A History of Somerton

By Tim Lambert

Early Somerton

In 658 The Saxons defeated the older Roman-Celtic people and captured eastern Somerset. The Saxons gave Somerton its name. It was the summer tun. The Saxon word tun meant hamlet or farmstead. It is not clear why it was the summer hamlet. Perhaps people grazed cattle on the Levels during the summer and drove them to the higher, drier ground in winter.

A summer meadow
A Summer Meadow

At any rate, Somerton does seem to have been quite an important village in Saxon times. In 949 the Witan, a kind of parliament met at Somerton.

However, by the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Somerton was still only a village. Yet in the 13th century, Somerton grew into a little market town. In 1255 the people of Somerton were granted the right to hold weekly markets and an annual fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and they attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area. People came from all over Somerset and Dorset to attend a Somerton fair. From 1320 the people of Somerton were allowed 2 fairs.

However, Somerton only had a population of a few hundred people. To us, it would seem tiny but settlements were very small in those days.

In 1278 the county courts moved to Somerton from Ilchester and in 1280 the county jail moved there. For a short time, Somerton was the county town of Somerset. However, in 1366 the courts and the jail were moved back to Ilchester.

Somerton probably grew quite a bit bigger in the 13th and early 14th centuries. New streets were added. The present-day New Street in Somerton dates from that time.

The parish church of St Michael and All Angels in Somerton was built in the mid-13th century although a church existed on the site much earlier and much of the present building is later in date. The church was restored in 1889.

The little market town of Somerton had a market cross, the High Cross by the 14th century. It was rebuilt in 1616 and rebuilt again in 1673. Somerton Town Hall also dates from the late 17th century or early 18th century. Today Somerton is noted for its 17th and 18th century buildings.

Meanwhile, a man named Sir Edward Hext built almshouses in Somerton in 1626.

Modern Somerton

In 1801 Somerton had a population of 1,145. To us, it would seem tiny but by the standards of the time, it was a large village. In 1851 the population peaked at 2,140.

Then, like many towns in Southwest England Somerton suffered a drop in population in the late 19th century. By 1901 the population of Somerton had fallen to under 1,800. However, it recovered in the 20th century.

In 1866 Sophia Scott Gould built homes for 6 old women. The Lady Smith Memorial Hall was built in 1901. It is named after the wife of Sir John Smith.

From the end of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution transformed Britain. However, it had little effect in Somerton, which remained an agricultural market town.

Nevertheless, the 19th and 20th centuries did bring some changes. From 1858 Somerton had gaslight and in 1894 it gained a parish council. The railway reached Somerton in 1906. However, the station closed to passengers in 1962. From 1930 the streets of Somerton were lit by electricity.

Today the glory days when Somerton was an important market town are gone. However, Somerton remains an attractive village.

In 2023 the population of Somerton was 4,700.

Somerton Community Website