Abbots Leigh

By Glinda Hooper

Published in B&AFHS Journal 132 June 2008


The village of Abbots Leigh is situated in north Somerset to the west of the river Avon. It covers an area of about 900 hectares including the estate of Leigh Court with surrounding agricultural land. Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge and Bristol city centre are close by. It was once a tithing of the Portbury Hundred, and is one of a few communities to trace a continuous past from before Domesday Book of 1086. The Saxons built their settlement on a ridge of rock from which many springs of pure water ran – to this day wells survive in many properties and the ridge of rock forms the main road of the village. Outside the south east of the parish there were two Iron Age hill forts, Burwalls and Stokeleigh. It has been suggested these forts were occupied in the later Iron Age or 3rd century BC, and also until the middle of the 1st century AD and then from the mid to late 2nd century AD - I could find no recorded detail to indicate the extent of such settlements. To the south west of the parish, three flints have been unearthed at differing times giving indication of late Neolithic habitation. Excavations from the 1950s unearthed Romano-British pottery giving indication of occupation in the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. Roman fired clay pottery and bronze coin were found. The flints are held at Bristol City Museum.

‘Leigh’, a place name used frequently throughout England is thought to be of Anglo-Saxon origin. The name Leah is taken from Old English but has two contradictory meanings - woodland or clearing in a wood. It is worth remembering the Domesday Book was written in Latin with numerous abbreviations and therefore errors occurred in translation and interpretation. It is believed Thurstan, the priest who held Leigh, was one of 14 who held manors in Somerset. Domesday states that Lega or Leigh was held by Thurstan’s father in the time of Edward the Confessor; therefore it is safe to assume there may have been a chapel. Abbots Leigh was recorded as part of the extensive lordship of Bedminster, which William the Conqueror had granted to Geoffrey de Mowbray, Bishop of Coutances and Exeter. This gift determined the early years of the manor, and whatever changes associated to Bedminster, Abbots Leigh went along with it because for ecclesiastical purposes it was in the diocese of Bath and Wells; at that time Bristol was in Gloucestershire and in the diocese of Worcester.

Henry II before he became King, granted Robert Fitzharding the Lordship of Berkeley. Between 1140 and 1148 Fitzharding founded St Augustine’s abbey in Bristol, and he gave to this abbey the manor of Abbots Leigh. Richard of Warwick became the first abbot and under his rule the chapter house was built, with contributions from rents and services from the manor of Abbots Leigh. Early accounts of St. Augustine’s abbey survive in part, and in full from 1491-1492: such accounts are thought to give a clear definition of the manor of Abbots Leigh.

Times were hard for villagers, with increasing population came disease and poverty, coupled with the uncertainty of the time. Feudalism remained as part of the social system, whereby villains - or villagers - were obliged to show homage and allegiance to their lord and the manor, with rents and services being paid with produce. In order for villagers to honour their allegiance, they needed permission to sell their services or goods, but they paid a fee. In 1490, John NEWLAND, an abbot, had all tenants pay rent in money. Such was life in the village that the manorial court fined a widow for selling firewood to a relative; two incoming tenants were prohibited from becoming mariners, but they could forfeit their land; freedom from being tied to the manor could be bought for a fee of 60 shillings. Could such ‘ties’ be classed as early slavery?

In 1538 came the Dissolution of the Monasteries, followed by change to all dioceses of the Church of England by King Henry VIII, this brought Bristol into the new diocese of Gloucester. In 1542, Henry created a new diocese of Bristol including Abbots Leigh, and St. Augustine’s abbey became the Cathedral Church. Paul BUSH, born about 1490, was appointed the first bishop of this new diocese, and Henry granted him the manor of Abbots Leigh. In May 1551, Bush was pressurised to surrender Abbots Leigh to the Crown, reserving some rights in the manor for himself, but with reversion to Sir George NORTON, a Bristol man. This forced surrender reduced the bishop’s income and for the bishopric of Bristol for many years. On the death of BUSH the reversion took effect, so NORTON took over the possession of the manor and estate of Abbots Leigh. About 1560, he was admitted a freeman of Bristol, and he became a justice of the peace for Somerset.

There are no dates for the beginning of the Abbots Leigh church, dedicated to Holy Trinity. It is thought a Saxon hermitage or small chapel was built near the present day church. Year 1115 is the first date put on construction; maybe the present day chancel is from that date. The original crypt has been filled in, and the nave is probably 13th century, the south aisle is probably 14th century with the tower mid 15th century. The small door in the south wall was the entrance to the pew for the Lord of the Manor. It appears the church of today was built at varying intervals over a period of about 800 years. The oldest monument is known as The Norton Canopy Monument, although damaged over the years it shows the Norton coat of arms. The third generation, Sir George NORTON, is remembered for giving shelter at Abbots Leigh to the then future King Charles II. Norton’s monument situated on the north wall of the chancel has as part of the inscription ‘….. hazarding his life and fortune…’ but in actual fact he was unaware of the future monarch’s identity. Georgette Heyer used this incident of danger, ‘love’ escape and secrecy as a plot for one of her historical novels in 1938! The next generation, Sir George NORTON IV died in 1715; he outlived his children, but was outlived by his wife. Although she remarried, it is thought she was the only resident of Abbots Leigh to be buried in Westminster Abbey, London.

