Highbridge Markets

The earliest record of there being a market in Highbridge is 1862 when a Post Office Directory of that time stated that a market had been established and was held on the first Monday in every month.  It was apparently the largest market for cheese, oxen, sheep etc. in the neighbourhood.

Again in 1902, Kelly’s Directory confirmed there was a good market house for cheese and dairy products, still on the first Monday each month.  There was also a weekly cheese auction held by F. Body & Son every Tuesday throughout the year.  Cheddar and Caerphilly cheeses were consigned from this auction to the Highbridge Market and to the markets in several adjoining counties.  The cattle market was then held on the first and third Monday each month, with a calf and lamb auction every Tuesday. The markets were well attended and were considered to be the largest in the West of England.

The Kelly’s Directory of 1939 re-affirmed the success of Highbridge markets and it appears that there was also an auction every Tuesday for calves, sheep and pigs.


Highbridge Market established in 1851, was held on the first and third Monday of the month, with calf and lamb auctions every Tuesday.  The Market has been extended twice; the first time was when J.H. Palmers bought part of the old River Brue from the Council. They, the Council, had bought it from some authority for 10/- and Palmer’s bought their section for £1.00, but it had to be filled in. This was done by filling the whole of the riverbed with wattle hurdles and then placing great big stones on top of them, then it was filled in with quarry waste and some more wattle hurdles, it made a firm surface. Over the years all the movement has virtually ceased and the market area now takes large articulated lorries loaded with cattle.  More recently a piece of land, the old coach house and paddock that adjoined the old “Highbridge Hotel” was added to complete the main entrance.

If a farmer had not got his stock into the market by 6.00 a.m. he might just as not bother, in the early days there were no pens, cattle was tied to a rail. Before the last war stock arrived in a horse and cart or, if local were often driven in, that is where the name ‘drover’ came from.

The busiest time for the market was up to 2001, before the foot and mouth outbreak, it was one of the, if not the, largest fat stock market in the West of England in recent years.  Up to the foot and mouth outbreak anywhere between 200 and 400 fat cattle and about 2000 sheep passed through every week. Cattle sold at the market were for slaughter. Taunton Market was bigger and probably had more cattle and sheep but they would have been for store, as were those from other markets.


Up until the time meat was de-rationed after the war, the market as such was called a ‘collecting centre’ and it had to advise the Ministry of Food in Cardiff what had been entered for sale. The ‘entrants’ had to advise the market what cattle they were sending by Thursday, we had to tell the Ministry on the Friday and the market was given allocation instructions for the following Monday week. Trains from the old Highbridge Goods station then dispatched all the cattle. Cattle were driven from the old cattle market down Market Street to the railway station; cattle by law are domestic. Therefore they are not considered ‘wild’ and as long as you had got a drover at the front and a drover at the back it was deemed to have been adequate precautions.  Fifty or sixty at a time, sometimes even a 100, were sent for transporting and they used to go down to the station where there were proper pens for loading them onto the cattle trucks, the pens being approximately where Kwik Save is now.  On the way down they bumped a few people’s cars but they could not claim compensation off the Ministry, because cattle are domestic animals. Highbridge market had priority over the whole of England for cattle trucks, it used to have a special train and because there were so many cattle entered for a particular week, (normally on a Monday), but sometimes needing two days, the market still had priority for cattle trucks.  A lot of them went to South Wales to be killed, some to the Midlands, a few to the South and London. The train would have been 100 yards long, perhaps even more.  It caused quite a disturbance getting the cattle to the trucks, because they were on the A38, then had to be diverted where the clock used to be; someone had to stop the traffic by the market and then by the clock to send them down Market Street. Someone else to prevent them going over the Railway Bridge, and to divert them down to the pens in the station yard.  People often complained that there was a mess in the roads, especially if it rained.


In the cattle market we were the auctioneers we did not employ anyone.  There is a lot to it, of course, I can always remember my first time, I can take you to where I did my first auction sale, a little house in Jubilee Street in Burnham, which was for furniture.

