STOKE ST MARY AND DISTRICT HISTORY GROUP

HISTORY OF STOKE ST MARY

Only determined travellers, two centuries ago, found their way to the village of Stoke St. Mary. Main roads did not disturb it, and the single lane leading west to Taunton followed a difficult course across the Vale. Long isolation was finally ended early in the nineteenth century, when local roads were greatly improved. But even today the traces of a solitary and less thriving past have not entirely vanished: the thirteenth century parish church is small and simple to an exceptional degree, and the village street contains few of the large farmhouses which, elsewhere in the Vale, are a conspicuous feature.


Accidents of the soil explain much. Though the parish of Stoke St. Mary - anciently covering 923 acres - lies partly in the Vale of Taunton, it has an unlucky share in the famous Vale lands, and is unluckier still in its other lands on Stoke Hill. The lias clay of the hill is some of the most difficult soil in the county; and if earlier generations valued the lonely high ground of their parish, they did so not because of its fertility, but for regular crops of coppice wood, for limestone to supply local kilns and the building trade, and for the beauty of the wooded hill-slopes, rising steeply from the village below.

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Man’s struggle with this varied landscape began many centuries ago: an unfinished Iron Age hill fort at Netherclay and scattered traces of Roman settlement are proof of that, and several local farms, including those at Broughton and Greenway, probably have very early origins. Only in the ninth century, however, did the landscape first enter the light of recorded history.  A Saxon charter, dated about the year 854, tells how a West Saxon king called Aethelwulf gave lands at ‘Stoc’ to the minster church of Taunton, mother church of the Vale. The landmarks which defined the minster's new estate were carefully recorded, and included the 'halgan wylle', or holy spring, which still exists on Stoke Hill, and a great ditch which survives impressively on Stoke St. Mary's southern border.

The name borne by this small estate adds one detail to our knowledge of its early history. For the Old English word 'stoc’ usually described the cattle-fold or dairy farm established in the distant pastures of a parent settlement.  Ruishton, to the north, was evidently the parent to which Stoke St. Mary first owed allegiance; and though dependent status was soon shaken off, an echo of the past survived in the ecclesiastical links shared by the two settlements until the sixteenth century.

The minster had only enjoyed King Aethelwulf’s gift for 50 years when its growing estates were acquired by the Bishop of Winchester. For over 900 years his successor bishops were destined tc remain lords of what became the great manor of Taunton Deane, and the power at their command was soon reflected in the transformation of the Vale which they probably inspired. In Stoke St. Mary this transformation, which may have happened in the twelfth century, saw the partial replacement of a landscape of scattered farms by a village street lined with houses, set in the midst of large open fields farmed in common. The outline of one of those fields, later called Stoke Down, remains in fine completeness behind Stoke Farm, its grid of arable strips and access tracks fossilised by hedges dating from the late Middle Ages.

The Bishop's home farm in Stoke and Ruishton was worked from Haydon, where barns and granaries were filled through the efforts of his tenants and farm servants. His vineyard was close at hand, and on top of Stoke Hill, in an area near Stoke Hill Farm which is now open land, stood Knowl Wood, the largest and most important of all the Bishop's Somerset woodlands. (The slopes of Stoke Hill at this period were probably unwooded pasture.)

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The landscape of the medieval village was made complete in the thirteenth century when the present stone-built church began to rise. It was evidently founded as a daughter of the more ancient church at Ruishton, and like its neighbour was one of several churches which belonged to Taunton Priory, successor to the Saxon minster. From its foundation in about 1120 until its dissolution in 1539, Taunton Priory was the chief spiritual focus for the people of the Vale: to the Priory they looked for priests to take services in their churches, and to the Priory they were carried after death to be buried in its cemetery.


A resident priest to serve both Ruishton and Stoke was provided by the prior following an agreement made in 1308. And though almost none of Stoke's medieval priests are known by name, their home, the 'priest's house', was a familiar part of the village until in 1963 it was demolished as unsafe.


