Friends of the Museum of Somerset Annual Lecture – 23rd October at 7.30pm

The Friends of the Museum of Somerset are proud to announce that, following the highly successful inaugural event last year, their second Annual Lecture will be taking place on Tuesday 23rd October at 7.30pm in the Great Hall of the Museum

The title is “I Will Not Call Them a Mob – Magistrates, Bread Riots and the Gallows in Early Nineteenth Century Somerset”.

2 nooses greysteve poole Steve Poole

We are delighted to be welcoming back to Taunton as guest speaker, Steve Poole who, on his previous visit, delighted The Friends with his dynamic, entertaining and thought-provoking delivery. Steve is Professor of History & Heritage at the University of the West of England & Director of Regional History Centre, UWE

In a world without professional policing, the maintenance of public order often depended as much on the negotiating skills of local magistrates as it did the hard application of the law. But negotiating with a rioting mob was never going to be easy and magistrates were put firmly to the test when food rioting spread throughout the South West in the Spring of 1801. How did things get so out of hand in Somerset that two men ended up being hanged for their trouble at Taunton in that year? The lecture will dig deeply into the events surrounding the execution and suggest some answers.

Tickets £12.00 – BOOKING ADVISABLE:

The Friends Inaugural Annual Lecture


The Friends held their inaugural Annual Lecture at the Museum recently. Professor Ronald Hutton, of Bristol University and television fame, had the undivided attention of the large audience as he spoke about the diverse causes of the Civil War, which really did divide families and set brother against brother or father against son. In examples he quoted, long-time friends found themselves fighting against one another with terrible consequences.

Even civilians not directly involved in the fighting found their lives changed irrevocably – a farmer near Ludlow had his horses taken to pull guns so could no longer use his plough. He resorted to cultivating his fields by spade but then his spades were taken to dig fortifications and he found himself in gaol, unable to pay his taxes or feed his starving family.

Professor Hutton explained that to challenge the authority of the king, parliament had to have a substantial number of great nobles on its side. The older nobility, who had served in government and at court, tended to fight against the king (their long-establishment gave them a greater confidence in challenging the crown). The classic royalist noble tended to hail from a family that had not been involved in government or court, or a nouveau riche who had got their title since 1600.

Both sides had more or less equal support among the rest of society. And on both sides, rank-and-file troops on the ground came from the lower classes and fought for the same reasons: partly ideological, but mostly because big money was offered upfront for service at the beginning of the war. Then, when the money ran out, they were conscripted by force by both sides.

During the course of the war both sides gradually pushed out the nobility from their armies because, in order to win, they had to grab talent wherever they found it.

The Civil War was responsible for 250,000 deaths – 10% of the population – a bigger percentage than any other English war before or since. Its effects were still being felt two generations later.

16 January

Peter Triggs took members ‘Wandering through West Somerset’;  a journey much enjoyed from the comfort and warmth of the museum on a miserable dark winter evening.   On our travels from Kingston St. Mary over the Quantocks to East Quantoxhead and then on to Dunster we were treated to quality photographs, not merely of the beautiful scenery but also of the flora and fauna, from fungi to poppy and buzzard to camel and with some quirky shots thrown in.  Peter delivered his presentation with panache, humour and repartee with his audience.

October Newsletter Published

October Newsletter

Mick and Brian have compiled another excellent edition of the FOTMOS Newsletter and the October edition has just been published. Friends with email accounts should have already had their copy; those without will be receive theirs by post shortly. Please let us know if you find you have been inadvertently left off the distribution list.

September 19

Janet Tall, Head of Archives and Local Studies for the South West Heritage Trust, spoke about the Hyltons of Ammerdown. The Somerset Heritage Centre holds sixty boxes of papers making up the Hylton archive and containing records stretching back to 1659. Ammerdown is near Radstock and the house has been handed down through the Jolliffe family to William Jolliffe, a politician, who was made Baron Hylton in the mid-19th century and on to the present owners, the son and daughter in law of the 5th Baron Hylton, the current Lord Hylton.

The archive contains the oldest surviving map of coal mines in England. They are in the manor of Kilmersdon, which was purchased in 1659 by an ancestor of the Joliffes’ and brought in an eight share in the profits of the mines. In 1679 the estate passed to two daughters who fought each other over their inheritance. This leaning towards litigation also occurred in the 19th century when the owner of the estate found his heir speculating on his inheritance, so promptly disinherited him resulting in legalities when one branch of the family bought out the other.

ammhr1Ammerdown House

Private Tour of the Somerset Rural Life Museum

Tuesday 22 August

Somerset Rural Life Museum reopened in June following completion of a £2.4 million redevelopment project led by the South West Heritage Trust. The Museum tells the rich story of Somerset’s rural and social history.


Sam Astill talking to the group of Friends beside the remarkable scrap-iron sculpture of a horse in the Museum’s farmyard.

A large group of Friends met at the Museum to enjoy a highly informative tour led by Sam Astill, whose team led the SWHT’s redevelopment plans. During the tour, Sam described the concepts that shaped the new facilities and the difficulties and complexities of delivering the scheme. The goal was to preserve the essential qualities of the original and much-loved museum at the same time as finding new ways to tell the story of Somerset’s rural history.

