Britain - Photo and History Pages



About Paradoxplace


Somerton (Somerset)

Adrian Fletcher



After my maternal grandfather (Brig Jimmy Sproule, CBE) retired from the British army in 1946, he and my grandmother Clare bought a house in the country town of Somerton (Somerset).  The house, called "Old Bell House" was half of an old inn, complete with skittle alley and large stone cellar.  My mother, sister and I lived here for a couple of years at the end of the 1940s.  In those days it was still very much a real and working village.  There were two milking sheds within a few hundred yards of our house, and the cows were herded there down the main street from their fields for milking.  Butcher, baker, grocer, green-grocer and chemist were within an even shorter walk as were a couple of inns / pubs.


Today, the working village centre is working no more - no more everyday shops, pubs or cow poo on the roads - it's neat and pretty but ... well, I nearly said lifeless, but that's not true - there are cars parked everywhere, but no evidence of activity outside the boutique offices etc which have taken over from the shops of my youth.




The Market Cross, aka Butter Market, 1600s






This photo by Clare Sproule in the late 1940s much better expresses the existence of a "live village" - The Red Lion was still an inn, the horse drawn bakers cart was saddled up outside Old Bell House every morning, and cow shit on the main street marked the route the cows were herded on from field to milking shed.



Compiled by the Somerton Womens'

Institute in 1953




A Brief History of Somerton (2003)



Somerton never achieved lasting  major town fame, living mainly in the shadow of the Roman town of Ilchester (which is located between Somerton and Yeovil, and in Roman times guarded the Fosse Way), but it did have some spells in the sun, firstly as a town in West Wessex, in fact some locals will tell you it was the Saxon capital or Royal Town of Wessex, but it was not!  All this came to an end with a Viking flattening in the 800s.


In the late 1200s Somerton was made the County Town in place of Ilchester, and the County Goal and Shire Assizes were moved here.  Importantly in the medieval scheme of things a licence to hold a market had been granted in 1255.


But there was no continuing momentum, and everything faded away again in the direction of Ilchester, even the market being closed down in the 1500s.  Then it all mysteriously picked up, and the 1600s and 1700s became Somerton's centuries in the sun.  No-one knows why, but the crucial evidence is there - by 1760 there were 16 inns around the church and market place.








The Duke of Monmouth was the illegitimate son of Stuart King Charles II, who thought that he could make a better fist of Kingship than Charles' useless brother James II. 


The Battle of Sedgemoor which took place to the west of Somerton in July 1685, was the last pitched battle ever fought on British soil.  Monmouth's ill equipped army was pitted against the royal troops of Feversham and a yet to be famous Major General John Churchill, later the Duke of Marlborough and builder of Blenheim Palace.  Monmouth lost and a lot of people got killed or strung up. 


James himself was pushed aside within three years in favour of William and Mary.



Somerton - St Michael and All Angels


The church of Saint Michael and all Angels, Somerton.  I remember as a boy of 5 or so clambering up the steps of the tower with "Gaga", my grandfather, to "help" him wind the clock.  He was also responsible for preparing a section of the lawn where people could plant small wooden crosses with poppies each Armistice Day (November 11).  In 1949 there were still lots of WW I vets like my grandad around, along with loved ones with vivid memories of those who had been killed.




The glory of the church is the amazing carved wood ceiling dating from c1510, which runs for the whole length of the nave.

Here are the Warrior Archangel Michael and two dragons (there are 20 more and a cider barrel).




A child's paradise - no cars and a huge safe area to pedal the bikes around and invent endless homespun action games.



My mother, grandfather and grandmother, together with me (scowling) and my sister Angela in the porch of Old Bell House c1949.





My maternal grandmother Clare Sproule (née Aldous, 1891 - 1958 (67)) and a young Sussex Spaniel called Sam in Somerton, late 1940s.  She is walking towards Old Bell House.  The Inn Sign of the White Heart can be seen top left - it was located on part of the site originally occupied by a (unimportant) castle which later became the County Goal in the late 1200s.


