The 19th century saw Weston grow from a tiny village of about 100 inhabitants, to a thriving Victorian seaside resort of nearly 20,000 people. One hundred years later again, it has a population of almost 70,000. How and why did this happen? The development of every resort is influenced by different factors and, as a result, each has an individual character. Weston's was formed during the 19th century by local men of vision, entrepreneurs whose bold decisions turned Weston-super-Mare into the town it is today.
The name Weston is made up of two Old English or Saxon words meaning the west tun or settlement. Because there are several places called Weston in Somerset descriptions were added to tell them apart. What is unusual about Weston-super-Mare is that the descriptive part of its name has remained in medieval Latin. Super (with small s) means on or above, and mare is Latin for sea.
During the Ice Ages the sea-level was very different from today. Quarrying on the hillsides, has revealed the remains of animals such as giant deer, woolly mammoth and rhinoceros. The first evidence of people in this area comes from flints. Leaf-shaped arrowheads, flint knives and other tools have been found dating back to the Neolithic period. Bronze Age burials have been found in the Ashcombe area.
On the hill that overlooks the town there are the remains of Worlebury hillfort. This ancient stronghold was built over 2,000 years ago in the Iron Age, on the site of earlier Bronze Age remains. A lot was found out about the hillfort during excavations in the 1850s, including the presence of many large and deep pits cut into the underlying rock. These pits were probably used for the storage of grain. Some were later re-used for burying people.These human remains, some of which show evidence of a violent death with sword cut-marks, are the most famous finds from Worlebury. The skulls may be seen in the museum in Weston-super-Mare.
The Romans 43AD - 410AD
The deaths on Worlebury may have been caused by warring tribes, or possibly by the Romans. A Roman building once stood on the site of Weston College, and much Romano-British pottery has been found under the Melrose car park, Roslyn Avenue and at Oldmixon.
Village Weston 5BC - 1500AD
After the Romans left in 410AD, Weston continued as a small village. The people farmed the low-lying moor and hillside or fished in the Channel. The church was the centre of village life and thatched cottages were built along what is now the High Street, then bounded by a stream and reed beds.
A Tudor industry 1568
In 1568, the mineral calamine was discovered on Worle Hill, the first place in Britain it was found. This type of zinc ore was crucial in brass production. It was a significant moment in the history of Weston, and the village must have been a hive of activity. Calamine continued to be mined locally well into the 19th century. Another ore common on Worlebury Hill was galena, a lead ore. This too, was mined, well into the 19th century. Remnants of the industrial landscape can be seen in the "gruffy ground" of pits and spoil heaps on Weston Hill.
The manor 1600
By 1600 Weston had its own manor, held then by William Arthur of Clapton. It then passed by marriage to the Winter family who held it until 1696 when the estate was sold to John Pigott of Brockley. This family held the manor until the estate was sold off in 1914. The title "Lord of the Manor" was sold in the 1970s and there is nothing left of the estate. The Pigotts built a summer holiday cottage in The Grove, Weston. This wooded copse, now Grove Park, was situated close to the old rectory and parish church on the slope above the marshy lowland. In 1791, the Reverend Leeves of Wrington followed their example and built his own seaside cottage on the dunes. A fragment of this cottage survives as The Old Thatched Cottage Restaurant. This, together with Glebe House, once the rectory, are all that remain today of the 18th century village of Weston.
In 1815 the Weston Enclosure Award was completed. This award established the layout of the roads and ownership of land and it was this, together with the plentiful local supplies of building materials and the increasing popularity of the Sea Cure, which laid down Weston's future.
The Sea Cure
By the middle of the 18th century, doctors began to extol the virtues of drinking, and bathing in, sea-water. King George III tried it at Weymouth in 1789 and so set the fashion. For residents of Bristol and Bath, Weston was the nearest coastal village within easy reach of a road. It also offered the, at that time, popular attractions of a romanticand windswept rural aspect.
Bathing machines at Glentworth Bay
During the 18th century most people bathed naked. For this reason the sheltered and secluded cove at Anchor Head was chosen as Weston's first bathing place for ladies whilst gentlemen often just stripped on the sands and ran down to the water. As modesty prevailed the bathing machine was invented. This was a hut on wheels. The bather entered and, as the machine was drawn down to the sea by a horse, they changed into a bathing dress. They were then able to descend the steps directly into the water, unseen from the beach.
1810 Early visitors rented rooms or a whole house, from local people. The first hotel was opened in 1810 This is part of what is now the Royal Hotel. The idea of a spa bath was still popular. Howe's baths opened on Knightstone in July 1820. Lodgings were built for the invalids as well as a refreshment room and reading room. Knightstone was an island and bathers were ferried over by local boatman, Aaron Fisher. Later a low causeway was built to the island.
The first holidayguide. 1822
Weston's first guide book for visitors was written in 1822. It paints a vivid portrait of the village at that time. The population was then 735. One hotel, two inns and a number of lodging houses catered for visitors. There was a Methodist chapel, in addition to the parish church and a post office. Weston was described as a "penny post from Bristol", the letters being brought by carrier every evening from May to November and every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning during the winter. There was little organised entertainment - a billiard table, a reading room and two pleasure boats for hire. Visitors would have read, sketched, walked and conversed. Dances would have been held at the Assembly Rooms. In September 1830 Dr Edward Long Fox of Bristol purchased Knightstone. This doctor was a pioneer in the humane treatment of the insane and a lot of development took place on the island, including an exercise courtyard for patients and a new elegant bath house. This fine building survives today.
The railway arrives 1841
Brunel's Bristol & Exeter Railway reached Weston in 1841. The first station was at the end of a single branch line, where the famous floral clock is now. This left the main line at Weston Junction, the trains initially being drawn by horses as the residents were not too keen on having noisy and smelly steam engines in their growing town. In 1866 a new larger station was built, with a separate goods station nearby. It was, however, still a terminus on a branch line, albeit with a double track.
