(Reviewed and updated by the author May 2017)
The parish of Filton in South Gloucestershire is about five miles north of the city of Bristol and is bounded by the ancient parishes of Almondsbury in the north, Stoke Gifford in the east, Horfield in the south, Westbury on Trym and Henbury both in the west. Filton is probably thought of today as a busy Bristol suburb with the airfield and aerospace works. Until the 20th century, it was a rural area, cut through by the turnpike (now the A38 road) from Bristol to Gloucester. It remains outside the Bristol city boundary and has few traces of its rural past.
Filton was probably a grassy place in ancient times. The name is probably derived from two Anglo-Saxon words “filede” meaning hay, and “tun” meaning a village or farmstead. It has been variously spelt as Fylton (1187), Felton (1501), Philton (1630) and Filton Hay (1777). In 1880 a hoard of about 3000 Roman coins was found in a partly buried broken earthenware urn on the bank of Filton Brook. Traces of a Roman settlement have been found in nearby Stoke Gifford.
The Domesday Survey of 1086 does not name Filton specifically; it names Horfield as being king’s land, perhaps becoming a separate parish circa 1142 when Robert FitzHardinge of Berkeley founded the Abbey of St Augustine (now Bristol Cathedral). He endowed lands in the parish including six copyhold farms to the abbey in 1154. In pre-reformation times, the parish would seem to have been apportioned, with few exceptions, into three holdings, the largest by far being that of the Manor of Filton. The others were the Manor of Hay and the Abbey lands. By 1580, the manorial estates passed to a series of owners. After the Dissolution of the Abbey in 1539, its estates in Filton and Horfield were granted to the new Diocese of Bristol. In 1852, James MONK, the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, transferred the Diocesan estates to a Trust, by which the farms and fields were sold at various times. Filton Parish Church, dedicated to St. Peter, is mainly modern but part is medieval. The Diocese of Worcester records appear to suggest a church at Filton in 1255. The architectural style of the tower indicates that it was probably built at the end of the thirteenth century. It is possible that the tower was added to an earlier church. By 1844 the medieval church was both in need of repair and considered too small for the growing population of Filton and so it was rebuilt to the design of John HICKS with the exception of the tower and a corner of the chancel. Holy Communion was celebrated once each month and the average attendance was 60 from a population of 245. The rebuilding cost £760, of which the parish contributed £200, subscriptions amounted to £221 and the Rector, James Bedford POULDEN, gave £339. The main enlargement of the church took place in 1960/61 when the north wall of the church was taken out to permit the development of a new north-facing altar, chancel and nave. The tower was strengthened at this time to carry a ring of six bells and a needle spire erected. The old chancel became the Lady Chapel, old nave became the Baptistery and the south aisle became the BAC Memorial Chapel of St George and St Christopher. The enlarged church as seen today was consecrated on Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary – 25th March 1961.
The six copyhold farms on the Diocesan lands were Late Barnsley’s (later known as Meadowsweet), Late Millett’s, Late Elizabeth Knapp’s, Wades, Filton Hill and Rodney. Their tenants in 1541 were Thomas WADE senior, Thomas SYMONDS, Thomas WADE junior, Alice AVERY widow, William RICHARDS and John PHILLIPS. Wades Farm was rented for centuries by successive members of the WADE family and some were churchwardens.
The other farms on the manorial estates were Conygre, once the home of the de Filtons who had lived in a manor house on the same site; a smallholding known first as Blakes, then as Withies; and Church Farm. In 1678, Jacob MILLETT, felt maker of Frampton Cotterell, obtained the lease of the Conygre and the lands attached to it. For the next hundred years there were many MILLETTS in the parish, several of whom were named Jacob, some taking their places among the yeoman, others being less successful. Their descendants rented at least three of the copyhold farms. The MILLETT gravestones stand in a row at the west end of the church. Between the church and Wades Farm, on the corner of Church Road and Station Road was a smallholding known as Blakes. John BLAKE paid tax on two hearths in 1672. In 1679, his daughter Alice married Joseph MILLETT, son of Jacob MILLETT of the Congyre.