W.H.Palmers & Son Auctioneers in Bridgwater are no relation to J.H. Palmer. J.H. Palmer was my grandfather, there were three sons Percy, Hugh & Jack, when grandfather was still in the business, Percy ran Weston office and Hugh and Jack my father ran Burnham office and Highbridge.  When grandfather died, things had to be sorted out, Percy went on his own in Weston and the firm was called Percy Palmer.  We kept the name J.H. Palmer & Sons, then fairly soon after, I came into the practice, Hugh retired and I bought his share of the business, or rather father bought it for me. Then father more or less retired, it was 1939 and at that time it was mainly father; Hugh took a chap called Fred Cross into partnership, he was a ‘Bridgwaterite’, his father had a fish business in Bridgwater called Cross and Co.  Immediately war was declared, Fred was called up because he was a reservist, he was away in 1939, he was only in the firm about six months and he was gone.  He was a prisoner of war having been captured by the Japanese, he didn’t come back until about 1946,but he did stay in the firm, up until about twenty years ago.

When he decided to retire, I invited Maurice Wall to join me and then I decided to retire and it is now Maurice Wall and Jeremy Bell.  There are no Palmers to carry on, my son is a solicitor and not interested. So it is the last of the line, because John has no children, so when John dies it is the end of the line, but there you are, these things happen.


The calf market was situated between the cheese market buildings and the river it was where the calf and pigpens were, occasionally if you had conditions of a high tide because the Clyce gates were shut for a longer period and heavy rain, the river would flood.  It would come over the top and flood; in less than five minutes you could have a foot of water all through the calf and cheese markets.  Just after the war when I (David Palmer) came back from the Air Force, it did flood and you had to move the calves very quickly. If river conditions were high you needed to watch it, especially if we had had a lot of rain, and it was a high tide. The bank is not very high at that point and the river would come over very, very quickly and   cover virtually all the pens, it never got to the cheese market building.

“I remember the Wharf, at the top end Russian timber ships would come in and unload their cargo. Behind Canal House is the bed of the original River Brue, this used to be the boundary between Highbridge and Huntspill. The Highbridge Hotel was not in Highbridge but in Huntspill; I was connected with Freemasonry and our lodge in Burnham was established in 1793, its original meeting place was the Highbridge Hotel. The First Master was John Jennings and he is buried in West Huntspill churchyard, his gravestone carries an unusual inscription”.

(The foregoing is a transcript of an interview with Mr David Palmer in 2001.with additional details from Maurice Wall)


The Highbridge Cheese Market was the largest cheese auction in the world? An article in the “Farmer & Stock Breeder” somewhere around 1936 –8 stated it was the largest cheese auction; it used to sell 100 tons of cheese by auction, every week, all local cheese.  It was a most wonderful system, because all the farms around here, they were all dairy farms, milked their cows and most had a cheese maker, they turned the milk into cheese, the whey was fed to the pigs and the pigs went into the bacon factory.  You could not wish for a better system, all self contained no transportation all very logical.  Of the cheese that was sold, I think, say 80% was Caerphilly and most of it went to South Wales for the South Wales miners, a little bit of it went up to the Midlands but by far the greatest proportion of it went to South Wales.

The original Cheese Market was on a site near the Coopers Arms.

The market was held weekly, cheese would be put up for auction with buyers and agents arriving from all over the country. However, it closed in 1940 because at the outbreak of the war cheese was rationed. Some cheese production continued but this was for personal consumption, but apparently this also, soon came to an end.

There were Cheese factors in Highbridge, these included F.A.Chubbs and Mr A.Board

F.A.Chubbs had a shop next to the George Hotel in Church Street. The only bomb to fall on Highbridge during the war hit their shop. The reports are that the town smelled of toasted cheese for some days.

Local Cheeses were mainly Caerphilly and Cheddar. The Welsh preferred the former because it maintained its moisture under ground and did not break up like the firmer Cheddar.

Caerphilly is semi soft, slightly acid, with a mild flavour; white in colour. Seven gallons of milk is needed to make seven and a half pound of cheese; with no bandages or greasing it could be sold within 7 days.  Highbridge Market frequently sold 15 tons per week.

Cheddar is harder with a buttery texture; darker than milk cream it is neither acid nor sweet, but nutty in flavour. A good Cheddar deserves 6 months or more to mature.


