Local History

East Coker History – Summary Chronology



Date Topic Links
Bronze Age Yeovil Torc. This torc was made by a highly skilled goldsmith and is the finest piece of Bronze Age gold ever found in Somerset dating to 1,300 – 1,100 BC, Hendford Hill, Yeovil Add Burial mounds at Feebarrow. LX1
Iron Age Durotriges Habitation and field boundaries – north of parish.. The principal crops are likely to have been wheat, barley and beans. Mention Cadbury Castle and Ham Hill.
AD 43 Roman invasion of Britain.

Not long after the Roman invasion, Vespasian headed a Roman legion into the south west. Iron age hill forts at Ham Hill and Cadbury castle were rapidly subdued and Roman forts set up. A road was driven through from Dorchester to Ilchester, in East Coker, as elsewhere, interrupting the local villagers’ fields and farming. From the air or from a map the Roman road is the most evident remaining sign of the Roman occupation and it has been in continual use ever since. From about AD 100, the area was largely peaceful, and most of the troops moved north.

c. AD 280 – 350 For wealthy landowners in the south-west, the late 3rd to early 4th centuries were very much the heyday of the Roman occupation. In addition to the villa in East Coker, there were numerous others in the locality, for example at West Coker, Halstock, and Westland. Ilchester and Dorchester were important towns and a small settlement had grown up around the Westland villa. The area was being farmed more intensively than before the Romans period and the population had grown significantly.. LX1
AD 313 Christianity adopted by the Emperor Constantine.

A number of villa owners in the south west subscribed to the new religion, evidenced by mosaic pavements with Christian iconography in Dorset at Frampton (11 miles SSE) and Hinton St. Mary (15 miles E). Later Roman period cemeteries at Dorchester, Ilchester and Shepton Mallet all provide evidence of Christian burial practice.

AD 407 By the middle of the 4th century, the dominance of Rome was waning. The last Roman armies left Britain in AD407. Stability and the economy faltered within a couple of generations and local British warlords ruled. The population declined and the areas farmed contracted.
c. AD 500 Although the Saxons had entered Britain shortly after the Romans left, the Britons appear to have stemmed their move into the south west through a British victory at the Battle of Mount Badon (add possible location).
AD 515 – 516. Two exceptionally cold winters, perhaps initiated by an extreme volcanic eruption, may have contributed to further population decline. The population living in East Coker probably dropped to its pre-Roman level.
AD 658 The Saxons overcame the Britons, possibly at Penselwood, near the Somerset Wiltshire border, and then effectively controlled territory as far as the River Parrett. By this time the Saxons had already been converted to Christianity.
AD 705 A new bishopric was created at Sherborne (AD 705) to administer all Saxons lands west of Selwood Forest (on the border of Somerset and Wiltshire). Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury, was the first bishop. LI
AD 789 The first Viking incursion into the south-west occurred at Portland. Raids on the Dorset and Somerset coasts continued over the next decades.
AD 875 – 878 An over-wintering great Viking army seized Wareham. This army was harried out by a Saxon army and decamped to Exeter, and later again moved to Chippenham. It was finally defeated at Eddington by a Saxon army under King Alfred the Great in AD 878.
AD 909 A new bishopric for Somerset was established at Wells.

There was likely to have been a wooden church at East Coker from the 8th century, but the nave of St.Michael’s exhibits evidence of some surviving Saxon fabric, unusual in Somerset.

1017 Following a consolidation of their power base in north and central England, the Vikings became dominant, and in 1017 Canute became King of all England. By the time of the Norman conquest, about 8% of the estates in Somerset were in the hands of persons with Danish associations.
1066 Norman Conquest. Coker, which before the conquest had been held by Countess Gytha (mother of the defeated King Harold), was seized by the King (William the Conqueror).
1086 Domesday Survey. At the time of the survey, East and West Coker (identified as Cocre) are not distinguished separately. The returns identify: 7 slaves, 4 freemen (coliberts), 35 villagers, 42 smallholders, totalling 88. Allowing for women & children (not included) and attributing 50% (arbitrarily) to East Coker, gives a population of about 200.

Domesday also lists land for 15 ploughs; 100 acres meadow; pasture 1 league long & ½ league wide; woodland 8 furlongs long & 6 furlongs wide; 1 cob; 3 cattle; 20 pigs; 150 sheep; 48 goats.

Finally one watermill is recorded on the river.

