A BRIEF HISTORY OF BRUTON
The story begins before our town existed, with seashells and fossils found in Bruton’s gardens, and Roman remains on Creech Hill. Bruton is built over a Jurassic outcrop, the fossils pre-dating by millennia the flints that denote human habitation and the early burial sites on Creech Hill. The ancient British settlement of Bruton, in the valley below, owes its existence and its name to the river Brue, which rises nearby in Selwood forest and empties into the Bristol Channel. ‘Brue’ derives from bryw, a ‘brisk stream’ in Old Welsh, the language of the earliest inhabitants. The town was regularly flooded, before the building of a barrage in 1984. The two earliest river crossings exist today as later-built bridges, with a third, narrow fifteenth-century bridge linking Plox with Lower Backway.
On the top of Creech Hill, known as Lamyatt Beacon, there was a third-century Romano-British temple dedicated to Mars. At Discove the remains of a tessellated pavement were found – now lost. The Romans built their roads over ancient British tracks. Their route from Sarum to Ilchester ran south of Bruton, and the Fosse Way, an important military road, lies to the west. A collection of coins was found by boys from King’s School fifty years ago. Further evidence of the strong Roman presence comes from the hoard of bronze coins found in 2010 near Frome.
After the Romans, the Saxons overcame the ancient British. By the seventh century there were two timber churches, one dedicated to St Peter. The other, which became St Mary’s, is believed to have housed a white marble altar slab brought from Rome by St Aldhelm. Old English had replaced Old Welsh by 878 when Alfred, King of Wessex, mustered his Anglo-Saxon army and beat back the Danes close to where King Alfred’s Tower now dominates the countryside. An Anglo-Saxon sword was unearthed locally, and coins were minted in Bruton in the eleventh century. The ancient ‘bartons’ – now alleys off the High Street – originally led to pens for holding livestock.
Bruton occurs in Domesday Book as ‘Briwetone’, when it had six mills. In the twelfth century, a Norman community established an Augustinian Priory and built beside it a stone church, transformed over the next two centuries, with many additions, into the church we see today. The fine church silver dates from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Priory became an Abbey in 1511, and a free Grammar School was founded in 1519. Abbot John Ely erected a pillared and carved hexagonal Market Cross at the top of Patwell Street – named for St Patrick’s Well – at the end of the High Street, but this mysteriously disappeared during late eighteenth-century roadworks.
After the Reformation, Bruton Abbey was sold to Sir Maurice Berkeley, Henry VIII’s standard bearer, and his family transformed it into a mansion. Hugh Sexey, a royal auditor with strong local connections, endowed Sexey’s Hospital, the almshouses on the High Street. St Mary’s remained the parish church, where lie the recumbent stone effigies of Sir Maurice and his wives. Sir Charles Berkeley endowed the classical chancel of 1743. In 1777 the Hoares of Stourhead bought the Abbey property for its lands. They demolished the mansion, constructing the present Rectory in the old Abbey stables. The Berkeleys’ ‘prospect tower’ in the former deer park became a dovecote – now the emblem of Bruton.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Bruton with its markets and fairs became a centre for manufacturers and craftspeople – cloth-makers, hosiery-makers and silversmiths – with a rising professional class. In the 1620s John and William Ames left Wyke for Massachusetts, where until 1952 the family business manufactured the famous ‘Ames Shovel’, standard issue for the U.S. Army. In 1805 a shaft was dug at Brewham in the expectation of finding coal, but none was found. By the late eighteenth century silk-mills and factories, at Gants Mill and in the town, employed hundreds of local women and girls. Imported raw silk was cleaned, spun and ‘thrown’ to make thread.
In the late eighteenth century improvement to the appalling roads out of Bruton was funded by tolls, with tollhouses built beside the gates. With them came the rapid stagecoaches, which put up at Bruton’s coaching inns – the Old Bull and the Wellington, which was where the public library now stands. Bruton Station was opened by the Great Western Railway on its Bristol to Weymouth line in 1856. In 1860 the Somerset Central Railway met the Dorset Central Railway at Cole Station just outside Bruton; they joined forces to become the Somerset and Dorset line, which was closed in 1966. Bruton Station, still busy today, lost its railway staff in 1969.
Bruton has always had good schools, with at least six in the seventeenth century; in 1818 ninety children attended Sunday schools. The old Grammar School, re-established in 1550, has been known as King’s School since the 1880s, and became fully co-educational in 1997. Bruton School for Girls had unpromising origins in 1877 as a school to train girls for domestic service. Sexey’s School, co-educational since 1977 and funded from Hugh Sexey’s bequest, started life in 1891 in a house in Quaperlake Street as a Trade School for boys. Bruton Primary School replaced the former County School.
