Eighteenth century Yeovil was still a small medieval borough despite a 1784 description that it was ‘a large and populous town’, which then stated that ‘the houses are irregularly built, the streets narrow and ill-paved’.
The portreeve’s accounts show expenses being concerned mainly with the upkeep of the Portreeve’s Almshouses, repair and maintenance of fire appliances, or occasional grants to vagrants.
They reveal the old corporation in a state of decline and an inefficient authority. A mace had been purchased in 1776 and a mace-bearer supplied with uniform - a somewhat empty gesture.
Of four principal towns in Somerset in 1801, Yeovil came fourth with a population of 2774. Frome, an important cloth weaving town, was largest (8748), Taunton second (5794) and Bridgwater third (3634). By 1831 Yeovil’s population had more than doubled, while Frome’s remained static. The census returns for 1851, when residents’ birthplaces first appeared, show that only a little more than half of the town’s inhabitants were Yeovil natives, the remainder being largely incomers from the surrounding area.
In spite of new residential areas springing up around the town’s confines, a great deal of overcrowding was to be found while sanitary provisions were totally inadequate in many areas. The inability of the Portreeve and Burgesses to alleviate such conditions led, in 1830, to an Act being obtained setting up a body of Commissioners charged with improving the streets and regulating the policing of the town, as well as extending its bounds. Watchmen were employed to patrol the streets and apprehend wrongdoers. It was not until 1849 that a Town House was built in Union Street to house a full time superintendent of the watch. His responsibilities were combined with town surveyor, rate collector, and supervisor of pavements, sewers, and drains, all at a salary of £80 a year plus rent-free accommodation.
However, the flourishing and greatly expanding market was still in the hands of the lord of Yeovil borough, and in 1846 another Act was obtained by which ‘Special Commissioners’ were empowered to purchase those rights, take over the old corporation’s property, and build a market hall and cattle market. A Town Hall, erected in High Street in 1849, contained a large meeting room on the first floor and accommodation below, and at the rear for use as a corn exchange, butchers’ stalls, flax room, and cheese and bacon room. This was burnt down in 1935.