Ilminster Then and Now

By John Coles


West Saxons settled the Ilminster area about 700 AD, and the Saxon King Ina (689-728 AD) founded a Mynster (Saxon monastery) administered by monks near the River Ile, which eventually resulted in the name Ilminster. Early references indicate that Muchelney Abbey owned the land. In 995 AD, this earlier grant of Ile Mynster to the Abbey was confirmed by King Ethelred’s charter, which can be seen in the Somerset Record Office in Taunton.


By the time of the Domesday Survey of 1086, Ilminster had grown to a complete community and was later granted the right to hold a weekly market and an annual fair.


Around 1450 the church and tower were built on the site of an earlier Saxon edifice and from then on the Mynster was to play a significant role in the life of the town. Within the shadow of the church, a boys’ grammar school was founded in 1549. In 1971 and after 422 years in existence, the school was closed, as was the girls’ grammar school, founded circa 1879 and the secondary modern school. This was to make way for comprehensive education. The original grammar school building remains as private accommodation.


1664, and Ilminster was a Royal Peculiar, the Bishop having no jurisdiction in the Parish. The court could grant marriage licences, probates, etc. and was held in the room at the Swan Hotel in Ditton Street. An act of Parliament in 1857 took away its powers. The seal still exists and is dated 1664.


By 1670, according to the records of the Hearth Tax, Ilminster was the fourth largest town in Somerset. It was fire, first in 1491 and again in 1661 that devastated much of the centre of the town.  The second disaster brought about such terrible losses that donations were raised in churches throughout the county.


1685 saw the Duke of Monmouth with his followers camped in the town on their way to defeat at the battle of Sedgemoor. As a result of this failed rebellion, the Bloody Assizes of Judge Jeffreys were held with Charles Speke, a local dignatory, being hanged from an oak tree in the Market Square just for shaking Monmouth’s hand. Twelve rebels were also hanged at the same time.


1770 Lord North, who had married the Speke heiress Anne, became prime Minister, and was living at Dillington at the time of the loss of the American Colonies.


Travel began to take greater importance and Ilminster was at the centre of many coaching routes, being a staging post for the coaches. It was in 1819 from her family coach that the infant Princess, later to become Queen Victoria, stayed a night in the town’s George Hotel, the first time the future Queen had stayed in a hotel.


Fame came to the town again in 1862 when the explorer John Hanning Speke discovered the source of the River Nile.


After some gruelling work, 1842 saw the opening of the Chard – Taunton canal which carried over 33,000 tons of goods in its peak year. Traces still exist in Ilminster of the canal, which closed in 1866 having been made obsolete by the introduction of the Taunton – Chard Junction Railway, which in turn, also became obsolete in 1962. The increase in motor traffic through the town as cars became more popular led to the construction of the Ilminster by-pass, which opened in 1988 and diverted the summer traffic to Devon and Cornwall from the town.


1995 saw the town celebrating its Millennium and five years later the Millennium itself was celebrated with a week of festivities. Since then, there have been a number of residential developments and in 2007 Ilminster opened a Tesco store.