By Richard Loxton

Published in B&AFHS Journal 148 - June 2012

Widcombe in the Chew Valley, which is not to be confused with Lyncombe and Widcombe in Bath, became a parish in its own right for a short time during the nineteenth century.  Previously, for centuries it had been a detached tithing of Chewton Mendip.  Some parishes were divided into smaller units to collect tithes and other taxes and Widcombe was grouped with Chewton Mendip for complicated reasons of mediaeval history.

Widcombe consisted of two hamlets, North Widcombe and South Widcombe.  It now only contains a few farms and houses situated between the North Somerset villages of West Harptree, Litton, Hinton Blewett and Bishop Sutton.  Subsequently, the whole of North Widcombe and the northern half of South Widcombe have evolved into the contiguous parish of West Harptree and the southern half to Hinton Blewett.

There may be other explanations for names of places but ‘wide combe’ is an accurate description of the wide valley.  There are other places in the area called a variation of those two words but it has been variously spelt as Witcomb, Whitcomb and mostly Widcomb.  It regained the ‘e’ at the end of its name some time after it severed its links to Chewton Mendip.

The detached tithing of Chewton Mendip, separated geographically by a few miles, enjoyed a large degree of autonomy throughout its long existence.  This anomalous situation can be traced back to the mediaeval period when a large part of the Mendips was a royal forest.  The primary purpose of a royal forest was to provide a hunting ground for the King so farming and forestry was restricted if not banned altogether.  The forest law protection was removed in 1298 and what was in effect a new colony was established in Widcombe.

The original lords of the new manor of Widcombe were also the lords of the Manor of Chewton Mendip, so it formed a part of the parish of Chewton Mendip from its earliest days.  The Manor of Widcombe was passed to a series of owners, who had more significant manors elsewhere.  The Manor House may have been occupied by a reeve or some other functionary.

Another important source for the earlier records is a report “The Manor of Widcombe – an Historic Landscape Survey” produced by Avon County Council in 1988 for the Duchy of Cornwall.  The Duchy has been the owner of the majority of the land in Widcombe for several centuries.  In 1462 Thomas WIDCOMBE was tenant of a mill and land that probably stood on the site of what is now New Manor Farm, when it was assigned to Richard FELDE.  Richard BUCKLAND bought the ‘new manor’ of Widcombe from Lord RUSSELL in 1542 for £215.  A map dated 1611 shows a Francis Buckland occupying land in Widcombe.  There were 14 tenements in 1611.

The following table shows a brief and incomplete, analysis of the families who appear in the history of Widcombe and the functions they performed, where known.  It is assumed that the people shown as the occupiers of the land were farmers of some kind.

Family Function or role Date range
Battell/Battle Farmer/Overseer/Apprentice 1611-1769
Buckland Lord of the manor 1542-
Beach Overseer 1741-1749
Braine Fuller 1740
Bury Overseer 1670
Curtis Farmer/Overseer/Tithingman 1720-1756
Dowling Farmer/Overseer 1720-1840
Edgell/Edgehill Farmer [Edgehill Farm] 1611-1737
Franks Fuller 1740
Fear Preparing accounts for Mr Wookey / Farmer 1766-1840
Felde Miller 1462
Goodine Poor relief recipient 1670
Gay/Gray Farmer 1737 - present
Halstone Overseer 1739
Hawkins Preparing accounts for Mrs Curtis 1741
Heydon Farmer [Haydons Farm] 1611
Holbrook Apprentice 1755
Hoskins Overseer 1737
Kingsmill Rectors/Lay Impropriators 1665-1839
Lockyer Tenant 1650
Olive? Apprentice 1789
Parsons Overseer/Juryman [Parson Farm] 1737-1739
Pickering Recipient/Overseer 1670-1786
Playster/Plaister Yeoman/Lead Reeve/Overseer 1561 - 1725
Plenty Apprentice 1784
Pool Farmer 1840
Purnell Farmer 1590
Read/Reed Gentleman/Jury service 1745-1769
Sore Farmer 1611
Smyth Overseer 1720- 39
Stallard Farmer/Overseer 1840
Tegg Farmer 1611
Thatcher Farmer 1840
Tucker Overseer 1737-1840
Tudor Farmer [Tudor Farm] 1788
Webb(e) Farmer /Overseer 1611-1737
Wesson Overseer 1720-1721
Widcomb Farmer/Apprentice 1462 -1774
Wookey Overseer 1737
York(e) Farmer/Overseer 1721-1766

