FREE ADMISSION | WE ARE NOW CLOSED FOR WINTER
RE-OPENING ON SATURDAY 23rd MARCH, through to SUNDAY 3rd NOVEMBER 2024
NEW OPENING DAYS AND TIMES FOR THE COMING SEASON
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday & Saturday 10.00 to 4.00, Sundays 11.00 to 4.00
Also open on Bank Holiday Mondays and Mondays during the school summer holidays
Minehead – A Brief History of our Town and the Museum
Minehead over the Centuries
The name Minehead derives from an Old English word for a hill ‘myned’ and has nothing to do with mining. This could not be more appropriate as our most outstanding feature is North Hill which shelters the town from northerly gales and is distinctively seen when approaching from land or sea.
The earliest inhabitants probably lived at the foot of the hill, retreating to fortified camps on higher ground when danger threatened from invaders. Bronze Age barrows and Iron Age forts exist on the hill. Things appear to have been fairly peaceful until about the 9th century AD when there was a series of raids by the Danes and tradition has it that this is when our Hobby Horse originated (as a deterrent to invaders) but other suggestions are that the raiders arrived in the middle of a pagan ceremony to celebrate the return of summer sun.
In Anglo Saxon times the population of Minehead, Alcombe and Bratton was about 340. The Manor of Minehead was held by the Saxon chief Aluric until the Norman Conquest. The Domesday Survey in 1087 lists the Manor of Minehead within an estate given by William the Conqueror to the de Mohun family at Dunster Castle. The estates passed to the Luttrells of Dunster in the 1300s.
By the 15th century Minehead consisted of three main groups of buildings: Higher Town around St. Michael’s parish church on the Hill, Lower (or Middle) Town around the ‘old Priory’ building beside the Bratton Water which flowed down through the town centre, and Quay Town around the harbour. Fishing was the most important industry along with farming from small settlements around the town.
Parts of St Michael’s Church date from the 14th century but the 87 ft tower was added about 1480. It was approached by Church Path from Quay Town and via Frog Street (The Holloway) and Church Steps from Lower Town.
By 1533 Henry VIII’s librarian recorded that the town was ‘exceeding full of Irish Menne’ – possibly due to close trading links in wool and livestock now developed with Ireland.
One of our oldest remaining buildings, the so called ‘old Priory’, was built in the late 14 century. It seems unlikely to have been a Priory but was used as a Manor Office and Court House until 1800 when one of its duties was to ‘impound hogs found at large in the street.’ The alms houses in Market House Lane were built in 1630 as a thanks offering by Robert Quirke for deliverance from a storm at sea.
Meanwhile, in Quay Town the fishing industry continued to increase. A survey in 1543 showed that after Bristol, Minehead had more ships and sailors available for Henry VIII’s service than any other port on the Bristol Channel. This was a prosperous time for trade in wool, fabrics, coal, hides, wine and livestock. Some 4000 barrels of smoked Minehead herrings were shipped annually to Mediterranean ports.
The great fire of Minehead in 1791 was a tragedy which destroyed over 80% of the buildings in Lower Town. This is why there are so few remaining in this part of the town. The ‘Priory’ escaped the fire along with The Black Boy Inn in Bampton Street, Townsend House and The Post Boy Inn (later a farm) in Lower Moor Road. The Town Mills, at the foot of Bampton Street, were rebuilt c1676.
The young Prince of Wales (later Charles II) visited Minehead in 1645 and although most Minehead citizens supported the Parliamentarians during the Civil War, after the Restoration in 1660 it became the custom to display oak boughs over their doorways, and an oak leaf worn on 29th May to commemorate Charles’ escape from the Roundheads. This custom continued until very recently into the 21st century. During the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685 many Minehead men rallied to Monmouth’s side but sadly, after his defeat at the battle of Sedgemore, six of the rebels were returned to Minehead and hanged from the archway at the foot of Lower Moor Road.
Minehead was still a thriving port at the beginning of the 18th century, but there were problems with keeping the harbour clear of mud. The woollen trade was fading and the huge herring shoals stopped coming. The Industrial Revolution did not help matters and the population decreased. All was not lost. By c1790 a few visitors had started to arrive in the town for pleasure rather than business and this was the beginning of Minehead as a holiday resort. Travel was, however, still difficult and daunting and stomach churning, whether by land or sea.
