Bedminster is Bristol’s famous southern suburb. For many centuries it was a separate town and until 1831 in the county of Somerset. It’s history is older than Bristol’s; when Bristol was little more than a river crossing, Bedminster was already an important township. The origin may be Roman – it’s main street, East Street/West Street, is certainly Roman – and the mission church of St John’s predates any Christian foundation in the city. The fast-flowing Malago drove water-mills (three survived up to the twentieth century) and provided fresh water, and mill pools were ideal for baptising the heathen. The ancient British or Welsh word for baptism, beydd, may have given the place it’s name; and melis (mill), agos (place), could explain the origin of the name Malago.
The priests of St John were accorded the special status of ‘prebendaries’, and a place for the prebend of ‘Redcliffe with Bedminster’ is reserved in the choir of Salisbury Cathedral to this day. In the twelfth century, St John’s became the mother church of St Mary Redcliffe and Abbots Leigh, and of chapels of ease at Bishopsworth and Knowle. Even to this day, communion in Abbots Leigh begins five minutes past the hour to give more time for the priest of St John’s to toil up Rownham Hill. William of Wykeham and Henry CHICHELE, Archbishop of Canterbury, began their careers in Bedminster. Edward POWELL, the vicar in 1536, was hanged at Tyburn for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy to Henry VIII.
The Royal Manor of Bedminster comprised all the land south of the river Avon from the Avon Gorge up to Brislington, and according to the Domesday Book, had 25 villains, three slaves and 27 smallholders with ten ploughs, one cob, nine cattle, 22 pigs and 115 sheep. It was bestowed by Norman kings on royal and powerful magnates and became finally a fief of Robert FITZHARDING, c.1130, who in 1154 was awarded the barony of Berkeley and founded the manor of Berkeley. For over 300 years the lords of Berkeley preferred their fair Manor of Bedminster to the gloomy fortress on the Severn and as such played a prominent part in the development of Bristol, fostering trade and founding abbeys and churches. Berkeley power waned in the fourteenth century, and after 1416 their Manor of Bedminster passed to heiresses and their families. It was finally purchased in 1605 by the SMYTHs of Ashton Court who continued to be lords of the manor until their feudal powers fell into abeyance in the nineteenth century.
Up to the seventeenth century, Bedminster was a prosperous community clustering around its parish church in a fertile and well-watered valley. In the 1630s it was assessed for ship money at £47 13s 4d which establishes its economic equality with Glastonbury (£56) and Frome (£49). The town was sacked and burnt in 1644 by Prince Rupert before the second siege of Bristol and it took over a century to recover. When John Wesley preached at the Paddock in the 1760s, Bedminster was a sprawling and decayed market town, with orchards rubbing shoulders with brickworks, rope-walks and cottage industries.
But a dramatic change was just around the corner. Open-cast coal-mining was first reported in the 1670s; in 1744 Jarrit SMITH, who was to become Sir Jarrit SMYTH of Ashton Court, called in a mining surveyor from Kingswood and the first shafts were sunk at South Liberty Lane in 1748. Sixty years later there were eighteen coal-pits operating in the Bedminster and Ashton Vale coalfield. Not only did the Smyth family do very well from the royalties, but on the threshold of the industrial revolution, Bedminster had coal and easy access to the city docks and the insatiable demands of a growing city. In 1809 the old route of the River Avon, snaking through Bristol, had had a fresh channel dug through the northern edge of the parish – the New Cut – leaving the old river as a controllable ‘floating harbour’. The New Cut created a more permanent physical division of Bedminster from Bristol.
The transformation of Bedminster was rapid and traumatic. The population jumped from 3,000 in 1801 to 78,000 in 1884, as people from depressed rural Somerset flocked to the new coalfields for work. Almost overnight Bedminster became a power-house of heavy industry manned by a huge workforce packed into high-density terraced housing. Coal mining and smelting generated other industries: engineering, tanneries, glue-works, paint factories, glassworks. In the 1880s, E.S. & A. ROBINSONS paper-bag business and W.D. & H.O. WILLS’ tobacco business moved to new factories. The development was too rapid to implement the kind of urban infrastructure necessary to prevent slum conditions. The authorities faced public health problems of monumental proportions. In the filthy courts and alleys, the cholera epidemics of 1830 and 1846 caused more fatalities than anywhere else in Bristol.