It was clear to the friends that these objectives had been admirably achieved, with improved access to the Museum and greatly enhanced displays of the extensive collections.


The Friends enjoy hearing Sam’s detailed knowledge of the Museum while patrons of the café relax outside the beautiful Abbey Barn.


Sam concluded the tour by describing ongoing developments and improvements which are being implemented before Chris Cooper, Chair of the Friends, proposed votes of thanks to Wendy Flint for organizing the visit and to Sam Astill for having given the Friends such an interesting and stimulating afternoon.

Before the tour several Friends had enjoyed a delicious lunch in the Museum’s excellent café.

August 15 – Lighthouses of the Bristol Channel

“When is a lighthouse not a lighthouse?” This question was put to a packed meeting of The Friends of The Museum of Somerset by their charismatic speaker, John Page. (The answer, of course, is when it’s a harbour light.) The Bristol Channel has a great variety of lighthouses, ranging from the traditional ones such as Watchet, to the far more modern such as the one at Hinkley Point.

BurnhamOnSeaWatchet Low Light

The light at Ilfracombe, situated on a chapel, was the earliest in the Bristol Channel, dating from the Middle Ages. There has been a lighthouse on Flat Holm since 1737 and John pointed out some of the difficulties in manning an offshore light. Coal had to be shipped from the mainland each month for the fire that provided the light, as were provisions for the keeper and his family. In the 1930s the weather became so bad that no supplies could be landed between mid-November and late-January and an SOS had to be sent as supplies of food had run out. Incidentally, the Flat Holm light is now solar powered, automated and unmanned as are the majority of lights around the coasts of Britain.

June 20 – Hoards and Haberdashery

Why does an archaeologist need to know about modern industrial and mechanical processes? Because often metal detectorists find modern valves or cogs and are convinced they are of historical importance. Part of a modern bone-shaped dog biscuit can even be mistaken for iron -age pottery! Amy Downes gave this fascinating insight into her job as a Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) for the Portable Antiquities Scheme when she detailed the types of archaeological finds members of the public bring in to her to identify during her talk to the Friends of The Museum of Somerset.

By recording the coins (there are over 100,000 Roman coins), pottery, brooches and buckles found by members of the public over the last twenty years the Portable Antiquities Scheme now has a huge online database that is available for all to use and much research is now taking place using the records from the database. To see the database go to

Should you be lucky enough to uncover a hoard, or indeed anything of archaeological interest that is over 300 years old, the Somerset FLO works from the Heritage Centre and would be pleased to make your acquaintance!

May 16 – The Somerset Coal Canal

Patrick Moss, the chairman of the Somersetshire Coal Canal Society, gave a most informative talk to an appreciative audience of fifty at the recent meeting of The Friends of the Museum of Somerset. The Somersetshire Coal Canal was built to carry coal from the Paulton and Radstock coal fields to the Kennet and Avon Canal. Although the coal was relatively plentiful and there were markets for it across the South of England, sales had been small and prices high because the roads of the area were exceptionally poor. The Somersetshire Coal Canal was built to connect the mines with the major towns and was a very profitable venture.

The southern branch from Radstock was not successful as a canal, so a horse-drawn tramway was laid along the towpath instead. This was eventually sold to the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway in 1871.

The canal closed shortly after 1900 and most of it was drained for reasons of safety. The Somersetshire Coal Canal Society aims to restore the Coal Canal to navigation as a 10-mile-long amenity corridor.

March 21 – The Queen’s Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard

Gentlemen! Which would you choose – red tights or red stockings and suspenders? This is just one of the decisions to be made by those who are entitled to stand nearest to the monarch on state occasions, the Queen’s Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard. Shaun McCormack gave The Friends of The Museum of Somerset most interesting insights into life behind the scenes as a Yeoman of the Guard as he explained the history of the Yeomen and their distinctive uniform which dates from Tudor times.

Apart from guarding the monarch, the Yeomen were responsible for making the king’s bed and even today there is one Yeoman Bed Goer and one Yeoman Bed Hanger in each of the three divisions. The Goer had to go and find fresh straw for the bedding whilst the Hanger was responsible for stuffing the mattress and hanging it up – to stop others using it and to encourage the wildlife to drop out of it!

The Yeomen’s most famous duty is to ceremonially search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster prior to the State Opening of Parliament, a tradition that dates back to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up Parliament. In modern times officers from the Metropolitan Police carry out a more sophisticated additional search!

The Friends Bookshelf


The Museum’s acquisition of Castle House has made it possible to resume the sale of good quality second hand books on behalf of the Friends, which has proved a valuable source of income in the past. The bookshelf is situated in a convenient position in Castle House, which is across the courtyard opposite the museum entrance. It is in a light and spacious position with comfortable seating for those wishing to browse. FOTMOS will be most grateful if you can make regular donations of suitable books so that fresh stock is always available; they can be brought to The Friends’ meetings or handed to a member of the museum staff at the reception desk. All proceeds will be used to further the work of the museum. Thanks are due to Betty Carter for donating the bookcase, Brian Hunter for facilitating it’s move, Susie Simmons for establishing the area for it to occupy and Ben Clark for performing the necessary carpentry to make it fit.

