By Andrew Plaister
Published in B&AFHS Journal 161 September 2015
The parish of Almondsbury in south Gloucestershire is bounded by the parishes of Northwick, Olveston and Alveston in the north, Frampton Cotterell, Winterbourne, Stoke Gifford in the south east, Filton in the south and Henbury and Compton Greenfield in the south west. Within the original boundary of the parish are the villages of Almondsbury and Easter Compton, a small village of Over, hamlets of Cattybrook, Gaunt's Earthcott, Hortham and Woodhouse Down, the former small village (now a suburb) of Patchway, a business park of Aztec West (on the former hamlet of Hempton), and the northern half of a new mini-town of Bradley Stoke.
Almondsbury situated seven miles north of the city of Bristol, was originally, as its name implies, the 'Bury' or camp of Alcmond or Ealkmund, a Saxon prince, who was said to have been buried at the church. The steep limestone scarp would have provided an excellent defensive site and signs of entrenchment can still be seen. Almondsbury parish was by no means limited to the boundaries of the manor itself. In 1548 it was seven miles in circumference and contained about 620 inhabitants, many of whom belonged to the five manors of Almondsbury, Gaunt's Earthcott, Hempton and Patchway, Over and Brokenborow. All except the latter were also separate tithings, as well as Lower Tockington and Lea.
Almondsbury village lay on the main route (now the A38 road) between Bristol and Gloucester and a market was established in 1285. In the centre of the village, nestling under a long ridge of rock called Almondsbury Hill, are the church, a meeting hall and a pub. This whitewashed-stone inn called Bowl Inn became a licensed inn in 1550, and was originally the three cottages erected in 1146 to house the monks building the adjacent church. The meeting hall opened in 1833 as a school and became known as the Old School when a larger school was built nearby in 1900. Another pub, The Swan Inn, is located on the A38, in the upper part of the village, almost opposite an open space known locally as Almondsbury Tump. For centuries, Almondsbury was a close-knit agricultural community under the patronage of its two great manor houses of Knole Park and Over Court, and also has attracted Bristol's wealthy merchants and professional classes.
The parish church dedicated to St Mary the Virgin is said to have been consecrated by four bishops in 1148. In the mid 13th century there was considerable rebuilding when the chancel and transept were reconstructed. The church was heavily restored in the 19th century and the most notable features are its Norman north porch and font and its elegant, distinctive diagonally patterned lead spire, one of only three in the country. On the west door of the church, donated in 1713, the initials are of John DOWELL and Thomas BRACEY, churchwardens. One other thing well worth investigating is an impressive six feet high, 16th century tomb dedicated to a local lord and lady, Edward and Katherine VEELE, who lived at Over Court. He wears his finest armour and she the latest fashion of the time, a Paris Hood, ruff, padded sleeves and full skirt. There are monuments to the CANN-LIPPINCOTT family, who also lived at Over Court, as well as to the CHESTER family, who lived at Knole Park. A list of churchyard monuments given by Ralph Bigland in his Gloucestershire Collections (1786), lists many of the yeomen families of that period - Bracey, CHAMPNEYS, COX, CROSSMAN, HANCOCK, HOLLISTER, PONTING and STEPHENS amongst others. Many of their tombstones still stand in the churchyard. An updated list of all gravestone inscriptions can be found on the Internet at bit.ly/BAFHS72.
