DyrhamFebruary 14, 2023
By Andrew Plaster. Published in BAFHS Journal 136 (June 2009).
The north-east Somerset parish of East Harptree lies on the north side of Mendip Hills, and is a long narrow strip running from the north up the hill to the top of the Mendips. The parish consists of the main village and the hamlet of Coley, and is bounded by the parishes of West Harptree, Hinton Blewett, Litton, Chewton Mendip and Priddy.
The earliest evidence of man in the area are late Neolithic Priddy Circles and some Bronze Age round barrows, both of which are in the south of the parish on the Mendips. Close to the parish, the Romans mined lead at Charterhouse, on the top of the Mendips, and farmed at Chew Park now under Chew Valley Lake and left as their legacy a length of roman road now called Stratford Lane in West Harptree. In November 1887, while searching for the source of a spring near Smitham Chimney, William Currell, a local labourer put his pick into a pewter vessel full of nearly 1500 Roman coins with five ingots of silver and a ring. The jar was six inches below the surface in swampy ground. The coins were all struck around 375 A.D, and the best twenty five were selected by the British Museum, and can still be seen there. This is known as the ‘Harptree Hoard’. In 1922 more were given to the museum, and the rest were kept in the jar in the church. Unfortunately these were stolen from the north aisle in the 1970s.
The intriguing name Harptree is quite different to that of most of the neighbouring Saxon estates, which mostly ended in “ton” – e.g. Compton (Martin), Litton, (Bishop) Sutton, Hinton (Blewett) and Chewton (Mendip). The origin of the name “Harptree” is by no means a certainty. It is listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Herpetreu and has been suggested meaning that ‘the military road by the wood’ from the Old English herepoep and treow. East and West Harptree were probably once a large Saxon estate but by the Domesday, they had become two. At Domesday, East Harptree comprised two manors – one held by Robert, the Count of Mortain, and other by Geoffrey Mowbray, the Bishop of Coutances.
It has been suggested that East Harptree is a deliberately planned village because of its layout and position, when the power of the feudal lords was at its height. The basic pattern is the three parallel uphill roads, in this case Church Lane, Middle Street and Water Street, with the church at the north west corner, and possibly some sort of meeting place at the north east corner. This adds to speculation about the original location for the 12th century stone cross, the head of which was found in a cottage garden in 1869 and is now in Taunton Museum. Down the hill from the centre of the village runs High Street, the road eventually joining the one which runs from West Harptree to Coley. Across the road, one can continue through Townsend and onto Shrowle.
The parish church dedicated to St Lawrence was granted to Wells Cathedral in the late 12th century. The present building dates from various periods but is mainly perpendicular in style although there is some remains of an earlier Norman church. Particularly notable is the huge, richly carved, canopied monument to Sir John Newton who died in 1568, which once occupied the entire east wall of the chancel blocking the east window, and was then re-erected in the porch. Sir John is portrayed in armour with kneeling before him his eight sons and twelve daughters.
Harptree’s medieval importance can be inferred, as it was the site of one of the few Norman castles in the Mendips. Richmont Castle, of which very little remains, was sited on the eastern side of Harptree Coombe and probably dates from the late 11th century. As with most Norman castles it would have been initially built in wood and later strengthened and enlarged in stone. In 1136, Robert rebelled against King Stephen during the civil war with Empress Matilda, but two years later the castle was under the command of William FitzJohn of Harptree. It was later retaken by Robert of Gloucester in around 1140. Later it came into the ownership of the Gourney family (whose name lives on in the area in the form of Gurney). This ancient castle was not entirely demolished until by the mid 16th century Sir John Newton was re-using the stone to build a new house at Eastwood.
The parish’s medieval importance can be further measured by it holding title to one of the four lead reeves or lordships of the mining rights for the whole of the Mendips. Mining, particularly of lead, but also of calamine, continued in the area with peaks of activity around the mid 17th, 18th and 19th centuries until it finally ceased in the 1890s. Many Cornish miners came in and worked them and did quite well for short periods until the end of the century. Much hard effort went into setting up the re-smelting process by the East Harptree Lead Works Co. Ltd established in 1867. The only remains of this industry is the ‘gruffy’ ground in the upper Coombe, the slag heaps and the lone chimney on Smitham’s Hill. Smitham was a word used in the re-smelting business and referred to the pieces of ore allowed through the wire bottom of the sieve. This impressive tapering chimney, very much like the mining chimneys of Cornwall, is made of limestone for the lower two-thirds and the upper third is brick. It carried away the fumes when the crude mineral was re-smelted. There have been two main stages of restoration to ensure that the chimney remains as a ‘monument’ to the hard work of the miners. The chimney, reservoir (the pond by the chimney), the buddles, flues and furnace were built but it was all closed down after ten years, as output was insufficient. Lower down the hill was the site of a brick and tile works which flourished in the village during the 18th century. There were mills on the River Chew and its tributaries at Coley and Shrowle. The gristmill at Coley was the last working mill in the parish closing in the early 1930s.
Agriculture has always been the core industry of the parish and a mile east of the village is Eastwood Manor Farm, which is a listed building. This unique farmstead was rebuilt as a model farm in 1858 for Frank Taylor of Harptree Court, and incorporated the most innovative and progressive ideas in agriculture for the period. The many local history groups and others who visit never fail to be enthused by the building, and its associated machinery and gadgets.
