Castle Cary

June 2012

A new entrance to the town’s tourist information centre and community office has been formed through a former prison cell in the Market House.

The former ‘Shambles’ behind the wooden doors will soon be transformed into a venue for community events.

John Boyd, whose horsehair business is currently celebrated in a special exhibition in Castle Cary museum, lived in Ochiltree House on North Street from 1840 until his death in 1890.

The former Angel Inn on the Market Place is now home to a shop packed with stylish gifts and jewellery.

The profusion of plants displayed outside The Market Garden adds a splash of colour to Fore Street.

Castle Cary’s tourist information centre and community office in the Market House has a new entrance – through a former prison cell! When the building was completed in 1855 a couple of cells were provided to accommodate the town’s trouble-makers, and one of these now gives visitors level access from the front of the building. The other cell has been preserved and kitted out, complete with a ‘prisoner’, for all to see.

The Market House, a Grade II* listed building of warm local stone, occupies the site of an earlier market building dating from 1616. Originally it provided an area on the ground floor for the market, including some semi-permanent stalls or ‘shambles’ where meat and dairy produce were sold, and upper floors for reading rooms and space for large meetings and social functions.

Over the years these have been put to a variety of uses including a theatre, cinema and school of dancing and nowadays they house the town’s excellent museum. Markets ceased many years ago and the ground floor has long outlived its original purpose. Apart from the town council office and information centre the rest of the space remains unused and disfigured by pigeon droppings, and the shambles are decaying.

After several years of community consultations, design work and fundraising, work is now progressing on updating the building for 21st century uses. The new entrance is part of the first phase of the improvements which also include toilet facilities on the ground floor, and the next phase will include roofing the shambles area and glazing the sides to provide a warm, dry space for community events and exhibitions. The impressive wooden doors from the undercroft to the shambles area will be retained, and the shambles themselves will be renovated and relocated. It all costs money, of course, and the project group set up to organise the improvements is still around £20,000 short of what is needed – but they are optimistic that phase two could be finished sometime next year. The town will then have a wonderful, accessible community space right at its heart.

Next time you’re in the town, pop into the information centre and have a look at the progress – and pick up a copy of the new Castle Cary and Ansford brochure. It’s packed with information about the local history, attractions and traders and contains a street plan and a guided walk taking in almost all of the places of interest.


It’s beautifully produced and it’s free! And while you’re there, take a look upstairs at the museum which has an extensive collection of exhibits dating from medieval to modern times. As this year is the 175th anniversary of the founding of John Boyd’s horsehair weaving business in the town, a special display has been mounted to mark the event.

Boyd’s legacy lies in buildings and the uses to which they were put. A Scotsman born in 1815, he moved to Castle Cary and in 1837 set up looms for weaving horsehair in the cottage he rented at Golden Lion Yard in South Cary – one of four cottages that are nowadays a single dwelling called Chapel Yard House. By 1851 his business had expanded and he bought part of the site of the old sheep market off Upper High Street, moved into Ochiltree House and behind it built a small factory. In 1864 he bought the adjoining property, now known as Beechfield House, not for the house itself but for the land that went with it. This gave him a much larger site on which to erect a bigger factory and, in due course, to replace hand looms with power looms. In 1877 he built an impressive terrace of 12 houses on one edge of the site for some of his employees and called it Cumnock Terrace after his birthplace.

Boyd died in 1890 but his company survived and prospered until after the Second World War. By 1956 the site was untenably large to meet the dwindling demand for the product, and Boyds moved to Higher Flax Mills off Torbay Road where the company rented space from its old rivals, Donnes, before buying that company out in the 1960s. The future of Higher Flax Mills as Europe’s sole remaining weaver of horsehair has been secured through the intervention of South Somerset District Council and English Heritage, and buildings associated with Boyd – Ochiltree House, Beechfield House, Cumnock Terrace – still stand as part of the townscape. During the closing years of his life John Boyd contributed substantially to the building of the Liberal Club in Woodcock Street which was opened in 1885 and named the Boyd Institute in his honour. Nowadays it houses a wine importer and retailer.

The Boyd exhibition runs throughout the summer and is open Monday to Friday from 10.30am till 12.30pm and 2.00pm till 4.00pm and on Saturday mornings. Admission is free, but I suspect you will be sufficiently impressed to leave a generous donation in the collection box to support the volunteers who run the museum.

One of the museum’s permanent displays records the life of Parson James Woodforde who was born in Ansford in 1740 and served as curate at Castle Cary from 1765 till 1773. His legacy is his diary which records in great detail the social scene of the period – the places, the people, what they ate and what it cost, how they behaved, worked, spent their leisure and died – and it is intriguing to trace the places he mentions and imagine them as he had seen them almost 250 years ago. For example, when you step outside the museum, take a look at the building on your right that houses Cadeaux & Company’s gift and jewellery shop. This was once the Angel Inn where, according Woodforde’s diary entry for 21st November 1769, ‘my brother spent the evening at the Angel at Cary and returned very much disguised in liquor and stayed up late’.

Across the road is the George Hotel, Castle Cary’s principal inn in the 18th century just as it is today and often mentioned in Woodforde’s diary. If you stroll from there along shop-lined Fore Street to the town’s ancient horsepond and church, pause to think about this bit of rough justice that he witnessed there on 22nd July 1777. ‘Robert Biggen for stealing potatoes was this afternoon whipped . . . from the George Inn . . . thro’ the street to the Royal Oak in South Cary and so back to the George.’

Perhaps this is why cells were included when the new Market House was built in the following century.

Roger Richards.

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