The Manor of Almondsbury belonged to FitzHardinge family, who founded the Abbey of St Augustine (now Bristol Cathedral) in 1154. They endowed the manor to the abbey. After the dissolution, it was granted to Sir Arthur DARCY in 1553, and later sold in 1569 to Thomas Chester, who had been Mayor of Bristol in 1567. His heir, William Chester built Knole Park as a family seat. The original manor house was at Court Farm in the village but he chose the splendid hilltop position half a mile to the southwest with a magnificent view over the Bristol Channel for construction. A 15th century octagonal tower on this site was retained and incorporated into the mansion. The families of Chester and MASTER were joined in 1742 by the marriage of Elizabeth Chester Cann to Thomas Master of Cirencester Abbey. In 1799, the Knole Park estate finally passed into the hands of the Master family. Knole Park was then let to series of wealthy tenants. By the 1850s William Chester-Master was temporarily in residence at Knole Park until his death in 1868. It was again leased this time to Sholto Vere HARE, whose wife did much charity work in the village, and not until after her death and the departure of her widower did the Chester-Master family make a final return to Almondsbury in 1892. Prior to their arrival, several alterations were made to the mansion and grounds including the addition of a laundry, a coal yard and a new coach road which led to Hempton Lane coming out onto the then-called Turnpike road opposite the New Inn at Patchway, a quick way to the nearest railway station. This saved the carriages going up round Sundays Hill to get to the main road. Major Richard Chester-Master DSO served in the Boar War and in 1917 lost his life in the Great War. Colonel Thomas William Chester-Master had died suddenly a few years earlier in 1914. In 1920 his widow decided that it was too great an expense to maintain Knole Park as well as the Cirencester Abbey estate. It was sold, together with the numerous village properties, farms and cottages. Mrs Chester-Master went to live at Hill House, from which she had extensive views over the marsh, the Severn and Welsh Hills. Unfortunately, all that remains of the mansion is the tower, reduced in size and incorporated into a modern dwelling. A new housing development is built on one side of the park.
Over, the small village about a mile south west of Almondsbury village, was last owned by the Cann-Lippincott family. Over Court, an Elizabethan Manor house was built about the same time as Knole Park on the site of a 14th century house. It had its own school, brew house, dairy and smithy. Flemish tapestries that once adorned the walls of the Court were sold to an American and lost on board the Titanic. The Court is also reputed to be haunted by a 'White Lady' on the anniversary of her death by drowning. One Christmas in 1937 she appeared to all musicians and singers of the Easter Compton Band, who were out carolling. In the 1940s, the house was left empty and later neglected, and after a devastating fire in 1977, it was demolished, again to be replaced by new housing development. All that remains are a listed archway, the old coach house and stables, now converted into mews houses. The deer park is now home to Bristol Golf Club.
Easter Compton, in further south-west of the parish, was previously known as East Compton. The village was on the route leading to ferries on the River Severn. The Cann-Lippincott family of Over Court were prominent in the area and Sir Stanley WHITE, who was managing director of the Bristol Aeroplane Company, lived at Hollywood Tower atop Blackhorse Hill. A previous resident there was Dowager Lady DAVIS. She gave the Davis Memorial Institute to the villagers as a working men's reading room, library and games room. The Methodist chapel opened in 1869 and sits in the middle of the village. The parish church of Compton Greenfield lies just across a field and has a fine Norman doorway dating from 1180. The school closed and is now the Village Hall. More information on Easter Compton can be found in another 'My Parish' article - Compton Greenfield, written by Janet Hiscocks (journal no. 135 - March 2009).
The story of "Princess Caraboo" scandalised the Regency society. Wandering into the village of Almondsbury in 1817. She claimed to have been a Javanese princess kidnapped by pirates and after a long voyage she had jumped overboard in the Bristol Channel and swum ashore. She was placed in the hands of the local county magistrate Samuel WORRALL, who rented Knole Park. She talked in an unrecognisable language, wrote in hieroglyphics and fascinated the fashionable society before she was exposed as a fraudster by a new kitchen maid from Devon. Born Mary WILLCOCKS in Witheridge, Devon, she had run away from abusive parents and found work as a domestic servant before having a child by the master of the house. Reinventing herself after her infant baby died, she took his surname Baker. After her real identity was revealed, the Squire Worrall, red-faced, was glad to pay her passage to America. Returning to Bristol, she died in Bedminster in 1864. The story turned into a movie in 1994 starring Phoebe Cates.
The Bristol & South Wales Union Railway was built through the parish in 1863 including the Patchway-Cattybrook Tunnel and Patchway railway station. Charles RICHARDSON, an engineer and pupil of Marc and Isambard BRUNEL, noted the type of clay and the hard bricks made from it. He bought some land and Cattybrook Brickworks began its long and successful history. Later, when Great Western Railway built the Severn Tunnel, he became a Resident Engineer. Twelve million bricks from his brickworks were used in the tunnel. He lived at Hill House for several years.
In the late 19th century, Mr Sholto Vere HARE rented Knole Park, and on the death of his wife, decided to build the Almondsbury Memorial Institute in her memory. It was constructed of Cattybrook brick with stone dressing and had illuminated clock faces in the tower. Opened in 1892 by the Duchess of Rutland, the Memorial Institute was used as a hospital and as a meeting place and library for parishioners. During the First World War it was used as a military hospital and then continued as a cottage hospital with a new wing being opened in 1935 by Mr Hiatt BAKER of Oaklands. A maternity unit was added and in later years the hospital was used for the care of the elderly. Sold in 1996, this handsome building has now been preserved as a private house.
