A Local Hero

On 15 July 1960, the Western Gazette announced on the front page that Mr Herbert Swetman had retired after 46 years service with the South Western Gas Board and its predecessor, the Yeovil Corporation Gas Department. Whilst 46 years service was a matter for congratulation, Mr Swetman was remembered fifty years ago by many Yeovilians as the hero of the Town Hall fire in September 1935.

At about half-past three on Sunday morning 22 September 1935, fire broke out in the gas-lit turret clock on the top of the Town Hall roof, and within minutes the upper floor of the building in the High Street was in flames. Despite the Yeovil Fire Brigade’s early arrival, the flames had spread rapidly and the fire was too far advanced to save the century-old building.

The Brigade turned its attention to confining the blaze and prevent it spreading east to the Municipal Offices in King George Street and west to Messrs Clements’ adjoining grocery shop. However, a group four of gas meters and pipes under the stairs leading up to the Town Hall had been smashed by falling debris and high pressure jets of blazing gas were playing on the wall of the grocery shop. As fast as the firemen’s hoses extinguished the burning gas, the flames lit the gas again and unless the taps could be turned off, the fire would break through into Messrs Clements’ premises.

At about four o’clock that morning, Mr Herbert Swetman was woken by the police and told of the fire, and asked to try to turn off the gas. He was one of the Corporation’s senior gas fitters and was quickly on the scene. As Mr Swetman made his first effort to reach the meters and close the gas taps, stones were falling about him from the superheated walls, but he managed to turn off one before he was forced out by the heat and smoke. After a short breather, back he went into the heat and swirling smoke and turned off the second, before he was driven out again into the fresh air. Herbert Swetman was determined to finish the job and after another short breather, he went back in. In the dense smoke and flames he finally located the two remaining gas taps, turned them off, then collapsed unconscious and was pulled from the blazing building by Fireman F Clarke and given artificial respiration. With the gas turned off, the danger passed and the fire was contained.

Mr Swetman was taken to the nearby Mermaid Hotel, where he recovered, but the effects of the heat, smoke and escaping gas took its toll of his health which required treatment for the next 14 months. Being unable to continue as one of the Corporation’s senior gas fitters, Mr Swetman was promoted to Inspector, which post he held until his retirement.

Mr Herbert Swetman, was no stranger to action, having joined the army three months after the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, and saw active service in Egypt and Palestine. He was twice wounded, and on demobilisation in 1919, returned to his former employers, the Yeovil Corporation Gas Department.

Jack Sweet
Decemeber 2019

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During the First World War one of the most dangerous threats to Britain’s survival came from the interruption of our supplies of food and fuel by German mines, and nearly 600 British warships, merchant ships and fishing vessels were lost to mines between 1914 and 1918.

To deal with this menace, the Royal Navy at first adapted fishing trawlers as minesweepers and later purpose-built vessels entered service. Minesweeping was a very dangerous task and two hundred and fourteen minesweepers were sunk or damaged.

The Aberdares were a class of successful minesweeper and one of them was HMS Yeovil, which commenced the dangerous task of minesweeping off the west coast of Scotland on 16 November 1918.

In April 1919, HMS Yeovil departed the west coast and steamed across the North Sea to the Norwegian port of Lervick, south of Bergen. The Germans were not the only nation who used mines against their opponents’ shipping, all the belligerents laid them. Between May and November 1918, American and British warships planted over 70,000 mines between the Shetlands and Norway, mainly to catch surfaced or submerged U-boats, and Yeovil was one of the minesweepers engaged in clearing them. This was hard and dangerous work, with five days at sea and three-day interludes at Lervik. For most of the time, Yeovil was partnered with HMS Belvoir, and in May 1919 the two ships swept 1710 mines between them, 175 exploding in the sweep wire close enough to bodily lift the ships.

HMS Yeovil tour was completed at the end of September, she was then transferred the Reserve Fleet off Chatham and broken up in 1928.

Throughout the Second World War communities and organisations became involved in a wide variety of voluntary activities to support the fighting forces, including fund raising to ‘buy’ aircraft and ‘adopting’ warships.

