Maritime History of Watchet

The harbour has been of enormous importance to the settlement of Watchet since the earliest times, from its formation as a natural harbour after the last ice age up to the present day as a man-made harbour supporting a modern marina.

Pre-history records indicate that Watchet was a landing place on a river estuary joining the River Severn and as the Severn Valley receded, giving way to the Bristol Channel, early Britons developed waterborne trade with South Wales. Undoubtedly as the sedimentary layers that were the estuary eroded away the hunter-gatherers of the region would have increasingly turned to fishing for their living. So a haven was born and, as the sea encroached, so the boats got larger and travelled further with trade extending to Ireland and the Continent.

Little evidence of extensive Roman occupation exists in the area, but the arrival of the Saxons in AD577 saw the Britons under considerable pressure with Watchet succumbing around AD680. Under Alfred the Great (AD871-901), Watchet became an important Saxon port and a site of a ‘Royal Mint’, coins of which have been found as far distant as Copenhagen and Stockholm, providing important evidence of the Viking raids that took place during the period AD918-997.

The Norman Conquest had little effect on Watchet, with trade through the harbour dominating commercial activity. Shipbuilding and fishing would also have prospered and it is thought that the first substantial breakwater, built to the west of the harbour, was constructed in the early 16th century. Initially built of wood, it would have been vulnerable to the heavy seas and on many occasions had to be repaired or rebuilt, which indicates the importance of the harbour to the region.

Watchet is known to have supplied many seamen for the defence of the country during the Spanish Armada and the later Napoleonic War. However, probably one of the rarest naval encounters took place just off Watchet in about 1643 during the Civil War. A Royalist ship had been sent to Watchet to support the King’s cause. With the tide on ebb, Captain Popham’s Parliamentarian troops galloped into the sea on horseback, their steeds breast deep, and attacked the men on board the ship with brisk fire from their carbines This did such destruction among the Royalists that they did their utmost to retreat. Popham’s troopers plied them so thick with carbine shot that to save their lives they surrendered the ship and themselves, and so a ship at sea was captured by troops on horseback. This rare encounter is well documented in the Market House Museum along with an artist’s impression.

Early trade through the harbour included the export of a superior lime produced from the numerous lime kilns along the coast. It was much in demand for the building industry, particularly marine constructions, and was used in the building of the original Eddystone lighthouse which was re-erected on Plymouth Hoe. Seaweed was collected from the beach, burned and exported for glass-making, while alabaster and gypsum were also notable trades out of the port for use in the paper industry, ornaments and chimney manufacture. Fish and agricultural products, wool and hides were staple exports, as was cloth manufactured at the local mills; imports from the Continent included salt, coal, wines and brandy. Other more dubious trades occurred, known as ‘free trade’, but smuggling would better describe the avoidance of excise duty practised by many in the town; this was largely stamped out by the 18th century.

Watchet Esplanade in 1916

Watchet Esplanade, c.1916.

In 1708 Sir William Wyndham built a new harbour costing £1,000, and in 1843 the Esplanade was built by the fourth Earl of Egremont, who at that time was lord of the manor. It was early in the 18th century that the harbour really began to thrive with ships trading throughout the Bristol Channel, the Irish Sea, London and the Continent. The export of thousands of tons of iron ore from the Brendon Hill mines from 1855 necessitated the enlargement of the harbour. A further new harbour, which included an east pier and a wharf, was constructed in 1861-62 by James Abernethy. Trade reached its zenith in the late 19th century; coal imports, for instance, reached over 13,000 tons in 1862 with over 1,100 ship movements.

In December 1900 came disaster – the harbour was hit by a raging sea swept on by terrific westerly gale-force winds. Ships were smashed like matchwood, sails ripped to ribbons and the outer walls breached. The consequence of this saw the dissolution of the large old civic Parish of St. Decuman’s, which included Watchet, Williton and surrounding hamlets, and the formation of Watchet Urban District Council in 1902. The harbour was rebuilt and the town’s industries and people’s livelihoods restored. Since then the harbour has been damaged in 1903, 1937 and in 1991, but each time has risen again and overcome the elements.

The Watchet Town Council presented the Museum with a fine framed list of ships of Watchet over a period of 75 years up to 1932. Compiled by the late Mr A.B.L. Pearse, it consists of 126 sailing vessels, from smacks to large schooners, including ships built locally.