We used to walk the dog(s) for an hour or so every day.  I particularly remember one of the walks by the little weeded River Carey and the large but lightly used railway viaduct which crossed it, because of the wild strawberries we used to find in the fields, which were also carpeted with wild flowers and the occasional four-leaf clover.


Clare's maternal grandfather was James Stewart (1836 - 1919 (83)) - a Scot who made his life in Melbourne, Australia - co-founding Mallesons, now Australia's biggest Law Firm, and becoming Mayor of Melbourne.  When we were living in Somerton we received food parcels (including eggs in felt lined wooden boxes) from our distant Australian relatives!


Clare was a formidable photographer and a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.  She travelled extensively whilst living in Cairo between 1936 and 1942, and Paradoxplace will feature photographs she took (and sometimes hand coloured) at Petra, Saint Catherine's Monastery (Mt Sinai), Jerusalem and of course in Egypt itself during this period.





Old Bell House (2005 and 1948) - half of what was once the Old Bell Inn - one of 17 inns around the market square of Somerton in the mid 1700s, only one of which still operates.  In 1948 it still had a (disused) skittle alley (now a separate house) and a large cool flagstone floored cellar under the right hand room.  Another ex-inn around the corner is said to have had a dog fighting pit in the attic!  In Old Bell House all the downstairs floors were flagstone, covered with coconut matting and heated with kerosene stoves.  The wooden pillar at the bottom of the steep 180 degree stairway was stinkwood.  The smells of kerosene burners, coconut matting or indeed stinkwood would take me straight back there in a way that only smell can!  The rounded corner on the right was very thick, and it was said to have been part of an earlier (medieval) turret, although the town castle was a bit further round the square.  It was also said that there were secret passages from the cellar to the dungeons of the castle (later a goal) and the church, but much wall tapping by my sister and myself failed to reveal anything. 


The family car was a camel coloured Morris 8 (JYC 653) top speed 98 km/hr - a bit less than the rather swish tourer above which belonged to a friend of my uncle (the one in long trousers).  The front doors of the Morris opened "backwards".  It was quite common to start the car using a starting handle, which fitted into the engine through a hole in the middle of the front bumper (indeed I was still doing this in the late 60s!).   In winter, we used to light a small kerosene burner under the engine block to keep things warm!






Looking past the porch the other way - a drawing dating from the mid 1800s.  By the late 1940s J Parsons was Old Bell House (and the bell had gone), Clarke the chemists had become Bond the chemists and electricity had been around for only 20 years (that's all - it got to Somerton on 1 October 1930).  In the late '40s there was still a working horse around - baker Furze, who had the property just to the right of the stationer, brought his dray horse up from a nearby field every morning, put on its collar and harnessed it into the bread delivery wagon, the detailed mechanics often watched intently by me from my bedroom window over the porch.  The Furze baking ovens were put to good use each Christmas for turkey roasting.  The man of the family delivered the bird in its baking tray before morning church, and enjoyed a dram or two of bakerly hospitality when he picked it up later.  Mrs Furze, as you might imagine from her name, also made Somerset clotted cream to die for.      



Brigadier Jimmy Sproule, CBE,

1887 - 1955 (68)


Adrian Fletcher's mother's father



Link to "WWI, Jimmy Sproule, Royal Welsh Fusiliers,

131 Field Ambulance and the Welsh Division"


in Ciaofamiglia


scroll up for news about Somerton in the 1940s



Retirement Photo - December 1946




These are my grandfather's WW I medals.  They include the "Old Contemptibles" medal (second from left, awarded to the soldiers who went to France between 5 August and 22 November 1914 with the bar signifying service under enemy fire) and the Croix de Guerre (right).  The oak leaf on the next door Victory Medal indicates a "Mention in Despatches" for gallantry (in fact he got two mentions and was recommended for a DSO, which somehow got changed to an OBE - which is on the left).