Several people from the parish were recorded in the registers of the Society of Friends, particularly around 1670. The GAYNER family were staunch supporters of Quakerism throughout their long connection with Filton. Following the practice of Quakers generally they were loath to pay tythes and church rates. Two connections of Worlock and Gayner families, Georgina Lewis and Elizabeth Williams, both failed to pay their tythes in 1672. William GAYNER, (1754-1830) took over both Church Farm and Meadowsweet Farm in 1787, Congyre in 1790 and Late Millett’s Farm in 1792, the first and latter of which were called Upper House and Lower House by his family. His farm products were gradually taken away by warrants for non-payment of tythes. On one occasion in 1783, John OWEN II and Benjamin PIERCE had to take ten sacks of wheat valued £16 3/6 from Gayner’s farms for the rector, Francis WARD. William GAYNER was Filton’s principal employer and kept diaries of work done, mainly telling of the activities of his daymen, carters, oxen and horses and records of his sales and purchases in connection with the farm. Frederick GAYNER left Church Farm in 1897 and went to Conygre, living there until 1921 when he retired from farming. He was the last of the family to live in Filton and died at the Lower House in 1937. This is now the Beeches Club. Its present use contrasts strongly with that when it was a Quaker farmhouse.
Information about the GAYNERS, MILLETTS, OWENS, WADES and other Filton families can be found in Leslie Harris’s book. The 318-page book has very comprehensive information on the parish history and its people of all classes. The parish registers dating from 1654 (there are no earlier surviving bishop’s transcripts), the overseers account books (1728-1806, BRO ref: 33912) and other parochial records (BRO ref: 12148) are on deposit at Bristol Record Office.
I am descended from the OWEN family which resided in Filton for several generations. To put it briefly, William OWEN was sued by Richard KNEVETT, the rector, for non-payment of tythes, and he was required to appear at the Bristol Consistory Court in 1560. He failed to turn up, was excommunicated by the judge and publicly denounced by KNEVETT in Church. He later paid a fine and was reinstated as a member of the Church. During the rise of Quakerism in the late seventeenth century, the OWEN family moved to Olveston, which had a meeting-house. They remained there for two generations until the early 1700s when the family returned to Filton. The other William OWEN became a churchwarden in 1703, obviously by then being a faithful member of the Church. In 1735 his son John OWEN rented the rectory and adjacent orchard for £2 10/- per annum. Rev. John BOUND, who became the rector in that year, was also the rector of St John the Baptist in Bristol. However, no doubt in order to comply with his promise, John OWEN made a note under the year 1735, “I took the House and Orchard into my hands at Michaelmas” [29th September]. The rector kept detailed accounts and in 1735 spent more than twice his income from Filton in putting the rectory and its lands in good order. John OWEN and the carpenter, John WADE carried out repairs to fences, gates, etc.
At that time, Filton consisted of twelve houses beside the rectory. His son, John OWEN II was one of William GAYNER’s daymen, buying small quantities of flour, mutton, veal, and potatoes from GAYNER’s farms – “11 Mo. [November] 5, 1790 – By Cash of John Owen for 1 sack of Potatoes 4/0d”. His wife, Sarah OWEN was also employed at the farm, her wage of four guineas a year being paid annually – “4 Mo. [April] 1788 paid Sally Owen for 1 year £4.4/0”. She and Betty WILLIAMS were paid 3/6d on 20th February 1790 “for washing and work in the house”. On the south end of the church, there is the gravestone of John OWEN (d.1823), his wife Sarah (d.1824) and their son Benjamin (d.1855). Next to it, another gravestone of Sarah’s father Richard HANCOCK (d.1766).
John and Sarah’s daughter Susannah OWEN, my four-times-great grandmother, worked as a servant for William GAYNER for six years from 1794 when she was fourteen years old. Her starting salary was £2 15/- a year. It gradually increased and her final salary in 1800 was £4 14/6d a year. He used “Suke” as her name in the records. At the dawn of the 19th century, most members of the OWEN family including Susannah moved to Frenchay, where they changed their religious faith to Unitarianism.