The TRENCHARDS married into the NORTON family and in 1715 John TRENCHARD, MP for Taunton, inherited Abbots Leigh. He died in 1723 but his sister Ann continued to live in the Old Court House. She inherited Abbots Leigh, which she left to her family. It is thought during the Great War animals used the ruin of the Old Court House as shelter – little more than a fragment of wall remained with one or two windows – wrote an anonymous observer.

William MILES born about 1728 went to Jamaica where he ran a sugar plantation. As a merchant he bought himself into the Society of Merchant Venturers, and later went into partnership owning shares in ships in the West Indies trade. He was the second largest sugar importer. He died in 1803 with his wealth inherited by his only surviving son Philip John MILES. Being head of a dynasty and with other merchants he diversified into banking. Outbreak of war with France in 1793 caused banks to fold, but a year later the bank partnership was reconstituted. Having married in 1795 his wealth grew by accumulated inheritance and in 1811 bought the manor of Abbots Leigh from the TRENCHARDS, but his plans were put on hold when his wife died. He remarried in 1813 to Clarissa PEACH whose mother had considerable inherited wealth and so Philip now had ample means to build a house of architectural distinction near to the site of the Old Court House overlooking the river Avon and Severn estuary. In 1814, he commissioned the mansion house at Abbots Leigh with the architect Thomas HOPPER - the mansion was known as Leigh Court. Philip John MILES, the plutocrat of Abbots Leigh died in 1845. At his funeral in the village was a hearse and four, 8 mourning coaches and pairs and 8 private carriages. An employee carried a hatchment now displayed in Abbots Leigh church. The sculptor was E. H. BAILEY of Bristol who was responsible for Nelson’s figure in Trafalgar Square and decorations on Marble Arch, London. The Estate passed through the MILES family and in 1898 Henry MILES, an uncle inherited Leigh Court with the estate and the baronetcy. Although the estate was in decline Sir Henry, who brought the first car to the village, continued to reside at Leigh Court until his death in 1915, but was the last MILES to live there.

On 21st February 1848, the church was gutted by fire. The villagers helped to fight the flames, Leigh Court’s private fire engine was put into action, and a paper report read - with a horse drawn fire engine arriving from Bristol some three hours after the fire had started. The tower and the chancel were saved. William MILES the son of Philip John paid for the rebuilding of the church. The vestry and north aisle were added and an organ installed. Although the 1841 census shows no member of the MILES family living at Leigh Court, several servants were listed, but the family continued an ongoing association with the village. The 1870s had seen an agricultural depression, which throughout England had caused the decline of country houses and estates. In an effort to halt the decline on the Leigh Court estate, celestine, a form of strontium used in fireworks and flares, was mined. At the Grand Hotel, Bristol on 14th October 1915 almost all of Abbots Leigh village and Leigh Court mansion were put up for sale. 35 lots were sold for £43,000 but the mansion with 76 acres was withdrawn and sold privately to the Reverend H. N. BURDEN for £9,000. He opened Leigh Court in 1917 as part of a Colony, initially for young women.

Harold Nelson BURDEN, ordained in Ontario, returned to England and moved to Bristol in 1895, where he became clerical secretary of the Church of England Temperance Society and to the early Probation Service. With his first wife Katherine, he raised funds for their charity to provide care and shelter for young inebriate females and those in moral danger. Following the passing of the Mental Deficiency Act, BURDEN took in adults at Brentry (in Henbury), Stoke Park (in Stoke Gifford) and Leigh Court all of which were associated and run as part of The Colony System. Following the death of Katherine changes were made on legal advice with trusts put in place, but the BURDENS had formed their own company Great Stoke Estates Ltd., with property and land, not transferred to the charities. More than 1,000 acres were conveyed including 26 acres from Leigh Court, 75 acres from the old deer park, as well as part of the village of Abbots Leigh. When his second wife Rosa died in 1939 she left part of her estate to the National Institutions trustees with options to purchase the freehold of the land at Leigh Court and Stoke Park group. Land in the village of Abbots Leigh was auctioned in 1940. With the introduction of the National Health Service, Leigh Court and other voluntary hospitals were transferred to the Ministry of Health with some land sold to the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1984, the National Health Service sold Leigh Court and the remaining land. Rosa BURDEN was obviously a lady with great foresight - in 1933 she had formed The Burden Trust, to support a medical research unit working from Stoke Park. This unit later became the Neurological Department at Frenchay hospital but independent of the Burden Trust. It is safe to believe proceeds from the sale of part of the village of Abbots Leigh has contributed to worldwide research into neurological medicine.

