Bridgwater is very fortunate in having a detailed and extensive set of documents preserved which tell us much about its history. Last century, T Bruce Dilks catalogued and made abstracts of the documents. His work has been published by the Somerset Record Society. Dilks' work and other histories of Bridgwater have been used in compiling this brief account of events in and around Friarn Street from the early fourteenth century to 1850.
In the Borough Corporation documents, Friarn Street is variously referred to as vicus or vico Fratrum Minorum, Frerenstret(e), Frerynstret, Frerunstrete.
The earliest documentary evidence for the existence of the street is dated 1307. By 19 March 1333, we can read of Mathew Kelyng granting a lease of a tenement in Friarn Street to John Somer and Thomas of Boleworthy. Twenty years later, it is probably the same tenement that is conveyed to the chantry of the Blessed Virgin Mary, producing a rent. The income to the church in 1368 from this tenement was 3 shillings.
In 1349, the Black Death struck Bridgwater, one of the first towns in the county to be seriously affected by this dreadful disease. The town became significantly depopulated.
On 4 Nov 1397 we note: "Robert Northover, chaplain of the Chantry of the BVM Lease of half a burgage in Friarn Street to David Tanner, Edith, his wife, Philip, their son, and John, their grandson. And the aforesaid David, Edith, Philip and John shall build a new house of three bays and shall afterwards support and maintain the said house in a fitting condition and shall build the same house within seven years next following a penalty of 26s 8d"
The first evidence for commercial activity in Friarn Street is dated 1405, when three shops and a butcher's stall were leased. The street prospered at this time, when Bridgwater was a centre for the woollen trade. In 1445 we have a detailed account of the tallage (rent for church repairs) paid by the residents of Friarn Street, numbering over forty-five names and including two weavers and a sawyer.
However, not all properties were occupied. The Churchwardens' accounts for Michaelmas 1447 give "In loss of rent of a house in Friarn Street remaining vacant and unoccupied for rent 5s". In 1449, the churchwardens received 4s for the rent of a tenement in Friarn Street, reduced to 2s in 1450. In 1453, the churchwardens record in their annual accounts of "loss of rent of a tenement lying in Friarn Street being vacant and unoccupied for rent 5s"; this persists at least until 1456. By 1454, we hear of the town being in decay, with pleas being entered for reduction of rents. This situation continued for some time as confirmed by the Churchwardens' accounts of Michaelmas 1463: "A tenement situated in Friarn St remains in decay, and it used to render 6s 8d yearly". The same account is repeated exactly in 1471.
On 9 November 1473, the Court of the Chantry of Holy Trinity recorded that "John Davy mason holds two tenements in Friarn St between the tenement of Richard Chocke on the north side and the land... And order is made to the wardens to siese two tenements which John Davy, mason, now holds lying in vico Fratrum, and for reparations etc. And later comes the said John Davy, mason, and gives as fine a pound of wax, value 8d, to have estate in having the said two tenements for the term of his life, rendering thence yearly to the wardens 6s., to be paid at the four terms of the year, paying a fine for all other services and reparations at the feast of St John the Baptist next etc. And he did fealty. And so he was thereof admitted tenant".
An entry, probably late 15th century, shows industry in the street from a record in the rental for St Katherine's Aisle (in St Mary's Church) "Item in the Freryn Strete parte of a tenement that was Botylmakeres berying bi the yere iijs iiijd"
In 1514, a witchcraft charge before the Vicar General of Isabella Persons of Woolavington was found not proven, but illustrates the state of religion well before witchcraft trial of the next century. The dissolution of the religious houses of the Grey Friars and St John's Hospital in Eastover 1534-1536 must have had a profound effect upon the town. In 1538 the itinerant John Leland visited and found "Waulles of the Stone Houses of the Towne..... A great number of the houses had fallen into sore decay within remembrance". Little more is then recorded for a hundred years, though from the surviving leases (including those of 32 Friarn Street), the Bridgwater Corporation was active in allocating land and property.
In 1645, the Siege of Bridgwater by the Roundheads took place. Cavaliers defended the town. Whilst houses in St Mary Street and High Street were set alight by artillery, the tradesmen themselves set fire to several houses in Silver Street and Friarn Street. The Roundheads obtained "Spoil: the lord & governor, 5 knights, 6 colonels,15 Lt-colonels and sergeant-majors, 100 officers, the Dean of Wells, 40 gentlemen of note, 1000 prisoners, 200 malignant priests, 40 pieces of ordnance, 800 horses, 5000 arms, 200 barrels of gunpowder, many ladies of mention, and all Goring's carriages and baggage, plate, jewels and other treasure worth £100,000. The enemy fired that part of the town wherein we were immediately after our entrance burned down all the houses except two or three". Overall, one third of town was lost from attack principally from the East, with later incursions from South & North.
In 1664, the trial of the Somerset Witches took place. In 1665, the plague ravaged the town. In circa1680, we read of a "piece or plat of ground and wall laid out and fitted for the inhabitants of Bridgwater to fetch water on the north-east end of a certain ground called The Fryers" (the house which once stood at the end of Friarn Lawn, on the land now owned by McCarthy & Stone).
In 1685, the Monmouth rebellion occurred: a well-documented event in Bridgwater's history, which does not seem to have involved the residents of Friarn Street by name.
By 1711, the population of Bridgwater was 2,200, but an epidemic resulted in five deaths a day. In January of that year, Mr Greenway, merchant, leases 32 Friarn Street.
By 1797, Robert Codrington, the Mayor and leaseholder of 32 Friarn Street, is at Ivy House and commissions the first iron bridge over the Parrett. The plaque of the bridge survives over the porch of the Royal Clarence Hotel in Cornhill, R C Mayor 1795.
In circa1800, there is the Corporation Cheese Market in Friarn Street for a short period. The town is prosperous. The shops are small, low & inconvenient with no glass in front, but a huge flap at the front put up at night and let down in the morning.
In 1832, a fight near Mr Bowen's house in Friarn Street takes place at the time of an election. The
rioters had got into his house and engaged in drinking and smoking. Mr Bowen, Editor of the Bridgwater Alfred, returned and was struck a considerable blow across the face which rendered him insensible. Meanwhile the riot progressed. The road leading to the house and "the street was crowded and sticks, stones and bricks flew about pretty lively". The riot act was read by the mayor, after which the crowd dispersed. Mr Sealy is taking the lease of 32 Friarn Street that year.
In 1834, the Gas Works was erected, and gas lighting developed within the town and its
properties. In 1849, eighty-eight persons died in Eastover from Cholera, but only one in Friarn Street (which had been provided with a rudimentary water supply since 1680).