This article came from Chronicle published April 1980. Pages: 9-10



Author: Arthur Denner


The talk given to the Society by Mr Dove on 4 January so well illustrated by pictures of Yeovil taken in the early years of the century, and contrasted with current, views of the same localities, makes a splendid contribution to what John Aubrey, the Wiltshire antiquarian, called ‘the art of local memory’.

As my childhood home during the first decade of the century was within a few yards of the Town hall, my recollections of the Yeovil of this period may add something to ‘local memory’.

When looking at the old photographs, the absence of traffic and pedestrians in the streets is very noticeable, rather giving the impression of a deserted, dead town. The reality was very different, Yeovil was one of the busiest towns in the West, the photos were probably taken on Sundays or Thursday afternoons, which was half day closing for the shops. Had the photos been taken on a Friday, or a Saturday afternoon, they would have shown streets thronged with pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles, even a few motors. On a Friday, the main market day, there would have been the spectacle of cattle being driven through the streets on their way to market, urged on by blows and ripe language from the drovers. This caused more environmental pollution than present-day motor traffic and gave a lot of work to the street cleaners. The streets were not at that time tar surfaced and in summer horse-drawn water carts sprinkled them to keep down the dust.

On the occasion of the twice-yearly Fair Days conditions in the town centre became chaotic, as in addition to extra market traffic the High Street and Borough were lined on loth sides with the stalls of cheapjacks, purveyors of patent medicines for man and beast, and sweetmeats. Shopkeepers boarded up the lower parts of their windows, stallholders took up their pitches at an early hour, and began shouting the merits of their wares, and crowds of towns-people and those from surrounding districts milled around until late at night illuminated by acetylene flares. Silver Street was the preserve of the horse dealers and gypsies who gathered at the Kings Arms. The horses were tethered under the churchyard wall and were trotted up and down the streets to show off their paces to prospective buyers. Beer flowed freely into prospective purchasers to deaden their critical faculties, and sometimes into the horses to help them quicken their paces, The pleasure fair, with steam-driven roundabouts, galloping horses, and organs, was held in the Fairfield in Huish, now obliterated by the Queensway and GPO car park.

The number of horse-drawn vehicles coming into the town on market day caused its own kind of ‘parking’ problem. The vehicles were left shaft to tail along the kerbsides in Princes Street, South Street, Kingston, and various side streets, but the horses had to be stabled as bye-laws prohibited them being left unattended in the streets. The Mermaid, Choughs, Globe & Crown, Greyhound, and Pall, also the now-demolished Castle, Red Lion, and Half Moon all had stables with ostlers and casual helpers to attend the horses.

There was little need for public transport within the town, for although the borough covered an area of 850 acres with a population of around 11,000, no part of it lay more than a mile from the town centre. Apart from the distributive trades and railway companies, the main employers of labour were the leather dressers and glove manufacturers whose establishments were mostly grouped in the Reckleford and Mill Lane areas. The Petter Oil Engine works and foundry were in Reckleford and Dampier Street, but they had just begun expansion at the site at West Hendford beside the Great Western Railway line. This is, of course, now Westland Aircraft. Aplin & Barrett in Newton Road had recently built their factory for processing milk and meat products adjoining the also newly-built ‘Western Gazette’ newspaper offices. Thus it was easily possible for workers to reach their places of employment on foot or by bicycle.

Most tradesmen, like my own family, lived over their business premises, the professional classes lived in their villas in the Sidney Gardena area, or on Hendford Hill, all within easy walking distance of their offices. The only public transport was provided by two horse-drawn buses, one from the Mermaid Hotel drawn by two bays, the other from the Three Choughs drawn by two greys. These plied between the hotels and the two stations, where they met every train. Passengers could be collected from or dropped at their own doors in return for a suitable tip.

was well connected with the outside world by public transport, with a better service than we have today. The GWR main line through Pen Mill gave connections with London, and the North as well as the South Coast, the Taunton branch gave access to West Somerset, and the London
and South Western Railway from Town Station gave a good service to London, Exeter and Plymouth. Cheap fares to Yeovil were offered by both companies on Fridays and Saturdays, and from Yeovil to many resorts at Bank Holidays. Travellers from villages not served by the railways could get to Yeovil by one of the seventeen public carriers who ran regular services of horse-drawn vehicles to the town. The motor car was still in its early stages of development and was unable to compete with the railways for long-distance transport in terms of either cost or speed and reliability, so long-distance through road traffic was so small that it caused no problems. Streets which had been adequate for the stage coaches and waggons which plied the turnpike roads of the early nineteenth century were still adequate for the local traffic of the early twentieth century.

The expansion of trade in Yeovil and the country-wide social changes which began in the decade after the First World War, and the even greater changes after the Second World War, made alterations in the physical structure of the town inevitable. The small shops, narrow streets, and terraced cottages which served a close-knit rural-based community were inadequate for the larger more prosperous leisure- and consumer-oriented society of the present day.

Edwardian Yeovil had few buildings of either architectural or historic merit, and while the loss of some is to be regretted for sentimental reasons, the replacements are at least functional and inoffensive. (On a personal note, I am pleased that the upper facade of my childhood home remains as when built nearly 150 years ago.)

In conclusion, I hope that if anyone has photographs of the town taken even in recent years, they will preserve them for the benefit of future historians.

Editor’s Note – In echoing Mr Denner’s plea for the preservation of photographs of Yeovil, of whatever vintage, should anyone be desirous of discarding them, they would receive a more than warm welcome as additions to the already extensive collection at Yeovil Museum, and members are earnestly requested also to record the present-day town for future generations. Donors’ names are recorded on a special form on the back of each photograph when catalogued for the museum. With regard to the absence of crowds in the streets in early photographs, this was generally due to the very slow (by today’s standards) emulsion speeds of photographic plates, so unless there was ample sunshine exposures of several seconds was required, and any large-scale movement resulted either in a blur or even non-register, anathema to the photographer of those early days’.

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