Posted in -

February 21

Following an efficient and brief AGM, The Friends of The Museum of Somerset were fascinated by hearing Susie Simmons, Visitor Services Manager at the Museum, talk about the First Five Years at The Museum of Somerset.susieLooking at pictures mainly taken by Susie herself, it was amazing to see the roles that Museum staff undertake as part of the day to day running of such an establishment. Buckets and leaking rainwater featured in early photos, but Susie was pleased to report that the use of these had reduced considerably! Amazingly, most of the visitors knew nothing of such problems.

Susie detailed the worry that goes with having nationally important artefacts on loan to the Museum. Shortly before the Alfred Jewel arrived, the Museum suffered some broken windows due to vandalism and she explained how the staff had to rally round to maintain the security of the site and to get the damage repaired.

Since the Museum has acquired Castle House, Susie has had to add holiday let management to her CV and has been surprised at the demands made by some visitors to this exclusive accommodation! For your chance to win a weekend stay in the seven bed Castle House, please purchase some raffle tickets from the Museum between April and August.

January 17

Rape, pillage and plunder! These are the three words that most people would use to describe the Vikings in Britain. However, Derek Gore, Honorary Fellow at the University of Exeter, held a large audience of Friends of The Museum of Somerset and their guests captivated as he described evidence for possible settlement by Vikings in the south-west of Britain.


By citing evidence from both the written and the archaeological record, Derek explained how seaborne warriors from Scandinavia penetrated this region and raided ports, monasteries and royal sites in search of portable treasure such as silver, gold and slaves. Ransoms and tribute were paid, but some of the leaders had political ambitions and wished to wield power in England; they did this by settling here and becoming the dominant landowners, eventually mingling with the local population. Lundy, the island of puffins, and Spaxton, Spakr’s settlement, are both examples of Viking place names. The ever-growing data-base of metal-detectorists finds catalogued by the Finds Liaison Officers of the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme continues to contribute exciting evidence for Viking activity in the south-west.

October 18

“The Nile is settled.” So read the telegram from John Hanning Speke to the Royal Geographical Society in 1863 when Speke claimed to have ‘settled’ the source of the Nile as being Lake Victoria. In 1858 Speke, whose home was at Jordans, near Ashill, and Richard Burton became the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika. Burton claimed the discovery as his own as Speke, who suffered with eye problems, was almost blind at this time and could not see the lake! During the return trip, Speke left Burton, who was unwell, and struck out alone, which was when he found Lake Victoria. Speke’s theory that Lake Victoria was the source of Nile was rejected by Burton, thus beginning the bitter public dispute between the two men. After escaping death several times during his explorations, Speke was killed by his own gun whilst hunting in Wiltshire in 1864. He is buried in Dowlish Wake, near Ilminster, where his brother was the incumbent.

tom mayberry

In his fascinating talk to The Friends of the Museum of Somerset, Tom Mayberry not only related the history of the search for the source of the Nile, but vividly brought to life the feuding and ill-feeling between the two main Victorian protagonists seeking to claim the kudos of the discovery as their own.

Tuesday 20 September

In Mary Miles’ talk on Brewing in Somerset, members learned that Bog Myrtle, which is supposed to protect linen from fleas, was also said to promote rapid drunkenness and was once an ingredient used in brewing beer and that Coriander, Liquorice root and Nutmeg, which is toxic in large quantities, were also often used before hops became the flavouring of choice.

aletasterIn the seventeenth century in Somerset each person, including children, drank on average two pints of beer a day. This was often the weak “second brew” but it provided sustenance and the boiling undergone in the brewing process meant that the water was sterilised and so much safer than other sources of water. Workers at the time were often partly paid in beer.

Mary showed a picture of a bench end in Milverton Church which shows an Aletaster, an early Trading Standards Officer, checking on the quality of the beer and the accuracy of the measures in which it was sold. She also showed a picture of the Brewer’s House belonging to the West Somerset Brewery which still stands today as part of the Brewhouse Theatre.


The evening ended with Brian Hunter, the Deputy Chair of FOTMOS, presenting Betty Carter with Honorary Life Membership of the Friends.  Betty, who has given fascinating talks to the group and featured in the Museum’s War Stories production, has been a member of the group for twenty-five years but will shortly be leaving to be with her son and his family in Australia.



took place at the FOTMOS QUIZ NIGHT

held on Saturday 17th September

The winners are:

1st Prize (2 night stay in Castle House) – Debbie Bell
2nd Prize (£50) – Lorna Leyton
3rd Prize (£25) – Sarah Owen

Hearty congratulations to the winners and very many thanks to everyone who supported FOTMOS by purchasing tickets

All profits will go to the Museum of Somerset to further their work


Bondage – August 16

Bondage in Somerset? Yes – it was happening even during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. A curious group of members of The Friends of the Museum of Taunton listened as Sarah Villiers explained how whips, chains and handcuffs might have been employed by recruiting agents to spirit, abduct and collect people to become bonded servants working in America and Australia.

Some bonded servants emigrated willingly to gain a better life overseas but others were coerced into making the journey, lasting anything for four to seventeen, or in one case twenty-seven weeks in appalling conditions. Half of them died during the journey.

