The same view of West Street in 1914 and in 2013. Note the tower of the Palace Theatre in the distance.
Within about a century of the founding of the town of Bridgwater in 1200 the borough limits were set using four stone gateways, the North, East, South and West gates the Durleigh Brook and a series of rhines. The growing borough quickly expanded beyond these limits, encompassing Monmouth Street in the eastern side of the town and West and North Streets in the western side.
The Westgate is first recorded in December 1291. This was a substantial structure and was built over in May 1299 by Richard Maidus. Properties are mentioned without this gate not long after although the first that can be exactly dated with any certainty is from April 1307, naming the road 'without the Westgate towards the West Wayhur' presumably West Street itself. A wayhure was a pool of water where horses could drink, and this was presumably somewhere along the Durleigh Broook. North Street was known as the 'without the Westgate towards Kidsbury' or 'towards Wembdon' and is first recorded in December 1317. These streets are first designated recognisably as West Street and North Street in 1335 and 1355 respectively.
Thomas Bruce Dilks extimated that this area of the town in 1445 contained about 19 houses, from the tallage or rate lists.
West Street covered the distance between Bridgwater and St. Matthew's field, which was part of the manor of Bridgwater Castle. This field was named after the town's fair which commenced each year on St Matthew's day. This had moved out of the town to these fields by 1404 and is still held every year to this day, although only lasting for four days and not eight. Beyond this were the lucrative and fertile castle lands of Durleigh. West Street was traditionally the location of the town's sheep fair and you will note in the above picture that the sides of the street were sloped, to aid in the display of the livestock.
The Rev Powell gives this description of West Street on a typical fair day in the nineteenth century: 'In West Street nearly every other house was licensed for the sale of drink, beer and cider. Instruments of music played all along the streets, both within and without the houses; on the upper floors (wisely propped up with poles as supports) dancing was vigorously indulged in. Blind fiddlers played. Out of windows hung poles, covered with ribbons, little toy ships, pumpkins, vegetable marrows, with other delicacies, indicating that drink might be had within. West Street was an exceedingly busy and noisy place at fair times'.
There were a set of Almshouses near the Westgate, first mentioned in 1455, which had a small campanile, a bell set onto the roof. These, along with much of the rest of the area outside of the gate were completely levelled during the civil wars in order to provide a clear line of fire for the town's defences, although no fighting seems to have occurred in this part of town. After the wars the streets were rebuilt. The West Gate itself and surrounding buildings were demolished at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and further buildings on the corner of North Street and Penel Orlieu, called West Bow corner were demolished in 1901 to further wider the road.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the area became poorer and various courts were constructed to house poor workers, and these quickly deteriorated into slums, notably along Albert Street. This was partially the reason for the areas complete demolition in the 1960s, but also to make way for the Boradway bypass which was opened in February 1964 after having been extended from the Taunton Road to Penel Orlieu. The medieval property layout was completely destroyed and a whole new planned estate was laid out. The Westfield tower of municipal housing was opened in 1965 and in 1966 Westfield Church was opened at the corner of St. Matthew's field.
Some houses in the far west did survive near St. Matthew's field and details can be seen here. [External Site, Research by Dr. P. Cattermole]
West Street from the near the entrance to St Matthew's Field, looking towards town.
Dilks, Pilgrims in Old Bridgwater (Bridgwater, East Gate Press, 1927)
Dilks, Bridgwater Borough Archives (Somerset Record Society, 1933)
Dunning, Bridgwater History and Guide (Sutton, Stroud, 1992)
Jarman, History of Bridgwater (St.Ives, 1889)
Lawrence & Lawrence, A History of Bridgwater (Phillimore, Chichester, 2005)
Powell, Bridgwater in the Later Days (Bridgwater, 1908)
Squibbs, Squibbs' History of Bridgwater (Phillimore, Chichester, 1982)