During the National Savings ‘National Savings‘, in February 1942 Yeovil factories, shops, and office held collections and the final sum raised from all sources was over £425,000 which exceeded the target by £125,000. The townsfolk ‘adopted’ the destroyer HMS Hesperus and sent books, cigarettes and other comforts to the ship’s company. The destroyer served with distinction in the North Atlantic, where she sank five U-Boats, including the U-357 which the destroyer sank by ramming, and damaged several others At the end of her short but distinguished career in 1947, the ship’s ensign is laid up in St John’s Church, and on 3 October 1993 a Service of Dedication and Remembrance to Honour the Crew of HMS Hesperus was held in the Parish Church.

However, some two years before, Yeovil Rotary Club ‘adopted’ the Quiet Waters a 117 ton trawler working as a Royal Naval Auxiliary patrol craft in the North Sea and English Channel. And in April 1940 the Yeovil Review wrote:

‘Yeovil may be situated deep in the heart of the west country, away from the briny, but this has not stopped the Rotary Club from “adopting” the Lowestoft trawler, “Quiet Waters,” which is now operating with The Navy.

‘The Club is keeping the crew supplied with smokes and games, while the ladies of the Inner Wheel have undertaken to provide woollen comforts.

‘The crew must have thought Father Christmas had arrived (although a bit late) when Secretary W. Hicks paid a visit to the trawler when it was at Weymouth during Easter, and took with him a dart board, a monster parcel of books and 400 cigarettes, not to mention stockings, mittens, scarves and jerseys which had been knitted by Rotarian Ladies.

‘The members of the Inner Wheel have certainly put their shoulders to the wheel and must have been knitting overtime for they have not only made comforts for the men of the trawler, but also for the Somerset Light Infantry, Yeovil Hospital and the Red Cross Society.

Quiet Waters” would seem to be as inappropriate a name to give a minesweeper, as to call an Inn “The Quiet Woman” (I have yet to hear of one). But however stormy and hazardous may be the lot of the trawler’s crew we all wish them a safe return and if they ever visit Yeovil when the war is over we can promise them plenty of good fishing in the River Yeo, although they will have to be content with rod and line.

‘I am reminded of one Yeovil soldier who was seasick five times when he crossed the Channel. He must have wished he was on board the “Quiet Waters” for, after all, there is something in a name. The only regret I have is that the Yeovil is not sufficiently navigable to permit of the “Quiet Waters” sailing gently up stream to the town that has adopted it. What an attraction it would be. However, congratulations to the Rotary Club and the best of luck to the skipper and his crew.’

The Quiet Waters survived the War and was returned to her original owners in 1946.

Jack Sweet
Decemeber 2019

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Two cheeses valued at five shillings were stolen from Jane Corry at the Yeovil Market under the Town Hall on High Street during the evening of 13 January 1854, and three teenagers went to gaol.

The three, sixteen years-old John Collins, George Vincent, 15, and William Sylvester, aged 16, appeared at the Somerset Quarter Sessions during the following March charged with stealing two cheeses the property of Jane Corry.

The said Jane told the court that she had purchased 68 cheeses at the market, but not being able to remove them all at once, she had found two missing on her return to collect those which remained.

Police Constable Trimby, testified that he had been on duty at the market and observed the three youths acting in a suspicious manner. Suspecting ‘something was wrong’, he watched them and saw Collins and another boy, whom he could not identify in the low light, go into the market and carry away the cheeses. Vincent and Sylvester were ‘hanging around’ near the entrance. The constable stated that he had apprehended Collins with the cheese in his possession, and a second was found near the entrance. Collins, Vincent and Sylvester were arrested and charged with stealing the two cheeses.

All three pleaded guilty, Vincent, described as ‘an old offender’ was sentenced to four years penal servitude, Sylvester who had previous ‘form’, to two years, and Collins to two months in gaol.

When he saw Joseph Mitchell, junior, jumping his horse over a wall and into a field of mowing grass at Long Load, owned by his employer Mr Benjafield, Joseph Tucker scrambled up onto the wall and shouted to the young man to stop. Joseph Mitchell, however jumped his horse over the wall again but fell off in the process. Remounting, he rode across the field but then turned and riding up to Joseph Tucker, knocked him off the wall, encouraged by his father, also Joseph by name, who had been watching the proceedings, and who shouted out – ‘Put it into him, put it into him! Pay him, pay him!’

