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Memories of childhood in Somers Square

David Orchard

The former Somers Square, between Silver Street and the top of the High Street near the Queen’s Head pub, is being redeveloped in 2005 as shops, flats and terraced houses to be called Avalon Mews. This is a fuller version of David Orchard’s articles that appeared in Newsletters 115 and 92 (May 2005 and July-August 1999), where they had to be edited for space.


I lived with my parents in Somers Square from 1948 to 1958. In January 1960 I moved to Winchester and subsequently taught in various towns, returning to Glastonbury in 1984. Consequently I was not aware in the 1960s of the demolition of most of the square. My memories are from the 1950s.

somerspaint40.jpg - 25Kb    A painting I did from the garden of Nº 7-8 shows the stone houses opposite, numbers 3-4 and 5-6, as they appeared in 1953. The flag by my tent dates the picture to Coronation year. The square had its own street party on the patch of land next to the Rices’ house (Nº 1-2).

   Throughout the square very small dwellings had been combined in pairs. I have no idea when this was done: certainly before the Second World War. Mr and Mrs Stone (Nº 3-4) and Mr and Mrs Brown (5-6) had lived there for many years before we came. The stones of Nº 3-4 were greyish-white: lias as I remember them — perhaps quarried nearby in Street. Those of the Browns’ house were (appropriately!) browner. The painting gives a fairly accurate impression.

      I cannot say with any certainty why the area was called Somers Square, though I do remember being told in my teens that a mason called Somer (or Somers) had lived in Street in the 19th century. Since I cannot recall the source (Miss Pryor perhaps?) I cannot cite this as reliable evidence. There are deposits of blue lias at Street and Keinton Mandeville and this, I am told, can weather to a greyish white. (White lias occurs on the southern Mendips, north of Wells, but was in short supply even in mediaeval times.1) Dr Dunning has found reference, in the St John’s churchwardens’ accounts, to a John Somers of Chilkwell Street, Glastonbury.

somersplan.gif - 6Kb    The accompanying plan [click on it for an A3 enlargement] of the houses of Somers Square and the surrounding buildings is traced from a large-scale map of the 1930s (not an Ordnance Survey map but one of several given to the Somerset County library by the old gas board). I have added the details of Somers Square in the 1950s and of the two large houses on the High Street (Dickensons’ and Dr Willcox’s) west of the northern end of the square. The plan also shows Fear’s Yard2 (as it was then called) to the east, parts of Silver Street (where we played rounders) and some of the outbuildings in the yard belonging to the Abbey House.

   There was little traffic in the Silver Street of the 1950s, though the Revd Lionel Lewis, well-known vicar of St John’s, used to keep his old Austin in a garage in the yard of Abbey House, and both Dr Willcox and Mr Dickenson kept cars in lockups at the Silver Street end of their gardens. The Dickensons kept a private museum in their large house on the High Street. They had one son (we called him Rowley) but Mrs D had no love for the local kids and berated us for being noisy when we played at “her” end of Somers Square.

somerslast.jpg - 33Kb    Our local gang included Eileen and Doris, the daughters of Mr and Mrs Rice at Nº 1-2 (see plan). The Rices’ house, as I recall, was part brick. Nº 7-8, where we lived, had a brick façade but was otherwise of stone. It is the only house from the square which has survived to now, though in a very forlorn state [photo taken in 1999; it is still there in 2005 as an outbuilding behind Alma Flats, near Silver Street]. The stone rear wall gives a clear indication of where the original Nº 7 ended: a straight joint, suggesting that the second cottage was a separate build — and the stonework looks different too. There were originally two chimneystacks, one at either end. This house was long used, after the demolition of the rest of the square, for storage by the W.J. Ayles furniture firm, which occupied the Dickensons’ house (80 High Street) when they left.