Hortham Lane, a small road eastwards to Gaunt's Earthcott from the A38 road; there was the first institution to be functionally designed and built as a complete Colony, and designed to care for just over 600 patients. Under the Mental Health Act 1913, Bristol City Council decided to acquire land and build an institution for the care of the mentally handicapped which was to become Hortham Idiot Colony. In 1932, the first patients were admitted. Hortham was an "open" colony which specialised in training mentally defective offenders for resettlement in the community. Hortham scaled down its work in 1988 and finally closed its doors in 1991. A new housing development was built on this site.
The Gaunt's Earthcott manor was part of a monastic estate granted to Bristol Corporation after the dissolution of the monasteries. There are a few scattered houses in that out of way part of the parish. "T.S. 1605" is carved on an attractive old manor house. This was the home of Thomas STURGE, a Quaker yeoman. Five generations of this family lived in that 'superior-looking house with gables' until 1772. The corporation sold the manor to defray the cost of the 1831 riots in the city. The Bishop of Bristol sought refuge at Knole Park, when the Bishop's Palace was burned down in the riots.
An iron mission church dedicated to St Chad's, with seats for 150 people was built in a growing village of Patchway in 1855 as a chapel-of-ease. By the end of 19th century, the non-conformists had grown in number. Besides two Wesleyan chapels, there was also a Free Methodist at Easter Compton, and a Baptist chapel at Patchway. The chapel on Almondsbury Hill attracted large congregations at morning and evenings services with visiting preachers.
The 20th century has seen the greatest change in the parish, when the manorial estates were sold off and modern intrusions began. The village of Almondsbury goes on, still resisting the onslaught of urban civilisation close to its perimeter; the first four-level motorway crossing in Britain - the M4/M5 Almondsbury Interchange - leading to the suspension bridges over the Severn, and more and more acres of new housing developments, business parks and trading estates.
The boundary of the civil parish of Almondsbury had been changed few times during the 20th century. It extended over the least-populated parish of Compton Greenfield and also onto the northern half of the civil parish of Henbury consisting of Hallen, Catbrain, Cribbs Causeway and the lost village of Charlton, when the city of Bristol extended its boundary into the southern half. In 1953, Patchway, now a suburb, formed a separate civil parish. A new mini-town called Bradley Stoke was constructed using both parts of the parishes of Almondsbury and Stoke Gifford, and its town council was formed in 1995.
Today, the village of Almondsbury falls into two distinct parts divided by the A38 road, with modern ribbon development to the east and the old nucleus of Lower Almondsbury clustering beneath the steep and wooded Almondsbury Hill. Spectacular views across the Severn Estuary to the Welsh Hills are afforded on the descent from new to old Almondsbury. If one enters Lower Almondsbury via Sundays Hill or Hollow Road the steep and wooded descent is attractive and enclosed, gradually opening up by The Forge. You will find the historic (and very popular) Bowl Inn, a place well worth stopping at for a drink before exploring the village and the church, which dominates the village from its position at the foot of the escarpment and its splendid spire rises up revealing its position from the ridge. The small but picturesque village green with pump in the foreground of the church provides a typical village scene, enhanced by cottages of local stone nearby. We call it 'Almondsbury' nowadays, but the old natives who spoke the local dialect, used to call it 'Amesbury'.
Holdings at Bristol Record Office for the parish of Almondsbury include that the parish registers dating from 1653, though the Bishop's Transcripts commence in 1642; Churchwarden Account (1654 to 1708), Overseers of the Poor (1750 to 1821), Rent Rolls of Capons (1600 to 1650) and Vestry records (1782 to 1837), but the Enclosure map of 1822 (ref. Q/RI/2) and Knole Park estate papers are held at Gloucestershire archives.
Sources and further reading:
The Book of Almondsbury, by Roy S. Walker (1987)
The Changing Face of Almondsbury, by AG Warner (2000)
Almondsbury Memories by Frank W Gastrell (1980)
Occasional Papers (2 volumes) by Almondsbury Local History Society
Patchway Round and Around, by JP Agate (1979).