The events of that afternoon were described by Joseph Tucker at the County Petty Sessions in Yeovil on 4 July 1860, when the two Mitchells appeared charged with assault and found guilty, each being fined £1 plus costs.

At the same July sitting, Ann Denty was summoned on a complaint by Sarah Higgins, following a dispute over a swarm of bees which Sarah had ‘taken possession’, but which Ann claimed to be hers. Sarah Higgins alleged that Ann had hit her with a stick, but in return, Ann stated that the complainant had thrown the contents of a bucket of water in her face. The magistrates, however, took the view that this was a private row, and at their suggestion, the case was settled between the two ladies.

Likewise at the suggestion of the magistrates, a case of assault at Chiselborough involving Jonathan Higgins and Noah Langdon, was settled between the two ‘disputants’.

Some thirty-one years later, on 17 January 1891, William Short, appeared at the County Petty Sessions in Yeovil, charged with stealing two fowls valued at five shillings, the property of George Cole, farmer of Yeovil Marsh.

Farmer Cole, told the court that he had discovered two of his fowls were missing on the morning of 10 January, and suspicion had fallen on his former employee, William Short. Two police constables had gone to William Short’s house on Coppice Hill, where they found a partly cooked fowl in a boiler over the fire, and in the back-kitchen a second was found already plucked, together with a basket of feathers. Farmer Cole had identified the feathers as being similar to those of the stolen fowls. The court was told that the prisoner had said ‘You won’t be hard with me, it’s my first time.’

William Short pleaded guilty stating that he had stolen the fowls because he had been out of work and his wife and family had nothing to eat. Farmer Cole told the court that William had been a good workman, and gave him an excellent character asking the magistrates to ‘deal with him leniently, this being his first offence’.

The magistrates, taking in consideration that he had been in custody for nearly a week and leniency had been asked, discharged William Short hoping that ‘it would be a caution to him for the future’.

Jack Sweet
October 2019

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On 12 October 1899, following years of tension in South Africa, war broke out between the Boer Republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State and Great Britain. Within a short time, the Boers had British forces bottled up in Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking and for many months bloody battles would be fought as our army sought to raise the sieges and defeat the Boers.

Although the national and local newspapers were full of reports and stories from the battlefields, these actions were being fought thousands of miles away Yeovilians were little affected and life went on more or less the same. However, as the weeks passed , the news got gloomier following reverse after reverse as the Imperial forces struggled to break through to the towns. In December 1899, the Western Gazette’s annual concert in aid of local charities was billed as ‘A Patriotic Concert’ with the proceeds going towards the Mayor’s fund for the relief of sufferers in South Africa and was a sell-out in the Princes Street Assembly Rooms.

At the time the Patriotic Concert was being held, the British Army was suffering ‘Black Week’ when defeats were inflicted at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso. The Government put out a call for men of the Volunteer Corps and Yeomanry cavalry to serve in South Africa alongside the Regular regiments and during the coming months thousands would answer the call and sail south.

Amongst the Yeovil Volunteers accepted for service were Privates F. England and H. Adams of Huish, who were given a rousing send off at the Town Station by their comrades in F Company of the Somerset Volunteers and an enthusiastic crowd of well-wishers. I cannot find out what happened to Privates England and Adams but I hope they returned safely to Yeovil.

Men from the town served in the Regular Army, including the 2nd Battalion Somerset Light Infantry, the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy throughout the war, one of whom was a future Mayor, businessman Mr E J Farr, who would also serve and be wounded in the First World War

During the first six months of 1900 the tide of war finally turned in Britain’s favour. The sieges of Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking were raised and when Pretoria was occupied by the British Army on 5 June 1900 everyone though the war would soon be over. But not quite because a bitter guerrilla war would continue for almost two more years.

