By Andrew Plaster
Published in B&AFHS Journal 149 - September 2012
The parish of Siston (or Syston), pronounced ‘size-ton’, in South Gloucestershire is about seven miles east of the city of Bristol and is bounded by the ancient parishes of Mangotsfield and Pucklechurch in the north, Wick & Abson in the east, and Bitton in the west and south. The parish consists of small villages of Siston and Bridge-yate, hamlets of Goose Green, Siston Common and Webbs Heath, the former industrial village (now a Bristol suburb) of Warmley and a new village of Siston Hill. The Dramway, Midland Railway and Avon Ring Road were built through the parish.
Anciently it was bordered to the west by the Royal Hunting Forest of Kingswood, stretching most of the way to Bristol Castle, always a royal possession, caput of the Forest. The Domesday Book of 1086 states that, "Anne held Syston . . . in the reign of Edward the Confessor" but it was soon to pass from Saxon into Norman hands, ending up belonging to the powerful Lords of Dursley, the Berkeley family. It has been variously spelt as Sistone, Syton, Sytone and Systun.
The small village of Siston consists of a number of cottages and farms grouped around Siston Brook, the church and the grand Tudor manor house of Siston Court. The settlement is thought to have early origins and Roman remains have been found in adjacent fields. The entrance to Siston Court is particularly attractive, for it lies between two picturesque octagonal lodges with the arched and hooded windows, the twisted chimneys and cupola roofs. If you walk along the footpath around the estate, you will come across an unusually tall (about 13 feet) hexagonal building with a pyramidal roof. This is a 19th century Gothic wellhouse, built over the original well which served the court and its neighbours. The other well called ‘St Anne’s Well’, where there is chalybeate spring water recommended for weak eyes, can be found on the right hand side of Siston Lane, just before the St Anne’s bridge on the way south to Webbs Heath. Here a large number of poor persons who had weak eyes, resorted to try its healing effects. On the other side of the bridge, the Siston Brook was formerly ponded to form a feature known as St Anne’s Pool. This was a breeding ground for trout and was created by John DENNIS of Siston Court. Writing as “J.D.” he was the author of “The Secrets of Angling” and six of his stanzas were included in “The Compleat Angler”. The trout came up 44 weirs along Warmley Brook to spawn. These weirs were removed in the 1950s.
The parish church, dedicated to St Anne, was built in the 11th century, with later additions. The south chapel was added in 1796. Some historians think that it may even stand on the site of a Celtic temple dating back to Roman times. The Tympanum in the porch, which depicts the 'Tree of Life', is also of Norman work. The tower is of the 13th or 14th century. Internally there is an interesting painted chancel arch, roof and east wall, a lead font dating from the 11th century and a number of fine Jacobean style monuments. The font is very special as it is one of only 38 lead fonts in England. The wall paintings in the sanctuary and over the large chancel arch were produced on canvas by the very artistic Mrs RAWLINS who was living at Siston Court at the turn of the 20th century. My ancestor Amy MARSH (who later married John PLASTER) was baptised at the church in 1811 and was the daughter of Robert and Charlotte Marsh. The parish register dating from 1570 and other records are held at Bristol Record Office.
There are many interesting engraved gravestones in the churchyard. One in particular is in memory of 23 year old Mary TUCKER who died over 200 years ago. It shows Father Time with an hourglass shielding a young woman on the ground from a skeleton like figure representing death. Death is trying to hurl a dart at the woman. Some believe she may have been pregnant. There are many JEFFREYS/JEFFERIES tombstones.
There is also a tombstone for Samuel FUSSELL, the constable of Warmley until 1800 when he was shot collecting tithes. Francis ROGERS, a poor coal carrier is also buried here, having died at the Casual Hospital, Bath from a facture to the skull. The blow was supposed to have been struck by a private in the 9th Dragoons. The inquest recorded a verdict of ‘murder by some person unknown’. To the north of the churchyard a number of crosses indicate former occupants of Siston Court. The churchyard walls have been topped with slag coping stones, probably made at the old spelter works at Warmley.
