(reviewed by the author May 2017 – amended)
The former rural parish of Mangotsfield in south Gloucestershire was anciently within Kingswood Chase, and originally comprised of what are now the north-east Bristol suburbs of Blackhorse, Bromley Heath, Downend, Emerson’s Green, Mangotsfield, Staple Hill, the eastern part of Oldbury Court and the upper part of Soundwell, and the two remaining rural hamlets of Bury Hill and Moorend. The whole parish, except the Oldbury Court part, remains outside the Bristol city boundary, and has some traces of its rural past.
The history of Mangotsfield stretches back to the Domesday Book of 1086 and almost certainly beyond. The name probably derives from Mangod’s Feld, Mangod being a Saxon word and Feld meaning a stretch of open country, in other words, Mangod’s stretch of open country. Mangotsfield village answers to most people’s idea of a “typical” English village, a nucleated settlement growing up around a medieval church with a manor house next door.
In the early 13th century, William du Putot, who was a Sheriff of Gloucestershire and Constable of Bristol Castle, built a chapel next to his manor house and was granted a free chantry and chaplain. It became a chapel of ease to St. Peter’s in Bristol, and later a parish church dedicated to St. James. On a map of 1610, it is shown as a church with a steeple. The clock in the tower was donated in 1687 by Jonathan TUCKER and was renovated in 1897 as a memorial to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The bells, also a gift of Jonathan TUCKER, which dated from 1687 to 1822 were re-cast into a peal of eight in 1922. Although Gothic in style, the nave dates mainly from the 1851 restoration, the chancel has retained most of the medieval work. Under an arch behind the organ are the battered medieval figures of William du Putot’s descendant, Edmund BLOUNT in armour and his wife Margaret in pointed headdress and a long gown. The figure of Edmund, which had long lain under the chantry, was unearthed in 1896 and suddenly became the centre of a great sensation. In that year a man investigating the pedigree of the SHIPWAYS found apparent proof that their ancestors were buried here. The BLOUNTS were proved to be SHIPWAYS; the SHIPWAY crest and SHIPWAY inscriptions were found in various parts of the church. All missing links in the ancestry were found, but before the pedigree was established the investigator was proved to be an imposter. He himself had forged the links, and he paid penalty with imprisonment so that the old stone figures remain BLOUNTS to this day. The parish register (from 1579) and records are kept at Bristol Record Office.
Mangotsfield village lost its first manor house in 1846 so that the churchyard might be enlarged, but its second medieval manor house – Rodway Hill House built in 1350 by William Blount – still stands on the edge of Rodway Common, its present façade dating from the 16th century. The only other house of distinction there is Mangotsfield House, once The Vicarage. Mangotsfield was predominately a mining village, as there were small coal-pits scattered in the north from the village towards Blackhorse and Emerson’s Green, and also some in Staple Hill and Soundwell. A big pit nearby, Parkfield Colliery in the parish of Pucklechurch, provided employment for many Mangotsfield men who walked across the fields to work every day. Most of the villagers were poor folk, mainly employed as miners, agricultural labourers or quarrymen before the farms disappeared, the coal-pits closed and the quarries were worked out, but not before they had provided enough attractive blue and red pennant sandstone for almost all the building in the parish before the 20th century. Former workmen’s cottages, still standing, have been “improved” by their better-off latter-day occupants.
Downend started life as a hamlet, much of it being common land until an Act for its enclosure was passed in 1788/89. Here lived professional men and businessmen in large houses with acres of land attached, who regarded themselves as leaders of Mangotsfield society. Here, too, were several mainly tenant farmers, occupying ancient farmsteads, and some labourers in scattered cottages. During the 17th and 18th centuries, members of the PLAYER family, owners of coal mines in Gloucestershire, Somerset and South Wales, were Lords of the Manor of Mangotsfield. They built a third manor house called Cleeve Hill. Their estate was passed to a nephew Charles BRAGGE in 1739, and was later bought by Stephen CAVE, a Bristol Banker and Merchant Venturer, in 1805. He and his heir Daniel CAVE had become the largest landowners in the parish.
