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The name Burnham is derived from Burnhamm, as it was called in the will of King Alfred, made up from the Old English words Burna meaning stream and Hamm for enclosure. On-Sea was added later as there are several other town of the same name in England.

The history of Burnham-on-Sea is the history of the reclamation of the Somerset Levels from the River Severn and the Bristol Channel. The Romans were the first peoples to try to reclaim the Somerset levels, and it was their people who were probably the first settlers in the high sand dunes behind the River Parrett. This could have been in part to maintain navigational systems, to aid ships entering the River Parrett and what is now Highbridge. When the Romans left, the system of drainage they installed was not maintained, and the areas reverted to become a tidal salt flat during the Anglo Saxon period.

It is likely that at the time of the Norman Domesday book, settlements existed at Burnham and Huntspill, their common boundary running along what is now the Westhill Rhyne. The church at Burnham and its lands were given to Gloucester Abbey in the 12th century, later transferred to the Wells Cathedral along with up to 50 houses surrounding the church.

One of the earliest recorded incidents to affect the town was the Bristol Channel floods of 1607, since when various flood defences have been installed. In 1911 a concrete wall was built. After the Second World War, further additions to the defences against the sea were added by bringing part of the remains of a Mulberry harbour used for the Normandy Landings, and burying them in the sand. Today the town is defended from flooding by a large curved concrete wall, completed in 1988 following serious flooding in 1981. The wall runs along the Esplanade, and serves as the canvas for a wide variety of graffiti and street art.

The USS Aulick was a Clemson-class destroyer in the United States Navy built in 1918 to 1919. In 1940 she was transferred to the British under the agreement with the United Kingdom exchanging American destroyers for bases in the Atlantic. She transferred to the Royal Navy where she served as HMS Burnham (H82) during the Second World War. In 1942, Burnham was formally adopted by Burnham-on-Sea. In 1944, she was used on aircraft training duties in the Western Approaches Command, which allowed a contingent from the ship to visit the town and march through its streets. Burnham was reduced to reserve at Milford Haven, Wales, in November 1944. She was ultimately scrapped at Pembroke, in December 1948.
BARB rescue hovercraft
Spirit of Lelaina

There have been many shipwrecks on the Gore Sands. The first lifeboat was sent to Burnham by the Bridgwater Corporation in 1836, and a replacement boat in 1847. The first Royal National Lifeboat was funded by the town of Cheltenham, and arrived in 1866. The lifeboat was removed in 1930 because of the difficulty in getting a full crew, and because the launching arrangements were not suitable for a powered boat. The current Burnham-on-Sea Lifeboat Station is the base for Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) search and rescue operations. The present station was opened in 2003. It operates two inshore lifeboats (ILBs), a B Class rigid-hulled boat and a inflatable D Class.

The Burnham-on-Sea Area Rescue Boat (BARB) was set up in 1992 to fund and operate rescue craft in the Bridgwater Bay area. BARB's boat house on the sea front was built in 1994 by the Challenge Anneka TV show. In 2002, Lelaina Hall, a five-year-old girl from Worcester, died on the mud flats before help could reach her. The outcry over her death prompted a Western Daily Press campaign to fund an inshore hovercraft. BARB currently operates the Spirit of Lelaina alongside her sister hovercraft the Light of Elizabeth, which is named after Lelaina's sister.


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