There are four large houses in the parish. Harptree Court was probably built around 1745, although the earliest deed dates from 1811. It was bought by Earl Waldegrave in 1804, who sold it to the Gurneys in 1860. Frank Taylor, their butler lived there until 1873, when he sold it to W.W. Kettlewell. In 1920, his son, Col. H.W. Kettlewell sold it to Charles L. Hill. Mrs. W.W. Kettlewell retired to Harptree House when her husband died. It once belonged to a Mr. Hooper, one of whose sons was Dr William Hooper, the father of the Church Missionary Society. There is a tablet in the church to his memory. Eastwood Manor was built by Charles Kemble in 1874 of banker stone; it has been owned since then by Mardons, Lamberts, Wardell-Yerburghs, Robinsons, and was used as a nursing home until 1994. Summerleaze, in Townsend, was a secondary private school for boys for 40 years, but was closed just before the First World War. It is now a private house.
Right in the centre of the village with the school, theatre and shops in close proximity is the village clock, which was a gift of Mr W.W. Kettlewell, and was erected in 1897 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The Clock Tower has its inscriptions “Heaven’s Light our Guide” and “Time Flies Do’nt Delay”. The Theatre (or it may be called village club) was built by the Kettlewells in 1889, and managed by the Rector and Church Council who rented it from the owners for village activities. In September 1945, Col. Kettlewell offered to sell the Theatre to the village for £1,200. The original Co-operative stores were started in 1899 by the Kettlewells, when they found that people were getting into debt to the local shopkeepers. The premises were afterwards purchased by the Kettlewells, and became the property of the members. At one time the Co-op employed 8 people, with 2 vans touring the valley doing deliveries. The Co-op was closed in 1972, and it became the ‘Village Stores’, now closed a few years ago. Its replacement, a community shop, is based in the theatre building.
The village school was founded by John Newton in 1653. The school records start in 1893, when 113 children were taught in two small rooms. The building was an old converted cottage then, although a new room had been built on in 1807. A new classroom was built in 1899 for 40 children and an infant room in 1901, with a cloakroom, to increase the capacity to 140. From the school records the following entries can be found: (1) June 1894 – Have had all the slates scrubbed and relined by the boys of the 1st class. (2) October 1894 – School was closed last week for potato picking. (3) November 1894 – Owing to excessive floods school closed 3 half-days this week. (4) March 1897 – Children used paper in upper standards for the first time. (5) August 1901 – New porch built by W.W. Kettlewell. (5) March 1904 – Slates abolished, and children admitted to school at 3 years of age. (6) September 1939 – Arrival of evacuees from Bristol with 2 masters. (7) September 1948 – The school became an under 11, the seniors going to Bishop Sutton. The school still receives money from the Plumley Charity, which was set up in 1615 by William Plumley Gent., who left all his land in Glastonbury and Catcott for the use of the poor in East Harptree. In 1911 part of the money was used to set up the Trust for the school – Plumley’s Educational Foundation, which still benefits the children at the School. A plaque was recently erected on the front wall of the school, and it says “350 years of Learning and generations of memories A.D. 2003”.
Round about 1870 there were six inns in the parish: the Waldegrave Arms (between the church and the school), The Castle of Comfort (in the south of the parish on the Mendips), The Lilacs, Live and Let Live, and two more at Proud Cross and in Middle Street. Only the first two remain.
In the churchyard, you will notice that it is higher than the fields around due to successive burials. The church path is made of old tombstone slabs laid upside down. Behind the church, there are four interesting gravestones, their inscriptions of which I partially quote that (1) Charlotte, the wife of Rev. Davidson, died in 1841, and the daughter of T.G. Bramston Esq. of Skreens, Essex, (2) John Rogers Lawrence, Senior Captain in the Honourable East India Company’s Naval Service, died at South Widcombe in 1854, aged 84, (3) William Hooper Lieut. R.N. died in 1861, aged 62, third son of John Hooper Esq of Hendford House, Yeovil, Somerset, and Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Thomas Gardiner Bramston of Skreens, Essex, (4) Frances Isabella Edwards, youngest daughter of Brigadier General Edwards, died in 1832, aged 24. Her sister Elizabeth Saunderson Tate, wife of Capt. W.A. Tate of Hon. E.I. Company Service, died in 1836, aged 36, also other sister Mary Anne Riddell, relict of late Capt. A.N. Riddell, died in 1839, aged 37.
A Catholic chapel dedicated to St Michaels is no longer used for services, these being held at West Harptree Parish Church, and is situated to the north of Townsend, just past Summerleaze. A Methodist chapel, on the road towards West Harptree, is now converted to dwelling houses called ‘Chapel House’ and still bears an inscription “United Methodist Church” on its front wall.
There have been three accounts of life in the parish written in the last 100 years. In 1927, Mrs W. Kettlewell of Harptree Court published a small book titled ‘Trinkum Trinkums’ which describes life in the village through her observations from 1875 to 1927. In 1953 the Women’s Institute produced for a village history competition to celebrate the Queen’s coronation a ‘History of East Harptree’, which contains many observations of contemporary village life. Jon Budd compiled for the millennium and wrote ‘East Harptree, Times Remembered Times Forgotten’. Also Ian S. Bishop recently published ‘Around Harptree’ featuring dozens of rarely seen photos of the bygone area.
The village is now a very pleasant and affluent community, with many of the old cottages and homes comfortably converted. Agriculture and mining for lead and calamine were once the mainstay of East Harptree: the whole village is honeycombed with old mine workings.
Holdings at Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton for the parish of East Harptree include the parish register dating from 1663, though the Bishop’s Transcripts commence in 1597 but there are gaps in some years; Churchwardens Accounts (1728-1919); Overseers Account Book (1728-1812); and Vestry Minute Books (1851-1922).