Bruton’s moderate prosperity, for many Brutonians were pitifully poor, depended on cattle and sheep. We possessed more woodland than any other parish in Somerset, exploited for coppicing, timber and bark. By the mid-seventeenth century much of the Abbey lands and the Redlynch estate was rented out, mainly as pasture. With enclosure and forest clearance in the eighteenth century, tenant farms amalgamated. The largest were Coombe Farm, Gilcombe Farm, Godminster Farm nearby, and the eighteenth-century Durslade Farm, created by the Berkeleys with state-of-the-art buildings. After the decline of the wool industry a mixed economy developed, but throughout the nineteenth century most of Bruton’s men were dependent upon agriculture.
New developments, old memories
Until recently Bruton was less busy than it used to be, and less self-sufficient, with a more fluid population. There used to be a cattle market up by the station, Viney’s Yard was a silk mill and then a bacon factory, and Tolbury Mills was in business selling animal feed for 150 years before the development of Tolbury Estate in the 1990s. Before the demise of many small manufacturing firms, and before most people had a car, there were more pubs and shops on the High Street and in Patwell Street, and ladies’ and gents’ outfitters, an ironmonger, a bicycle shop, a furnisher’s, a saddler, a bookshop, greengrocers, butchers and a hairdresser. With the opening of At the Chapel restaurant and in 2014 the Hauser & Wirth gallery at Durslade Farm, new energy has galvanised the town and the number of visitors has markedly increased, with a consequent rise in the number of small businesses.
A few distinguished names from the past
John Leland (c.1503–1552) is memorialised in the Leland Trail, his itinerary as he passed through the county cataloguing the antiquities and libraries of religious houses. In Bruton, he noted ‘a new Cross’ of six arches ‘for market folks to stand in’ – our lost Market Cross.
Sir John Fitzjames of Redlynch was Chief Justice of England in the reign of Henry VIII and took part in many famous trials, among them those of Sir Thomas More and Queen Anne Boleyn. He was the stepfather of Sir Maurice Berkeley of Bruton, a favourite of Thomas Cromwell.
Various members of the Berkeley family (builders of London’s Berkeley Square and Bruton Street) achieved national prominence:
Sir John Berkeley (1602–1678) became 1st Baron Berkeley of Stratton for his support of Charles I during the Civil War and his service to Charles II in exile and after.
Sir William Berkeley (1605–1677) was several times elected Governor of Virginia. Berkeley cousins, the Ludwells, were also prominent in Virginia.
Sir Stephen Fox (1622–1716), who purchased the Redlynch estate, raised the funds for building the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
Sir Richard Colt Hoare (1758–1838) inherited the Bruton Abbey estate, but never lived here. He wrote Monastic Remains of the Religious Houses of Witham, Bruton and Stavordale (1824).
Richard Michell (1805–1877), Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, 1868–1877 and Regius Professor of Logic, was educated at Bruton Grammar School and is commemorated in a church window in St Mary’s.
Littleton Powys (1874–1955), whose memoirs The Joy of It were published in 1937, taught at King’s School.
Ernst Blensdorf (1896–1976), sculptor, lived and worked in a house on the Brewham road for 35 years from 1941, after fleeing Nazi Germany. Unable to afford metal or stone, he developed a new flowing style following the grain of locally sourced Somerset elm.
John Steinbeck (1902–1968), American novelist and Nobel prizewinner, spent with his wife what he said was the happiest time of his life at Discove Cottage, Redlynch, in 1959, in order to work on his version of Sir Thomas Malory’s fourteenth-century Morte d’Arthur. Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights was published posthumously in 1976.
Joe Louis (1914–1981), U.S. heavyweight boxing champion of the world (1935–1949), coached at Bruton boys’ club when based at Redlynch as a G.I. with the U.S. Third Armoured Division.
Patric Dickinson (1919–1994), poet and golfer, was a pupil at King’s School. He wrote about his time in Bruton in his autobiography The Good Minute (1965).
Hubert Doggart (b.1925), county cricketer who represented England in two Test Matches in 1950, was Headmaster of King’s School 1972–1985.
Alan Rome (1930–2011), distinguished conservation and church architect who worked on the cathedrals of Wells and Salisbury among others, was educated at King’s School.
Ned Sherrin (1931–2007), TV, theatre, film and radio producer and performer, was a boarder at Sexey’s School.
Jacky Gillott (1939–1980), journalist and broadcaster, wrote about her smallholding in Bruton in Providence Place: Animals in a Landscape (1977).
John Mole (1941–2006), poet, jazz clarinettist and bass guitarist, was a pupil at King’s School and wrote a poem about his visits as a schoolboy to Steinbeck’s house.
Michael le Marchant’s Bruton Gallery on the High Street showed works by major modern masters between 1965 and the mid-1980s.