The farmhouse is a Grade II listed 19th century building and was one of a number of local farms producing their own cheese in the years 1910 to 1940.

Horace Lawrence first occupied the farm in 1901 and for many years employed Jim Tewkesbury as Cheese maker, quantities of cheese was produced, Caerphilly, which was typical of the area and some Cheddar.

A bookkeeper was employed together with three or four casual workers and members of the family, cheese mainly, but also butter was produced on the farm. Later Norman Moxey took over the position of cheese maker. Some milk for the cheese process came from the farm itself, the remainder being bought in from smaller farms in the area.

When the required amount of milk had been processed, any excess would be transported in churns, by horse drawn flat wagons (later motor transport) to Highbridge Western Region Station for despatch to a depot in London.

Most, if not all of the cheese manufactured at the farm, would be taken to Highbridge Cheese Market (The area is now a housing development) the buyers and agents in the town to buy cheese would stay at the ‘Railway Hotel ‘that was where Alpha House now stands.

In the 1920’s, usually in July/August, the haymaking time, a wagon would be taken to the Somerset & Dorset Railway Works and would wait outside for employees to finish work for the day. Those who wished, would then volunteer to help with the haymaking and make some extra money; this continued whilst there was daylight, they were supplied with ample quantities of bread, cheese and cider during the evening.

Some cheese production continued at Isleport Farm for a short period during the war, during this time Austin Lawrence joined his father on the farm. After his father died the farm remained in the family when Mike Lawrence, the grandson, occupied the farm. Being an enthusiast of vintage tractors and farm machinery Mike had gathered together quite a large collection, with the view of setting up a Working Museum in the future. As a preview to this he has, for several years, organised around August time a Vintage Hay and Harvesting Working Show, where much of his current collection can be seen in a working environment.

(Information for the above article provided by Mike Lawrence)

Mike Lawrence of Isleport Farm recalls that a Mr Thomas Moss Heal of Worston House, near Highbridge was an ‘Engineer Extraordinary’


The Second World War was well known as a period when people were encouraged to ‘make do and mend’, and nowhere more so than in agriculture. The shortage of new tractors in particular, led to some amazing feats of improvisation, with redundant passenger cars being converted into pick-up trucks, tractors and even self-propelled mowers.

One man began improvising in this way a decade or so before hostilities broke out, he was Thomas Moss Heal, and he lived at Worston House, near Highbridge. Born in the United States, to which his parents had emigrated, he came to England when his parents decided to return. As a young man, he became a farmer, raising pigs, but at the same time, using his fertile imagination to produce equipment for his farm.

Photographs in the collection kept by his daughter, Mrs. Rosemary Hawkins (who still lives at Worston Farm) indicate that at one stage he appears to have converted at least three cars – two were probably Austins – into small tractors, whilst another was made into a mower, the type of machine for which he is best remembered. He also produced a small lorry from a Model T Ford, and possibly another from an Austin 12.  Nick Jones who lives at Cannington near Bridgwater regularly rallied a 1927 Austin 12 pick-up that was once owned by Mr. Moss Heal.

Mrs. Hawkins said her father was a great improviser, and also something of a magpie, collecting cars and other items that ‘might come in useful’ (We all know that feeling!). He disliked and mistrusted horses; this probably led him to consider ways of replacing them for work on his farm. Of course, cars of that day had ‘real’ chassis with easily detachable bodies, so conversion into working machines was made much easier than it would nowadays. He broke up a number of old cars, keeping the engines, gearboxes, axles and other parts that might be useful with his projects.

The “Farmer and Stockbreeder” of November 19th 1946 detailed some of his inventions:


For lifting heavy bales and the like, Mr. T. Moss Heal, of Highbridge has made a portable hoist. It would deliver a bale to the door of a 17 foot high Dutch barn and for unloading a wagon; the hoist would go between the wagon and stack.  The very simple hoist with its four stays would not tip over as there was never more than a few pounds difference on either end of the cross beam.”

