9 Industry and Commerce

The employment of the townspeople in the Abbey is demonstrated by thirteenth century documents which refer to twenty three hereditary posts including bakers, launderers, porters, ushers, butlers, cooks, goldsmiths, and reeves or constables.  The parallel commercial development is seen by the granting of markets, in 1127 by Henry I (at the Monastery of St Michael of the Tor) for six days and others by Henry III and Edward I.

In the fourteenth century Glastonbury was for a brief period a Borough required to elect two members to serve in Parliament.  By the fifteenth century many Glastonians were thriving independently of the Abbey, often from the production of the internationally famous local fine woollens.  This is demonstrated by the large amounts paid by its parishioners towards the rebuilding of St John's Church.

The end of the Abbey heralded in a period which lasted into the 19th century during which there were repeated reports of ruinous and empty houses (110 out of c500 in 1850).  The attempt in 1550 to settle a community of thirty four families of Flemish weavers was cut short when the Catholic Mary came to the throne.  There were also attempts to establish a silk factory, using the eighteenth century Market House, and in the nineteenth century stockings and gloves were being made.  Further prosperity came as the dairy industry developed and as the early tanning led to a thriving footwear industry.

In Georgian times the George Inn was the Post and Excise Office but in 1897 a Post Office was built in the High Street.  The present neo-Tudor one replaced it in 1938 and the original one was destroyed in the 1950’s to make way for Barclay’s Bank.  The restrained neo-Gothic of Barclays followed the alien giant classical order of the 1920’s Midland Bank in brick and stone, the lively neo-Gothic of Lloyd’s Bank by Tilley in 1885, trying to out shine the George Inn next door, whilst on the George’s other side is the NatWest Bank in the Stuckey Bank’s original 1820’s building, although with a modified ground floor facade.

From the early days of its existence the Abbey was dependant upon its visitors.  The monks used a variety of means to advertise the unique nature of Glastonbury and attract pilgrims and benefactors.  At different times they emphasised its links with Arthur and British royalty of a golden age that they traced back to the ancient Greeks; the precedence associated with the first Church in Christendom dedicated to Our Lady and with broad hints of Christ’s presence here during His lifetime; an alternative foundation by St Joseph (useful in the political struggle with France) and the presence of his tomb and thorn; the presence of the curative remains of Dunstan. There was plenty of collusion in much of this by kings, politicians and historians.

The George Inn, or Novum Hospitium, was built in the time of Abbot Selwood for those who wished to stay in Glastonbury longer than the two days for which pilgrims received free board.   The visitors continued to come when the abbey was in ruins, sometimes in large numbers, for example, to see the thorn bloom when the calendar was changed.  Antiquarians were coming before the dissolution and their numbers multiplied in later years as more of the increasingly well educated population developed an interest in the country’s history and architectural heritage.  An added attraction in 1750 brought further thousands to this newly discovered spa for the “miraculous” cures from the Chalice Well water.  Although it had a very shortlived popularity, there was time for a row of cottages to be hurriedly converted into a Pump Room in Magdalene Street.

The improved roads and travel provided a further stream of passengers as the Royal Mail coach between London and Devonport staged daily at the George Inn and regular coaches to Bristol, Bridgwater, Chard, Exeter and Weymouth used the White Hart or the Crown Inns.  Tourism was further developed by the Great Western Railway with a range of historical and architectural publications.

In the 20th century, following the purchase of the Abbey for the Anglican Church, more visitors have come, some settling and contributing to the attractions of the town for a wider public. Whether through the early Glastonbury Festivals and the work of Rutland Boughton, Lawrence Housman and Alice Buckton or through the researches of Bligh Bond and Katherine Maltwood, almost despite itself, Glastonbury attracted an even wider range of visitors.  Had the Great War not interfered with the plans of a group of visionaries the present day Glastonbury might resemble Bayreuth or Oberammergau.  Instead, the 1960’s Flower Power brought another generation that had different expectation’s of the town and its area.  Some of the townspeoples’ reactions have been negative, rejecting some of the new visitors; others have sought to anticipate and meet the needs of what, at its lowest level, is one of Glastonbury’s opportunities for future prosperity.

Now that tourism has become one of the major growth industries of the country Glastonbury has more unique selling propositions than almost any other centre.  For many visitors the main attractions are its legendary, spirtual, and historic associations and they may often be disappointed when they find the limited number of early buildings and ruins overwhelmed by their more recent neighbours.  To make the most of this alternative source of business for the town we need to demonstrate that, even if we may not share the beliefs of all of our visitors, we do appreciate our town and its surroundings and care for it.

The lessons about the environmental and commercial advantages of the rehabilitation of old buildings are being learnt in Glastonbury decades later than in some of our other historic towns. Many more buildings insensitively planned and poorly designed and maintained may tip the balance and confirm the feeling that the townspeople of Glastonbury cannot live up to the romantic promise made to attract their present visitors.


All images and text © Glastonbury Antiquarian Society 2021

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