No place like home: Seventeenth-Century Portishead

I suppose it is natural when you are on the other side of the world to turn your thoughts towards home. And so it is that on a trip to the Huntington Library in California (to attend this ace conference on ballads) I’ve felt inspired to write a post about my home town: Portishead in North Somerset.

The Huntington: A long way from home...

The Huntington: A long way from home…

One of the areas I focused on in researching alehouses for my forthcoming book was the county of Somerset, which has excellent quarter sessions records. Of course, as I scoured the archive looking for evidence of alehouse regulation and instances of good fellowship, I kept an eye out for references to my home town. I didn’t find much – it was no more than a small village before the Victorians adopted it as a seaside resort in the nineteenth century – but there were a few cases I came across which suggest something of the character of the place and its inhabitants. They don’t necessarily portray my ancestors in a positive light.

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

The first thing I discovered was the following order, made by the county magistrates, at a meeting of the Somerset quarter sessions in Wells, in 1656:

‘Whereas one Susan Gulston a poore cripple is lately come into the parish of Portishead in this County; and itt appearing that shee was last settled att Takeley in the County of Essex, this Court uppon complaint of the parishioners of Portishead doth order: That the said Susan bee retorned from parish to parish by the officers of each parish to Takeley aforesaid there to bee provided for according to lawe.’[1]

Basically, a poor crippled woman had turned up in the parish, and the locals did not want to be responsible for paying her poor relief. So they had asked that she be escorted from parish border to parish border all the way back to her home parish some 154 miles away to claim relief. That’s 51 hours of walking, according to google maps (assuming she stuck to the most direct A roads). That’s some walk, especially given that this poor woman was disabled:

The Long Walk Home

The Long Walk Home


The case doesn’t, I think, reflect particularly well on my Portishead forebears – but it is not by any means an untypical response to a poor stranger turning up in an early modern parish. As Brodie’s recent post on a 101-year old vagrant woman attests, the world’s first nation-wide welfare system was not necessarily a deeply compassionate one.

The next reference I found came from a meeting of the quarter sessions at Taunton in 1630. This time, the county magistrates were issuing an order that:

Fifty pounds be raised by a County rate and the money arising therefrom to be paid unto Rice Davies and Richard Cole, Esquires, to be by them imployed for and towards the transportinge of a greate number of Irish people from the parishe of Portishead.[2]

The precise details of what was going on here are not entirely clear, but it seems once again like a case of a cold Portishead welcome for outsiders – perhaps a group of Irish migrants had landed a ship at the beach in the parish, only to be apprehended by the locals who then asked for assistance to fund sending them straight back.

A stony welcome at Portishead beach?

A stony welcome at Portishead beach?

I was starting to fear that the only imprint left by my ancestral townsfellows on the historical records of the early modern period were a few cases of a pronounced, if not unusual for the period, lack of hospitality and compassion to outsiders – ‘local xenophobia’ if you will.[3]

Then I recently came across another reference rather more to my liking. In 1637, the churchwardens of Portishead – a local voluntary office whose duties included maintaining peace and good order in the community – were reported to their superiors for their tolerance of:

‘fives playeinge [an early racket sport like squash], dauncing, Cudgill playeinge [an early form of cricket perhaps?], and fightinge in the churchyard there’.[4]

Since the Reformation, church authorities had worked hard to banish games and pastimes from taking place in the church grounds, as they sought to establish clear lines between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’, and increase a sense of sober reverence in and around the church itself. But here were the parishioners of Portishead, having a merry old time in the churchyard, whilst local officials willingly turned a blind eye to this defiance of authority.

Fun and games at the parish church - now Grade I listed:,_Portishead

Fun and games at the parish church – now Grade I listed:,_Portishead

As Chris Marsh puts it, such ‘inveterate traditionalism’ was probably unusual by this date and these kind of activities had been largely suppressed. So here at last was something for me to hold on to: a sense of pride that Portishead had, albeit in a small way, played its part in the West Country’s long tradition of non-conformity and libertarianism. Even better, it sounds as though an afternoon of cricket, dancing and fighting was as popular in seventeenth-century Portishead as it is today.

* If anyone else happens to have come across a reference to seventeenth-century Portishead, please share it in the comments section.

[1] Bates Harbin, E.H. (ed.), Quarter Sessions Records for the County of Somerset, Vol. III, Commonwealth, 1646-1660 (London: Somerset Record Society, 1907-12)

[2] Bates Harbin, E.H. (ed.), Quarter Sessions Records for the County of Somerset, Vol. II, Charles I, 1625-1639 (London: Somerset Record Society, 1907-12)

[3] For more on the ‘culture of local xenophobia’ in early modern England see: Keith Snell, ‘The Culture of Local Xenophobia’, Social History, 2003, 28 (1), pp.1-30.

[4] The case is from REED (Somerset, p.207), though I encountered it through reading Chris Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2010), p.375.

4 thoughts on “No place like home: Seventeenth-Century Portishead

  1. Very interesting, Mark! I’m curious about this ‘greate number of Irish people’. Audrey Eccles, in her recent book on vagrancy in the 18th century, talked about how the Irish (and Scottish) didn’t fit in the poor law settlement system, because they didn’t have a legal ‘parish of settlement’. So instead the vagrancy law system was used to pass poor Irish from parish to parish to the ports and then send them back to Ireland. I haven’t encountered that in the seventeenth century, but perhaps it was happening here? I would have thought they would be sent to a major port like Bristol, but maybe Portishead was chosen for some other reason? Perhaps Dave Hitchcock has come across this sort of thing?

  2. Hi Brodie, there are some very limited references to ‘great numbers’ of irish vagrants and just poor irish people in general being transported back to Ireland via Chester / the Cheshire county bench records in the 1660s/70s, and then things pick up a bit as we move into the 18th century. Sadly Cheshire doesn’t have many decent runs of constable’s accounts to really interrogate the overall numbers, maybe Portishead does? I shall have to investigate. When I read this post by Mark I *definitely* added Portishead to the list of places I’ll need to get to while grabbing additional research for the book. My gut feeling is that individual regions, not even at county level but at parish or hundred level, had their own ‘routes’ that they preferred to send vagrants or the unsettled back along.

  3. Interesting – thanks for fleshing this out a bit guys. It seems possible that Portishead would have been a preferred port for transporting such vagrants: it is at the mouth of the Avon and on the Bristol Channel, so it is more coastal than Bristol, and presumably an easier place to keep an eye on vagrants than a large city like Bristol. It would also add some interesting historical background to a recent controversy in the town over a proposed centre for screening asylum seekers:

    Perhaps Portishead has played such a role for centuries…

  4. Pingback: Marooned on an Island Monographs: A History of Bristol Reading List | the many-headed monster

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