Siston Court is a beautiful ‘E’-shaped 16th century manor house to which various turrets and embellishments have been added. Although the site has a medieval history, the present mansion was developed by Sir Maurice DENNIS (or DENYS). The DENNIS family were a distinguished lot producing, it's said, more high sheriffs than any other family in the county. They married into the well-known POYNTZ family of Iron Acton, and the POYNTZ crest is still to be found on an old mantelpiece in the hall. Writing about the house in 1930, the historian W.J. ROBINSON, called it "among the most imposing and best preserved 16th century residences in the county". The DENNIS family sold it in the early 17th century to a Henry BILLINGER who, in 1637, sold it to the Earl of Middlesex.
Oliver Cromwell, who was in the vicinity for the Battle of Lansdown in 1642, is supposed to have lodged at the house but foolishly left his boots behind. His boots were auctioned off, as the genuine article, for 13 guineas in 1931, together with other house contents, to join the many other pairs of Cromwell's boots scattered throughout the country! In 1650, just after the end of the Civil War, the Court was sold to a Patrick CAREY, who then sold it onto the TROTMAN family. The house was then to stay in the hands of the Trotmans for many generations.
Samuel TROTMAN, who was the owner in Stuart times, was a wealthy cloth merchant and MP for Bath. There is a stone monument to Fiennes TROTMAN, who died in 1835, in the nave of the church. This monument bears a shield, which has the family arms on it. In late Victorian times, the manor belonged to the NEWTON DICKENSON family, who were related to the TROTMANS. There is a window in the church which commemorates the life of Frederick, one of the family and a JP, who died in 1885. It was the DICKENSON family who put in the court's wonderful oak staircase.
The RAWLINS family, who also get a mention in the church, were the last family to own the property as an entirety. Squire RAWLINS, as he was known, was still rich enough to have a whole host of servants and gardeners working on the estate. His lovingly cared-for gardens have now been divided up amongst the various families living at the court.
Along with its neighbour Dyrham Park, Siston Court was taken over at the beginning of the last war by the Anglo-American Relief Fund. It was used as a home for mothers and babies evacuated to safety from the London blitzes and who were then cared for by nursery nurses. It was during this time that one of the court's treasures, a Tudor fireplace, was taken away to Ethiopia. That was because it caught the eye of Emperor Haile Selassie, who was at that time living in exile in Bath. He shipped it to Addis Ababa to adorn his palace. After the war, the court was split up into six individual homes, with an acre of garden each.
The hamlet of Webbs Heath is under a mile south of Siston village. There are scattered farms around the common, Webbs Heath Farm and Moundscourt Farm being the oldest farmhouses in the area. Beyond these, there are the remains of the stack from the Webbs Heath drift mine built in 1900 and the spire of Warmley Church in the distance. At the road junction, a single-storey building (now a private house) displays a stone plaque bearing the words “Siston Parish National School” and was built in the 1820s. Many of the open commons in the parish originated from their use as early coal mines and they are riddled with shallow coal pits.
The hamlet or small village of Bridgeyate, about half a mile south of Webbs Heath, was a ribbon of cottages to the south of the Griffin Public House. The rest was scattered farms around the common. The pub was built in the early 18th century as a farmhouse. The road junction used to be a ‘turnpike crossroads’. Ebenezer Chapel was originally built for the Wesleyan Methodists in 1810 and purchased by the United Free Methodists in 1855. The name Bridgeyate may be derived from the gate near St Bridget’s Well, found opposite Bridgeyate. Alternatively, it may refer to a gate located on the edge of the forest adjoining fields known as “Breeches” and therefore known as “Breeches Gate”.
The Avon & Gloucestershire Railway built a nine-mile horse-drawn dramway in the early 1830s from Coalpit Heath through Siston Common and Warmley and on to a wharf on the river Avon. The second earliest railway system in the west country, the Dramway pre-dated Brunel’s Great Western Railway by some ten years. Several collieries were connected to it. The Midland Railway built a branch from Mangotsfield to Bath in 1869 with a station in Warmley, and this led to the closure of most of the Dramway. Lengthy sections of its trackbed survived, squelchy and bramble-choked. Until quite recently, ignored and little known, it has now been tidied up, given lots of signposts and branded as "The Dramway Footpath".
