South Petherton ......a market town with a village feel

History of South Petherton

In 1483 the Daubeneys sided with the Duke of Buckingham in uprisings aimed at seizing the crown from King Richard III. When this failed, they lost their manor in South Petherton . They subsequently got it back, but in the 16th century, with increasing financial problems, they sold it. The manor was split up, further complicating the landholding situation in South Petherton. The manor house (‘King Ina’s Palace’) became the manor house of Wigborough estate, several miles away.

South Petherton seems to have been fairly affluent at this time. In the 16th century Leland referred to South Petherton as a market town.

In the 17th century South Petherton was described as a market town of 300 families. Settlement expanded away from the medieval nucleus (the church and market place) with the gentry building the "suburbs" of Palmer Street, North Street and South Street. Cottages were built on the waste-land in the quarrying area of Pitway to the east, and at Little Petherton to the west. By 1630 many of today’s town streets and lanes, including the four radial streets, were named on maps. At this time South Petherton was prosperous from the wool and flax trade, and was generally stable. By 1650 South Petherton was regarded as one of 6 well-known market towns in Somerset. Archaeological excavation in 2004 confirmed the location of a foundry where the Sturton family made bronze cauldrons and skillets in the 17th and 18th centuries which were traded all over the south of England.

However there were dramatic disturbances when South Petherton was affected by Civil War actions. Troops of both sides were in the town in 1644 and the church was damaged. In 1645 Parliamentary forces occupied the town after the Battle of Langport.

Prior to his Rebellion in 1685, the Duke of Monmouth is reputed to have stayed briefly at South Petherton trying to raise support for the rebellion. Nine of South Petherton ’s young men subsequently fought with Monmouth at the Battle of Sedgemoor; two were later tried and condemned by Judge Jefferies at Taunton Assizes and hanged from a beam in a gateway in St James’s Street.

From the 17th century the town’s modest prosperity was based on its commercial role, also on quarrying, brick making, and cloth manufacture. This continued into the late 18th and 19th centuries, though cloth manufacture was largely replaced by sailcloth and then leather- working, particularly gloving.

Religion in South Petherton

By 1672 there were active non-conformists in the town. They built a Presbyterian Meeting house (called ‘Old Meeting House’) in 1705 and had adopted Unitarian doctrines by the 1730s. This congregation grew and split for doctrinal reasons, building other chapels elsewhere in the town.

In 1776 the assistant curate of the parish church, Thomas Coke, met John Wesley and was fired up with the new Non-conformism. His enthusiasm was not shared by the South Petherton gentry who encouraged his congregation to drive him out of office ‘with a peel of bells & a barrel of cider in the streets’ on Easter Sunday 1777. He was later ordained by John Wesley at Bristol and became Superintendent to the Methodist Mission in the USA . Today his home in St James’s St bears a blue plaque.

Methodism slowly caught on in South Petherton. By 1809 there were enough Methodists to build a proper chapel in North Street. During the 19th century their numbers increased and they built a bigger church in 1881 closer to the village centre; this is the Coke Memorial Methodist Church, named in memory of Thomas Coke.

In the 1770s the town was said to contain “nothing remarkable”. The Pitway area (east of the centre) was further developed in the 18th century and had rope-making amongst other manufacturing. In the 19th century the railway arrived in Martock. Nation-wide the demand for agricultural products (especially soft fruit) increased and South Petherton’s market gardeners made the journey daily to the railway. The narrow lane down the hill from Pitway and across wet ground to Martock became the busiest and most economically important route into and out of South Petherton . The hill beyond Pitway was dangerously steep for heavily-laden horse-drawn wagons, so rock and soil were removed to lessen its gradient. Pitway became quite ‘industrial’ with rope-making, stone- and clay-quarrying, brick-making, a limekiln, and later the town’s gas works. To the west of the town, Little Petherton expanded to house agricultural workers. All over the town the cottage industry of glove-making flourished until well into the 20th century.

The population of South Petherton increased in the first half of the 19th century. At this time many town centre buildings were rebuilt or given new facades over earlier structures. Expansion continued out of town along the major roads, with development restricted to narrow strips, due to the economic importance of the orchards and farms behind.

The value of agricultural produce declined in the 20th century and the railway line through Martock closed in 1964. The old Fosse Way / A303 made a come-back as the major access road serving South Petherton.

Residential development increased as housing became more profitable than farming. Housing has replaced many former farmyards and orchards. Many houses in 1960s and 70s were built of reconstituted stone which was of consistent quality when the quarry-tips of Ham Hill stone were being re-worked and producing building stone of variable quality. A small estate of co-operative self-build, wooden, chalet-style houses was built on the edge of Stoodham, opened by Paddy Ashdown MP in 1997. Since the 1990s when most of South Petherton became a conservation area, new houses have been built in vernacular style, faced with hamstone or brick. A sanatorium had been built at Pitway in the first half of the 20th century. Over the years its use changed many times. It was replaced by a modern Community Hospital in June 2011, officially opened by Sophie Countess of Wessex on 21 March 2012.

South Petherton commemorated the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897 by erecting a fountain (on the wall of the present vet’s). This year, 2012, South Pethertonites commemorate our present Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with a stone flower trough erected in Market Square.