Watchet Market House Museum
Located where the Esplanade meets Market Street and occupying the ground floor of Watchet’s former Market House is Watchet Market House Museum. The Market House is a two-storied stone building which was constructed during 1819-20 with open arches to the ground floor and an open staircase at its west end to the upper floor, under which was the Court Leet lock-up. The market was held on Saturdays and continued until the 1830s. The ground floor was later converted to a shop and from the 1920s the upper floor was used as a mission church, now known as Holy Cross Chapel.
The building is owned by the Wyndham Estate, and when an ironmongery shop ceased trading on the ground floor there in the 1970s it was mainly through the forethought and effort of the late Mr. Leslie Wedlake (first curator), supported by a band of enthusiastic helpers, and aided by the generous help of the late Mr. George Wyndham, that it became the home of the Market House Museum. Mr. George Wyndham opened the Museum in 1979, and its Trustees are Watchet Town Council, with two of its members serving on the Museum Committee. Mr. Wedlake’s successors as curator were the late Mr. W.H. (Ben) Norman (well-known local personality and author) and Mr. Roger Wedlake (Mr. A.L. Wedlake’s son). The present curator is Mr. James Nicholas after being joint curator with Mrs. Stephanie Franklin.
Much of the Museum’s success is due to a large band of voluntary stewards who supervise an annual total in excess of 40,000 visitors during its seasonal opening. The Museum Society welcomes new members and stewards. A Museum Newsletter is produced twice a year.
There is no admission charge, but donations are gratefully accepted to help meet expenses. New lower display cases make the collections more accessible to children and the disabled. A portable ramp can be deployed to aid access for wheelchair users and improved handrails make it easier for the disabled to enter. Some wonderful artefacts, paintings, photographs, etc., depicting Watchet’s colourful history can be seen in the Museum, and a varied selection of books of local interest, postcards, etc. are also available.
A winter programme of talks (some illustrated) is also provided by the Museum Society. These are usually held on the second Wednesday of the month in the Methodist Schoolroom in Harbour Road at 7.30 p.m.
The Museum Society are also very proud of two statues which they commissioned – one of the Ancient Mariner and the other of John Short (‘Yankee Jack’) – which are sited on the Esplanade.
The Court Leet
Watchet was described as a borough in 1243, and in 1302 was represented in Parliament. The records of Watchet Borough Court or Court Leet date from 1273 and survive spasmodically until 1606 and from 1620 until the present.
The remit of the Court Leet was to ensure the smooth running of the town and that law and order was maintained. Although now having no legal jurisdiction, meetings are still held annually in October at the Bell Inn.
The Court Leet still has a lock-up at the rear of the Museum – just in case!