On 5 November 1878, James Henry Knight was born in Park Street, the son of Huntley Knight, a cloth weaver, and on 21 August 1900, James who had now changed his first names to Henry James, was serving as a Corporal in No. 1 Company, First Battalion, The Kings (Liverpool) Regiment, 4th Division Mounted Infantry, involved in operations in an area called Van Wyke’s Vlei east of Pretoria. Corporal Knight was posted in some rocks with four men covering the right rear of a small detachment of No. 1 Company who, commanded by Captain Ewart, was holding the right of the line. Captain Ewart’s men were attacked by about fifty Boers and were in danger of being surrounded and cut off. For nearly an hour under heavy fire, Corporal Knight held his ground covering the withdrawal of the Captain’s detachment, although in the process two of his four man section were wounded. When the time came for the Corporal to pull back, he did so bringing the two wounded men, one of whom he left in a safe place and the other he carried for nearly two miles. During the whole of this time the party was under heavy rifle fire. For this act of gallantry, Corporal Henry James Knight was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Peace finally came on 31 May 1902, and was met with great relief and rejoicing. On Monday 2 June at 6 o’clock, a thanksgiving service was held in St. John’s Church followed by a concert given by the Town Band in Sidney Gardens. The Salvation Army Band marched through the streets accompanied by – ‘young men singing patriotic songs.’ At dusk a bonfire was lit and a fireworks display was given in Sidney Gardens by – ‘the Pierrot Masqueraders who had previously paraded the town with large Chinese lanterns.’ Houses, hotels, pubs and shops were decorated and illuminated and the Mayor’s residence, the Mansion House in Princes Street, was lit up by coloured lamps spelling the words ‘Peace’ and ‘SA’. At the Half Moon Hotel in Silver Street about 70 locals sat down to a Peace Proclamation Dinner. The Volunteer Company, led by the Cycle Section and the Band paraded the streets.

The Boer War cost Great Britain and her Empire 5,774 killed, 16,000 died of wounds or disease and over 22,000 were wounded; the Boers lost about 7,000 dead. One the British dead was 27 years-old Charles Dycer Gawler, the son of a former Mayor of Yeovil. He had gone to South Africa in 1897 and on 31 May 1902, the day the peace was signed , he was employed as a Civil Conductor conveying stores to the 7th Company Army Service Corps at Kaal Raal in Cape Colony when he was shot and fatally wounded; Charles Dycer Gawler from Yeovil was almost certainly the last man to die in the Boer War.

In Yeovil Cemetery there is a headstone at the bottom of which there is the following memorial:

‘CHARLES DYCER GAWLER who giving his life for King and Country fell in action mortally wounded at Kaal Whaal May 31 1902 being in all probability the last killed in the South African War of 1899 to 1902’

Jack Sweet
October 2018

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       On 4 August 1914, the last day of peace for four long years, the Yeovil Conservative and Unionist annual Fete the ‘Fete of the West’ was held at Yew Tree Close Park, and the winning tableau was ‘King, Peace, Empire’.
       During the following weeks, enthusiastic and patriotic crowds lined the streets as local Territorials and volunteers marched off to the war and which most people expected to be ‘over by Christmas’.

The Belgian Refugees
       The German invasion of neutral Belgium in August 1914, saw more than a million of its citizens fleeing the advancing armies, and the majority of the refugees crossed the borders into Holland, which remained neutral, and France. The British Government offered hospitality and Belgian refugees were welcomed to our shores. A Yeovil Belgian Refugee Committee was set up and ‘Greystones’ on Hendford Hill was opened as a reception centre and temporary home supervised by a Roman Catholic Sister from Langport and a Sister from St Gilda’s Convent in the Avenue.
       The first party of refugee families comprising 50 men, women and children, arrived at the Town Station on Saturday 3 October 1914, the first of several hundred Belgians who would find hospitality in Yeovil and the neighbouring villages.

The Athletes’ Volunteer Force
       At the outbreak of war there was a large number of men debarred by age, occupation or medical conditions, from serving in the armed forces but who were keen to carryout some active duty at home.
       Movements for home defence sprang up across the country bearing such names as Home Guards, Home Defence Leagues, Citizens’ Corps and such like, and who with the help of old soldiers and other trained men, quickly grew into companies and battalions. In Yeovil the Athletes’ Volunteer Force of some 100 men and youths was set up in September 1914 and began training. By the end of the war, these volunteer units had developed into well trained battalions and the Yeovil men were formed into D Company, 2nd Battalion, Somerset Volunteer Regiment. In 1919 all the Volunteer Regiments were disbanded.
       From early February 1915 until the following April, over a 1000 Home Service Territorial soldiers from the Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire Regiments plus the Army Service Corps were billeted in the town. When they left, there was general praise for the way in which the men had conducted themselves.