The population of the parish was slow-growing and since nonconformity was so strong in north-east Bristol, many chapels were erected. The Christ Church in Downend was built in 1831 as a chapel of ease. Since christenings and weddings were not permitted at the church until 1874, when its elevation to the status of a parish church came only after an Act of Parliament made Downend a separate parish. The parish registers for Downend – baptisms and marriages from 1874 and burials from 1831 – are on deposit at Bristol Record Office. The Downend church contains memorials of the CAVE and GRACE families. There has been a Baptist Chapel here since 1786, originally an offshoot from the early Broadmead Baptist Chapel in Bristol. The Methodists had a place of Worship in Downend, prior to moving to North Street, and later to Staple Hill. A cemetery was created in the 1880s, in Westerleigh Road. The growing population in Soundwell area made the provision of another church and St Stephen’s was built in the early 20th century. Lower Soundwell was in the chapelry/tithing of Oldland in the ancient parish of Bitton.
Besides the Downend church, is the ground of Downend Cricket Club, which is noteworthy for its associations with the famous cricketer, William Gilbert “W.G.” GRACE. He was born in Downend House in 1848. For nearly 30 years the very name of Gloucestershire brought to mind a picture of the black-bearded giant whose imperious stride to the wicket was enough to break the heart of any bowler. Here he played with his first ball, the man who for so long was automatically first choice for England.
Staple Hill’s history is different from that of Mangotsfield and Downend. The ancient Staple Hill Oak, which stood in what is now Page Park, was a meeting place for the local shepherds. The aforementioned Enclosure Act, and the construction of a horse and gravity railway (the dramway) in the 1830s, followed by a steam and passenger railway in the 1840s with a station in Mangotsfield, appear to be chief reasons why this part of the parish expanded so rapidly as a working-class community in the second half of the 19th century. Staple Hill folk were employed in the mines, the pin factories, the boot and shoe trade, soap and candle manufactories and so on. And when Staple Hill had its own railway station in 1888 then the floodgates could have been opened for workers to live on Staple Hill and commute to Bristol and, of course, vice versa. The outbreak of building on Staple Hill seems to coincide with the provision of easy transport into Bristol, which was made even easier with the coming of the electric trams to Staple Hill in 1905. Factories were willing to come to the parish; for example, Wathen Gardiner & Co Ltd, the producers of military and other clothing in 1899 in Staple Hill; and Carsons Chocolates in 1913 near Mangotsfield railway station.
By 1880, Daniel CAVE’s heir, Sir Stephen CAVE, a politician, used Cleeve Hill, in Downend, as a country residence. When he died childlessly, his widow made it her home until her death in 1905. The CAVES did not need the house after that, for Sir Stephen’s heir, his younger brother, Sir Charles Daniel CAVE already had a home in Clifton before his brother died, and afterwards inherited, as part of the Caves’ real estate, a manor and newly built manor house at Sidbury, in Devon. A use was found for Cleeve Hill between 1915 and 1919 as a war hospital, but in 1920 Sir Charles authorised the auction of his 1400-acre Cleeve Hill estate, including properties in Downend and Mangotsfield. Prior to the auction, arrangements had been made for CAVES’ tenant farmers to buy the farms they had previously rented. So Henry BRIDGMAN bought Cleeve Hill Farm and also Bromley Heath Cottages for his farmworkers, Mrs Emily YOUNG bought Dibden Farm and Fred WALKER bought Blackhorse Farm. The sale of the remaining property in Downend in 47 lots in 1920 and the demolition of Cleeve Hill itself, circa 1930, except some of its outbuildings have survived and one of three pretty lodges exists on the top of Croomes Hill. This led to a spate of modern developments in Downend in the 1930s.
The Second World War put stop to the building, but it started up again in the 1950s and 1960s, as farmlands, owned by the former CAVES’ tenant farmers, were sold off piecemeal to property developers, when farming ceased to be profitable as it had been during the war, and when there was a growing demand for homes for employees in the aircraft industry at nearby Filton. The Quakers’ Burial Ground in Bromley Heath, which was created in 1657, and had over 750 interments, disappeared in the housing development. Today there are no working farms left in Downend and even the homesteads for Downend Farm and Lincombe Farm have disappeared. Over in the Blackhorse area, Blackhorse Farm and its farmhouse have gone, though one of the former farm buildings has been converted into a dwelling house and stands on the Westerleigh Road near The Huntsman pub. Mangotsfield village expanded as well; the new building there included the Charnhill development on part of the CAVES’ Rodway Hill estate. In the 1990s, the hamlet of Emerson’s Green, Lyde Green and Wick Wick became the latest suburbs, the latter of which was in the detached part of the parish of Frampton Cotterell and anciently belonged to the family of the Wickwicks.