One of the oldest buildings in the village is The George Inn situated at the crossroad junction of the A369 with Church Road and Manor Road, and by the old village tree. Originally it was an ecclesiastical property, recorded in 1719 as a church house and stable, providing a venue for church ales! During the mid 1750s, churchwardens let the place as a public house with rent being used for the church. The property was sold in 1892 for £3,000. I could find no logical reason why it is called the George Inn, but it continues to be a delightful stopping point for light refreshment!

Leigh Court with its vast land has played a large part in the history of the village. As the Estate moved away from ecclesiastical ties, the villagers became more self-reliant and went outside their local boundaries. The close proximity of the villages of Easton-in-Gordano and Pill, the building of Ham Green Hospital and the coming of the railway, brought changes economically and socially. With this came the great desire for many influential and wealthy people to relocate. Names such as - Dr. Richard BRIGHT, brother of the slave owner Robert BRIGHT, who identified BRIGHTS disease; the Old Park House, off Sandy Lane was the hunting lodge for the WILLS family; for a period Sir Egbert CADBURY, managing director of Fry’s chocolate, lived at the Manor House. The Priory built about 1830 in gothic style, was the home of Roderick FRY, chairman of Fry’s chocolate, and his wife Janet. Within the conservatory at the Priory, Janet FRY bred silk worms for use in her passion of church embroidery - alter frontals, collection bags, and banners continue to be used at the church, Bristol Cathedral and St, Mary Redcliffe church. Vestments have adorned many clergy including archbishops for prestigious events such as the wedding of the duke and duchess of Kent in 1934 and the coronation of King George VI in 1937. The Priory and its grounds have been divided but it remains an imposing property.

During the 1914-1918 war men from the village enlisted, not all returned. The churchyard cross was restored as a war memorial in June 1921; it was unveiled by Colonel H. Cary BATTEN OBE, and dedicated by the Lord Bishop of Bristol. Many villagers joined up at the outbreak of the Second World War. A rocket battery was set up on the cricket field with Nissan huts for ATS. A barrage balloon was tethered in the village, and a bomb disposal squad operated from Church Road. The Home Guard was based in sheds at the Priory and Land Girls worked in the fields of the deer park at Leigh Court. Abbots Leigh House was the only property to suffer serious damage. Survivors from both wars were welcomed home to a peel of church bells.

The original village school opened in 1839, with a new school opened in 1924. Records are not open for inspection, but an account book, period 1878 – 1887 is open at Bristol Record Office. Towards the end of the 19th century a young governess left the village for a new life ‘down under’, where she founded a school naming it ‘Abbotsleigh’ after the village she had left. During the Second World War, the children of families evacuated from London and children from local Army Camps were taught in the village hall - a gift to the village from Yda Hall. The school closed in 1986.

Abbots Leigh was a chapelry to Bedminster for centuries until 1852, when it became a parish in its own right in the diocese of Bristol. Charles Morgan was the first incumbent and lived at Glebe House. The present vicarage was built in 1924. The Rev. Cyril TAYLOR, precentor of Bristol Cathedral stayed at the vicarage during the war years, and from the study he composed the hymn tune ‘Abbots Leigh’ to the famous hymn Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken. There was another fire in the church in February 1972 but damage was not serious. The ecclesiastical parish is now combined with Leigh Woods and share a vicar in charge. Parish Register dating from 1539 is kept at Bristol Record Office.

Abbots Pool has through time been a favourite leisure and fishing spot for both man and boy alike, including the abbots who used the manor of Leigh as a rest house. It is said that at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, treasure from the abbey was thrown into the pool, but only discarded rubbish has ever been found! Today the pool, surrounded by woodland with diverse wildlife and its habitat, continues to attract.

Past census returns have shown many changes but the long association with agriculture and farming continues. Clifton College has playing fields on the edge of the village and likewise Bristol City Football Club has a training ground. Abbots Leigh cricket club continue to play cricket on the Stokeleigh field. During the mid 1970s the village post office stores closed, it was estimated that if each family had spent £2.50 per week then the shop could have remained viable! More recently the Manor House owned by DRG group, is now a private nursing home. Leigh Court Mansion is now a conference and training centre and is also used for civil weddings and receptions.

My maternal family have lived at Easton-in-Gordano for more than 300 years, with some members having lived, were christened, married and buried at Abbots Leigh. My grandfather Thomas William PORTER was game keeper to Sir Henry MILES, and his wife Eliza Jane bred clumber spaniels used by the Miles family and their beaters at many game shoot. My children grew up in the village, where they learned and respected the value and traditions of village life. There are no main drains and neither is the village connected to the main gas supply, but this has kept new sites for building to a minimum, and so the village although situated so close to the bustling city of Bristol continues to retain its exclusivity and charm.

Sources used:

Abbots Leigh - A Village History, by William Evans, 2002

Bristol City Museum

Bristol and Somerset Record Offices

Church Leaflet

Bristol Evening Post

Bristol Cathedral

If you have questions about Abbots Leigh or the PORTER family, the author Glinda Hooper may be contacted by email: glindaofgordano@sky.com



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