It stood diagonally opposite the church, on a site acquired for the parish in 1452-3, and was later to serve successively as the church house (a kind of village hall) and the poor house. A priest called William Salmon was living there in 1532, the year in which he witnessed the will of John Luckis of 'Mary Stoke'. By 1535, Mr. Salmon had been replaced by John Stotte, whose existence in the priest's house was sus­tained by a meagre stipend from the prior of £6 13s 4d a year [£2,147.33 in current money].

 

CHURCH HOUSE

John Stotte lived to see some cf the changes which, in the course of the sixteenth century, transformed the church from a place of Catholic worship to a setting for the services of the Anglican prayerbook. Far-reaching though such changes were, they did not make St. Mary's any less a centre for village life. The outside of the church tower, after all, remained an excellent place for playing fives [John Slape, brother of Tristram was noted in Bath and Wells Diocese records], and the churchyard provided a fine setting for a game of skittles [William Hellier being noted as the culprit] (both recorded in 1634). Across the road at the church house, the money-making events called 'church ales' were also loyally supported. A church ale in 1571 was enlivened by Robert Burgin when he assaulted Hugh Light 'with a worth­less cup'; and a similar event in 1616 was remembered because Thomas Torrie of Thurlbear got very drunk and was later found in a hayloft with Anstice Bryant 'verie suspitiouslie'.

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Throughout centuries of change, agriculture never ceased to be Stoke St. Mary's major occupation; but in the course of the seventeenth century, the cloth industry came to occupy a place hardly less important. Spinners and weavers, worsted-combers, tailors and clothiers are all represented in the seventeenth century records of the village; and fields in the parish called Tuckers, Fullands, and Rack Orchard still commemorate stages in the cloth-finishing process. Limeburners, as well, find a frequent place in village his­tory at this period, most of them working quarries on Stoke Hill. And for the quenching of thirsts after work at the loom, by the lime kiln, or in the fields, cider-making increasingly replaced the brewing of beer as a major domestic occupation. In 1629, Thomas Atkins and other villagers were selling cider made from their own apples, thus laying the foundations of a cider-making tradition which by the nine­teenth century had earned the parish a reputation for producing 'some of the best cider in the kingdom'.


Religious and political controversy, the echo of national events, took its place as another major element in the pattern of seventeenth century village life. When Thomas Pickering became curate in 1612, he was soon at odds with puritan members of his congregation, reporting in 1613 that several villagers preferred to hear puritan sermons in Taunton than to attend their parish church. He angrily denounced some of the rebels during one Sunday service, calling William Ellis a 'mased ideot'; but even when Ellis and other ringleaders had been excommunicated, they found a ready welcome at Thurlbear church from the more sympathetic curate, William Jennings.

The Puritans flourished locally, especially after the suffer­ings inflicted on Taunton by Royalist armies in the Civil War, and when monarchy was restored in 1660, thousands in the Vale were soon active dissenters from the Anglican Church. In 1669, up to 100 Presbyterians were gathering regularly to worship in Stoke St. Mary, numbering among their meeting-places the homes of Thomas Procter, who lived on Stoke Hill, and William Doble, who had recently acquired the Stoke Court estate. Little wonder that Stoke St. Mary, like all its neighbours, was eager to support the Protestant Duke of Monmouth in 1685, adding seven men to the rebel arm/ which marched that summer over Longwater Bridge on the southern borders of the parish.

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Concerns more worldly than religion dominated the village in the eighteenth century. Members of the parish vestry, meet­ing by 1705 in Joan Booby's alehouse rather than the church, found themselves responsible not only for care of the church fabric, but for mending the roads and relieving the sick anc poor. In 1708, a payment of £1 3s 9d helped Joan Brown and her illegitimate daughter when they caught smallpox, and the following year there were regular payments to provide young Thomas Gully with 'scooling'. Edward Foord's illness in the winter of 1736 found the parish officers ready to provide joints of beef and mutton; and in 1737 they even supplied the necessary 2d to buy Andrew Phillpott a wedding ring.