As the parish lost its rural character it failed to attract residents who had the means to maintain the large residential properties that had been built here. In consequence, houses ceased to be family homes: The Chestnuts (the second home of the GRACE family), Cleve Dale, Overnhill (now the site of the Mormon church), Overnhurst, The Grange and Pendennis were demolished; Cleeve Wood, Hill House and Mangotsfield House were converted to apartments; and Cleeve Hill Farm and Rodway Hill House (now known as Rodway Manor House) were divided to at least two dwellings.
As industries in Staple Hill began to decline, its growth to halt, and like Mangotsfield village, it lost its railway station with the Beeching cuts of 1966. But shops which opened up along Broad Street and High Street in the 19th century still provide Downend, Mangotsfield and Soundwell residents with their best local shopping. Only the shop fronts have changed. The old lanes of cottages, like Tyler’s Lane or Pratten’s Lane are long gone, and blocks of flats and modern bungalows are in their place. The former Regal cinema, the only picture house in the parish, became a bingo hall, and is now a Christian Fellowship hall. A swimming pool and a college were built in the 1960s in Soundwell.
In the northern extreme of the parish, behind the new Avon Ring Road and M4 motorway built in the 1960s, here is the only remaining rural part including the hamlets of Bury Hill and Moorend, next to the River Frome, which is on the parish boundary. In Bury Hill, there is a 7½-acre Iron Age fort and a Mission Room (now a private house), which was originally built in 1867 for Anglicans use until 1915, and afterwards was used for nonconformist services. Moorend has a few numbers of houses including Marigold Court (where aforementioned Jonathan TUCKER lived, who was the donor of the peal of bells and clock to Mangotsfield church in 1687) and Moorend Farm, which is now the only working farm in the parish.
A tragedy occurred in the parish; it was in 1957, the woods opposite Lincombe Barn, in Overndale Road, were the scene of an air disaster when a Britannia aircraft, on test from Filton, crashed with the loss of 15 lives. The barn was part of Lincombe Farm (now demolished) until the 1920s when it became a dwelling house. It was converted to its present community use in 1970 as Downend Folk House, where the Downend Local History Society holds its meetings. The society publishes various books on the parish history and also has re-printed Rev. Arthur Emlyn-Jones’ book “Our Parish: Mangotsfield and Downend” first published in 1899. The society has its website – www.downendlhs.org.uk
My two-times great grandfather, Robert PLASTER, the son John1 & Amy PLASTER of Downend, was baptised in Mangotsfield church in 1835, and in his married life his family lived in Pear Tree Cottage (now demolished) behind the Hebron Chapel in Staple Hill. Amy’s father Robert MARSH was buried in 1851 in Downend church. All my four paternal great grandparents are buried in Mangotsfield Cemetery. One of them, Flora ROGERS was born in one of Bromley Heath Cottages, where my two and three times great grandparents George & Isabella ROGERS2 and Enoch & Elizabeth ORGAN3 lived from 1854 to early 1920s. They had to move out when the farmer BRIDGMAN bought the cottages for his workmen. The cottages still exist and are surrounded by modern houses. My paternal grandmother was born in Cleeve Wood Lodge, where her father Elias TOWILL was head gardener for Cleeve Wood House. The lodge (formerly a Turnpike Cottage) is opposite to Cleeve Mill, which is now a private house and was once used as Cleeve Tea Gardens. She was shown in its old postcards as a little girl in early Edwardian days. My paternal grandparents lived in the former Cave’s estate in Downend, and my parents live in the former BRIDGMAN’s Cleeve Hill Farm estate in Bromley Heath. Therefore, I have family history connections to the parish, where I was born and raised.
1. John Plaster originated from Churchill Batch – see my article ‘My Parish – Churchill’ in journal no. 122 (Dec. 2005)
2. See my article ‘Isabella of Bromley Heath’ in journal no. 109 (Sept. 2002)
3. See my article ‘Enoch & Elizabeth Organ’ in journal no. 111 (March 2003)
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