When their contracted period of bondage was over two-thirds settled on the land, became artisans or even risked the journey back to Britain, whilst the others became “poor whites” for whom the better life had not materialised. The government of the day encouraged this form of emigration as it reduced the numbers in the poor houses and thus reduced rates, and at certain times as after the 1861 census, it reduced the superfluity of women in Britain by encouraging them to go as bonded servants to America and Australia.

The Friends’ next speaker will be Mary Miles talking about Brewing in Somerset at 7.30 on Tuesday, September 20th at the Museum of Taunton. All are welcome to attend, the fee for guests being £3. For further details, please visit the Museum or see their website

Somerset and Slavery – June 21

A packed meeting of The Friends of the Museum of Taunton (FOTMOS) were captivated by South West Heritage Trust’s archivist, Esther Hoyle, as she talked about the emotive subject of slavery in Somerset during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Using documents held in the archives she showed how three local landed families had used money coming from the sales of sugar and rum. Much had been spent on house renovations, which gave employment to many local craftsmen, but in contrast, the alms-houses in East Coker were supported by money coming from this trade, which in turn was dependent on slave labour.

There is a fascinating document in the archives in which an agent in Jamaica, fearing that the economy of Britain would be ruined if the slave trade was abolished, refers to “that infernal miscreant Wilberforce”. Of course, William Wilberforce, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Hannah More and others, including the inhabitants of Watchet who signed a petition against the slave trade, won their case and in 1807 the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed in parliament. Sir Stephen Chapman of Tainfield House, Kingston St. Mary was Governor of Bermuda and it fell to him to oversee the emancipation of the slaves there.

The Friends’ next speaker will be Mary Siraut talking about Exmoor Forest at 7.30 on July 19th at the Museum of Taunton. All are welcome to attend, the fee for guests being £3. For further details, please visit the Museum or see their website

“Benefits, Brass & the Girtest Grandest Day” Philip Hoyland May 17th

Philip Hoyland –  May 17th

A wonderful talk by a natural communicator in a delightful Somerset accent. The title, ‘Benefits, Brass, and the ‘Girtest, Grandest Day’ related to the village Friendly Societies, which were much in evidence during the 19th and well into the 20th century. These were societies started by the poor for the poor. Members were required to give a regular monthly amount into their particular Society. This then enabled them to draw out money in times of need, a kind of local ‘Welfare State’ This could be to pay the doctor, pay for a funeral or sometimes, in especially hard times, to keep a member out of the poor house.

Societies were very strictly reregulated. Monthly meetings were held in the largest room in the village and this was often the pub. Stewards were in charge of the money, which was kept in a large box, with several locks, screwed to a table. Money held was sometimes also used as a bank. Each Society had its own symbol. Many of them were known by the name of the pub where meetings were held, such as The Swan, The Lion, The Lamb and Flag, The Bell and The Ship.

The ‘Girtest Grandest Day’ was the great feast day, which took place around the villages on the 29th May, or Oak Apple Day. On this day Friendly Society members would parade in their best clothes, wearing sashes and proudly bearing their tipstaffs. The staffs, a pole topped with a brass sign displaying the society’s symbol, were peculiar to the West Country. There would be a brass band, the children would have a school holiday and all would wear their Sunday best. This was, without doubt, the biggest day of the year for the villages.

This fascinating talk, much enjoyed by all who attended, fittingly ended with a warm and spontaneous round of appreciative applause. It was indeed a splendid evening.

Ann Pugh


dodgem“What did we have before dodgem cars?” That was the question posed by Kay Townsend in her talk to the Friends of the Museum of Somerset. As one of a family of showmen for the last hundred years Kay was well placed to give the answer – the Wave Ride where the car moved over a panelled floor lifted by underfloor levers. This mechanism caused at least one death and became unpopular, being followed by battery driven cars. The first “proper” dodgem cars date from 1920 and were exported worldwide from America. Billy Butlin realised their potential and in 1924 he borrowed £200 to enable him to buy some for his funfair in Skegness. He became a Dodgem Corporation agent, buying and then selling on dodgem cars and his empire of holiday camps was built on that. Nowadays dodgems have a motor incorporated into the front wheel, the cars are built of fibre glass rather than wood and the prospect of whiplash is lessened by the surrounding pneumatic rubber bumper. The joy of driving them remains the same as it was a hundred years ago.

All are welcome to the next talk which will be at the Museum in Taunton on May 17th at 7.30 and is entitled “Benefits, Brass and the Girtest Grandest Day”. The speaker is Philip Hoyland.

Barbara Cooper

Translating History for Television

Annabel Hobley

Television producer Annabel Hobley

At the recent regular monthly evening meeting held at the Museum, the Friends welcomed Annabel Hobley from London to talk on the subject ‘Translating History to Television’. Annabel, an experienced producer for television, is credited with, amongst others, the B.B.C.’s Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter; Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs and Maps: Power, Plunder & Possession.

Annabel Hobley and Dr. Pamela Cox, who co-authored the book "Shopgirls" based on the BBC programme.

Annabel Hobley and Dr. Pamela Cox, who co-authored the book “Shopgirls” based on the BBC programme.


Not surprisingly she was able to demonstrate her considerable knowledge and insight of the process. She spoke of the need to tailor programmes to varying audiences and the perceived whims of programme commissioners. Taking her audience back to the early days of television, she illustrated the dramatic changes that have occurred over time. Annabel’s absorbing, informative and entertaining presentation was followed by a lively question and answer session which indicated the depth of interest generated amongst her audience.