Those who still troubled to make their way to St. Mary's church at this period found the village stocks to greet them in the churchyard, and a tiny white-washed building crowded with box pews. The Burridge family, who inherited the Stoke Court estate of William Doble in 1708, dominated the chancel in their own baize-lined pew, while at the west end stood the gallery, home for the village musicians. By 1776, only eight parishioners were regular attenders at the infrequent communion services held in the church, a reflection, perhaps, of the example set by some of the parish clergy. Charles Eussell, appointed rector in 1768, left curates to do the work while he spent most of his days far off in Bath, a victim of the gout. For a remarkable 65 years, the parish­ioners tolerated their absentee rector, and only when a dispute over tithe payments arose in the early nineteenth century was there serious quarrelling: the 'nodus' board erected in the church in 1805 still commemorates the agree­ment which was finally reached.

An Independent lor Congregational) chapel, built in 1825 on land given by John and Mary Weaver, was clear evidence of nonconformist revival in Stoke St. Mary after the fallow years of the eighteenth century. The new chapel drew large attendances, especially from labouring families in the parish, and in 1849 part of a congregation nearly 30C strong took to Stoke Woods to make the hills 'resound with their vocal choruses'. Anglican revival soon followed, and in Stoke St. Mary was marked especially by the appointment in 1860 of the saintly William Lance as curate. He undertook the restoration of Thurlbear Church in 1861, and in 1864 turned his attention to Stoke St. Mary, where the old church was thought too small for a growing population. Accordingly, a new south aisle was built. But the work of restoration did not end there, as a contemporary account records:


The whole of the 'pews' have been swept away and replaced, in the chancel by neat substantial oak stalls, and in the nave with open stained deal benches. The font has been reworked with sunk tracery panels, and that abomination of modern times, the singing gallery, removed.


The thirteenth century tower fortunately escaped a suggested rebuilding, but the eighteenth century chalice and paten were not so lucky: in 1872, they were replaced by a modern set of medieval design.

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The character of Stoke St. Mary itself changed rapidly in th« early nineteenth century. As roads leading to the village were improved so its 'picturesque' attractions were discovert: by some prosperous tradesmen in the town. Among them were John Stephens, a linen-draper, who retired to a new-built gentleman's residence later called the White House, and John Poole, a well-known local printer, who transformed a much older building into the house now known as Woodfordes.


New gentry also reached the parish to replace the ruined Burridges, farming squires of Stoke St. Mary for over 100 years. During the 1850s, Captain Thomas Patton, R.N. (no relation of the American general) acquired both Stoke House and Stoke Court, together with a large farming estate, and for the next 60 years his family's name was to be as closely linked with Stoke St. Mary as was the name of Portman with neighbouring parishes to the south. Captain Patton preferred to live at his mansion in Bishops Hull, but allowed Stoke House to be used by a succession of his children, including his son Colonel Henry Patton. As commander of the Volunteer Reserve, Colonel Patton achieved local fame for the mock battles he organised at Orchard Portman; and among his many services to the community, he became first chairman of the Parish Meeting in 1894, and first president of the Stoke St. Mary and Thurlbear Cricket Club, founded at the Half Moon one April evening in 1910.


While the Pattons lived at Stoke House, Stoke Court was let to tenants, notable among them Captain William Surtees Cook. He reached the village in May 1859 when the nightingales were singing 'all night long', and brought with him his wife Henrietta, favourite sister of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Elizabeth was soon writing to ask news of them in their 'new paradise, but learned in the following year of her sister's painful illness from cancer.   Henrietta died in her husband's arms on 23 November 1860, and lies buried at his side in the churchyard at Thurlbear.