A Victorian town 1842
The Improvement and Market Act was granted on 13 May 1842. Eighteen local townsmen became the First Commissioners, the posts being subsequently elected. The Act gave them extensive powers to improve the town. From this time no new property was allowed to have a thatched roof, front doors had to open inwards and gutters and down pipes became compulsory so that persons underneath would not get wet from roof water. Bylaws were brought in to control and licence hackney cabs, the market, welfare and control of animals and causing a public nuisance, for example a £2 fine could be levied for bathing in the sea without the use of a machine!
A Pier 1867
Birnbeck Pier was completed in 1867. The visitors now had further space to walk and take the air. The town grew, with villas, estates and boulevards. There were drives and walks through Weston Woods, planted on Weston Hill by the lord of the manor in the 1820s as a private game reserve, and from the top it was possible to enjoy splendid vistas as far as Exmoor and Wales.
More growth 1880s
Perhaps the most important development for Weston as a resort, was the Seafront Improvement Scheme of the 1880s. This project has left us the sea walls and two mile promenade still in use today. It was also at this time that Weston finally gained a through railway station when the present station and loop line into the town opened in 1884. Weston now became a Mecca for thousands of visitors, many of them day trippers on Bank Holiday trips and works outings. As the number of visitors increased so new shops opened to supply the goods required. Private schools were set up in Weston-super-Mare throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, as it became fashionable for the wealthy to send their children to seaside boarding schools. Many of these schools made particular mention in their prospectuses of the healthy air and its benefits for delicate children. Few have survived today's economic climate.
An Urban District Council 1894
Weston began the new century with an Urban District Council, set up in 1894 to replace the old Town Commissioners and Board of Health. Society was changing and people were much freer to enjoy themselves. New facilities to entertain the visitors included an indoor swimming baths and theatre on Knightstone and a library and museum in The Boulevard. On the beach the bathing machines disappeared, since now mixed bathing was acceptable and entertainers were everywhere a crowd could gather.
A second pier 1904
Local traders were not happy about the fact that many thousands of trippers arriving by steamer from Wales never reached the town centre because there was so much to do on Birnbeck Pier. In 1890 the pier offered a theatre of wonders, alpine railway, shooting gallery, park swings, merry go round, tea and coffee rooms, bar, bandstand, photographic studios, switchback, waterchute, flying machine, helter skelter, maze, bioscope, cake walk and zigzag slide. On an average August Bank Holiday 15,000 passengers would arrive on the steamers!
It was decided to build another pier, closer to the town centre and, in 1904, the Grand Pier opened. Instead of amusements, this pier had a large theatre offering all the top music hall stars of the day
Weston played an active role in the First World War. 80 per cent of the trees in Weston Woods were felled for military use. The loss of horses and men to the battlefronts gave unexpected opportunities to women and Weston had the first female tram drivers in the country. Large numbers of soldiers were billeted in Weston for training prior to being posted, as the beach was used for training exercises in digging trenches.
Inter War Years 1918 - 1930
The 1920s and 1930s saw a lot more development. The Marine Lake was built to provide a safe shallow beach where the tide was always in. The Winter Gardens and Pavilion opened in 1927, followed in the 1930s by the Open Air Pool, Odeon Cinema and an airport. Weston Airfield was officially opened in June 1936. Both Weston and Cardiff airports were close to their respective town centres and many South Wales miners flew over to Weston on their days off.
Over the 1937 Whitsun holiday, 2555 passengers travelled on Western Airways from Weston Airport, a world record for that time. It was also at this time that the first amusement arcades began to open, mainly in Regent Street. Before this date, amusement machines were often sited on street corners, as well as along the piers.
Town to Borough
1937 In 1937 the town was granted Borough Status. Henry Butt, a local entrepreneur, became the first mayor. "Ever Forward" was adopted as the town's motto.
A Second World War 1939 - 1945
Weston received many evacuees in late 1939, when they arrived here from London and other large cities. Some Bristol Schools also relocated to the area. The first bombs fell on Weston in June 1940 but the worst blitzes took place in January 1941 and in June 1942. Large areas of the town were destroyed, especially in the Boulevard, High Street and Grove Park areas.
The town also played its part in the preparations for the Normandy Landings, hosting large numbers of American troops prior to the invasion.
Post-War 1946 - 1999
After the war, the Council reassessed the direction they wanted the town to take. The main priorities was considered to be housing and transport. The War had brought new industries to Weston, chief among them aircraft production. After the War ended, vacant wartime factories were available and the Borough Council promoted the area heavily as an ideal base for light industry.
By the late 1960s foreign holiday destinations had become easier and less expensive to reach. All British seaside resorts faced a difficult period Weston was no exception.
In 1974 Local Government re-organisation resulted in the new county of Avon being formed. Weston's Borough Council was abolished and the town became the seat of local government for the District of Woodspring. This area stretched north to the outskirts of Bristol and included the towns of Nailsea, Clevedon and Portishead. Recent Local Government re-organisation has abolished Avon and turned the area covered by Woodspring into the Unitary Authority of North Somerset.
The future however, is hopeful. Weston retains much of its original charm. There are still the lines of limestone houses, the beautiful parks, the piers and of course the sands. Nowadays, people often take several short holidays a year and the town has adapted to meet those needs. Many initiatives have taken place in recent years to improve the surroundings and amenities, to carry the resort into the 21st century.
© North Somerset Museum Service.
The Museum Service runs the North Somerset Museum in Burlington Street, Weston-super-Mare.
The museum is open 7 days a week.
For further information telephone 01934 621028, fax 01934 612526 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org