By Tim Lambert
Today Wincanton is a pretty village in Somerset but it was once an important market town. It was once called wincawel tun. The word wincawel is Celtic and means white cawel (cawel being the original name of the River Cale. Perhaps the water once rushed past and looked white.)
A the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Wincanton was a typical village but it soon grew into a larger and more important settlement. In 1235 the Lord of the Manor was granted the right to hold weekly markets in Wincanton. By the middle of the 14th century, it was a flourishing town.
From 1556 Wincanton was also allowed two fairs. (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 Wincanton fair). Like many Somerset towns, Wincanton prospered because of the wool industry. Cloth was woven in the town.
In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth led a rebellion in southwest England against King James II. The rebellion was crushed. Afterward, 6 men were hanged, drawn, and quartered in Wincanton.
Furthermore in 1688 Parliament declared that King James II was deposed and invited a Dutchman, William of Orange to come and take his place.
However, some Irish troops stationed in England stayed loyal to King James. There were about 100 loyalist Irish soldiers stationed in Wincanton. William of Orange landed in Devon and marched towards London. A small number of his men were sent ahead to Wincanton to procure horses. They clashed with the Irish troops and 15 men were killed including the commanders of both sides.
In the 18th century, Wincanton continued to be an important market town. The main industry in Wincanton was making woolen cloth. There were also several clockmakers in the town. There were also pottery and brick-making industries in Wincanton.
Wincanton was also on the stagecoach route from London to Exeter and many coaches called at the town. However, from the end of the 18th century, the wool industry moved to Yorkshire. The spread of railways across Britain in the 1840s ended the days of stagecoaches.
A famous architect, Nathaniel Ireson (1686-1769) lived in Wincanton from about 1726. He designed several local buildings.
However, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists was not impressed by Wincanton. He called it ‘one of the dullest places in all of the county’.
In 1798 a body of men called Commissioners was formed in Wincanton. They had the power to pave, clean, and light the streets.
By 1801 the population of Wincanton was 1,722. By the standards of the time, it was a large village. By 1851 the population of Wincanton peaked at almost 2,500. However, like many towns in southwestern England, Wincanton suffered a drop in population in the late 19th century. By 1901 the population had fallen to less than 2,000.
During the Napoleonic Wars a large number of French prisoners of war were kept in Wincanton.
In 1837 a workhouse was built in Wincanton to house the destitute. However, conditions in the workhouse were made as harsh as possible to deter ‘idlers’ from seeking help from the state.
Wincanton Rural District Council was formed in 1894 but it was dissolved in 1974. Meanwhile, a Carmelite Priory opened in Wincanton in 1889 and the Roman Catholic Church of Saints Luke and Teresa was built in 1908.
In the 1930s Unigate opened a milk factory south of the town.
In the 1970s the A303 was built around Wincanton and traffic now tends to bypass the town.
Wincanton Sports Centre opened in 2001. Then in 2002 Wincanton was twinned with the fictional town of Ankh-Morpork from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. In 2022 the population of Wincanton was about 5,200.