Wendy Flint




A talk by Stephen Minitt

Have you ever been in possession of a counterfeit coin?

The answer is almost certainly “Yes”.

Ever since there have been coins there have been forgers, from the earliest days of coinage to the present. The risks were great but so were the rewards.

Romans striking coinsThere is much early evidence of counterfeit coins in Somerset during the Roman period. The Shapwick hoard, unearthed in 1998, contained 9,238 coins from the period 31BC – 224AD. Of these 25 were forgeries – 0.3%. Many were of excellent quality only recognizable by the peeling off of the silver plating .

Three miles west in the Chilton Polden area a great many moulds used by forgers have been unearthed indicating a thriving trade in counterfeiting.

In 274 came a reform of the coinage, in which the production of higher value coins left a shortage of smaller ones, the basic need for the average person. So the production of smaller coins for exchange became almost an essential for buying and selling, with probably as many copies as real.

With the advent of the Anglo-Saxons, coinage regained its importance and became very tightly controlled. The mint at Langport is thought to be the earliest in Somerset with the name of the moneyer appearing on the reverse of the coin. The coinage was replaced periodically, but forgers were always adapting. Mints appeared all over the UK during the 11th century many of these in Somerset.

Always the forger seemed able to adapt to the current need. As the coins became more sophisticated so did the counterfeiters. With the advent of the milled coins it became more difficult. Using gold, silver and copper, new coins were issued in the reign of George 3rd in an attempt to beat the forgers. Counterfeits actually appeared on the following day.

Distributing forged coins became risky. Forgers passed their coins on to distributers. Many cunning methods of distribution were used.

‘Ringing the changes’ was an 18th C phrase meaning changing bad money for good.

Penalties for convicted forgers were severe, as it was seen to be undermining the state. In Anglo-Saxon times it was a common punishment to have a hand chopped off and nailed above the mint.

Other punishments through the centuries included boiling in oil, and being burnt at the stake.

In 1786 a Phoebe Harris was condemned for counterfeiting shillings: she was condemned to death by hanging from a stake until she was hopefully dead, following which her body was burned. This attracted an estimated crowd of 20,000. Following this the Member of Parliament Sir Benjamin Hammett (after whom Hammett Street is named) fought successfully to change the law after which forgers were just hung!

So, back to the question of whether you have any counterfeit coins in your possession. It is estimated that 3% of all £1 coins in circulation are forgeries. Have you ever wondered why the car park machines like some coins and not others?

And it was with this question that Steve ended a truly fascinating talk.

Report by Ann Pugh

‘The Food Riots of 1801 and the execution of Tout and Wescott

The June Meeting of the Friends.

steve poole
Speaker: Steve Poole, Professor at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

It was the details behind the events leading up to the food riots of 1801, as a result of which Tout and Wescott were executed, that made this talk so fascinating; in particular the law as it existed in the days before the police force came into being when the role of the local magistrate was of vital importance. A man of ‘good standing’ within the local community he was appointed by the Lord Lieutenant of the county, to administer the law in his area.

By concentrating of a single local incident Steve was able to bring history to life in a very amusing and informative way. We saw the magistrate in all his glory administering justice. He was the lynch pin of the community; he had the power to punish the dissolute. He was the official that the poor had the right to approach when they felt their long established rights were being eroded. He aimed to sort petty differences in order to prevent trouble and compromise was usually considered to be the best way. It was, of course, also the easiest way out for the magistrate. We also saw the magistrate in cartoons of the period as a figure of fun and mockery.

The Riot Act was particularly interesting. In the event of a disturbance the magistrate could read the Riot Act to the rioters. He would then wait for one hour. If there were still more than eleven men protesting after the hour then he could call in the militia – a body of reluctant conscripts – to be avoided if possible!

The Food Riot of 1801 started with a search to find a magistrate to pass judgement on the price of bread. This – unbelievable in today’s terms – involved a walk to North Petherton only to find he had gone to Halswell … then to Taunton … then to Bridgwater, and finally to Otterhampton, by which time the protesters were a thousand strong. The invasion of a baker’s shop whose owner refused to lower the price of bread resulted in a quick referral to the Assizes where the judge found two of the rioters guilty of aggravated theft. Within days poor Tout and Westcott were executed at Stonegallows, near Taunton.

This was an outstanding talk given by one who loves his subject and is very able to infect others with his enthusiasm. The programme secretary is to be congratulated.

Report by Ann Pugh

The RMS Empress of Ireland Disaster

Our meeting on 17 March 2015 gave us an interesting talk by Janet Tall about the sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland following a collision on the St Lawrence River around 2am on 29 May 1914. The Canadian Pacific passenger liner in transit from Quebec City to Liverpool collided with a Norwegian collier named SS Storstad, causing the former to sink in 130 feet of water in around 14 minutes. There was a great loss of life totalling 1,012, including 134 children, making this the worst Canadian maritime accident in peacetime. By comparison RMS Titanic had sunk two years earlier with a loss of 1,503 lives.