Siston Common, which was a part of the disafforested Kingswood, used to be known as Syston Warren where rabbits were kept and encouraged to breed. The fur was sold for the hat industry and the meat was sold for food. The common is a particularly valuable area as it is an open unfenced space right on the edge of the Bristol suburbs. There were two branch lines running from the Dramway in this area, one to the stone quarry on Siston Hill and second to Soundwell and Siston Collieries. There are several sets of limestone sleeper blocks easily visible in parallel lines along the embankment near the Horseshoe Inn.
There is a theory this is how Warmley got its name, the hamlet of homes were in the ‘ley’ or ‘lee’ of the warren so were referred to as Warren-ley, over time changing to Warmley. Coal works in Warmley appear to have been carried on for a great length of time, the JEFFERYS family being one of the oldest families connected with that business. The principal house in Warmley in 1610 was called “Jefferys House”. At the beginning of the 18th century, Warmley contained only 11 houses including “The Hansome Seat of Mr John HOLLAND”. Within 40 years, Warmley became one of the most advanced, extensive and curious industrial sites.
William CHAMPION (1710-1789) came from an affluent Quaker family. It is said that when he was young he dressed as a pauper and for six years travelled in Holland and Germany learning the secrets of making brass and zinc. After an early start in Bristol when his Old Market brassworks were accused of polluting the neighbourhood, he upped sticks and moved to the green fields of Warmley. His water-driven works included a huge windmill and one of the largest Newcomen steam pumping engines of its day. Between 1746 and 1768, copper and brass manufactured here were turned into, among other things, brass pans, wire and pins, much of it exported to the West Indies. More importantly, it was at Warmley that he pioneered the first commercial production of zinc in Europe. Both Old Market and Warmley had skilled foreign workers, who came with him and were called CRAFT, CRAYMER, HOLLISTER, OLLIS, FRANKHAM and STREAGER. Like many philanthropic Quaker employers, CHAMPION constructed housing for his key workers. This rank is acknowledged as being amongst the earliest social housing in the country. Built on three floors, the houses were small but adequate and at its height, the Warmley works employed some 600 people, with another 1,400 in associated industries. His demand for coal saw a surge of activity and Crown Colliery on the London Road would have provided much of its supplies.
With his new-found wealth, the industrialist built Warmley House near the works and a pleasure garden to go with it. Here, utilising part of an early disused works, he constructed a large complex grotto of mortar and zinc slag, a waste by-product of the industrial process. Away from the gloom of the vaulted chambers, a gigantic clinker waste statute of Neptune, 25 feet tall and still standing, acted as the focal point of a large lake of 13 acres, which doubled as a reservoir. Part of this, much drained and full of reeds, is known as the Echo Pond. The rest, although low-lying, is now the site of a caravan park. Sluice gates below a castellated summerhouse (now a private house) controlled the flow of water into the lake from Warmley Brook. The boathouse was probably constructed as an engine house to pump water. In wintertime, when the lake froze, the ice was broken up and stored in a vast ice-house, 35 feet wide and nearly 20 feet tall. This was obviously a commercial operation with the ice probably sold on to Bristol shopkeepers. Amazingly, the ice-house still exists and is one of the largest in the country. After 22 years of boom, Champion’s pioneering works went bust and were sold on to the rival Bristol Brass & Copper Company.
In 1800, the inhabitants of Warmley were largely rough and uneducated. The landlord of the Crown Inn was the aforementioned Samuel FUSSELL, who doubled up as a parish constable. One of his jobs was collecting tithes. Edward WILMOT had failed to pay his tithes so FUSSELL went with an overseer to issue an order. WILMOT was waiting and as FUSSELL approached, he calmly shot him through a window and killed him. He was later arrested, tried and hanged for the crime. Also in that year, a great famine spread across the country, and the costs of corn rose out of proportion relative to wages. Flour, in particular shot up in price, and the folk of Warmley and elsewhere were forced to take drastic measures. One day a merchant carrying a wagon full of flour through the village had the misfortune to be stopped by a group of women lead by Hester DAVIS. The terrified wagon driver unhitched his horse and swiftly rode off to inform his master of the situation. When he returned, the driver discovered that the whole load of flour had been sold by Hester at 2 shillings and 6 pence; a price she believed to be fair. That night the people of Warmley slept with full bellies. This woman, Hester DAVIS lived to be 99 years old and was buried at Warmley in 1883.