Table reproduced courtesy of Bath & North East Somerset Council.

chewton men church 1890Chewton Mendip Church, dedicated to  St. Mary Magdalene, is a few miles away from Widcombe.

Litton Church was the easiest for people in Widcombe to reach.  Hinton Blewett Church may have been closer to parts of Widcombe but going to that church meant climbing a very steep hill.  The earliest extant record for Chewton Mendip parish register is 1554, Hinton Blewett 1563 and Litton 1582.  Widcombe was also reporting with the four contiguous tithings of Chewton Mendip for its poor law administration and recording in the  vestry committee minutes book (1699-1788), overseers book and churchwardens accounts.  The latter lists the poor rates collected each year.  These records are now held at Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton but a significant number of other records relating to the KINGSMILLS are held in the Hampshire archives.

An invaluable resource for the study of the whole of Chewton Mendip is a website www.boddyparts.co.uk compiled by Mike Matthews of Bristol providing information that focuses on two families with strong local connections.  Normally the HIPPISLEY family is the one with most prominence because they were Lords of the Manors of Ston Easton and Emborough but they do not appear to have had a significant presence in Widcombe.  However, a map drawn in 1794 to depict lands that were exchanged between the WALDEGRAVE and Hippisley estates includes two fields in Widcombe.  The other family he records is the CURTIS family who were more down to earth but more significant in the history than the table suggests.

The CURTIS family of Widcombe, first appeared in the Litton register of baptisms in 1591, showed a degree of individuality which was typical of the semi-autonomous hamlet.  There was a father and son pair of Downton Curtis and Paul Downton Curtis.  These gentlemen keep appearing in several roles in addition to farmer and overseer.  Paul Downton CURTIS was described as the Tithingman in 1745.  This means he was in political control of the tithing of Widcombe.  Records held in Taunton (ref: Q/SR/313/224) show the people Paul Downton Curtis identified as suitable to serve on juries in 1745.  An earlier Somerset record from 1741 (ref: Q/SR/309/311) lists how Paul Downton CURTIS was a ‘gentleman’ who suffered the theft of a bull.  One interpretation of another Vestry Committee record from 1741 is that a Mrs Curtis had inherited the responsibilities of an overseer but was unable to write so she had to get a John Hawkins to prepare the accounts for her.  She may have been the widow of Downton Curtis.

A prestigious memorial in Chewton Mendip Church shows that the PLAYSTER/PLAISTER and WEBB(E) families were powerful people in the 17th century.  It has been confirmed that they were Widcombe residents.  The earliest Plaister so far identified was when John PLAISTER married his first wife Margery NASHE in 1561 at Chewton Mendip.  A more affluent branch descended from his son, John PLAISTER II (1572-1639).  He was a presiding member of Mendip Mineral Court at Chewton Mendip in 1616 and had three sons John III, Richard I and Charles, all mentioned on the Subsidy Rolls of 1661.  Richard Plaister II, the son of John III, was appointed Lead Reeve for the Mendip Lead Mines in about 1665.  He was commemorated in the Lady Chapel of Chewton Mendip Church.  He died in 1694 aged 51 . His son Richard PLAISTER III and his family left Widcombe in 1725, when he acquired the Manor of Butcombe.  The churchwarden’s accounts show him paying poor rates in Widcombe after that date.  He still leased 6 acres of land in Widcombe held by the Earl of Waldegrave and three copyhold tenements at Widcombe held under the Duchy of Cornwall - The Home living of 60 acres, Purnells of 23 acres and Athay of 29 acres which was later disposed of to the ATHAY family.