Prior to the 19th century, with just a few big houses and a scattering of farms, less than 500 people lived in Filton. Farming was the principal occupation. In 1814, Rev. SEYER, the rector wrote, “Horfield is a most lawless place and Filton not much better. Horfield Wood was then on both sides of the road and it was not very safe to pass that way.” Methodism emerged in the 1820s, initially meeting in the loft of a carpenter’s shop. In 1832, an agreement was made between James DAVIS, the carpenter and a preacher from the Ebenezer Wesleyan Society at Old King Street, Bristol, which resulted in the building of a chapel, 35 feet long by 16 feet wide. In 1869, Samuel Shield founded Shield’s Laundry, a key industry that served the gentry from a wide area. It was a large factory-like laundry in the village, opposite Filton House. The laundry became a major employer in the parish. Some of the employees would have to work in the fields, before going into the laundry to do a day’s work.
Filton received the benefit of a railway station when the Bristol & South Wales Union Railway was built through the parish and opened its line to New Passage in 1863 with ferries across the Severn. This later formed part of the Great Western Railway. The original station was near the site of the third and current ‘Filton Abbey Wood’ station. A second and much larger railway station, known as Filton Junction, opened in 1910 after the new line to Avonmouth was finished. A halt, called Filton Halt (later North Filton Platform) was built on this line at the bottom of Filton Hill for the convenience of factory workers.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Filton was a small village, still detached from the city of Bristol to the south. In 1907 the northern terminus for Bristol Tramways was moved out from Horfield to Filton. Perhaps the most important year in Filton’s history is 1910 when Sir George WHITE (1854-1916) founded Britain’s first large scale aeroplane company. Filton’s tram depot was turned into a factory; a two-acre meadow became an airfield. He was an entrepreneur, tramway pioneer, stockbroker, industrialist and philanthropist. He introduced the first electric trams to Bristol in 1895 and to London in 1901 He set up a tramway depot in Filton which was later used for tram chassis manufacture. He also set up the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company. Filton House, which had alternated between being a farmhouse and a gentleman’s residence, became the head office of the company in 1912. When Bristol Corporation was required to take over privately-owned tramway companies in 1914, he replaced the manufacture of trams by the manufacture of aeroplanes. The first successful venture at the company, the country’s first viable plane-maker was the Bristol Boxkite bi-plane, of which 80 were built and sold. The company grew rapidly during WW1, building thousands of Bristol Fighters and other aircraft. In 1915, as the aircraft works expanded over the original ‘flying ground’, the Royal Flying Corps was established at Filton Aerodrome in fields at the bottom of Filton Hill. Aero-engine production started north of Filton Aerodrome, with the acquisition of Cosmos Engineering in 1920. In the same year, the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company became the Bristol Aeroplane Company, often abbreviated to BAC. The re-armament programme from 1935 to the outbreak of WW2 saw further expansion of the company. East Works on Gypsy Patch Lane and Rodney Works on Filton Hill was established for the production of aero engines. With the constant expansion of the company’s business, a larger office block called ‘New Filton House’ was built in the Art Deco style of architecture, standing opposite the church. It is still embellished with the company’s Pegasus logo.
Between the wars, Filton expanded rapidly to become a suburb of Bristol. Terraced and semi-detached housing was built in small estates on both sides of the A38 trunk road. A housing estate was laid out in the 1920s covering much of GAYNER’s land and one of the first roads was named GAYNER Road in recognition of the family’s long association with the parish. WADES Road passed over the site of Wades Farm. Houses in the Filton Park and Northville areas are mainly privately owned, semi-detached and 1930s built. Pre-WW1 properties in Filton Park, sandwiched between the A38 and Southmead Road, tend to be quite large, with generous gardens. Extensive playing fields which bordered the north-western side of Southmead Road, are now occupied by BAWA (British Aerospace Welfare Association), founded by Sir G. Stanley WHITE in 1942 to provide a centralised service for sickness pay and sports and social activities for employees of the Bristol Aeroplane Company. The golf links, on the hillside beyond, is owned by Filton Golf Club. A new Methodist church replacing the old one was built in 1925, and a Catholic church dedicated to St Teresa in 1927. During the 1930s, two infant/primary schools and one secondary school were built in the parish to accommodate the growing number of school-age children. In 1935, Filton even got its own cinema, the Cabot, which survived until 1962.
