The main life-blood of the Watchet economy over the years has been paper-making, giving employment to thousands of people. The manufacturing of paper appears to have been a local industry for over three centuries, the earliest paper being made in 1652 near the site of the present Watchet paper mill and described as Snailholt, although local farmers may have made paper before then to supplement their winter income. The Wood family held the mill until 1846 and later owners were Messrs. Wansbrough, Peach and Date. In 1869 the first paper-making machine was introduced by the then owner, Mr. A.C. Wansbrough. The business became a limited liability company in 1896 under the style of the Wansbrough Paper Company Ltd. The mill was purchased by Mr. W.H. Reed in 1901 and it gradually expanded. In 1910 the company purchased their own steamboat, SS Rushlight, which made regular voyages to South Wales for coal to fuel the boiler at the mill. This was followed by the SS Arran Monarch in 1953; both were Clyde Puffers. In 1977 ownership of the mill again changed hands, this time to the St Regis Group of New York.
The St Regis Paper Company is now part of David S. Smith plc, the UK's largest producer of paper from recycled materials. In 1871, 26 men, 23 women and 10 boys were employed at the mill. By 1900 these numbers had risen to a total of 350 being employed in paper and bag-making and by 1960 to over 500 (bag-making had then ceased). At the time of writing, the number employed has plummeted to approximately 100, due in some measure to new technology.
Cows from Mill Farm being driven back to Church Fields after milking in the 1950s.
The weaving of woollen cloth was one of Watchet’s earliest industries. Some of the finished cloth was dyed in the colour known as Watchet Blue, which is thought by some to have been obtained from the juice of locally-picked whortleberries. It is said that King Charles I wore a waistcoat of Watchet Blue as he walked to the scaffold in 1649. There are other theories as to the origin of Watchet Blue, but in truth no-one really knows.
Most famous for its maritime connection, it was the port used for shipping iron ore mined on the Brendon Hills to South Wales in the 19th century. Later in the 1800s visitors were being encouraged by the appearance of two tourist hotels, refreshment rooms and a widening variety of tradesmen, including a bookseller, a photographer and library agent. A pleasure ground overlooking the harbour included a refreshment room and a ladies' bathing place was established on a secluded beach. Over the years agriculture has also been of importance to Watchet, which was the centre for grain milling and fulling.
Other Watchet manufacturing industries included a flour mill, two foundries, a paper bag factory, a shirt factory, rope-making, sawmills, etc. From 1925-70 Watchet was also a garrison town, with Forces being stationed at nearby Doniford Camp (now a holiday complex). Photographs of the camp and military activity there can be seen at the Museum.
Educationally, there were day and boarding schools at Watchet in 1826, and in 1861 there was a girls’ school at Temple Place (now South Road). There were two private schools in Watchet during the 1920s and 1930s known as Westcliff and St. Decuman's. Buckland School, a private day school for boys and girls, was founded at the top of St. Decuman’s Road in 1955. An undenominational school was opened in the town during 1869-70, and a new Church of England school was built in 1873. The two schools in Watchet were absorbed into the County Council system in 1903, with the undenominational school becoming a Council School and the Church School the Watchet National School, although always known locally as the Church School.
The two schools were retained when a secondary modern school was built at Williton in 1957 for pupils over 11 years. In 1971 further re-organisation converted Williton Secondary School into a middle school for pupils aged 9-14 and the two Watchet schools became first schools. Later the two Watchet schools were closed and replaced with a new one, Knights Templar CE and Methodist Community VA First School, which was officially opened in 1990.
In 1953 a new public library was opened on the Esplanade in the building formerly used to house the lifeboat. This has been a great asset to the town and much used. Watchet lost its fire station in 1959; this was manned by local part-time firemen. Fire cover for the town is now provided by a brigade stationed at Williton.
Sights and traditions of Watchet
Watchet is fortunate in having a fully uniformed official town crier, being a member of the Court Leet. He is often seen and heard around the town, proclaiming various events, functions and visitations. Many traditions of Watchet have been passed down over the years, and one such is Caturn's Night, which has seen a recent revival. Apparently, Queen Catherine (a Portuguese lady) paid a visit to Watchet in late November many years ago. This Queen Catherine (or Caturn as she was known to Watchet folk) was well pleased with her reception and generously provided a feast for everyone consisting of hot apple cake and cider. The treat was so enjoyed that the townsfolk decided to make it an annual event to be known as Caturn’s Night. For centuries an annual three-day event known as St. Decuman’s Fair (also as Watchet Fair) was held in September in Market Street. Sadly, this has long ceased. Another Watchet custom long past was Lantern Night, which was also held annually in September.
Watchet also has a long tradition for carnival, which still prevails strongly, and a new event run by the Carnival Club is a separate three-day music festival. A great social gathering place for older or infirm Watchet folk is the Phoenix Centre on the Esplanade which provides a wonderful service for the town.