New churches were built in the parish: St Paul’s in Southville (1831); St. Peter’s, Bishopsworth (1843); St. Raphael’s, Cumberland Road on the north side of the New Cut (1858); and St Luke’s in York Road (1861), and St John’s church was re-built in 1854. Bedminster had overflowed to the surrounding hills and hollows creating its own suburbs on Windmill Hill, Totterdown, Southville, the Chessels and Bedminster Down. More new churches were built: Holy Nativity, Knowle (1878); St Michael’s, Windmill Hill (1886); St Francis, Ashton Gate (1887); St. Dunstan’s, in the bottom of Bedminster Down (1897); St Aldhelm’s, Chessels (1900); and St. David’s, Beauley Road, Southville. All of them, except the rural area in the southern part of the parish including the village of Bishopsworth, brought finally within the city boundary in 1897.
There is no doubt that the new industries generated considerable wealth, and in the years up to the First World War, the shops and businesses lining the old thoroughfares of East Street, West Street and North Street had a glamour and reputation which are remembered with pride and affection today when so much has disappeared. As government, churches, and private enterprises raced to catch up with the needs of a huge population, so Bedminster was graced with an abundance of schools, chapels, pubs and institutional buildings, many of which survive in all their Victorian glory. Even street furniture – lamp-posts, tramway-cable carriers, public lavatory railings, ventilators and manhole covers – were stamped with those hallmarks of the nineteenth century, quality and durability.
In the years 1880 to 1931, the population and prosperity peaked. Public houses multiplied and did a roaring trade. Churches and Chapels competed; services were packed and brotherhoods and sisterhoods shaped the quality of life of whole generations. No words or pictures can ever capture the community spirit that flourished in the poor and crowded back streets. It finds expression today in the memory of those old enough to remember, in lively and well-attended clubs of senior citizens, and in nostalgic publications like Remember Bedminster and Malago magazine.
Bedminster received a terrible pounding in the air raids of 1941-44 and post-war planning removed most of the industries and resettled in the rural area in the southern part of the parish – the new estates of Hartcliffe, Highridge and Withywood. The ruined church of St John’s and the redundant church of St Luke’s were demolished. By the 1970s, Bedminster had declined into an inner-city twilight zone. But much of the fine nineteenth century architectural landmarks remain and on Windmill Hill, Totterdown and Southville its charming terraced houses survive intact.
After 1980 the city planners paid tribute to this by pedestrianising part of East Street and furnishing it with pretty bricks and bollards and lamp-standards which complement the exuberant architectural heritage of the nineteenth century. The decline has been halted. Cleared areas have been imaginatively redeveloped. An influx of newcomers is bringing new life and character: Windmill Hill City Farm, the Off Centre Gallery, Lam Rim Centre, the ‘Show of Strength’ Theatre Company which started at the Hen and Chickens, and The Greenhouse. ASDA, the grocery supermarket, has taken the place, and in some respects revived the functions, of the old Wills’ cigarette factories. On Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings some of the old magic returns to East Street.
For many centuries, Bedminster was a separate rural community and still maintains today its own dialect and a distinct spirit and sense of humour. Those who encounter some folk for the first time find a genuineness and warmth and a robust, yet gentle personality which has no parallel.
Anton Bantock of the Malago Society (copied by permission and with grateful thanks)
Family historians should note, in censuses, the parish boundary between Bedminster and Redcliffe can be complicated. The north side of Bedminster Parade (where the police station was) and the New Charlotte Street area on the south side of the New Cut of the River Avon was in the parish of Redcliffe. Also, the Cathay area of Redcliffe on the north side of the New Cut was in the parish of Bedminster, and its church was St. Luke’s.
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