Prior to WW2, there was a belief that German bombers had insufficient range to reach Filton, however, the invasion of France by the Nazis in 1940 changed the situation. Nevertheless, as the war approached anti-aircraft guns were set up in a pasture field up on Filton Hill, adjacent to Filton Golf Club, to defend the aircraft factories. On 25th September 1940, more than 70 German Luftwaffe based in France, attacked Filton, causing extensive damage to the aircraft factories, as well as the heavy loss of life when several air-raid shelters were hit. Seventy-two people were killed outright and 168 injured, many of whom died later. Shortly afterwards, a squadron of Spitfire fighter aircraft was stationed at Filton Aerodrome, to defend the area. Aircraft produced during the war included the Blenheim, Beaufort, Beaufighter and Brigand. The aerodrome was upgraded to a concrete runway during 1941/42. Prior to D-Day, a number of US aircraft, imported here via Avonmouth docks, were assembled at Filton Airfield.
After WW2, the concrete runway at the aerodrome was extended westwards to enable the huge Bristol Brabazon airliner to take off safely. This extension required demolition of the small village of Charlton (in the parish of Henbury). A large three-bay hangar was also built to accommodate the Brabazon project. At the time, the hangar doors were the largest in the world, as was the railway level crossing leading to the main runway. The 1960s and 1970s saw the development and production of Concorde at Filton. Rolls-Royce, a relative newcomer arrived on the scene in 1966 after purchasing Bristol Siddeley Engines. In 1977, British Aerospace became the owner of the Filton site. Manufacture is still carried out today with BAE Systems, Airbus and Rolls-Royce plc being major employers. The Airbus redevelopment plan is for Filton House and New Filton House (both listed buildings) to be fully refurbished as ‘Pegasus House’ as part of the new office complex currently under final planning review.
Filton expanded little after WW2, sandwiched between roads, factories, railway lines and the aerodrome. The buildings of Samuel SHIELD’s Laundry became the home of Bristol Cars when the laundry closed in 1951. The laundry site is now the Shield Retail Centre. BAC opened a technical college for apprentices and trainees at the bottom of Filton Hill in 1954 and this was eventually absorbed by Filton (Technical) College that had opened nearby in 1961. The Parish Church was enlarged in 1961 and also the Methodist and Catholic churches moved to bigger sites in 1958 and 1961 respectively. During the mid-1970s, the A38 trunk road was upgraded to a dual carriageway. Station Road, a country lane in the early part of the 20th century, was also widened to become a dual carriageway and form part of the Avon Ring Road. By now the Link Road and a roundabout had been constructed where the War Memorial Hall (built in 1926), the old Fire Station, the Post Office and a private house had previously stood. A new folk centre was built nearby in 1967. Conygre House is now owned by the Council, which bought the site of Church Farm for flats. However, from the late 1970s, on the eastern side of the Bristol/South Wales railway line, a trading estate and afterwards a retail park slowly developed and in the 1990s, the Ministry of Defence set up a large office complex, known as Abbeywood in the same area.
Many employees lived and still live in the parish giving it a huge expansion in population from less than 80 in 1700, 113 in 1800, 464 in 1900 and nearly 10,000 today. Despite these developments and the population explosion which accompanied them, the people of Filton have nurtured an independence and pride in their parish, remaining today as much a village community as they were several hundred years ago.
Sources and further reading:
Filton, Gloucestershire – Some Account of the Village and Parish by W.L. Harris (1981, revised 1995).
Filton Parish Church – A History and Guide
Tempus Oral History Series, Filton Voices, by Jane Tozer & Jackie Sims