1306 – 1591 In 1306 the manor of East Coker passed to Hugh, first (Courtenay) Earl of Devon. The Courtenays, became one of the most powerful families in the west, with extensive land holdings in Somerset and Dorset and connections with royalty. The manor of East Coker remained in the hands of the Courtenays until 1591, when it was sold..
1348 – 1349 The Black Death had a devastating effect (probably worse than the later plague in 1645); between one third and half of the population may have died. In East Coker the dead included two rectors and a chantry priest.
Fifteenth century The earliest existing fabric of Coker Court, Naish Priory, and Hymerford house all date from about the 15th century; indeed Naish Priory may have been built for a member of the Courtenay family. A few of the cottages and one of the farmhouses in the village still contain some evidence of structure that dates back to this period. L2, LX2
1536 – 1539 Dissolution of the Monasteries. Dissolution of the Smaller Monasteries (1536) did not affect any of the local establishments. However, Dissolution of the Larger Monasteries followed shortly after, affecting Montacute and Hinton (both March 1539) and finally Glastonbury (Nov. 1539). Glastonbury had held a small property, principally in West Coker, but partly in East Coker and Hardington, which passed into secular hands. L1
1542 Dissolution of the Chantries. Less well known than the dissolution of the monasteries, but probably of greater impact to the bulk of the population. The Chapel of the Holy Cross in St. Michael’s Church was stripped of its valuables, the chantry priest pensioned off, and the chantry holdings (including some 108 acres) were forfeited to the crown. L1
1616 In 1616, William Helyar, canon of Exeter Cathedral and Archdeacon of Barnstaple, became the new lord of the manor. The Archdeacon died in 1645 and the manor passed to his grandson, another William. (The manor of East Coker remained in the hands of the Helyars until 1950). L2
1642 – 1660 English Civil War and Commonwealth.

The West Country was deeply involved in the Civil War. An early skirmish took place at Babylon Hill (Yeovil) on 7th September 1642, whilst a decisive victory for the parliamentarians at the Battle of Langport on 10th July 1645 was one of the latter actions. The Helyars were supporters of the Royalists during the civil war for which they were heavily penalised during the period of the Commonwealth.

1645 Plague hit the village in 1645 with 70 people dying between April and September. The Archdeacon and the Vicar were victims. The plague victims were buried just outside the churchyard; a stone was placed on the spot in 2003.
1640 – 1660 The almshouses were commenced in 1640 by Archdeacon Helyar, but their completion was delayed until 1660 by both the civil war and the plague.
1651 William Dampier, explorer and privateer, was born in East Coker on 5th September 1651, son of a tenant farmer. Village tradition is that he was born in Hymerford House, although no documentary evidence for this assertion has been found. Although orphaned as a boy, he was given a sound education by relatives and apprenticed to a Weymouth shipmaster, with whom he undertook the first of numerous voyages worldwide. Several travel and scientific books resulted, some of which were reprinted repeatedly and translated. L3
1669 An ancestor of the influential twentieth century poet, T.S. Eliot, emigrated from East Coker to America. L3
c. 1780 John Bullock was operating a sailcloth business from East Coker providing work to many poor people in the village. ‘Coker Canvass’ was recognised as the best quality sailcloth. L4
1784 The village workhouse (now Chapel Row) was built upon the site of the Chapel of Our Lady, Burton, which had, in later years been used as the village poorhouse.
1792-94 The appearance of East Coker church changed significantly when a tower over the central crossing was replaced with the tower beside the chancel that we know today. L1
1810 Ford Mill, known to many locals as Lewis’s mill, built. George Lewis came to the mill in 1918 and George and Victor Lewis ran the mill until it ceased operating in 1940. L4
1813 Minutes of a Navy Board meeting in 1813 describe ‘the best kind of [sail] Canvas (now used in the Navy) is made entirely of Flax and is generally known by the name of Coker Canvas’. However, the term ‘Coker Canvass’ may date back to the 17th century.
1825 Thomas Telford visited Yeovil in 1825 as part of his review of the London to Exeter Road. The Yeovil Turnpike Trust subsequently implemented one of his recommendations, excavating the cutting at the top of Hendford Hill to reduce the gradient.
1835 Arguably at the peak of the stage coach era, the Mail Coach took 11 hours to reach London from Yeovil.
1842 The first railway, a broad gauge line, reached Yeovil (Hendford) from Taunton.
1851 The existing school building dates from 1851, but there had been a village school for ten years (or more) before that. The school was acquired by the County Council in 1926 when many of the Coker Court holdings were sold.

There were also two private schools. That run by the Groves at Bubspool House (now Hope House) appears in census records from 1851 – 1901, and is understood to have closed one year later. Another, run by the Stancombe’s at Hurn House appears in census records in 1861 and 1871 and included pupils from Ireland, Germany, Malta and Moldavia.

