Reprinted from Newsletter 92, dated 1999 July–August

Victoria History becomes extra-complicated at Glastonbury

Susan Rands

The cover of a book, which is white with black text and a red outline. It is titled “A History of the County of Somerset”, and was edited by R W Dunning. This is volume 9, entitled “Glastonbury and Street”. It has a “Victoria Country History” logo with coat of arms in white on red. At the bottom it reads, “published for the Institute of Historical Research by Boydell & Brewer, 2006”.
[Update:] Volume 9 of the Victoria History was at last pubished in 2006, and it is now out of print. Glastonbury Antiquarian Society has a copy.

A large audience assembled for the great privilege of hearing our distinguished county historian, Dr Robert Dunning, tell about his unpublished work on Glastonbury for the Victoria County History.

Started at Victoria’s jubilee

He began his talk on April 26 by telling us how the histories originated, just over 100 years ago, to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Prominent citizens such as Constable the publisher and W.H. Smith the bookseller, in the hope of peerages, contributed generously. The writers of the early volumes before the First World War were interested mainly in the landed families and the extent and value of their holdings, but they also mentioned the established church, industries that were too noticeable to be ignored, and the more prominent earthworks and prehistoric remains. Most archival material was then still in private hands — so whether or not it was used was mere chance or a matter of whom you knew and whether they had kept their collection in reasonable order and condition. Two general volumes on Somerset were published in 1906 and 1911; they sold for five guineas each!

Between the wars the whole project languished, but in 1947 it began again with the county of Wiltshire, which had enlightened and cultured parish and borough councillors, leading the way in supporting the project financially. Somerset did not get going till 1967 with Volume III, which covered the Hundreds of Pitney, Somerton and Tintinhull and was published in 1974; Volume IV, which covered Crewkerne, Martock and South Petherton, was published a mere four years later, a great achievement. Volume V on Williton, Watchet and Nether Stowey appeared in 1985, followed by Volume VI on Andersfield, Cannington and North Petherton a few years later. Volume VII on Wincanton, Milborne Port and Bruton would be available now if the publisher’s computer had not got confused over footnotes and stuck them repetitively and at random! Volume IX, on which Dr Dunning is now working, covers the area from West Huntspill to West Pennard, which of course includes Glastonbury.

Abbey kept careful records

Because the monks kept such careful records the sheer volume of archival material for Glastonbury is immense. Much of it is at Longleat, where the charge for looking at it is £17 per day; most of it, however, is now available on microfilm. There are also large collections in the British Library and the Record Offices and still much, some of it unknown, in private hands.

After the Dissolution the ownership of the Manor of Glastonbury became extremely complicated. The Crown owned it but the Crown’s representative who collected the rents from the lessees was known as the owner; the lessees sublet to people who might sublet again to those who actually farmed the land. Not only was the structure of ownership complicated but the land was divided into a series of fractions which were not constant divisions. Much of the later history of ownership is still in the offices of solicitors — it is confidential and can be seen only with the permission of the client to whom it pertains. Mrs Betty Harland, the present Lady of the Manor of Glastonbury, has generously and most usefully given this permission. At one time the area of Glastonbury Tor was owned by Sir Richard Colt Hoare of Stourhead, the famous antiquarian.

A map of Glastonbury, centred on the Abbey Ruins and High Street. It is much less dense and much smaller than Glastonbury now is. A key points out various details such as churches and the Town Hall.
This map of Glastonbury as it was in 1844 comes from the book.

Courts have a tangled history

The history of the Glastonbury Courts was even more complicated. An 18th-century visitor described the people as “gross and illiterate” and the magistrates as “quibbling” — all doubtless determined to prove their rights by hook or by crook.

Dr Dunning told us that the church history was the most puzzling. He has found the great Pevsner mistaken in his estimate of the amount of damage done when the tower of St John’s fell down in the early 15th century, and that the church did not have to be entirely rebuilt then. The tower, however, is a Gloucestershire rather than a Somerset pattern. In the 19th century the famous architect Sir George Gilbert Scott was asked for his advice about church repairs, but it was decided that his ideas were too expensive and the council used its own man, Merrick. While the church was undergoing repair, services were held in the Abbot’s Kitchen.

As we should expect, Dr Dunning is making numerous discoveries of all kinds. For example, a Glastonbury document uses the word “quilt-maker” a century before the date given by the Oxford English Dictionary for its first use. Of more significance, Dr Dunning has discovered the meaning of “Ponter’s Ball” — just what it was and why West Pennard has a “New Town”.

A hand-drawn map of part of Glastonbury: between the High Street and Silver Street, centred on the alley next to The Queen’s Head. A area just west of the alley running the length of it is outlined in red.
Somers Square was behind a medieval building at the top of the High Street, next to the Queen’s Head pub. David Orchard, who lived in Somers Square in the 1950s, annotated this old map. [He wrote a longer article about Somers Square for Newsletter 115.]

Lecturer asks listeners

Our lecturer invited our help. Where was Somers Square? David Orchard was able to tell him it had stood next to the Queen’s Head at the top of the High Street, a medieval building with a courtyard of 19th-century dwellings. It was replaced in the 1960s by Alves’ motor dealership and later transformed into a supermarket — Anderson’s, then the Co-op till Safeway supplanted it. Today, when not actually out of use, a small part of the building is a factory outlet, sparse in goods and usually empty of people. The site is an object lesson of what we have destroyed to no purpose.

If any reader knows where Mount Pleasant is or was, Dr Dunning would be glad to hear.

We are all deeply grateful to him for a talk which was as stimulating as it was learned. The task of making such a wealth of detailed knowledge palatable to the uninformed is not easy.