RMS Empress of Ireland

RMS Empress of Ireland

Independent enquiries in Canada and Norway reached different conclusions as to which ship was to blame, the Canadians finding for the liner while the Norwegians found against it. There were complex issues raised in regard to changing course in foggy conditions, and separately concerning the closing of watertight doors and portholes. Empress of Ireland had adequate lifeboats but not all of them could be launched due to the ship listing.

This disaster led to an improvement in the design of ships’ bows, bringing on the raked bow.

We learned that the sinking of RMS Empress of Ireland is not as well known as RMS Titanic because Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated on 28 June 1914 and WW1 was set in motion. Lord Mersey’s Commission of Inquiry on the liner sinking began on 16 June 1914 and lasted for eleven days.

The captain of RMS Empress of Ireland was Captain Henry Kendall, well known in those times as the person instrumental in the arrest of Dr Hawley Crippen in 1910 after recognising the murderer as a passenger aboard RMS Montrose and setting in train his arrest.

Captain Henry Kendall

Captain Henry Kendall

Arts Council England Accreditation

We are proud to announce that The Museum of Somerset is now an accredited museum.

The Accreditation Scheme is administered by Arts Council England in partnership with others, and sets nationally agreed standards for museums in the UK.

Arts Council England

Accreditation enables museums and governing bodies to assess their current performance, and it supports them in planning and developing their services. It helps with:


It is quality standard that serves as an authoritative benchmark for assessing performance, rewarding achievement and driving improvement.


It raises awareness and understanding of museums, building confidence and credibility both within the governing body and among the public.


It helps museums to improve their focus on meeting users’ needs and interests and developing their workforce.


It helps museums to examine their services and to encourage joint working within and between organisations.


It helps with forward planning by formalising procedures and policies.


It demonstrates that a museum has met a national standard, which strengthens applications for public and private funding and gives investors confidence in the organisation.

Dave Drury

The First Pyramid

Our February monthly meeting produced a talk by Janet Diamond entitled “The First Pyramid”.

When Djoser, the first Pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, chose to build the royal necropolis at Saqqara, the nobility of Egypt had already been buried here for many generations. His monument, ‘The Step Pyramid’, at nearly 5000 years old, is the world’s first, most ancient, incredibly complex, vast and beautiful pyramid. Originally it was 62 metres (203 feet) tall.

The Step Pyramid at Saqqara

The Step Pyramid at Saqqara

The Pyramid stands tall today and dominates the desert horizon and area of Saqqara. Yet it is only a part of the enormous funerary complex of Djoser.

  • From what religious, cultural, artistic and political motivation did this pyramid spring?
  • How did it evolve?
  • How and why was it conceived and built?

These are the questions the speaker sought to answer and in doing so gave an insight into the development of royal burials of the Predynastic period and First, Second and Third Dynasties, and the political, religious, artistic and architectural influences that led up the building of the magnificent Step Pyramid at Saqqara marking the beginning of The Old Kingdom and the Age of the Pyramids.

During this presentation one was struck by the enormous ego of the pharaohs and how much importance they attached to the afterlife, convinced that it would be a continuation, an enhancement, of their earthly existence. A typical tomb contained a dozen or so rooms into which were placed the earthly possessions that enhanced their status and lifestyle in this world and were clearly intended to do so in the next.

All in all a fascinating presentation. 59 members attended the evening, which was a very enjoyable event. Many thanks for your continuing support.

Mick Grigg

The Top Job – Delving into Prime Ministerial History

Members were treated on 20 January 2015 to a talk given by Janet Seaton and Barry Winetrobe.

At the outset we were reminded that our country has ‘enjoyed’ fifty-three PMs, of whom the longest serving was Walpole from 1721 to 1742.

For local interest, our attention was drawn to the Blue Plaque at 13 Canon Street, Taunton, which records D‘Israeli’s brief residence when he stood for the constituency in 1835. His prospects were considered poor and this was confirmed by a heavy defeat, despite reportedly wooing the voters with the claim that ‘there was no place like Taunton’.

Prime Ministers

Some PMs from history.

Janet and Barry went on to describe the role and function of a PM, reminding us that in the absence of a written constitution a definitive ‘job description’ doesn’t exist.          

A PM has a special and long established relationship with the reigning monarch, attending weekly audiences. The monarch may have reason to consider themselves the senior partner, since our present Queen has to date presided over twelve PMs. Citing however the example of the abdication of King Edward VIII, in a crisis it is the PM who holds sway. Baldwin made it clear that the King would have to go if he married ‘that woman’!

Extra marital affairs are no strangers to PMs and several examples of this were cited.

PMs can be undone by events, the whim of the electorate and even their own cabinet and party members. Most notably in recent history have been Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech which hastened the fall of Margaret Thatcher, Churchill’s remarkable loss of office at the end of WW2 and Chamberlain’s demise at the beginning of that war.

We were treated to numerous other interesting facts and figures. Our speakers held attention throughout and cleverly interspersed a couple of picture quizzes to provide a degree of audience participation.

Following a vote of thanks by Chris Cooper, the generous round of applause summed up an entertaining evening.

Brian Hunter

From Saturnalia to Christmas Day in the Workhouse


On 16 December 2014 we were treated to a talk by Sue Berry entitled “‘Tis the Season to be Merry’…… from Saturnalia to Christmas Day in the Workhouse”.

How little has changed over the centuries: we all know how to celebrate!

Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honour of the deity Saturn, initially held on 17 December and later festivities were extended to 23 December.


Io Saturnalia. From one extreme…

The salutation ‘lo Saturnalia’ was used as a seasonal greeting. Festivities included public banquets with a carnival atmosphere and the levelling of the social hierarchy, where masters provided table service for their slaves and purportedly slaves were permitted to disrespect their masters. It is not mentioned whether punishment was meted out following the celebrations!!

Rampant overeating, drunkenness and wild revelry became the rule: sobriety the exception! Is this not reminiscent of the twenty first century – the carnival atmosphere, the excesses, and drunkenness that we refer to as pubbing and clubbing! On Sigillaria, the last day of Saturnalia, gifts were exchanged to show either friendship or as a gratuity by the ‘boss’. Today we exchange gifts on Christmas Day.

Over the centuries there were many changes made to the celebration, even including reportedly the trial of Father Christmas in 1686 for enticing drunkenness, gluttony and idleness! He was found innocent and acquitted. Those of you who still believe in Father Christmas must be breathing a sigh of relief!

Christmas Day in the Workhouse

…to the other. Christmas Day in the Workhouse.

In the Victorian times we saw local benefactors distributing gifts to their employees, or community. For some, these charitable acts kept the elderly and the unemployed out of the dreaded workhouse. However, although the workhouse was abolished in the first half of the twentieth century, we still see benefactors today (the general public) donating food to families who are living in poverty and reliant on food banks to celebrate Christmas. Is that not a touch of irony!!

On a lighter note I want to share an invitation I received via email:

‘Feel like you want to party? Feel like you want to hold forth about our consumerist society while shaking your booty at the same time? Feel like life is short and where’s the glass?’

Rock on Saturnalia!

Maxine Courage

Lottery Nets over £500 for Heritage

The Christmas lottery came to a conclusion last week when the draw took place at the monthly meeting on 16 December.

After the costs have been deducted we have raised over £500 for the benefit of The Museum of Somerset. This is a very good outcome and our grateful thanks go to all those involved both in organising the event and the buying and selling of tickets.

Most of the ten prizes were distributed on the evening of the draw and the winners of the remainder are being contacted. A list of the prize winners is available upon request.

We would like to thank those who generously donated prizes:

  • Brendon Books: Old Brewery Building, Bath Place, Taunton
  • Castle Hotel: Castle Green, Taunton
  • Mr. Miles’ Tea Rooms: 3-4 High Street, Taunton
  • Hair@22: 22 Bridge Street, Taunton
  • Hestercombe Gardens: Cheddon Fitzpaine
  • Marks & Spencer: County Mall, 66 East Street, Taunton
  • Riverside Butchers: 8 Riverside Place, 2 St. James’ Street, Taunton
  • Somerset Archaeological & Natural History Society: Somerset Heritage Centre, Brunel Way, Norton Fitzwarren

Cat’s Grave Marker Saved for the Nation

With help from the Friends, The Museum of Somerset has become the proud owner of a 10th Century statue of St Peter. This was originally found by a man who took it home and used it to mark the grave of his cat. Later it was spotted in his garden at Dowlish Wake, near Ilminster, and recognised as being an important piece of sculpture. Experts have identified it as a piece of national significance and the British Museum was interested in acquiring it.

The statue was eventually purchased by a dealer and the gentleman then agreed to sell it to The Museum of Somerset. The Friends were able to initiate the purchase with a contribution of £500 and in turn this led to a successful application to three major charitable donors when the balance to £150,000 was raised.1954L14313_6SYR9The sculpture was probably part of an architectural frieze around an important religious building. Identification of the figure is confirmed by the Latin inscription SC[S PE]TRUS, which represents SANCTUS PETRUS. It is carved from oolitic limestone, which occurs widely in the area of south Somerset.

The statue is now on display in The Museum of Somerset, where it is an enormously important addition to the collection.

Dave Drury

The AGM and a Talk by Steve Minnitt

The Annual General Meeting took place at the Museum on 18 November 2014. A new Committee has been elected and consists of the following people:

Chris Cooper (Chairman), Brian Hunter (Vice-Chairman), Chris Jessop (Secretary), Mick Grigg (acting Treasurer), Maxine Courage, Wendy Flint, Marion Holley, Ann Pugh and David Watkins.

A talk with slides by Steve Minnitt, Head of Museums, followed the AGM. This fascinating talk dealt with the story behind many of the Roman articles in the Museum.

Part of the Low Ham mosaic

Part of the Low Ham mosaic

These included such details as the finding of the Dido and Aeneas mosaic at Low Ham, how it was uncovered, cleaned and finally rolled up and moved to become one of the Museum’s main attractions. Then the story of Dido and Aeneas as shown on the mosaic itself from the arrival of Aeneas, his love for Dido and finally the departure as his ship sailed away.

Similarly fascinating was the story of the finding of the Frome Hoard, now displayed in the Museum, from its discovery in a pot in a field near Frome, details of why it was likely to have been buried there, how it was removed, how the coins were cleaned and how the broken pot was repaired piece by piece before it arrived in the Museum.