1853 – 1872 In 1853, Edward Taylor (jun) sold textile businesses elsewhere in the locality to develop a new steam-powered sailcloth factory at Halves Lane, East Coker. An 1848 trade directory shows him as sailcloth manufacturer in East Coker, suggesting that he had already acquired premises in East Coker, and required further capital to develop them. The scale of the business may come as a surprise, the 1861 census showing Edward Taylor as employing 185 persons. For a while the business continued to expand, but, with steam ships taking over from sailing ships, the sailcloth industry was in decline, and in 1869 some 300 workers were laid off. Although there was a short-term recovery, the East Coker sailcloth business ceased in the early 1870s. L4
1860 With the opening of the Yeovil – Exeter Railway (and with it Sutton Bingham station), the railways in the area were largely complete. A journey to London might now have been completed in about 4½ hours.
1861 The population of East Coker peaked at 1341. (It dropped to a minimum of 731 in 1911 and did not reach 1000 again until after WWII.
c.1865 The Bullock family, now wealthy landowners in Somerset and Wiltshire, built North Coker House, substantially developing an existing building, demolishing adjacent cottages and other buildings and realigning roads. L2
1872 F Drake & Co. took over the Halves Lane sailcloth works and developed the business principally for the manufacture of webbing and twine. The scale of the business may be evidenced by Drake’s letterheads at various periods showing warehousing and offices in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Norwich and Dublin.
1877 The cemetery opened with one mortuary chapel. A second such chapel for non-conformists was added in the 1900s.
c. 1881 The manufacture of hemp sacking, an East Coker speciality dating back, at least, to the early 18th century, finally came to an end. In the census’s of 1851 and 1861 25 and 35 persons had recorded their occupation as bag or sack manufacture, but this number dropped to 4 in 1871 and 2 in 1881. L4
1889 – 1894 Somerset County Council was formed in 1889 and parish councils or meetings were introduced from 1894. The earliest surviving records of meetings of East Coker date from tbd.
c. 1914 The first telephones are listed in a trade directory at Coker Court (no.1) and Drake’s factory (no.5). The telephone numbers quoted would suggest that telephones had only recently been introduced.
1914 – 1918 WWI.

118 young men joined the services; sadly 22 did not return.

1920, 1926 The two big land-owners, the Helyars and the Troyte-Bullocks, substantially disposed of their estates. In 1920, the Troyte Bullock’s auction included Longlands and Pavyott’s farms and factory premises. Six years later, the Helyar’s sold 9 farms, the village shop, the school, the smithy and Ford Flour Mills. A further sale of the Helyar-Heneage lands took place in 1949.
1920s The first modern social housing was built in Mill Lane in the early 1920s, followed by the first houses in Tellis Cross in 1928. Previous to the Tellis Cross development, a footbridge spanned the road to Yeovil; the western abutment is still clearly visible, opposite and slightly to the south of the turning to Tellis Cross.
1939 Just before the war, in 1939 there were four shops: working westward through the parish: Mrs Ray’s grocery near the Helyar Arms; a grocery and provision shop opposite the school (which at that time was also the Post Office); the store in Burton (that closed in 2015); and a small store adjacent to the Foresters Arms. There was also a dairy and bakery. Few people had cars, but there was a bus service to Yeovil.
1939 – 1945 WWII.

Parachute harnesses were manufactured at Drake’s factory and a barrage balloon, one of 24 intended to protect the Westland factory, was sited between Longlands Lane and Gunville Lane.175 young men and women joined the services. Some units were briefly stationed in the village and there was an influx of evacuees, mainly from London. Both enemy and allied planes were seen in the skies. Sadly 9 men from the village did not return.

1940 T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘Eat Coker’ was first published in 1940 as the second of the ‘Four Quartets’. His last visit to East Coker was just one year earlier. L3
1947 Mrs Dorothy Walker-Heneage (nee Helyar) died, the last of the Helyar dynasty; the Helyars had been lords of the manor for more than 300 years. The forge still worked, and a few horses were still being used for deliveries and in the farms. Most people had electricity, although some might still have to wait for mains water and sewage.
1963 Dr.Beeching’s report ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’ published.

Sutton Bingham railway station had already closed at the end of 1962, and the Waterloo to Exeter service had been heavily rationalised, following its transfer from the Southern Region of British Railways to the Western Region. Yeovil to Taunton passenger services closed in 1966 and rail freight was effectively abandoned at about the same time.

1987 Drake’s Webbing Factory in Halves Lane closed, the last remnant of East Coker’s once prosperous textile industry. The Drake family donated land for the village hall which opened in xxx. L4
2015 The village shop closed, although many businesses continue to operate successfully from the parish.


External to new East Coker Web:

  • LX1 – Taunton Museum re gold torc and East Coker Roman pavement;
  • LX2 – English Heritage Listing Particulars.

Within East Coker History Pages:

  • L1 – page on Church & Chapel;
  • L2 – page on Big Houses;
  • L3 – page on Literary Associations;
  • L4 – page on Trade and Industry.