The 18th century Vestry Committee records show that Widcombe was almost as populous, or at least wealthy, as the other tithings of Chewton Mendip.  Some elements of the YORK family also had a presence in Widcombe.  A similar story applies to the WESSON and WOOKEY families who are listed in the poor relief records in the context of Widcombe but may have only been signing as Overseers.  A number of other names also appear on the records for Widcombe but this could be an early example of collective responsibility for the accounts rather than a sign of residency or ‘settlement’ which was the term used at the time.  The PICKERING family in Widcombe appeared to have had mixed economic fortunes and appear as both recipients of poor relief and Overseers in roughly the same period.  Benjamin RICH was recorded as an Overseer in 1780 and the father of several illegitimate children with Susannah PICKERING, who were baptised in Litton.  Mr TUCKER was an Overseer in 1737 and Charles TUCKER was a man of importance in 1840.  The servant of presumably another Mr TUCKER was found to be ‘in the family way’ in 1771.  Ann PHILLIPS is a likely prospect for the mother but the records are not conclusive.

One Somerset record (ref: Q/SR/308/343) describes some petty theft in 1740 regarding Widcombe residents.  Stephen BRAINE of Widcombe was accused of stealing some buckles from the shoes of James GREEN, a servant to John VEALE.  George FRANKS gave evidence.  The first point of significance of the moment of weakness of Stephen BRAINE is that both he and George FRANKS were fullers.  This was a job that involved using fuller’s earth, the basic component of talcum powder, to clean fleeces in preparation for further processing.  The ‘river’ Chew is now just a babbling brook but most of its flow is now extracted at source but this incident shows that Widcombe once supported small scale industrial wool processing.  Fulling required a lot of water so the building would have been near the river which would have been more substantial at the time.  The fuller’s shed may have been a temporary structure which has left no trace.

Chewton Mendip parish built a poor house in Burledge Camp which is the Iron Age camp on the hill that overlooks Widcombe and Hinton Blewett.  The Church House was frequently mentioned in the 18th century poor law records.  This new Poor House may have been built as a replacement of the Church House or addition to the accommodation for the poor.  It may have been built to replace ‘The Folly House’ mentioned in the poor law records for Chewton Mendip.  This was used until 1836-7, when the system of Poor Law Unions was introduced.  The parish of Chewton Mendip was in the Wells Union but the tithing of Widcombe was in the Clutton Union.

The medieval system of collecting tithes which had evolved into all sorts of complicated arrangements was put into some order in 1839.  This meant that the KINGSMILL family were still receiving tithes from Widcombe in 1794 and continued to do so until 1839 and beyond.  William KINGSMILL, who had inherited the KINGSMILL money and lands, had appointed his brother, Henry, as the vicar of Chewton Mendip.  William STALLARD, John Marmaduke POOL and Charles TUCKER were all described as yeomen of Widcombe who were involved with valuing the land to decide the ‘modus’ or cash alternative to the tithe that was due to the Kingsmill brothers.  The KINGSMILLS were still Rectors of Chewton Mendip in 1890, when they contributed to the restoration of the church tower but the WALDEGRAVES, who are the current lords of the manor of Chewton Mendip, assumed that role soon after.

In the early 19th century, there were 24 tenements in Widcombe which had been reduced to nine by 1988.  A dissenters’ chapel was built in Widcombe in 1821.  Some common land was never enclosed in Widcombe but some of the unusually wide verges may be the sight of some of the houses that have long been demolished.  One farm, Parsons Farm, was abandoned in the early 20th century.

I am hoping to combine family history research with other sources to bridge the 1801 boundary, when the first census was taken, to build a picture of Widcombe in the 18th century and earlier.  If you have information about families living in Widcombe, please email me on Richard_loxton@tiscali.co.uk or visit www.chewtonmendip.com.