Steve Minitt shows part of the Frome Hoard

Steve Minnitt shows part of the Frome Hoard

The collection of Roman coins is of particular interest to Steve. Apart from their obvious use as currency they were very important as a means of propaganda. This was demonstrated by coins of the Emperor Caurausius, a general who proclaimed himself Emperor of Britain in 286AD. The reverse of his coins show a peace loving emperor as he is welcomed by Britain, another of two hands joined showing his good relationship with the army. He was assassinated seven years later!

Steve is one who is able to convey his considerable knowledge with clarity and enthusiasm. If you are interested in the Museum and missed his talk then you missed a treat.

50 members attended the meeting. Thank you for your continuing support.

Goodbye to Leah Whiting

The Friends would like to say goodbye and thank you to Leah Whiting, who is leaving the Somerset Heritage Service.

Leah was responsible for setting up our current website, bringing the information technology side of the Friends into the 21st Century. We have been very grateful to her for all the assistance and expertise she brought to our operation.

We wish Leah every future success.

First World War research guide

logo singleAre you researching an ancestor who served in the First World War? Do you want to know more about the contribution your community made to the war effort?

If you want to find out more about the role your relatives played in the war, or about the effect the war had on your community, there are a number of resources available to help you.

Somerset Remembers is a county-wide project exploring the impact that the war had on the county and the many ways in which Somerset people, their families and communities have remembered the war. The Friends contributed £2000 to this project. 

Download the research guide here or visit their resources page for further information.

If you have already done research, share your own memories, records or artefacts with others on the Somerset Remembers community archive. Here you can discover the personal experiences of Somerset people in photographs, letters and stories passed down through the generations.

Do you have pictures, letters, diaries, or war records from a family member who was involved? Did a relative serve with the Somerset Light Infantry? Is there a Red Cross nurse in the family? Or have you been researching your village to mark the centenary?

You can contribute to the project or read the fascinating accounts of the lives and experiences of Somerset people at:

Book sale raises funds for museum

The Friends held two second-hand book sales at the Museum of Somerset on Sunday 15 June and Saturday 21 June. These were scheduled to coincide with Father’s Day on the Sunday and Taunton’s Somerfest on the Saturday, the latter celebration taking place at a number of locations around the town centre. There was an addition to the usual reading matter as plants donated by our members were also on sale. Across the two sales £186.56 was raised and this will be put with other funds and ultimately be used for the benefit of the Museum of Somerset. Our grateful thanks go out to all those Friends who gave up their time, energy and resources, including plants, to make the events a success.

The Closure of Taunton & District Civic Society

We were sorry to learn of the closure on 1st April 2014 of Taunton & District Civic Society, founded in 1971. At its closure the Society held certain financial assets which required suitable disposal and a number of local organisations were therefore approached in this connection. These included the Friends of The Museum of Somerset.

Following discussions between the parties we were very pleased to be offered the sum of £500 “without condition but we hope the money can be put towards something tangible and permanent for the museum, and, if at all possible, of relevance to Taunton and district.”

While we wish the circumstances could have been somewhat different, this most generous offer has been gratefully accepted. Due consideration is now being given in cooperation with the Museum to an appropriate use for the money complying with the spirit in which it has been donated to the Friends.

Friends Donate £2000 to First World War Project

From L-R Mick Grigg, treasurer, Sam Astill, Assistant Curator, Susie Simmons, Visitor Services Manager, Felicity Hebditch, retiring Chairman, and Betty Carter, one of the longest serving members of the Friends.The Friends of the Museum of Somerset have raised £2000 towards the Somerset Remembers project; the county-wide First World War memorial project.

Three members of the Friends, Betty Carter, a long-standing member, Felicity Hebditch, retiring chairman, and Mick Grigg, treasurer, presented the cheque to Assistant Curator Sam Astill, who is leading on the commemorative project for Somerset Heritage.

The money was raised through subscriptions, donations and raffles at the Friends’ meetings, and will go towards meeting the costs of the project.

2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the 
First World War. Drawing on this poignant moment in national history, Somerset Remembers will explore the impact and long-term legacy of the conflict on the county.

A six-month exhibition will be held at The Museum of Somerset this summer. Built around the stories and experiences of Somerset people during the First World War, it will go beyond the military aspects of the conflict to explore the wider impact on the county.

Posted in -

Visit to Cothelstone Manor

Cothelstone ManorBefore Christmas a group of 50 members visited Cothelstone Manor. Their hosts, Nigel and Finny Muers-Raby, made them very welcome, providing an entertaining talk on the history of the manor and a private tour. 

The present house is Grade II listed and dates from the early 1600s. It was largely demolished by the parliamentary troops in 1646 and rebuilt in 1855–56. It is notable for its fine Grade I listed Gatehouse dating from the early 1500s, the Grade II listed Gazebo and the 17th Century Banqueting Hall all of which have survived. The stone mullion windows are of architectural significance and are noted by Pevsner as being unique. There is, in fact, only one other house in England with this type of mullioned window.

The group then went to the the red sandstone Church of St Thomas of Canterbury behind the manor. The church dates from the 12th Century and was largely restored in 1864. It includes memorials to the Stawell family church., which is still in regular use; one of the churchwardens gave a guided tour.

After this the group returned to the manor for a homemade afternoon tea of cake and sandwiches, followed by some carol-singing around the Christmas tree and log fire.

Posted in -