The Victorian and Edwardian period during the 19th century was more prosperous as the benefits of sea-air became known. In 1830 the population was 1239 and taverns were now supplemented by hotels, notably the Plume of Feathers and the Wellington Hotel. The Bratton Water still ran down the centre of the Parade to Puddle Bridge and on through fields to the sea. With the opening of the Railway in 1874, travel became a pleasure and the Beach Hotel and the Metropole Hotel opened on the seafront. Industry, schools, entertainments and sport including polo and hunting, brought wealthy visitors.
The 20th century began well with the opening of a 700 ft. long pier which brought hundreds of day visitors by ships from South Wales but too soon we were disrupted by two world wars which have been well written up in several of our Museum publications. There was hardship and unemployment between the wars. Memories of WW2 include the beach area being covered with posts and concrete spikes to prevent enemy landings, air raid shelters in The Parade, where we now have flower beds, a sump containing water in Wellington Square, and empty shop windows. Rationing continued for some time after the war.
By the 1950s however, things had picked up again. An Olympic design Swimming Pool held regular galas; the Regal Cinema and Ballroom and Queens Theatre were well attended. North Hill, which had been closed for army training, was reopened to the public, and shopping became a pleasure once more.
The 1960s brought the closure of the Railway line and the demolition of our famed coaching inn, The Plume of Feathers. Butlins Holiday Camp opened in 1962 bringing thousands of new visitors each week. Inevitably, the town changed from being a rather sleepy market town to a bustling, busy place with motor instead of horse traffic. But we still have peaceful spots such as Blenheim Gardens and as ‘The Gateway to Exmoor’ walks, rides, cycle paths co-exist beside our historic town. The 21st century arrived with celebrations which are already part of our history.
If you are reading this as a visitor to Minehead, we say ‘thank you for coming’ we could not do without you and if you are a resident, please take pride in looking after our historic town, and visit the Museum where you can learn much more about us.
Caroline Giddens 2023
The Story of our Museum and Future Plans
Despite being long acknowledged as the Gateway to Exmoor, with a social, economic, historic and cultural record that can be traced back to 1046, Minehead did not enjoy its own local Museum until 2014.
For many years enthusiastic local community groups strove to establish such a Museum, but neither cash nor suitable premises could be found.
This changed in 2013 when a Pop-Up Museum was created in the town’s former visitor centre by the Museum Group of the local Conservation Society, with additional support from the Minehead Development Trust. The creation of this group owes much to the enthusiasm of Oliver Davies, first Chairman of the Minehead Conservation Society.
In just two weeks of summer 2013 the Pop-Up Museum attracted over 1,000 visitors. It also drew offers of practical support from local residents, Minehead U3A, and the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, spare showcases from a neighbouring museum, and great media coverage. As a result, YMCA Somerset Coast, who run the Beach Hotel in Minehead as an apprenticeship scheme for young people, offered space as home for a permanent museum.
This opened in March 2014 and, although small in size, attracted 6,000 visitors in its first year, with very positive feedback from local people as well as visitors:
“This little museum deserves to succeed…exhibitions are themed… changed regularly… my father has lived in Minehead for 35 years, even he learned a great deal about his adopted home town… there’s plenty to interest all generations… Minehead has a fascinating history… it is far more than a sleepy seaside town at the end of the A39”.
In June 2017 the Museum was able to expand further within the hotel complex, almost doubling the available exhibition space.
The new, more expansive museum re-launched on the 30th July 2017 and by the end of that season had welcomed just over 8,000 visitors. This grew to 9895 in 2018 and, by the end of the 2019 season, 11,697.
Our visitors are residents as well as tourists and include many locals who have been drawn back to explore the expanded museum with its new displays and exhibits, and even some who were previously unaware that Minehead now had its own museum.
Current and Future Plans
Our long-term aspiration is to be able to gain more exhibition space, but in the meantime our current plans are:
- To consolidate on all achieved since 2014
- To grow the Museum Friends scheme
- To attract new volunteers, especially stewards, cataloguers and conservers
- To roll out the children’s quiz scheme to more schools and youth groups
- To arrange two public talks every year
- To add to the museum’s growing range of publications
- To acquire new items that will extend knowledge of, and interest in, local history and heritage
In summary, we look forward to celebrating Minehead Museum’s successes, aiming for even more enhanced Friends, footfall and finances!
However, from the outset Museum Trustees have always recognised the need to secure a long term home and at the end of 2021 launched the Premises Project – A New Home for Minehead Museum: Safeguarding the Past for the Future. This will see Minehead Museum move into a large enough space for many more displays; the ability to welcome larger numbers of visitors, including school groups, as well as providing vital storage and conservation space.