Highbridge is a market town astride the A38, 7 miles north of Bridgwater and 2 miles from the Bristol Channel coast. It is a town that has experienced many changes over the past two hundred years or so, but the arrival of the railway in the mid 19th century led to its development as a railway terminus and a thriving market town.
Prior to the development there was very little written about this cluster of houses and shops on the main road between Bristol and Exeter. Before the 19th century it appears that the ‘birth’ of Highbridge had not been documented in any way. When the Domesday Book was prepared in 1086 it produced evidence that a large part of Somerset was the land of Walter De Douai. Huish(Hiwis) and Alstone(Alsistune) were holdings of a lay ‘tenant-in-chief’; Huntespill(Hunespil) was an administrative hundred. Highbridge was not mentioned; it did not have a centuries old church where parish records may have been kept. However, there is a reference to the ‘hundred’ of Huish(Hiwis) a Saxon word meaning ‘farmstead’ or ‘family settlement’ and an Enclosure Map from the 18th century shows a small settlement of 12 – 15 holdings near a bridge over a river (Brue). Further, a Roman name of “Pons Altus” has been found and this, apparently, means near a High Bridge.
It has often been assumed that Highbridge got its name from the former hump-backed bridge that carried the old coaching road over the river or is it possible that the true origin may be a corruption of ‘Hythe’ bridge as hythe implies the presence of a wharf. The Enclosure Map, referred to, shows that there was a wharf each side of the bridge near the settlement. So you have a choice: – Highbridge, because there was one, or a corruption of ‘Hythe’ Bridge.
Documents preserved at Wells Cathedral show that as long ago as 1324 the name Highbridge was in use and an ancient manuscript of 1327 makes reference to “Juxta Altum Pontem” which means near the high bridge. Although Highbridge does not have a recorded history; it is known that the Romans were in the area in the first and second centuries A.D. Evidence of salt production has been found, plus pottery and Romano-British coarseware. In the 19th century workmen digging new drainage channels found Roman potsherds and broken fragments of brick and several mouldings for casting coins.
The town and its bridge have, over the years found themselves on a highway of history. Old maps of Somerset show the only available road from the Midlands to the South West was the one out of Bristol, passing by Wrington, along by Axbridge and over the humped- backed bridge at Highbridge to Bridgwater, Taunton and Exeter. Down the road must have passed the packhorses, which carried the merchandise, then wagons, stagecoaches, kings, queens, including the ill-fated Duke of Monmouth, Judge Jefferies, great statesmen and the preacher John Wesley. They all must have passed through Highbridge.
It was told that although the bridge was of vast importance to the public it “is not kept in repair at the expense of the County but by sundry Lords of neighbouring manors” who appointed the expenditors and were reimbursed by a rate divided in three equal shares. One of which was discharged by the landowner of the Manor of Huntspill. The remaining shares were sub-divided between the lords of West Mark, East Mark, Wedmore, Churchland and Mudgeley. An undated newspaper cutting states: – “In Highbridge there is an old and very inconvenient bridge over which the main road traffic roars daily. Evidently at one time there was a fair sized waterway beneath it.
Now it is full of mud, with a struggling stream in the centre, through which some sort of drain flows. The bridge is hump-backed and obstructive. It seems curious that it still survives on this important highway”.
In the early 19th century High Bridge and Huish comprised of a number of holdings. The River Brue still following its original course. But in 1806, the digging of the large Clyce, had an effect on the area, it changed the parish boundaries. This parish border originally followed the centre of the river, but now the ‘river’ had moved. This meant that the “Highbridge Hotel and the area around it was no longer in Huntspill but in Highbridge.
The collection of dwellings that comprised the town would have come under the authority of Glastonbury and Wells, being part of several different Parishes until 1860. It was then that the ‘area’ was granted an Ecclesiastical Parish status in its own right; no longer being part of West Huntspill or Burnham parishes. It remained as such until 1894 when it became an Administrative Parish.
Earlier in the 19th century the birth of Highbridge started with the arrival of the Bristol and Exeter Railway around 1844. This later became the Great Western Railway and it produced an increase in trade; consequently many new houses, shops and inns were erected. It became a place of considerable commercial importance.
On August 17th 1854 there was much rejoicing when the first train steamed into Highbridge on the Central Somerset Line from Glastonbury. Leaving a short while later from the gaily- decorated station on its return journey to Glastonbury where there was a big procession through the grounds of the Abbey. There was obviously much criticism about the line, “going from nowhere to nowhere over a turf moor, with but one town on the whole line and that with less than 4000 people”. As one eminent writer of the time put it: “ The level headed traders of Highbridge and the dignified residents of Burnham shook the mothballs from their Sunday go-to meeting-suits, trimmed their beards and side-whiskers. They dusted their top hats and welcomed the arrival of the first train, as if it were going to open to them the untold riches at the end of the Yukon Trail”. There were, in fact, visions of an era of fabulous prosperity in which Highbridge would become the Birkenhead of the west with Burnham the New Brighton.
This was a “boom time” in Highbridge it was growing apace. The river was made navigable for ships up to 750 tons, trade was good; a bank arrived and a public house “The Coopers Arms”. A Company was formed in 1878 for lighting the town with gas and in 1886 a waterworks was erected. There were also timber yards and sawmills of considerable size in the town. A National School for four hundred children was erected in 1863, followed by the Town Hall in 1885 and later the Adult School in 1891. Brick and tile making were also a major industry.
It was in 1894 when it was rapidly developing as an industrial town, that the County Council made it a separate parish. As such it still remained under the jurisdiction of the Axbridge Rural District Council until 1897, when it absorbed part of Huntspill and became the Highbridge Urban District Council. It was getting somewhere at last. Unfortunately, this identity did not last long, for in 1933 under the Somerset Review order, the Urban Districts of both Highbridge and Burnham were amalgamated for administrative purposes. Once again Highbridge had lost out.
This merger was bitterly fought out; Highbridge strongly resented having its identity linked with Burnham. Although the demise of the industrial life of Highbridge was a gradual process, there were many aspects conspiring against the town. The coming of World War Two slowed the decline, but it was only a brief respite.
For centuries the main highway from Bristol to the South West had to pass through Highbridge. However in recent years the build up of traffic was choking the life out of the town and in 1973 a motorway, the M5, was opened just east of the town. This has helped to relieve the congestion and make life more acceptable.
Recently (2001) there was a referendum to determine if the two towns wished to remain together or revert to their original Councils. Regrettably, for many, the voting indicated that the majority wished to maintain the status quo. So the towns, happy or not, are resigned to facing the future together.
The people of Highbridge at the start of the 21st century are taking action and the Highbridge Regeneration Group is attempting, as the title implies, to regenerate and reconstruct the heart of the town. It is felt that within the next 10/15 years Highbridge will, like the phoenix, rise again and is planning for its future.
After all the buildings shown above had been demolished the new building was erected. It was in response to a Public Appeal Fund for cash to be raised in order to replace the Town Hall that had, for many years, been the publics’ meeting place for all special occasions.