bridge is probably medieval in origin but was rebuilt in the 18th century.  The road to Winsford passed over the bridge until the new turnpike road was cut in 1824

Edbrooke Bridge

 Packhorse bridge at Marsh Bridge Cross
This packhorse bridge was built sometime before 1838.

Marshbridge Cross Packhorse Bridge

Cannington Packhorse Bridge over the Cannington Brook

Cannington Packhorse Bridge

Wellow Packhorse Bridge
This was built across the Wellow Brook in the late medieval period but has been restored and altered since then.