   A large-scale Ordnance Survey map of the 1960s shows the square when the whole of its northern end had been demolished and replaced by a building designated “garage”: Jim Alves’ motorbike showroom and garage, if I remember accurately. The Silver Street end of Somers Square seems to have been intact at this time.

suffrgts1910 - 88Kb    The first buildings sacrificed to the cause of 20th-century progress were thus Nº 1-2 with its separate scullery, and the much older building in the High Street, which seemed to me to date from the late middle ages — though adapted in Victorian times, like the almshouses near St Patrick’s Chapel (also demolished in the 1960s). If the wooden archway giving access to the square from the High Street through this building did date from mediaeval times, its low-pointed style would suggest the 15th century. Whatever its date, the building was of historical importance. There is photographic evidence from 1909 that it was used by the Suffragette movement.3 During the 1950s, when I remember it, it provided two abodes, one on each side of the “alley”. Each was lived in by a Mrs Taylor (both of whom looked very old to me!); both died during our time in the square. I remember that when the first one was dying my mother sat with the old lady through the night to comfort her.

   At the Silver Street end of the square, in Nº 9-10, lived Mr and Mrs Clements and their daughter Joan. Actually on Silver Street, but with their backs in the square, were two brick houses, in one of which lived a Mrs List, who was in her 90s. She would come to her front door in her trodden-down slippers, to tell us off when our games troubled her. She too died in the 1950s.

   Apart from Nº 7-8 the entire remainder of the square was flattened in the 1960s. All things pass, and in time Alves’ Garage too was demolished. A new supermarket (initially Andersons, then the Co-op) was erected, covering the entire site of the old square: a bleak, featureless building, closed down by the CRS in 1989.4 The building was subsequently used, in sequence, by a number of small firms, apparently without success. The former offices on the upper floor were occupied as a flat until about 2002.

   Now the building has followed its predecessor into oblivion. The whole site has been cleared. (This, it seemed to me, offered a wonderful opportunity for professional archaeological exploration. The southern end of the square was close to the old boundary wall of the Abbey. In 1954 I dug a trench some three feet deep in the garden of Nº 8 — on the spot where I had pitched my tent in the previous year — and discovered a number of interesting small items, some of which were certainly connected with the Abbey.)

   The wheel is come full circle and the square is reverting to its earlier use: it has been developed as a small housing estate, which the developers have named Avalon Mews [architect’s sketch below], presumably because no one has mentioned to them that the site already has a name. I hope better advice prevails and that this meaningless catchall of a title be quietly dropped and the historical name reinstated.

   In 1955 there were five children of school age in the square, four of whom were at St John’s or St Benedict’s church schools. Both schools ran projects that year to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Glastonbury’s charter of incorporation (see display in the Town Hall). How pleasant it would be to see “Somers Square” resurrected in this year of the tercentenary of the Queen Anne Charter.

   These impressions of Somers Square in the 1950s are, of course, those formed in childhood and adolescence, remembered many years later. No doubt some readers will recall other things or remember some details differently. I would welcome their contributions.

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Footnotes

   1 See L.S. Colchester and F.S. W____, The Stones of Wells Cathedral (Wells Natural History and Archaeological Society, Wells, n.d.), p3. See also D.T. Donovan and R.D. Reid, “Stone Insets in Wells Cathedral” in Report of the Friends of Wells Cathedral, 1972, p19-24. My thanks also to Jerry Sampson for a helpful discussion of the subject over coffee at Taunton library! [return to text]

   2 Fear’s Yard, after Mr William Fear, the then landlord. [return to text]

   3 Suffragettes at the entrance to Somers Square in 1909: see photo 32 in J.R. Brunsdon and J. Bodmar (eds), Glastonbury in Old Picture Postcards (European Library, Zaltbommel, Netherlands, 1984). [return to text]

   4 Date from Mr M Vowles of Glastonbury, from Nisa records. [return to text]

Afterthoughts

• Apparently in the 1950s Somers Square was owned by a London firm. Mr Hayes (a farmer) was the agent, and lived on Old Wells Road.

• Mr Orchard’s parents moved out of Somers Square in 1956 and lived on the hill for awhile, then at Stone and Charlton Adam. His father, Richard Henry Orchard, opened a business as physiotherapist and chiropodist and moved back to Glastonbury. He retired to St Edmunds Road and died in 1997.

• The painting of the scene from his front wall at age 12 won David Orchard a scholarship and he moved away in 1957. After teaching in various towns around Britain he settled back to Glastonbury in 1984. He now lives in Norbins Road.