Today I am going to talk about a building that should be familiar to us all – namely Townsend House. We meet here – but what do we know of this building? Well, for a start, we can tell by its name where the edge of town was in Medieval times. The land on which the original house was built belonged to the manor of Dunster, i.e. to the Luttrells, and the first recorded tenant, in 1456, was a prosperous “villein” called John Cockes. After him the history becomes somewhat hazy, but it appears that sometime during the next century the original house was pulled down and a new one built – the one we know today – or at least parts of today’s interior.
During the 17th century what was now a fine house was lived in by some of Minehead’s wealthiest and most important families. These included John Baker – one of the richest men in town – indeed one of only 4 in the town to have goods valued at at least £5. But his wealth may have been gained illegally – perhaps by smuggling. We know that he and his brother-in-law, a dishonest lawyer (who would have ever thought that!) appeared twice before the Customs Officers to answer accusations. One John Kirkpatrick lived in the house for 50 years, so during that time it became known as ‘Kirkpatrick’s’, and that name stuck even after John’s death in 1754. The house was not let again until 1768, because in the interim the Luttrells re-built it – to give us the house we recognize today. Its Georgian make-over involved raising the front walls by 2 feet, replacing old windows with modern sash-windows and shutters, and crowning the front wall with an impressive pediment. The next tenant was Henry Fownes Luttrell’s political agent – Richard Cox. At that time, Townsend House’s buildings ran a long way up Butts Lane (Selbourne Place today.) The road running from north to south on a contemporary map is today’s Minehead to Dunster main road – the A39. Another tenant – in 1788 – was one Frances Blake – possibly a relative of Cromwell’s famous admiral. He was obviously regarded as trustworthy, as he was one of the citizens chosen to distribute funds collected for the victims of Minehead’s Great Fire in 1791.
Nineteenth century tenants included Rawles, Millets, and then Stoates – but then there’s a gap to be filled from 1851 onwards. At some stage the adjoining cottages had become part of Townsend House, because we know they were used by the Red Cap School in the early twentieth century. This school subsequently became the Minehead Middle School – run by Wilfred and Blodwyn Richards, who moved to the town from Wales. Somewhat unbelievably they had 60 pupils – including some boarders. The teaching was done in the Selbourne Place buildings, while the Richards and their five children lived in the house. The school playground was the space behind St Louis Convent, and the pupils went to the Irnham Road playing fields for football and cricket. When the County School (later the Grammar School) opened in 1928, Mr Richards moved there to teach but the family continued to live in Townsend House.
During World War II, part of the house was used as an Air Raid Wardens’ Centre, then after the war there was a series of owners until 1982. (I don’t know when the Luttrells first sold the property.) In 1982, a Mr Dawson was living there and, when he became too frail to stay, he asked his good friends Marcus and Marguerite Pointon to sell the house for him.
Saving the house for the town
So now we come to the phase of the house’s history that still concerns us today. The Pointons realised (in 1982) that the house now being empty, it was a great opportunity for this very special building to be saved for the use of the community. They must have been very forceful and determined people because they were able to rally others to the cause and, after what must have been a great deal of hard work and many frustrations, in 1983 they persuaded the West Somerset District Council to buy the property and then grant ‘The Friends of Townsend House’ a ninety-nine year lease.
Of course, that was only the start of the hard work. The original idea was to use the house as both the town’s museum and a Community Centre. Surveys revealed that major restoration work was needed and, as is usual in these cases, a lot more had to be done than was originally expected. The roof alone was a huge job – so lots of fund-raising was needed to pay for it. Natural slates had to be used – expensive, as you can imagine. Much of the work was done by young people trained on the job – with money coming from the Manpower Services Commission. Much work was done also by volunteers, including the electrical and plumbing work – by retired electricians and plumbers, one hopes! A second staircase was needed to comply with safety regulations, and a new kitchen had to be put in. In 1991 all the sash-windows had to be replaced – people were invited to buy a pane of glass for £10. All this, plus some very unwelcome discoveries (such as the fact that some of the major beams holding up the downstairs ceiling were not actually connected at both ends!) meant that it was not all done until 1993 – 11 years on from the acquisition. In that year both the house and garden (a jungle that had had to be re-discovered) were “finished” (in inverted commas) – but – despite all the work it was decided that the house would not be suitable for the town museum – that had to wait several more years before finding a home at The Beach Hotel.
So it became the Community Centre we know and use and are grateful for today.
Just two more things to mention. We are all familiar with the murals in the Harbour Room. These trace the history of Minehead harbour from ‘The first jetty’ to ‘The harbour today’ – they were painted by local artist, Ted Borrett, in1994. And, finally, if you look just above the front portico, you will see a very handsome metal structure called – I have recently earned – a martlet. It was created by local man Jim Horrobin in 2000, and was presented to the Chairman of the Trust to mark the millennium.
I hope this brief history will enhance your enjoyment of this building – surely one of Minehead’s jewels.
Diana Martin. June 2021