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1625 - The plague in Somerset

Nearly 400 years ago, the people of Somerset were faced with a disease that killed many and was not well understood. How Bridgwater and Taunton's industry was affected by the plague is relayed here by local historian Philip Ashford - author of the 'Maritime History of Somerset', as he takes a look back at how the region's industry was affected by the plague in the 17th century.
The Bridgwater and Taunton areas suffered a considerable plague in 1625, almost 400 years before Covid 19 struck.
Like the coronavirus, it was an invisible killer whose method of transmission was not fully understood at the time. There was also no cure.
Plague had visited some coastal parts of Devon in early summer 1625, people were dying of it in Watchet by May 1625 and it had begun to affect the Bridgwater and Taunton area by July. People knew that the disease was often conveyed by merchant traders by sea and land.
The authorities quarantined visitors and merchants, some from London in a makeshift camp of tents and huts on the edge of Taunton, and travel restrictions meant they were not allowed into the town in the hope of containment.
At Bridgwater, foreign ships were prevented from coming to the quay. Trade in herring and skins from Ireland, salt from France and wine from France and Spain was halted to the impoverishment of the merchant trader importers. Cloth and beans exports would also have been halted. Bridgwater’s staple trade at the time, the coal trade was also badly affected.
The eight or nine coal trow owners ( A trow is a form of barge ) whose craft plied busily between the Swansea/Neath area and the town ceased trading, it appears. Coal which hitherto was trans-shipped at the quay into river boats and taken upriver on a rising tide to supply Langport and Taunton and onwards by road to the whole of south Somerset was not conveyed. Since coal supplies were the main fuel for south Somerset there was great concern for the economy and society.
After an appeal by the trow owners and boatmen, it seems that a system of social distancing was introduced. The trows and boats were once again allowed to ply the Parrett, however no boatmen or crew were allowed to disembark at Bridgwater and drift into town for provisions and socialisation.
All this disruption affected the normal course of administration. No quay accounts for Bridgwater were drawn up that year. In Watchet, the borough court did not meet and at Bridgwater, the September Quarter Sessions were moved to Taunton despite Bishops Hull and Staplegrove suffering outbreaks.
The ravages of the disease eventually subsided and normality returned to society and the economy. Bridgwater survived the invisible onslaught, and eventually memory of it faded.
However, we remember again today, as we remember with affection all those suffering Covid-19 and those working to maintain our safety and mitigating the effects of the disease.
We also know that such times of difficulties will pass, and we, like our ancestors, can concentrate on the important aspects of life, kindness, love and mercy.

Keep safe one and all.

W.Bro Ian Moore

Secretary of the World Famous Portcullis Lodge of MMM 1656 - Langport

Ed - You can obtain a copy of Philip Ashford's book from the
Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society
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