of the County of Somerset
by Brenda Ralph
S O M E R S E T
Georgian & Victorian Times
By the 18th century, the Somerset gentry were well established and firmly in command of their county. They served as magistrates, high sheriffs, MPs, and even appointed local clergy. Many of these families were of very long standing in the county and could trace long ancestries going back in time to the days of William the Conqueror. The Luttrells of Dunster, for instance, still lived in East Quantoxhead Manor which had originally been given their ancestor by King William. Scarcely less lustrous were the Trevelyans of Nettlecombe, who had been in place since 1481.Sir William Wyndham, Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1713 and Chief Treasury Commissioner in 1714, was descended from Thomas Orchard who had first obtained the family's lands in 1287. Yet, as two hundred years earlier, there were also new arrivals, who had only recently made their money, usually from the sugar plantations of the West Indies or the slave trade. One of them was Caleb Dickinson, a Quaker merchant trading in Bristol who purchased Kingweston near Somerton in 1740. His son, William, soon followed gentry custom in the county, becoming a Member of Parliament, rebuilding Kingweston House and acting with the arrogance of power that characterised the nobility and gentry of England at the time, by diverting roads and removing a village in order to create a park.
Lower down the social ladder, the yeomen farmers of Somerset had a less elaborate, but still comfortable life on their own farms. The Vale of Taunton was particularly fertile, supporting herds of dairy and beef cattle which fetched high prices at market. Even on the unpromising expanses of Exmoor, it was possible to live reasonably well by grazing sheep and cattle. The husbandmen who rented the smaller holdings earned a modest income, and several individual labourers owned a small parcel of land and their own animals.
The independence of these ordinary farmers was their most valued asset. However, little by little, freedom was eroded as the fields and common land of Somerset were enclosed, and larger and larger farms were created, swamping the smaller farmers and condemning farm labourers to scandalously low wages, and squalid living conditions. A series of bad harvests at the end of the 18th century worsened the situation even further and so did the high bread prices which resulted from the Napoleonic Wars. Some family incomes were pitifully small. In 1795, parents with as many as five children living at Stogursey were struggling on a mere eight shillings week and there were even deaths from hunger. Some smallholders were forced to sell their animals, their only source of income, in order to buy food.
Farm work became even more insecure with the introduction of machines which were seen as a threat to livelihoods. There were several attempts to destroy the machines, 1830-1831, at the time of the Swing Riots, two were demolished at Yenston and Henstridge.Threats were made, too, to burn hayricks belonging to the gentry. After 1834, when a new Poor Law was enacted, the only alternative for some was the terrifying workhouse.
Others chose emigration, which was encouraged by the government. . Agricultural labourers could obtain free passage to Australia, and there were cheap fares on offer to New York and Quebec. One emigrant, George Hall Peppin of Dulverton left large debts behind when he sailed for Australia where he made a fortune from merino sheep.
For those left behind in Somerset, friendly societies for mutual aid were organised after 1827, but though well-meaning, they could not transform society by encouragement. In 1867, the Report into the Conditions of Women and Children in Agriculture painted a depressing picture of neglect, non-viable land holdings, cramped living conditions, few, if any, allotments for growing food combined with apathy, lack of education and medieval beliefs in witchcraft and superstition. Somerset was nevertheless on the brink of vast improvements that would do much to lift its population out of the economic mire. New turnpike roads came to the county, as well as new means of communication in the canals and railways. Farm machinery, now less feared, could now be brought in more easily, and so could new breeds of animals to improve the existing stocks. Under this modernising impetus, farm production began to grow, export markets were established and new industries, and jobs, came to Somerset - in the brick and tile works at Bridgwater, the glassworks at Nailsea, and elsewhere, in the leather, canvas and sailcoth manufactures, ironware and woollen goods.
The drive to improve public health, an important feature of life in England in the 19th century, brought piped water and sewage systems to Somerset towns and reservoirs were built to provide a continuous water supply, for instance at Taunton in 1878. By the end of the 19th century, together with improvements in medical science, housing, sanitation and communications the people of Somerset were enjoying benefits inconceivable to generations a century or so earlier.