From Prehistory to Profit

Issue 11, October 1984

No-one took much notice of Yeovil until the Civil War. A few came and went without leaving a calling card: Neolithic man, scurrying over Summerhouse Hill, dropped a selection of flint tools as a contribution to the museum, Bronze Age man lost his valuable metal axe on Wyndham Hill around 3,000 BC (Now it lies in the stock of Fox & Co in Princes Street), and one of two Roman well-to-do’s built villas here, but not until the year AD 658, when the Saxon King Cenwealh popped down after winning the Battle of Bradford, did anyone actually admit to visiting Yeovil.

The King seems to have had a bad influence on Yeovillians for they now went through a ‘wild’ period: In 1349 they attacked Bishop Ralph and his servants on his visit to the town, wounding many of his attendants, keeping them locked in the church, and besieging the Bishop in the rectory. By 1607 the behaviour of Yeovil folk was such that is hastened the suppression of ‘church ales’ (brew-ups to raise money for the church); there were complaints of ‘minstreleye and dauncing on Sunday’ and ‘carrying men upon a cavele staff’. And think not that only boozers and the clergy caused problems – the justices of the time were so severe on vagrants that ‘few passed that way, except only Irish’. As you might expect of such an unruly bunch of citizens, they spurned the misguided grace of their sovereign King Charles in the Civil War and fought like tigers for the Cromwellian cause. Lord Hertford, for the King was roundly beaten in a sortie against the Yeovil rebels and Fairfax, for Cromwell, thought them fierce enough to send detachment across the River Yeo simply ‘to amuse the Enemy’.

Cruelty abounded during the plague of 1649 – the sick were imprisoned and, if awkward, whipped into order – but it quietened things down and Yeovillians turned themselves towards industry and commerce.

Yeovil, equally with Wincanton, became famous for the manufacture of dowl, ticking and lace. In 1620, Joan Harvey is recorded as a bone-lace maker – the bone refers to the bones (pigs trotters) used before the introduction of wooden bobbins – and in 1692 ‘great quantities of flax were sown this year about Yeovil’ producing an annual income of about £100,000 from just ten square miles where ‘extraordinary good linen in imitation of France’ was made.

During the eighteenth century, Yeovil’s ‘greatest commodity’ was cheese, and by the early years of the nineteenth, the gloving trade was expanding rapidly. Gloves were the basis of modern Yeovil. Between 1801 and 1901 the population quadrupled as townspeople reaped the benefits of a specialist production of gloves in lamb, sheep, calf and kid, with the best skins imported Spain, Italy, the Cape, Russia and the East. In the early days much of the employment suited women best, and again there were complaints that ‘it spoiled them for domestic or husbandry employment’, but by 1900 over 3,000 workers were kept busy in the gloving trade.

Today, the gloves are off as Yeovil seeks to consolidate its position as the leading commercial centre in South Somerset and North Dorset. Its traditions are few, its history short, its architecture mundane, but it works. When Westland Helicopters Ltd make pessimistic noises a shudder runs through the town, but the banks are happy: Their Yeovil branches are among their most profitable.

We must all take notice now.