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When Colonel Patton died in 1915, the villagers half rec­ognised the end of an era, watching from their doorways one January dawn as the last squire of Stoke was carried to his grave. By the time the First World War was over, the village had also lost its butcher, Capel Drewe, and its blacksmith, George Trump, and was to suffer like most rural parishes from the farming depression which came in the aftermath of war.  Population figures did not, as in some parishes, show rapid decline; but, even so, the 217 inhabitants recorded at Stoke St. Mary in 1931 were almost one hundred fewer than in the over-populated 1840s.

The effects of the Second World War were more immediately felt. Late in 1939, evacuees from East and West Ham began to arrive, and in June 1940 the second of many bombs to be dropped on Somerset exploded near the Nag's Head. Much worse followed on 28 June 1941 when three parachute mines fell over Stoke St. Mary and Thurlbear, causing considerable damage to several buildings, including Stoke House, Greenway Farm, and Thurlbear Church. In October, two further mines fell at Ash Farm, on the eastern borders of the parish.

Renewed self-confidence and the beginning of modest expansion marked the community during the 1950s. A group of houses, appropriately called 'Pattons', was built near the church in 1950, and in the same period several new houses were com­pleted on the Thurlbear road. A public meeting in May 1961 voted to rebuild the village hall, the work being completed soon after to the strikingly successful designs of Kenneth Steel and Hadley Coleman; and in 1968 the first old people's bungalows appeared in the newly-created Church Close.


Both in character and appearance, Stoke St. Mary has changed more rapidly in the last 20 years than at any time since the early nineteenth century. Gone forever is the close-knit agricultural community which survived even 50 years ago, and for few now is the village a place both for living and work­ing. Further new houses have appeared, and the population has grown accordingly. But in spite of change, Stoke St.Mary remains a place of striking beauty, and probably thrives today as much as it has ever done. Eleven hundred years after its name was first recorded, the future for the village seems bright.


SOME VILLAGE HOUSES


Stoke St. Mary now bears the obvious signs of recent develop­ment, but contains as well much evidence of earlier building and rebuilding. Furse Cottage, a fine thatched house, stands at the heart of the village and is probably Stoke St. Mary's oldest domestic building: it rose in the sixteenth century and was evidently enlarged in 1658 by Thomas Furse, a lime- burner. He left his name carved over his door and was once heard to speak disloyal words of Oliver Cromwell.

The seventeenth century saw numerous other houses enlarged or rebuilt near the centre of the village, among them Higher Broughton Farm (originally called Stoke Farm), the Orchard, Tuckers, and Aplens, while at a greater distance rose Broughton Farm - a rarity in locally-made brick - and Stoke Court. The present S'oke Farm was built in about 1774 as the first married home of Philip and Elizabeth Burridge, and retains a fine threshing barn which later served as Capel Drewe's slaughter house. Of similar date is Stoke Cottage, replacement for a house built a century earlier on a piece of hillside waste.

The striking Regency mansion called Stoke House is a more conspicuous feature of the hill. It was finished in about 1810 and owned successively by the Weaver, Harman and Patton families, local tradition recording that the horse chestnuts


which line its former carriage drive commemorate the many children of Captain Thomas Patton. His grandson, Henry Walsh, spent his childhood at Stoke House, and later gained distinction in the Zulu Wars, being the first to greet Major John Chard after the defence of Rorke's Drift. From the very top of the hill another early nineteenth century house looks out, built by the mildly eccentric Samuel Stodgell, a prosperous limeburner. He called his new home Stoke Castle, but generations of disrespectful locals thought 'Jack Straw's Castle' a better name.

Notable among Victorian houses in the village is the Cedars, for long a property of the Maine family. It had been built by 1886 and replaced a seventeenth century house whose kitchen survives as Meadow Cottage. The Half Moon, sole survivor of the three pubs which Stoke St. Mary possessed 80 years ago, reached its present form in the village street at the very end of the nineteenth century, evidently following a destructive fire: traces of an elegant brick built predecessor are still visible in the present structure.


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