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Wiveliscombe History
  • A Short History

    Wiveliscombe is the largest settlement in the north west of Taunton Deane.Pronounced Wiv-el-is-cum,but often shortened to Wivey locally. It was a market town serving the extensive surrounding agricultural community.

    Its position has obviously been important for many centuries as remains of Pre-Roman, Roman and Saxon times have been traced, including fortifications. Traces of prehistoric man found in the area are now housed in the museum in Taunton and flint chippings have been found in the area around Croford. Castle Hill to the east of the town was the site of an Iron Age encampment and still gives commanding views of the neighbourhood. This was later occupied by the Romans. In 1711 coins were found, some dating from the time of the Emperor Trajan, (AD 98-117)and in 1946 a further hoard was found which contained coins from possibly as late as A.D. 338. This would seem to indicate that the Romans occupied Castle Hill for a lengthy period of time.

    From the time of the Saxon conquest up to the reign of Edward theConfessor, 1042-66, the manor of Wiveliscombe belonged to the King. Edward, however, "for the good of his soul" granted the manor to the See of Bath and Wells and Bishop Giso became Lord of the Manor. When the town became the favoured home of several medieval bishops of Bath and Wells, the so called Bishop's Palace was much in. use. This was particularly true of Bishop Drockensfield (1309-29), but little or nothing remains. Of the original. It was approached by a gatehouse, the arch of which can still be seen from Church Street. Plain Pond is now a housing estate but in earlier times stews or ponds were maintained to provide a plentiful supply of fish for the palace and similar residences.

    The square represents the commercial hub of Wiveliscombe and with the High Street to the south also contains the majority of the important buildings of architectural and historic interest In High Street there is a house with the date 1804 over the door. This was the public dispensary founded by William Hancock and Henry Sully. Its purpose was to allow "servants, labourers and apprentices" to have free medical treatment and care.

    It had a resident doctor and incorporated a hospital and clinic. Patients came from all over west Somersetto avail themselves of the facilities. This was all before the East Reach Hospital in Taunton was built. Narrow streets and interesting old buildings establish Wiveliscombe's agreeably diverse character. The architecture is varied, with the Georgian houses of Church Street giving way to small vernacular buildings along Russells and Rotton Row which in many instances are similar to the buildings in Silver Street and Golden Hill. However it is in Church Street that some of the finest buildings are to be found with the Church of St Andrews, East and West Braynes and Bournes.

    The church of St Andrew's is relatively recent (1827-29) compared to most of the other churches in Taunton Deane. The most notable thing about it is the large vaulted undercroft which gives access to extensive catacombs. These housed many of the country's finest works of art rescued from potential bomb damage during World War Two. A plaque listing the treasures stored here at the time can be seen inside the church.

    The woolen trade flourished around Wiveliscombe and a coarse blue cloth widely used for the slaves in the West Indies was manufactured in the area. When slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833 this proved the death knell of the industry in the town.

    Wiveliscombe was famous for its brewery built in 1807 by William Hancock. The Hancock family exercised a huge influence on the town for many decades. The men of the family were fanatical in their enthusiasm for rugby. Wiveliscombe Rugby Club was founded in 1872 largely due to the Hancocks, The family were determined to ensure the club was successful and brought into the town many well-known people solely on the strength of their ability to play rugby. Seven of the ten Hancock sons played rugby for Somerset. One, Frank Ernest, captained Wales and another Phillip Froude played for England.

    In the 1920s the brewery provided one of the main sources of employment still being run by Hancock after the amalgamation with Arnolds of Taunton in 1927. Its demise is poignantly catalogued by Ivor Burston in his book Wiveliscombe "Bits and Pieces" 1955 -Sad Days were in store for Wiveliscombe for Arnolds and Hancocks were bought out by Ushers of Trowbridge and many changes were made, eventually Watneys bought out Ushers, the brewery closed and with a number of employees moved to Rowbarton, Taunton. This was indeed the end of an era and many think Wiveliscombe was never the same".

    Despite these pessimistic views expressed, brewing in the town is now in a very healthy state with Exmoor Ales at the Golden Hill Brewery and Cotleigh Brewery in Ford Road.

    There is an unusual red tile-hung building in the Square known as the Court House which is now the home of the Public Library, This building was constructed in 1881 and is notable for the cowed grotesque corbels and carved wooden panels depicting stylised fruit, human figures and mythical animals in the style of the Norwegian slave church carvings.

    The Recreation Ground "Broad Meadow" was bought from John Tidboald and paid for by public subscription to house a memorial to the fallen in the 1914-18 war. Underneath the memorial is a tin full of relics of the time

    On the 8th June 1871 the railway line was from Taunton to Wiveliscombe opened initially in Brunel's original broad gauge. After eight years it was relaid to the standard gauge. There was an impressive viaduct the piers of which are still to be seen in the area but thanks to the infamous Dr Beeching no rolling stock has tested their construction since October 1966.

    Abbotsfleld, a country house half a mile to the west of Wiveliscombe, was designed for Lacey Collard, the piano manufacturer, by Owen Jones around 1872. Owen Jones was an influential Victorian design theorist and this is one of the few buildings designed by him that survives to this day. It is reputed the Richard Wagner stayed there and that Adelina Patti once sang from a terrace to an audience seated on the lawn. To the east of Wiveliscombe is a small settlement called Croford. Croford House, an early nineteenth century building, was built for the owner of Slapes brick works which once stood behind it. The farm buildings nearby are made of misshaped, reject bricks from the brickworks. The good bricks were once used in most of the Victorian development in Wiveliscombe and nearby Milverton.

    There is no shortage of history on the doorstep of Wiveliscombe. Famous houses abound. The closest are Gaulden Manor and Combe Sydenham, the latter being the home of one Britain's most famous seafarers - Francis Drake