Air Raid Precautions
       In February 1916 the Town Council adopted precautions against possible German air raids. German Zeppelin airships had been attacking London and the Home Counties since the summer of 1915 and there were fears that these raiders would extend their night time operations to other parts of the UK. Thankfully neither the Zeppelins, nor the German bomber aircraft which began operating late in 1917, raided this far west. The Western Gazette reported that – ‘As precautionary measures against hostile aircraft, the Town Council has made the following arrangements, and notices signed by the Mayor will be published in the town.. It has been decided to extinguish the street and public lamps at eleven p.m., and inhabitants are requested to shade the windows of all premises showing lights visible from the outside after such time and until further notice. Upon notification of the approach of hostile aircraft being received the hooter of the gas works and other hooters will sound a series of long blasts, with intermediate short blasts, and all lights must be immediately extinguished, and remain so for the night. Street and public lights will be immediately extinguished. People in the streets and in public buildings are requested to return home and remain there until the danger has passed. In conclusion it is added that the arrangements are purely precautionary in nature, there being no reason to anticipate an attack in the district by hostile aircraft.’

A Patriotic Fete
       The Yeovil Patriotic Fete Committee met in the Municipal Offices on Wednesday evening, 5 July 1916 to discuss holding the event at Newton Park during the coming August in aid of the Yeovil Hospital and the Yeovil Red Cross Hospital. A provisional programme was agreed to include athletic sports for old and young, swimming races and diving in the River Yeo, pony jumping and donkey racing, platform entertainments, side shows and ‘varieties of various descriptions.’ The Committee decided that both fields would be used on each side of the river.

A rough ride on a Bath-chair
       Having recovered from his injuries in the Red Cross Military Hospital in the Newnam Memorial Hall (now Pegasus Court), South Street, on a pleasant July afternoon in 1917, Private Hawes pushed his pal Private Parks in a Bath invalid chair up Hendford Hill, but rather than pushing him back down, Private Hawes decided it would be a good idea to sit on the front of the vehicle and ride it down using his feet as brakes. This Private Hawes did, but the Bath-chair gathered speed and he could not slow it. Down the Hill they went and at the bottom the chair turned over throwing both men out. Thankfully Private Parks was only shaken, but Private Hawes’ upper arm received a compound fracture in the same place where he had suffered a similar injury in France and from which he had just recovered in Yeovil. Private Hawes, had been due to be discharge to a convalescent camp a couple of days later. This would now be delayed but provided there were no complications the longer stay in the hospital would no doubt be welcomed as it would postpone his return to France. The record is silent on the future of the two men – it is hoped they survived the war and that neither got into too much trouble over the escapade.

Too Much War?
       A soldier, who had probably seen too much war, was found in a railway truck and was brought before the Magistrates charged with being an absentee from the Wiltshire Regiment’s camp at Littlemore, Upway, Weymouth. The soldier, who came from Leicester, admitted to having no pass and being an absentee, and was remanded to await an escort back to his unit. The Western Gazette’s court reporter, noted that the soldier wore a wound stripe and had been in the Army since 1914; the veteran’s fate remains unknown.

       Arising from the effective German U-Boat campaign in the Western Approaches to Great Britain during the winter of 1917/18, and the continued sinking of large numbers of ships bringing supplies of food from the United Sates and Canada, the Government introduced rationing in February 1918. Ration books were issued to every family and retailers were strictly controlled. By May, rationing covered a wide range of basic foods from bacon to sweets. Local committees were established by councils to deal with the food controls, and the Yeovil Borough Food Committee on 7 May discussed the co-ordination of road transport to give priority to the movement of food, the supply of potatoes to local bakers for bread making, the proposed new national scheme for food control, the reduction of sugar from ten pounds weight to six pounds per person for jam making, and the problems of butchers selling sausages with ration coupons. The Committee declined the request by a Pen Mill baker, accompanied by a petition, for support in his application for deferment from military service, and likewise a request from an inspector of national kitchens to establish a national kitchen in Yeovil was declined as the Committee felt there was no pressing need at present.

       In 1918 at their November meeting the Yeovil Education Committee were informed that in October, the boys of Reckleford School had picked 652 lbs of blackberries and the girls 441 lbs.

