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Williton by Clare Gathercole

This is one of a series of reports on the archaeology of the urban (and formerly urban) areas of Somerset commissioned by English Heritage as part of its Extensive Urban Survey (EUS). The reports were prepared by Somerset County Council in 1994-98. There is a brief history of the town extracted from the report or you can download the whole report and maps in Portable Document Format (PDF).

Download Williton report

A brief history of Williton

Williton lies towards the south of what was, until 1902, the parish of St Decumans. The area is rich in resources: Williton itself is situated on marls and gravels, with limestone to the north and sandstone to the south; north of the limestone ridge, the coastal area also provides alabaster, lias and kelp. Quarrying of the building materials has supplemented Williton's basically agrarian economy in historical times.

In the prehistoric period, there is ample evidence of activity in the area. The Doniford gravels, on which Williton lies, have produced many palaeolithic artefacts; and both mesolithic and neolithic material has also been found in the vicinity of Williton. There is definite evidence of a later prehistoric (neolithic/ bronze age) presence at, or near, the site of Williton itself, in the shape of the barrows (Graburrows) of Battlegore, just to the north-west of the modern settlement.

There is no clear sign as yet that there was any Roman settlement nearer to Williton than Doniford (though this cannot be ruled out). It is only from the Saxon period onwards that Williton emerges as a distinct settlement. The name is of Saxon origin (meaning the tun on the Willet) and the place was an administrative centre of a major royal estate, linked to Cannington and Carhampton and lying on the route between them. The fact that it was never hidated suggests that it was part of the original royal demesne. St Decumans parish, served by the minster of St Decumans (sited on the coast, and probably a pre-Saxon foundation), was a relic of this estate. The tenth century Charter of Priveleges granted to the Monastery at Taunton makes it clear that there was also a royal hunting lodge at Williton. As a royal adminstrative centre and lodge, Williton must then have had a settlement of some status (if not necessarily of any great size). Whilst the location of the Saxon settlement is uncertain, most indicators point to the area around and to the north of the church.

The establishment of the interdependent burh and port of Watchet, which in the later Saxon and early medieval periods assumed most of the specifically urban attributes in the parish, consolidated the differentiation of function already displayed by St Decumans and Williton. Williton's chapel appears to have remained a private chapel until the 12th century. Its close ties to St Decumans were amongst the consequences of the involvement of Reynold FitzUrse, then lord of the manor, in the murder of Becket in 1170. As part of his penance, the manor was divided, half going to the Knights Templar and half to his brother Robert. In further expiation, Robert gave property and rights to the chapel to St Decumans. There was a further division of the remaining manor in 1388, but most of the estates around Williton were eventually reunited in the hands of the Wyndhams.

Williton was an agricultural centre of no great prominence throughout the medieval and post-medieval periods. There is no sign of a formalised market such as Watchet had, but it had a fair by 1767: this survived until 1877. Collinson in 1791 gave the village short shrift, describing it as consisting of two long streets with a small and unremarkable chapel to the west. It was with the coming of the turnpikes in 1765 (with improvements in 1807 and 1829, bringing traffic direct from Taunton and Bridgwater on the route to the coast), and then the West Somerset Railway (in the 1860s) that Williton came to prosper as a small market town, a commercial as well as a governmental centre. The directories from 1840 onwards describe it as "a small, neat town". The town still operated in partnership with Watchet: some firms, including Gliddons (probably the most important 19th century industrial operation), maintained works in both. Markets were formally established and the town expanded to the south and east.

The late 19th century agricultural depression ended the growth and was followed by a fall in population. This has been reversed since the Second World War. Williton has continued to be an administrative centre and the rise in holiday traffic has revived its commercial role and made it into a tourist attraction.