Mike Lawrence, of Isleport Farm, recalls this hoist being sold at auction. Mrs. Hawkins has a fascinating cutting from the Evening Times and Echo of Friday July 18th 1930, which tells much about the inventor and his machine:

Highbridge Farmer’s Home-Made Motor Mowing Machine

The season has been remarkable for the heaviest hay crop for thirty years, and a novel mowing machine, constructed by Mr. Tom Heal, a young Highbridge farmer, has proved a highly successful aid in cutting the grass.

The motor mower is well known in connection with the maintenance of large lawns, but so far it has not been adapted commercially to haymaking. Mr. Heal has, therefore, had to rely entirely upon his own resources in constructing his machine. He has gone on improving it until this year it has practically reached perfection, having cut some thirty acres of grass without a hitch. Mr. Heal is very modest in his claims for the mower, but those who have seen it working are loud in their praise of the machine.

Its constructor’s chief claim is that it has freed two horses to do other work, but actually it will do the work of two horses in half the time – and do it well. It takes approximately half a gallon of petrol to cut an acre of grass. The machine, as previous photographs show, somewhat resembles a “Heath Robinson” contrivance, and certainly to watch it lurching across an undulating hayfield belching out smoke from its exhaust, and combining the well known rattle of the mowing machine with the characteristic noises of the motor, is somewhat amusing.

The car that forms the basis of the machine was originally bought for £5!

Mr. Heal has retained the back axle of the car, but has fitted the wheels of a mowing machine, whilst the knife, with its working parts, is attached to the side of the chassis in a similar manner to an ordinary mowing machine.

All the necessary constructional work has been done by the owner, who is a very clever mechanic and the proud possessor of a fully equipped workshop with a fine lathe.”

It is fortunate in that Thomas Moss Heal’s demonstration mower has survived in his daughter’s ownership. This particular version has a Bamford horse drawn mower, linked up to the engine and gearbox from a Morris Cowley, but sporting a Humber radiator, necessitating a steeply sloping bonnet to connect it to the scuttle panel on which is mounted the petrol tank with gravity feed, just as it would have been on the car.

The actual car chassis is virtually unaltered at the front, though it is cut off short at the rear where the Bamford mower is attached. The front axle appears to be set further back than it would have been as a car; whether this was accidental, or intentionally done, to give a smaller turning circle, we can but guess. He devised his own steering arrangement, and his plans for the adaptations needed on the chassis still survive. The steering column was, apparently, from an American car. The prop shaft from gearbox to rear axle was shortened, and the drive to the mower was taken from sprockets on the end of the original half shafts, by roller chains to larger chain wheels on the mower. The chains were specially made for him at a Midlands factory.

Mrs. Hawkins still has the original metal templates for the sprockets and chain wheels, carefully marked out in pencil, and quite clearly meticulously cut out and filed to shape by hand.

One rather interesting comment addressed “To Irish Customers” is that “Carriage paid to all orders to Ireland if chain is ordered with sprockets. There is no duty on chains and sprockets entering Eire if they are used for work solely on the land.”

The surviving Humber-radiator mower was taken round to various shows in the area to advertise the conversion. Clearly the ‘demonstrator’ did its stuff, for soon Thomas was not only making mowers, but marketing gear and chain kits and sets of instructions for others to do the same. Advertisements were put into papers and he appears to have built up quite a business. It also appears that others copied the designs, because they were not patented.

Bearing in mind what Mrs. Hawkins said about her father’s dislike of horses, it is interesting to read a section in his mower building instructions how a farmer can reduce the number of such animals on his ‘workforce’.

Finally, Mr. Moss Heal stated his own position:

“I have been designing, making and using car motor mowers and tractors since 1926 and from the vast amount of experience I have gained, I have designed a chain drive which is adaptable to nearly any make of car and mowing machine. This will enable the machine to cut an average heavy crop in second gear, leaving the lower speed for emergencies and cutting uphill.”

Thomas Moss Heal was a fascinating man, of great ingenuity, who, as well as improvising cheap and simple, yet efficient, machinery to operate on his farm, he also made it possible for others to acquire the same kind of equipment for their own use. His mowers are true memorials to British inventiveness and ingenuity at its best.

(This article written by Mr John Reeves of Trull)

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