A BRIEF HISTORY OF YEOVIL, SOMERSET
By Tim Lambert
YEOVIL IN THE MIDDLE AGES
Yeovil was founded in the 8th century after the Saxons conquered this part of Somerset. What does the name Yeovil Mean? It is believed to be a corruption of the Celtic word Gifl, meaning forked river.
In time the village of Yeovil grew into a little town. By the time of the Domesday Book (1086), it was a flourishing community though it would seem tiny to us with a population of not more than 1,000. Yeovil or Givle, as it was then known, had a weekly market. In those days there were very few shops so if you wished to buy or sell anything you had to go to a market.
From the early 15th century there were also 2 annual fairs in Yeovil. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but were held only once a year for a few days. The Yeovil fairs would attract buyers and sellers from all over Somerset and Dorset.
In 1205 Yeovil was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). By the early 14th century, the merchants of Yeovil had gained the right to elect a portreeve (a man who ran the town day to day).
Like all other Medieval towns Yeovil suffered from the Black Death in 1348-49. It may have killed half the population. Then in 1349, a riot occurred in St Johns church when the Bishop of Wells was visiting. For some time there had been arguments between the townspeople and the clergy over the markets and these boiled over into violence. When the bishop was in the church some people attacked the priests who were with him. (In those days spilling blood in a church was a scandalous thing to do!).
However Yeovil recovered from these problems. In the early 14th century, the first glove makers were mentioned. In the following centuries, the glove making industry grew to be the most important industry in Yeovil.
A church has existed on the site of St John's in Yeovil since at least the 10th century. It was rebuilt in the years 1380-1400. Its windows let in so much light it was later called the Lantern of the West.
In 1477 an almshouse was built in Yeovil with money left by John Woburn in his will.
In 1499 Yeovil suffered a severe fire. In those days most buildings were made of wood with thatched roofs and they burned easily so fire was a constant hazard. On the other hand if houses burned they could be easily rebuilt.
Life in the Middle Ages
YEOVIL IN THE 16th CENTURY AND 17th CENTURY
In the mid-16th century a writer called Yeovil fairly well built. It stood pleasantly on its rocky hill. He described the church as fair and well lit. In 1539 Henry VIII dissolved the priory.
However in the 17th century Yeovil suffered two more severe fires. One was in 1620 and one in 1643. Like all towns, Yeovil also suffered from outbreaks of plague. There was a serious outbreak in 1646-47.
In the 17th century glove making continued to flourish in Yeovil. There was also a parchment making industry. Yeovil was also an important market town for the surrounding area. The market was especially noted for cheese, hemp and linen thread. In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth led a rebellion against the king in SouthWest England. He was defeated at the battle of Sedgemoor. Afterwards 8 of his supporters were hanged, drawn and quartered in Yeovil.
YEOVIL IN THE 18th CENTURY AND 19th CENTURY
A grammar school opened in Yeovil in 1744. Otherwise, there was little change in the 18th century. Yeovil continued to be famous for glove making and was a quiet and small market town.
In 1801, at the time of the first census, Yeovil had a population of about 2,800. It would seem very small to us but by the standards of the time, it was a fair size. Yeovil grew rapidly in the 19th century and by 1900 it had a population of 11,000.
In 1830 a body of men called the Town Commissioners was formed in Yeovil. They were responsible for paving, cleaning and lighting the streets. In the 18th century, the streets of Yeovil were lit by oil lamps but after 1834 they were lit by gas.
In 1831 there was a riot in Yeovil when parliament refused to pass the Great Reform Act, which would have reformed elections. The riot only ended when troops were called out.
Meanwhile the glove industry in Yeovil prospered. In the 1830s it was said that 3 million pairs were made each year in Yeovil.
In 1848 the Town Commissioners demolished the old Market House (where indoor markets were held) and the Shambles (where butchers had their shops or stalls). In 1849 they built a new town hall. Meanwhile, the railway reached Yeovil in 1853.
In 1856 Yeovil was made a borough and gained a mayor. Several new churches were built in the 19th century. Holy Trinity was built in 1846. A Roman Catholic Church was built in 1899. A hospital was built in Yeovil in 1872. A piped water supply was installed in Yeovil in the 1870s. Also during the late 19th century sewers were built in the town.
In 1888 a cheese and butter marketing company came to Yeovil. In 1901 it adopted the name, St Ivel. The St Ivel factory closed in 1976. In 1882 Petters oil engines began production in Yeovil. During World War I they began to manufacture planes on the Westlands site.
YEOVIL IN THE 20th CENTURY
By 1901 the population of Yeovil was about 11,000. New municipal buildings were built in 1926. The town hall burned down in 1935.
During World War II Yeovil was a target for German bombing because of its aircraft industry. As a result of bombing 49 people were killed. Many of the houses in Yeovil were damaged or destroyed.
Reckleford fire station was built in 1962. Yeovil College opened in 1963. The Museum of South Somerset opened in 1965. Maltravers House was built in 1969 (the Maltravers family were lords of the manor of Yeovil in the Middle Ages). Summerland hospital opened in 1973.
Yeovil borough was replaced by Yeovil District Council in 1974. The Octagon theatre opened in 1974. The Quedam Centre was built in 1988.
Today the traditional industry of glove making has disappeared from Yeovil but it has been replaced by new industries like light engineering.
YEOVIL IN THE 21st CENTURY
Today the population of Yeovil is 45,000. Yeovil is a thriving town.
A timeline of Yeovil
A history of Crewkerne
A history of Somerton
A history of Montacute
A history of Wincanton
A history of Taunton