In Victorian times, more houses in Warmley were built fronting High Street, Tower Road, Station Road, Chapel Lane and Stanley Road. Warmley Congregational Chapel was built in 1846 in Chapel Lane. If you walk down on the London Road from Bridgeyate, ‘Ashlands’ was built at the end of the 19th century by a member of the DOUGLAS family of motor-cycle fame. On the left, is an old C of E School of 1864 which is now converted to a small business centre, and behind that St Barnabas Church built in 1851 in fields which had belonged to a family named TILLEY and was known as “Tilley’s church”.
An Artist's Impression of Crown Pit
Further down the hill, you will observe the Crown Colliery buildings (now a building yard) including the old engine house and the former Crown Inn, now known as the Midland Spinner. One of the shafts to Crown Colliery was located on the right-hand side and a hemp cable from the engine house ran over the road. The derelict site opposite used to be a brick and tile works. This operated for over 100 years before the clay pits were used for tipping. One of the last uses of the Dramway was to transfer bricks and tiles from this yard down to the river Avon. The next site is Warmley railway station, closed with the Beeching cuts of 1966. The old railway track is now converted to a cycle path. In the area of Warmley Tower, many of Champion’s industrial buildings and the whole rank of the workers’ houses were demolished in the 1960s but the pin factory, now known as the Clock Tower, has survived.
Siston Hill is a new housing development on the northern edge of Siston Common. The Siston Hill site is best known for its old chocolate factory.
Carson's Chocolate Facory - demolished in 1998
Carson’s Chocolates & Confectionery Ltd made high quality confectionery in Glasgow when the other Bristol company, Packers Chocolates (which owned Elizabeth Shaw in Greenbank) bought a controlling stake in the company. In 1913, they built the new factory at Siston Hill – the largest single building in the parish. The factory covered more than three acres and was six storeys high. Most of the workers were women and girls. The factory relied on the railways with raw materials arriving by train and finished confectionery leaving the same way. During the Second World War a large part of production was handed over to making chocolates under Government contracts for home and abroad, as well as munitions! By the end of the 1950s Carson’s had become the country’s biggest producer of chocolate liqueurs using brand names like Courvoisier Brandy, Grants Whisky, Harvey’s Bristol Cream, Sandeman Port and Tia Maria as their fillings. With surplus production capacity both at Elizabeth Shaw and at Carson’s, the decision was taken to sell the factory and move all the production to Greenbank. The move was completed in 1961. The chocolate factory was demolished in 1998 to make way for new housing.
Mangotsfield railway station, on the cycle path immediately behind the Siston Hill development, was the setting and inspiration of one of the UK’s great plays. Arnold RIDLEY, who later went on to play Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army, was stranded at Mangotsfield station one night when he heard a train approaching. The sound got louder and louder but no train showed up, despite sounding like it was right in front of him. Freak acoustics made the sound of engines passing on another line behind the chocolate factory sound as if they were passing through the station. RIDLEY was inspired to write the play ‘The Ghost Train’ which was a massive hit in the West End in the 1920?s and made into two films. All the roads on the Siston Hill housing development are either named after the famous actor or have railway connections: Ridley Avenue, Arnold Road, The Sidings, Whistle Road etc.
Each decade saw more infill residential development in old Warmley and ribbon building along the London Road towards Bridgeyate. Siston village, Siston Common, Bridgeyate, Goose Green and Webbs Heath did not change much but on Siston Common, the old railway line was converted to the Avon Ring Road being built along the western end of Warmley, with the other Bristol suburb of Warmley Hill on the other side, which was in the ancient parish of Bitton. A conservation area since 1989, Siston village and environs have statutory protection from overdevelopment.
Kingswood Heritage Museum, in Tower Lane, Warmley, opens on the afternoons of Tuesday, Saturday, Sunday and bank holiday Monday from April to November and is located in the former William Champion’s zinc and brass works including an icehouse (not open to public) and a windmill tower. The museum gives an insight on local history of Kingswood and Warmley, and also provides regular guided walks round Warmley Gardens and grotto. For further information visit www.kingswoodmuseum.org.uk.
Sources and further reading:
The History of Kingswood Forest by A. Braine (1891)
Warmley Historic Gardens including an industrial trail by Alan Bryant & Lesley Howes (1991)
Kingswood Heritage Trail by Kingswood Borough Council
The History of St. Anne’s Church, Syston booklet