Sunday, 11 April 2010

Somerset Place Names

This week saw the publication of Somerset Place Names - a bit of a landmark as it is the twelfth book I have had published in the last twelve months. Among those twelve was Nottinghamshire Place Names, which has just been chosen as the 'Local History Book of the Month' by a local newspaper - not exactly the Oscars, but every little helps!

I thought I would produce an excerpt from Somerset Place Names and have chosen the coastal town of Watchet.


The earliest surviving record is from 962 as Waecet and later as Wacet in Domesday. The origins are uncertain but likely to refer to a Celtic ced and tells of 'the lower wood'.
Here customers at the Valiant Soldier Inn, a term which is most often used to describe those who fought in the English Civil War, but could equally describe anyone who fought at the front. The Clipper Inn remembers the sailing ships which were the pinnacle of design, the fastest thing on the sea until steam power became more efficient.
Alongside the harbour at Watchet stand two statues, the largest marks the time spent in the coastal town by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, where he was said to have been inspired to write The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. While the fictional mariner has his back to the sea, the smaller statue quite rightly faces out toward the Irish Sea. This is John Short, better known as Yankee Jack, who was born here in 1839. He joined his father in trading along the coast at the age of 14 but four years later headed out on his own to explore the ocean proper and travelled the world, he saw the Mediterranean, Australia, Canada, and Bombay sailing east indiamen, schooners and even steam-assisted vessels, while during the American Civil War he was aboard North American vessels which earned him the soubriquet Yankee Jack.
He is best remembered as a shantyman, his art developed with shantying which was not what we know today prior to the late 19th century. In 1914 he retired from his voyages to return to Watchet and care for his ailing wife. It was here he met Cecil Sharp who already had a reputation for collecting English folk songs. John Short gave him fifty shanties, forming a large part of the published collection, featuring any theme which would produce a pace to which the seamen could pull and heave. This covered cotton workers, tales from the heart, lust, storytelling, myths and reputations, anything was considered fair game for John Short, the shantyman. Sir Richard Terry later visited the man who had also seen life as the Town Crier and leading the local fire brigade. Without John Short and his two author friends many of the sea shanties would have been lost - maybe we would never have known Rio Grande, Shenandoah, Blow The Man Down, A Roving or Spanish Ladies.
This son of Watchet was a favourite of the local historian, author, and former curator of the museum Ben Norman and this statue was his project. Sadly Ben died two months before the statue was unveiled by his widow Margaret. The statue is as much a monument to Ben Norman as to Yankee Jack, who died at the grand old age of 94.

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