A Brief History of Minehead
There is evidence of Bronze Age settlements on North Hill above Minehead, and no doubt, the tribal traders used the shelter of Minehead Bay to launch and land their sea-going craft. This was likely to be a vessel similar to the curragh – a boat with a cane/wicker frame with a hide stretched over it.
Minehead developed into three separate communities: Quay Town (around the harbour area), Lower or Middle Town (now the main shopping area) and Higher Town (around St Michael’s church).
Below the seaward slopes of North Hill lies Quay Town with a history which dates back to the eleventh century. According to the Doomsday Book, Ælgar Earl of Mercia held the town and the harbour but when he was dispossessed by William the Conqueror, the town was given to one of The Conqueror’s friends, William de Mohun of Dunster. It has been suggested that his name gave rise to the name of Minehead – a contraction of Mohun and Saxon ‘heved’. A more likely reason for Minehead’s name is that it is derived from from Mynedd – or hill head.
There was a small port at Minehead by 1380, referred to as the Haven, which had a small jetty near to where the end of Blenheim Road is now. This Haven had become a port of considerable importance by the end of the fourteenth century and large vessels traded to/from here to various destinations including across to France. However the Haven started to silt up and become clogged with pebbles, so a harbour wall was constructed in a new location (where the current one is) at the end of the sixteenth century.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, some forty vessels were trading regularly between Minehead and Ireland, South Wales, Bristol and Bridgwater. There was also a herring fishing industry of some importance; it is recorded that some 4,000 barrels were exported annually. Some fish were caught from nets on the boats, others from weirs built across the harbour. This declined in the twentieth century and now there is no longer a commercial fishing fleet – but is still good for sea anglers who wish to try their hand from the shore or from a boat.
A pier was built in 1901 to accommodate steamer ships and enable them to moor at any time of day, despite the tide (the tide goes a long way out in Minehead!) This encouraged the tourist trade, particularly day trippers from Wales. However the pier was demolished in 1940 as it was thought there was a risk it would be used for German landings as well as it being in the way of firing guns mounted on the harbour. Incidentally, it was later found that the latter would have not been the case. Unfortunately, the pier was never re-built, only the harbour remains in place.
Quay Town has retained its old-world charm with thatched cottages clustered around the harbour. The quaint little Fisherman’s Chapel, The Chapel of St. Peter on the Quay’ is situated in an old cellar beneath a store. Services are still held regularly here. Also, just behind the harbour, is the Victorian RNLI lifeboat station regularly open to visitors.
Around St Michael’s church is Minehead’s ‘Higher Town’. Higher Town has a number of picturesque old thatched cottages built in true West Somerset style, whilst the narrow, cobbled path (known as Church Steps) is a popular setting for artists and photographers. The red sandstone building at the foot of Church Steps was Minehead’s earliest workhouse and was leased to house the poor in 1731. The building was later used as a mint and some windows still have grills on the outside. The colour-washed house on the opposite side of the steps was once used as a schoolhouse.
Lower or Middle Town
With just a few exceptions, this part of Minehead was built in the late 1700s and early 1800s; practically the whole of the original buildings here were destroyed in the Great Fire of Minehead in 1791. It started in the town mill; the miller accidentally caught alight a barrel of pitch, and in his panic, threw it into Bratton stream. Unfortunately the stream ran through the centre of Middle Town so the fire quickly spread from building to building until some seventy houses, shops and stables were destroyed and numerous families were left homeless. The disaster was described in the London papers of 12th July 1791 as a ‘deplorable public calamity', and as the result of public appeals made for assistance in London and in Bristol, a considerable sum of money was given for the relief of the victims.
One small row of old dwellings escaped the fire. Tucked away in Market House Lane, off The Parade, is a row of ancient almshouses built in 1630 by Robert Quirke, a local merchant mariner. It was during a severe storm at sea that Robert Quirke made a vow to God declaring that if He spared the ship, he would dedicate both ship and cargo to God’s service. When the storm-battered ship eventually reached Minehead, the cargo was sold, the ship broken up and with the proceeds Robert Quirke built the almshouses in gratitude for having reached home safely. However, in the building of them he invoked a curse upon those who might use these dwellings for any other purpose and on the wall of one of the houses a plaque can still be seen giving details of Robert Quirke’s bequest and of the curse.
Major rebuilding took place in the Lower / Middle town area and the fortunes of the town revived with the growth in sea bathing and by the middle of the nineteenth century it had become a tourist destination. There was a marked increase in building during the early years of the twentieth century which resulted in the wide main shopping avenue and adjacent roads with Edwardian style architecture, much of which is evident today. This was boosted by the coming of the steam railway to Minehead in July 1874 when Minehead became an up-market seaside tourist destination. West Somerset Steam Railway is now run as a heritage railway and still brings in large numbers of visitors to Minehead for day trips of for special events.