Jimmy Sproule was an army doctor and spent most of WWI on the Western Front.  On 9 August 1914 he went to Belgium as the Medical Officer of the famous 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers (RWF) thus becoming an "Old Contemptible".  In the final part of the  war he was a Lt Colonel (Acting) commanding 131 Field Ambulance Unit which was attached to the 38th (Welsh) Division fighting in and around the muddy hell of the trenches in France to the NW of Amiens (Battles of Amiens, Albert & Bapaume).  The General Officer Commanding the Welsh Division wrote in his service record: "A most energetic, gallant, loyal and reliable officer: Lt Col Sproule invariably visited the most advanced aid posts and dressing stations throughout the fighting.  No work was too hard for him, and no day too long.  He set a splendid example to all ranks by his personal courage."


After the WWI finished Jimmy Sproule spent time in England before being posted to the North West frontier of India (Peshawar).  Then it was back to Ireland in 1926 (Belfast this time) for a Diploma in Public Health, then England, then over to Aden and back to India followed by England again before setting out from Southampton for Egypt in the SS Cameronia on November 15 1935.  My grandmother and later my mother joined him in Cairo, where my mother and father (an 8th Army officer) met and married on 21 May 1941.  In late 1941 Jimmy and Clare returned to final pre-retirement postings in England.  The second Battle of el-Alamein in October - November 1942 marked the turning point of WW II.  I was born in Cairo on 16 December 1943.


Adrian Fletcher - afletch at paradoxplace dot com




Obituary for Brig J C Sproule, British Medical Journal, September 24 1955, p794.




Lt Col Sproule looks a bit awkward beside the Prince of Wales during

 an inspection of 131 Field Ambulance at Chateau Longeau on 7 February 1919



Pyramid outing whilst stationed with the 8th Army in Cairo, 1940.

In those days you could walk up the Great and other Pyramids.



At Sherborne in 1942




Wartime wedding - 28 July 1915 and my grandparents Jimmy and Clare marry at the Emmanuel Church, Compton Gifford, Plymouth (Devon).  He was on leave from France, whence he had travelled with other "Old Contemptibles" in the Autumn of 1914.  They had met when Clare was asked by her day to visit and cheer up a lonely soldier in the local hospital in December 1914.  It was love at first sight - she was so smitten that instead of feeding him his dinner she absent-mindedly ate it herself.  Jimmy was then stationed in Southern England till 21 September 1915 after which he spent the rest of WWI in charge of Field Ambulance units see above).


On the left is Clare's mother - my Australian (Melbourne born) great-grandmother Isabel Aldous (Stewart) (1865 - 1938 (73)).  Next to her (standing) is my grandfather (then) Captain Jimmy Sproule and fellow doctors from the RAMC, some of whom were killed in France later in WW I. 


The three bridesmaids were my grandmother's sisters, none of whom were destined for marriage.  George Aldous, my great-grandfather and a Plymouth surgeon, is on the right - he was a major in the Territorial RAMC.  George's father Alex Aldous had lived in Portsea, Portsmouth and had the contract for the supply of grog to the Royal Navy (or some of it anyway - these family stories do get exaggerated).  His mother Elizabeth died from scarlet fever when he was just 1 - there is a memorial plaque to her in the Parish Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Buriton


Isabel possibly met George when she accompanied her parents on a "Grand Tour" to Europe in 1881 - 82, or - who knows?  Anyway, they were married St Stephen's Church, Gloucester Rd (London) in 1887.  Her father was James Stewart, a founding partner of the Melbourne law firm Mallesons and later (1885 - 86) Mayor of Melbourne. 


There were no representatives at the 1915 wedding from my grandfather's family (the Sproules) who lived in a very big house in Fintona, Co Tyrone (N Ireland).   Neither were there many men at the wedding - they were off at war!


lots & lots more family stuff here






1920 - my grandfather at the British Army frontier fort of Ali Masjid at the top of the north west (then) Indian Khyber Pass




My grandmother and mother (then just three) are driven with my grandfather to take up a British Army posting in Peshawar - Christmas day 1920.  A few days later they watched the cavalry trot past in Peshawar - shades of "King of the Khyber Rifles".



only 20 photo albums to go .........


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