Weston's start as a seaside resort

PUBLISHED: 12:51 11 September 2006 | UPDATED: 09:51 24 May 2010

This reproduction of a painting is one of the earliest known views of Weston. The village church is there, but Knightstone is still a rocky island.

This reproduction of a painting is one of the earliest known views of Weston. The village church is there, but Knightstone is still a rocky island.

No one looking at Weston in 1800 would imagine it to be a place with a future. Conspicuous on its then bare hillside was its tiny ancient village church which in a few years was to be ruthlessly destroyed to make way for a large building

The hatchment or funeral escutcheon of John Pigott which hangs in Brockley Church.

No one looking at Weston in 1800 would imagine it to be a place with a future. Conspicuous on its then bare hillside was its tiny ancient village church which in a few years was to be ruthlessly destroyed to make way for a large building. Just below it was the Rectory, which forms part of today's Glebe House. None of the gentlemen's residences on the hillside had yet been built. Down near the seashore was the charming thatched cottage built by the Rev William Leeves, part of which still survives. Inland was the old Manor farmhouse from which the Domesday Book mentioned estate of Ashcombe was conducted, and clustered around the sand dune in what for purposes of identification may be termed the Regent Street shacks thrown up by fisherfolk, built mostly with the timber of wrecked ships collected from the beach.Weston was just a little shanty place. There was no sanitation, no water supply except that from wells, and the now long-lost streams that filtered into the bay. No roads existed. The route to Uphill lay along the sands, and there was no highway in the Bridgwater direction. The Axe was not bridged at Bleadon, and horsemen who wanted to take a short cut to the south instead of making their way across the trackway to the Bristol-Exeter road at Cross had to get the ferryman to carry them over the river.The name of the ferry, Hobb's Boat, is perpetuated in the name of the inn beside the river. It has never been established whether the name was that of a former ferryman, or whether it was derived from Hubba, the Danish pirate whose name has also been linked by some authorities with the name of Uphill.Sluices to check the tidal flow of the Axe were put across the river at Bleadon in 1808, and it was not until then that the river was bridged.Weston's only rough trackway link with the outside world that was at all suitable for vehicles went over the hill through Worle to Bristol, and still bears the name of Bristol Road.The lord of the manor of Ashcombe and Weston was John Pigott, of Brockley, and many of Weston's people either worked on the Ashcombe estate or were tenants. The others, the squatters who had made their homes in the area known as the auster or ancient tenements, got what living they could from fishing and helping themselves to the useful oddments of wreckage washed up on the beach.Those were sailing ship days in which hundreds of craft were beating up and down the Bristol Channel, and wrecks were frequent - so frequent that right to the wreckage of the sea on the seashore was sternly enforced down the centuries, first by bishops of the diocese and later by lords of the manor. But their agents, of course, could not be on the watch all the time, especially on wild winter nights when the cargoes of lost vessels were washed up on the beach and Weston's squatters worked under the cover of darkness.Some of the most interesting information about Weston's beginnings as a seaside resort are contained in Robbins' Sixpenny Guide to Weston-super-Mare which was published getting on for 100 years ago.It tells us that: "As a watering place Weston is one of the most remarkable creations of the last half century." In 1811 the population was only 163. By 1821 it had 126 houses, 147 families, and the population was 738. In 1828 population, houses and families nearly doubled that number. In 1841 the population was 2,103, having gone up by 793 in 10 years. Between 1851 and 1861 Weston was almost the only town in England to double its population, the figure having risen from 4,033 to 8,033.Then comes the comment: "Half-a-century ago Weston consisted chiefly of huts hastily thrown up here and there, under the shelter of neighbouring sandbanks, and tenanted by fishermen of simple habits. But the salubrity of the atmosphere, the picturesque beauty of the neighbourhood, and its contiguity to large towns and cities, operated as irresistible attractions."The old writer goes on to say: "The first era in the advancement of Weston as a watering-place was in the year 1808, by the sale of many of the ancient and decayed cottages, or fishermen's huts - formerly designated 'Auster Tenements' - which the small parcel of land connected therewith. These were sold to Mr. William Cox, of Brockley, and Mr. Richard Parsley, of Weston-super-Mare, by Mr. John Pigott, the Rev Wadham Pigott, and their sister, Ann Provis."This was effected by way of a perpetual rent charge: the sellers being simply entitled to a life-interest could not otherwise dispose of the property."There being attached to these 'Auater Tenements' exclusive rights of common, Messrs. Cox and Parsley determined upon applying for an Act of Parliament to enclose all the waste