The small section of St Mary Street which bends towards the Cornhill is almost unrecognisable today compared to a
hundred years ago. Only one building survives; the rest were the victims of road widening in the mid-twentieth century.
The building called 'Parson's' in the above picture, then number 62, now number 48, was demolished in 1932.
In its place is now an interesting Art Deco construction, which is a folly above the ground floor.
The old building it replaced once contained one of the finest treasures of Bridgwater, an elaborately carved medieval ceiling.
The ceiling as it looks today can be seen here and here.
The ceiling was discovered by accident by a Mr Pitman, while removing some plaster in his house.
It took months to clear away all of the plaster to reveal the full extent of the huge structure. Pitman soon
charged six pence for the public to see the ceiling, under which he established a coffee house,
but he soon decided to sell it. He first approached the Victoria and Albert Museum,
but negotiations broke down. He eventually sold it in the late 1920s. It passed through the Hearst Collection of St Donat's Castle,
Wales and eventually came to the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, where it is now very finely displayed in their gallery.
Barrett's Sketches of 1894. The figure on the right is presumed to represent the biblical story of Peter and the Cockerel (where Jesus foresaw that Peter would deny association with him when arrested, a betrayal),
that on the left, a praying woman and small child, possibly represents the patron of the ceiling.
C.R. Barrett, who saw the ceiling in 1894 reported:'In a house at the east end of the churchyard, now used as a refreshment rooms, there is a very remarkable ceiling, from which I derived the two details here illustrated. The ceiling has twelve panels, divied by massive, well-moulded beams, and decorated with very quaint bosses. My sketches show two of these, and most remarkable of the remainder have for their subjects four pigs or boars intwined, a tomfool, an ecclesiastic and a lion, a demi figure clutching a fiend, and an animal devouring grapes. Behind some matchboarding, which has quite recently been nailed onto the staircase, I was told that some beautiful carved windows exist, but I suspect that these windows are in reality the remains of a screen.'
Detail of some of the foliage bosses.
Very little is known about the ceiling. The inclusion of a Tudor Rose (assuming that it is contemporary with the rest
of the ceiling) in the decoration means that it was made sometime after
1485, and it would presumably have been made before the Reformation of the 1530s.
When the house in which it was found was demolished in 1932 it was the opinion of a local architect that the ceiling was an integral part of the construction
of its construction. Whether the ceiling, on the other hand, was built for the house though is more difficult to determine.
Art historians have suggested that the nature of the
carving indicates that it may have been designed to be seen at a height, rather than a low ceiling, as it was found.
It is possible therefore that it originated in a church of some sort.
If so, St Mary's across the road is likely, although it could also have come from the medieval Hospital in Eastover, or the
Friary of Friarn Street, both of which would have been elaborately decorated.
Detail of some of the carvings. The Dragon has subsequently been lost. The boss on the top right is highly interesting. It shows
a woman grasping the tail of a leopard, which is symbolic of female sin and the dangers of promiscuousness, the result being the monster produced at the bottom.
The imagery is hammered home by being framed by two sets of spread female legs.
Details of another medieval ceiling in Bridgwater, still in St. Mary's Church can be seen here.
Papers relating to the Ceiling in the Blake Museum, Bridgwater.
Robert Dunning, Bridgwater History and Guide (Sutton, Stroud, 1992)
M. Adams-Acton, 'Structural Ceilings of the Early Tudor House' in the Connoisseur (1949) pp.75-82
Robert Dunning, 'Bridgwater: Churches', A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 6: Andersfield, Cannington, and North Petherton Hundreds (Bridgwater and neighbouring parishes)(1992), pp. 230-235.
Jack Lawrence and Chris Lawrence, A History of Bridgwater (Phillimore, Chichester, 2005)
Arthur Powell, Bridgwater in the Later Days (1908) p.41