       At 11 o’clock on the morning of the 11th November 1918 a great silence fell across the battlefields of France and Belgium as the guns stopped firing; the war was over. During the 1,561 days which had passed, from the day Great Britain declared war on Germany and her Allies on 4 August 1914, several thousand Yeovilians had served their country in all the theatres of war on land, sea and in the air, over 236 had been killed or died from wounds or disease, and hundreds more wounded.
       The Western Gazette’s report on how the news of the end hostilities was received in Yeovil after four years of the most terrible conflict the world had known, was somewhat restrained, remembering the countless tragedies suffered in the town and across the nation:- ‘On the posting of the telegrams at the newspaper offices announcing the signing of the armistice the news spread like wildfire on Monday morning, and those in the outlying parts of the town and others who had not heard of the telegrams got their first intimation from a visiting aeroplane decorated with streamers in the national colours, and which performed some extraordinary evolutions over the town. The flags on the Town Hall were quickly hoisted by Mr. H Jesty, and under his direction, and with the ready assistance afforded to him, the centre of the town was soon wreathed in bunting. Following this lead flags and streamers of every kind -some of them showing the effects of four years storage – made their appearance in all directions, and it is long since the town looked so festive. By mid-day work had been practically abandoned and the streets gradually filled, flags and national colours being carried by nearly everyone. The bells in the Parish Church tower added their note to the rejoicing, which was everywhere of a restrained character. The losses of Yeovil men have been too great and the appearance of the motor ambulances of the Men’s Voluntary Aid Detachment. filled with wounded men being taken to the Red Cross Hospital, while provoking a sympathetic cheer, helped to remind the thankful crowds of the sterner side of the war.’
       On the Monday evening, there was a packed town meeting to give thanks for the signing of the Armistice and the next day St. John’s Church was filled to capacity for the Service of Thanksgiving.

Jack Sweet
November 2018

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It began with a row over walnuts and ended with a man being found dead in a water closet.

Kingsdon butcher, John Williams was drinking with friends in the Market Inn, at South Street, Yeovil, during the late afternoon of Friday 2 October 1868, when he got into an argument with John Slade, over the number of walnuts he had sold at Yeovil Market. Williams claimed to have sold one million, but Slade called him a liar as he could not know how many a million was, and the whole of Kingsdon could not produce this number. In response the butcher boasted that he could pay a pound to Slade’s shilling, one word led to another, insults were thrown culminated in Slade punching Williams in the face, knocking his head back against a wall, and rendering him senseless for a few minutes.

Some time later John Williams left the inn and was not seen again by his friends until his corpse was found some 12 hours later lying in the water closet of Mr Brown’s stables about two hundred yards away in South Street.

At the Inquest, several witnesses told of the row and seeing Slade deliver the punch, but all confirmed that John Williams had appeared well when he left the Market Inn. Surgeon Tompkins stated that at the post mortem he had found a large blood clot on the brain, and an inch and a half fracture of the skull, which was also exceptionally thin. He discounted the cause of death as apoplexy and a fall in the closet, and considered the primary cause was the fracture and the resulting blood clot, following the deceased’s head striking the wall.

The Inquest jury returned a verdict of manslaughter against John Slade who was sent for trial and appeared at the Somerset Assizes in Taunton on 23 March 1869. Despite Slade’s counsel contending that because the deceased had been wearing a hat with a stiff brim, his head could not have struck the wall, and death was caused by a blow to the head in a fall in the water closet following a fit of apoplexy.

However, this did not convince the jury who found John Slade guilty of manslaughter but with a recommendation for mercy and he was sentenced to three months hard labour.

Jack Sweet
October 2018

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Click here to see detailed programme.

Winter Talks-2019/20

Fri 3rd Jan 2020 – Members’ Evening – all welcome

Fri 7th Feb – The Magic of Somerset Carnivals

Fri 6th Mar – The Knights Templar

Fri 3rd Apr – Where’s the Glory – Mourning Story – Cancelled

Fri 1st May – A short AGM – followed by a talk – The Stalbridge House Site: An Update – Cancelled


June – Wolfeton House, Charminster – Cancelled
July – Langport Walkabout – Cancelled
August – Visit Nether Adber (Deserted Village) – Under Review
September – Visit Somerset & Dorset Family History Society – Under Review

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