Maritime Painting by Thomas Chidgey

Painting of the ketch ‘Annie Christian’ by marine artist Thomas Chidgey.
This vessel was owned by Isaac Allen of Watchet from 1895 to 1912.

Thomas Chidgey, a noted marine artist of Watchet, produced some fine paintings of Watchet ships, several of which are on display in the Museum. It was during this period that John Short (‘Yankee Jack’) came into prominence. Born locally in 1839, he first went to sea out of Watchet as a lad before going ‘deep sea’ and in the 1860s joined a Yankee ship in the American Civil War. He sang as he sailed with, it is said, a most melodious voice and when he retired at the age of 61 he brought his songs home with him. These were collected and collated by Cecil Sharp and Sir Richard Terry for our English musical heritage. A statue of ‘Yankee Jack’, funded by the Museum Society and public subscription and sculpted by Alan B. Herriot, of Penicuik, Scotland, sits on the Esplanade, much to the delight of visitors and locals alike.

Yankee Jack famous Watchet sailor

John Short (Yankee Jack), Watchet’s famous sailor and shantyman (1839 – 1933).

With so many ships trading in and out of the harbour it meant inevitable losses of vessels and human life on what is a dangerous stretch of coast, but business continued and even a passenger service existed from 1830, sailing to Bristol and South Wales. Around 1860 sailing ships were mainly replaced by steamships. Notable among the little ships which were familiar visitors to the port were the SSs Rushlight, Arran Monarch, Radstock and Roma. Pleasure boats continue to this day with occasional summer cruises on the Balmoral or Waverley, ships from a bygone era. (It is believed that the Waverley is the oldest seagoing paddle steamer in the world.)

The early 1920s saw a ship breaking enterprise briefly flourish with HMS Fox, a former Pacific Fleet flagship with a displacement of 4,360 tons, being brought to Watchet for breaking up, some artefacts of which are on display in the museum. Sadly the venture was discontinued as uneconomic in 1923.

Watchet had various lifeboats from 1875 until 1944, being housed in what is now the public library. Sadly the local lifeboat station was deemed surplus to requirements and now only photographs and a few artefacts remain, the Sarah Pilkington being the last rowed lifeboat in Watchet.

Lifeboat on Watchets Esplanade

Manhandling Watchet Lifeboat, early 1900s.

Watchet is also home to the Watchet Boat Museum, founded to celebrate and record the Flatner, a unique small sailing boat once commonly used in Somerset for fishing, peat-carrying and farm transport.

Its simple design and minimal draught made it ideal for working the Somerset levels and the shallow inshore waters that are a common feature on the West Somerset coastline. The museum collection is said to be the largest of its kind in the world.

SS Rushlight

The SS Rushlight moored in Watchet harbour, c.1950.

For many years, wood pulp and esparto grass for paper–making were main imports at Watchet, but improving road transport and the replacement of coal with oil saw a decline in harbour trade until the mid-1960s when a revival began with a couple of shipping companies taking a strong position around the port. Imports of timber from Russia and Scandinavia, wine from Portugal and the Mediterranean were the norm, while exports of car parts, tractors and other industrial goods mainly from the Midlands showed how competitive Watchet was. Sadly, with the introduction of new labour laws, the harbour was unable to compete and ‘the port of 1000 years’ was de-commissioned for commercial traffic in 1999.

Celtic Venture entering Watchet Harbour

The Celtic Venture entering Watchet Harbour in the 1980s.
Photo: Michael Jones

In 2001 a new page was turned in Watchet’s maritime history when the harbour was divided into outer and inner areas, the east side opening as a marina with three metres of retained water, while the outer west side is still tidal. With a capacity for 250 yachts, the marina provides a colourful sight for the many holidaymakers, and trade from South Wales and the rest of the Bristol Channel continues through the visiting yachts which, with local fishing, provide welcome opportunities for the commerce of the town. The circle keeps turning.

Bibliography : A History of Watchet, A.L. Wedlake; Tales of Watchet Harbour, W.H. (Ben) Norman; The Book of Watchet, D.Banks; The Book of Watchet and Williton Revisited, M. and J. Chidgey and W.H. (Ben) Norman.