What Yeovil was like in the 1880’s

In 1930 there was an interesting exchange of letters in the Western Gazette when a number of correspondents related their memories of the Yeovil of their younger days in the 1880s. It is hard to judge how accurate their descriptions are in view of the fact that they were remembering things which happened 50 years earlier, and that we are now looking at their accounts from an even greater distance, but their letters provide an interesting insight into what Yeovil might have looked like at the time.

The first writer started with a general picture of life in the town at that time, explaining:
“It may help the younger generation to more readily appreciate the spirit of progressive enterprise that has actuated the Civic Fathers and leading townspeople during the past half-century. During the years 1875-79 the population of Yeovil was between 8,000 and 9,000. The houses, generally speaking, were small and unpretentious. The existence of large families was frequently the cause of overcrowding; the workers’ accommodation was ‘cribbed’ and confined. Sanitary conveniences were sadly lacking. The provision of laid-on water was inadequate, consequently pumps, wells and springs were the principal source of supply. Gas lighting was almost unknown, the main sources of illumination being oil lamps and tallow candles.”

Several of the correspondents wrote at some length about Middle Street. The road surface was “only imperfectly macadamised” so that rain converted its surface to “copious mud removed as occasion required by ‘scrapers’ dragged from side to side leaving the mud in long heaps”. The majority of the shops were small and unattractive. Several are described as possessing “old-fashioned bay windows” which overlapped the narrow pavements. A peculiar feature of many of the premises lay in the fact that the ground floor lay below the level of the pavement. On entering the shop one had to step down into the sale-room to gain admittance. Half doors were greatly in evidence. The windows of many of the shops were protected at night by board shutters, “similar to those at present existing on cottages in Park-road, Market-street and Mudford-road”.

The general aspect of the street seems to have been quite rural with a row of thatched cottages and pretty gardens still in evidence between the shops; one cottage on the corner of Bond Street and Middle Street is described by one correspondent as even having gooseberry bushes growing in its garden, whilst another one writes of the same corner being occupied by a thatched house – “A Mr Penny, bootmaker was the tenant. To gain access to his little workshop one had to descend several steps below the road level”.

Where the Borough becomes Middle Street, a site now occupied by Burger King, there was a chemist’s shop which possessed very popular attractions. It was kept by Mr. Maggs, who exhibited in his windows all kinds of fossils and skeletons surmounted by flashing blue, green and yellow jars, the chemist’s insignia. One of the writers remembers seeing displayed the skeletons of a cat and a rat, found during the demolition of the “old dressing yard carried on in Foot’s yard”. The story ran that the cat pursued the rat deep into the foundations, and that the hole became narrower and narrower so that in the end both died of starvation.

Near the site where Vicarage Street joins Middle Street there stood an “old-fashioned” public house called the “Blue Ball”, and during a severe thunderstorm one day a thunderbolt fell and crashed through the chimney causing “great consternation and much material damage”. Apparently not far from that site stood an old barn which was used as a slaughterhouse “where a frequent pause was made on our way home from school to witness and hear, too, the none too aesthetic departure of numerous pigs.”

Lower down Middle Street facing Station Road (now South Western Terrace) was the old Railway Inn, attached to which was a large yard called “Foot’s Yard”, Foot being the landlord at that time. It was in great demand as a fair ground, small circus pitch and an itinerant theatre known as the “Penny Gaff”, where such dramas as “Maria Marten, or Murder in the Red Barn”, “East Lynn” or “The Mistletoe Bough” were performed. During the Christmas season a pantomime complete with transformation scene would be performed, and all for a penny.

Higher Kingston was another area which was described at some length, this time more for the life of the street than the buildings. On fair days it was a scene of great activity, when the herds of cattle were so great that people used to board up their windows for protection. The horse fair was held in the vicinity of the Black Horse, with the horses being run up and down the road to the raucous shouts of the selling fraternity. The horse and cart or trap were the farmer’s only means of transport in those days, and so great was the number of traps and carts “put up” at the Red Lion on a fair-day that rows of four and five abreast used to occupy the road for some hundred yards in front of the new County School. And the horses were stabled wherever there was a bit of standing room in the stables or about the yard.

Another interesting feature was a fairly large plot of grass growing in the street opposite York Place. In the centre of the plot stood two large elm trees and a pump and stone trough from which passing cattle quenched their thirst. On market days farmers visiting the town tethered their horses to the trees and parked their traps and wagons on the grass plot. The road was very narrow at that point with only just enough room for one cart or wagon to pass in single file up or down the street. The old turnpike gates stretched across the road at the junction of the three main roads leading into the town near what is now Fiveways roundabout. Three sets of double gates spanned the road at this point. Wicket gates at each side of the road were provided for the use of pedestrians. A large bell was attached to the gates allowing the drivers of vehicular traffic to summon the gate¬keeper to unlock the gate, collect the toll and let them through.

The effect of the fairs spilt over into other parts of the town. In Silver Street, for instance there were shooting galleries, penny peep-shows and boxing booths and fat men and other curiosities took up their positions beneath the shelter of the old church walls. At the bottom of Silver Street were two roundabouts (merry-go-rounds?) leaving just room for a cart to pass between, and the correspondent comments “as it was, of course, the busiest day of the year, what the congestion was like can be imagined, though it served only to increase the general hilarity.”

These are some of the memories of men writing in 1930 about Yeovil as it was when they were boys in the 1880s. What changes would be recorded if a similar correspondence took place today?

This article appeared earlier in the 2009 edition of the Chronicle

Jean Harper

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