land in the parish. This being obtained the sand banks were at once levelled, and the whole appearance of the place soon changed."In his notes on village Weston Ernest Baker, local solicitor and historian, reminds us that auster is a quaint old word derived from austrum, this being a tenement held in the villenage of the lord. He said it was variously corrupted and that some old Westonians used to say they held an 'oyster tenement'.The mention of Ann Provis, a sister of John Pigott and the Rev Wadham Pigott, as one of the sellers of Weston's auster tenements is of particular interest. Weston was not presented with all the portraits in the Smyth-Pigott collection. Some, which included Gainsboroughs, were sold many years earlier at Christie's. They included those of William Provis, Mendip landowner, his beautiful young wife Ann, and her brother the Rev Wadham Pigott, former Weston squire-parson whose name is commemorated in Wadham Street.Provis was a Shepton Mallet man who became rich from cloth manufacture and had a town residence in the famous Royal Crescent at Bath. He was a Sheriff of Somerset in 1767.When the enclosure of open and waste lands on Mendip took place he claimed extensive territory and added greatly to his wealth. No doubt it was through his business interests in making the most of enclosure that his wife was one of the parties in the deal that started Weston's development.Although the memorial to Provis in Shepton Mallet church refers to him as 'a father of the fatherless, a friend to the distressed and beloved by all who knew him', it seems he was a rather neglectful husband. While he was content to rusticate at his Mendip country home Ann was for hitting the high spots at Bath. Pretty and wealthy, she was one of the most popular of the fashionable set.Ann is often mentioned in the journals and correspondence of the eccentric Dr Whalley, and she was frequently among the guests at the lavish parties he gave at Mendip Lodge.Another view of Ann was that taken by the writer Ann Seward, who in a letter to Whalley said: "Mrs. Provis and I have long loved each other. It grieves me to see her languishing under ill-health in the prime of her life."She also mentioned Mrs. Provis' genuine 'good qualities' and her 'adventitious' faults, but added that this frail but gentle being had been stricken by disease in the prime of that life whose early years had been reduced to find a shelter in dissipation from married insipidity.William Provis died in 1808 in London and as his wife had died just before him and he assumed he was childless he bequeathed most of his property to his eldest nephew, the Rev William Provis Wickham, the son of his sister. It seems that Mrs Provis departed this life without having informed her husband that she had once given birth to a child.In 1815 blue-stocking lady Miss Weston wrote of meeting at Weston 'the lately acknowledged daughter of my old friend, Mrs Provis'. The daughter, it seems, was visiting her uncle, the Rev Wadham Pigott, who lived variously at Grove House and Brockley, and who was stated to be very fond of her.It was said she bore a striking resemblance to her mother. A writer in The Sphere, telling the strange story behind these three Gainsborough paintings some years ago, said: "No one was more astonished that William Provis' heir and nephew when his inheritance was disputed 'by a young lady now first heard of as the daughter of his uncle and aunt'. The claim, however, was not legally enforced, but was 'relinquished for a valuable consideration'."The third chapter of this little romance concerns the 'Uncle William' mentioned above," the writer went on. "This was the Rev Wadham Pigott, lord of the manor and incumbent of Brockley, who was born about 1851 and who died in December 1823."He it was who doubtless stopped the lawsuit between the two cousins for, dying unmarried, he appears to have left his estates at Brockley Hall to his niece, who in December 1815 had married John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, a natural son of Sir Hugh Smyth. They had a numerous family."I have looked through the many-paged catalogue of the sale of the effects of Brockley Hall, a copy of which is in the Bath Reference Library. Ann Provis' picture by Gainsborough was dated 1766. "Since it has been cleaned," it was stated, "it proves to be one of great artistic beauty; it is one of the very few which the artist either signed or dated."Robbins' Guide tells us that "The next important step towards the advancement of Weston, was the erection, by the same gentlemen, of what was then considered a very large and profitless inn, at an expense of several thousand pounds, called 'The Hotel', once well-known as Reeves', now Rogers' Hotel (and today, of course, the Royal Hotel)."The guide goes on: "Many years elapsed before any custom was obtained for this house, except on very extraordinary occasions, when it was usual for a bellman to announce that beer was to be had at the hotel in the evening. "It was, in these primitive times, also, no unusual thing for two mason or carpenters to go to Worle Brewery, a distance of two miles, for a supply of nine gallons of beer; and to return with it in a cart, or sometimes upon their shoulders, by the aid of a pole."* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on February 24, 1968

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