Civic History

by Cllr John Brunsdon MBE

Ina, King of the West Saxons, granted Glastonbury a Charter from his capital Town Somerton. This effectively was the start of the Abbey and estate of the twelve hides. The town grew round the Abbey that had special privileges. The Abbot was the supreme Authority, making laws and keeping order, raising taxes etc. This continued until the dissolution of the Monasteries. During this time the Abbey greatly increased its wealth, estates and influence. When king Edward visited with his Queen one Easter, and wished to hold court, he was requested by the Abbot not to do so since this was contrary to the privileges whereby only the Abbot held court within the twelve hides. So the King held court in Street Church instead! From time to time there were clashes with the Bishop of Bath and West over navigation rights versus fisheries on the rivers.

At the dissolution of the Monasteries, the Abbot’s rule ceased and King’s law returned. Local government was by the vestry of St John’s Church and the magistrates. The Assizes dealt with major events as with the Monmouth Rebellion. Even when Queen Anne granted a charter in 1705, the Burgesses had relatively little power. This was changed when the nineteenth century local government act transferred power to elected councillors at Town and County levels. Glastonbury Borough Council had almost unitary authority status with responsibility for Public Health, roads, drains, water, refuse disposal, snow clearance, rate collection etc. Other authorities ran the canals, railways, gasworks and later water supply. This continued until the 1970 Local Government Act created Mendip District Council and reduced the Town Council’s role to that of a Parish Council.

Policing the Town was important in the nineteen century with the headquarters of the Somerset Constabularies in the Town next to the Magistrates Court.

To read more about the history of Glastonbury (and it’s council) from the 1950’s onwards see John Brunsdon’s Personal History of Glastonbury


The Town Hall

Although a charter was granted to the town in 1705, following a petition citing the lack of local justice which stated “whereof the morall of the inhabitants are corrupt, and cavill and breach of the peace are frequent”, it was not until 1813 when an order was placed with a Mr.Beard of Somerton to draw up plans for a Town Hall. The early Corporation, composed of capital and inferior burgesses, held meetings in the market house which, because of its poor condition made change inevitable. After years of discussion a Mr.Down offered a piece of ground next to the gateway beside the Red Lion one which to build a new market hall on the ground floor and a Town Hall above. The Council Chamber remains there today, above a small meeting room which is part of the whole complex. The first meeting of the Council in the new Town Hall took place in December 1814, but “later adjourned to the White Hart to consider how to find £100”, presumably for further costs. The debt was still not repaid in 1865. Today the building houses the office of the Town Clerk, a large hall with three fine chandeliers widely used for receptions, dances, musical entertainments and meetings. The small hall below the Chamber is also popular for smaller meetings and functions. Three rooms are now licensed for civil weddings, including the Council Chamber where the monthly meetings of the Council take place on the second Tuesday in every month. Meetings are held under the watchful eye of Sir Peter King, Baron Ockham, Speaker of the House of Lords and Lord Chancellor. A barrister with local family connections, Peter King became the first Recorder of the town under the Charter. The Town Hall today is entirely funded by the town and the range of activities it attracts and is adjoined by St.Dunstan’s Car Park, recently acquired by the Council. This park is capable of holding more than 60 cars and coaches and is the starting point for the local bus which regularly takes visitors around the Tor during the summer months