By Glinda Hooper
Published in B&AFHS Journal 130 December 2007
The Gordano valley is situated in north Somerset, with the most easterly point of the valley being the town of Clevedon. The Bristol Channel forms one boundary, with the mouth of the river Avon and the inlet of water known as Pill Creek. The other boundary is formed by the village of Portbury, which nestles with the Gordano villages grouped around the Gordano moor. The meaning of Gordano is said to have a Saxon explanation meaning wedge shape or triangular. It is thought there were Danish trading settlements in the Bristol Channel prior to the Saxons, with Steepholm and Flatholm, both Danish names, probably being used in the ninth and tenth centuries. Gordano formed part of the earldom of Wessex and the shire of Somerset – added to this the Portbury Hundred.
Newcomers made their ‘tons’ or settlements on the banks of the Portishead Yeo. Such settlements were built on streams which led into the Gordano valley – Portybrig, probably being the centre, Wealh-ton, Clapp-ton, Weat-ton and East-ton, and so these villages as we know them today, grouped around the Gordano moor, were named – Portbury, Walton-in-Gordano, Clapton-in-Gordano, Weston-in-Gordano and Easton-in-Gordano. There is too much history to write about all the communities, which are so closely entwined within the Gordano valley, it is the north Somerset parish of Easton-in-Gordano and that of Pill I want to tell you about. The two are inseparable.
The valley, although marshy, was probably a plain covered forest where elephant and mammoth once roamed, and then man arrived. After the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066, the largest landowner within Somerset was Harold Godwinsson, with the whole of the Gordano valley being just a small section of the Godwin family estate. The Godwins were latterly known as the Berkeleys, and so Somerset was known as Godwin’s land. In 1068 Harold’s sons returned from their refuge in Ireland and attacked Bristol from both land and sea, much of the land in Somerset was lost. Land owned by Harold became Royal property, with the Portbury Hundred being given to Geoffrey, Bishop of Exeter – it being the richest estate, with Easton being next in value and then Weston. The Shire and the Hundred were conveniently divided so as to administer ‘justice’ and collect taxes.
Easton-in-Gordano, formerly known as St. Georges for many centuries, was probably surrounded by boggy pasture with St. George’s Pill on one side and the river Avon on the other, even so the Berkeleys of Portbury continued to erode its boundaries. It was not unusual for Thomas BERKELEY the second, to come with his entourage across the Avon river at Pill and ride through the parish of St. George in order to spend Christmas at his Portbury Manor. The food served was probably sheep, ox, wild boar, geese and other fowl shot from the boggy marshes of the Avon, and their drink was locally made mead. History is somewhat distorted with little documentation under the Saxons of Wessex.
The date of the first church, dedicated to St. George, the patron saint of England, is not known, but in 1239 the patronage with rectorial or great tithes was passed to the Cathedral Church of St. Andrew at Wells – today it is the Diocese of Bath and Wells. There is no record who built the church in the 15th century but it was said to be a sight worth seeing. It became a pattern for other builders including those at Yatton, who in 1447 studied its rood loft.
About 1346, Thomas BERKELEY built the chapel of St. Katherine, which stood on the bank of the great bend in the river Avon at St. Katherine’s Pill. From here, many a seafarer, going on a journey would spend time to pray or maybe wait for suitable weather to set sail. It is this bend of water, that is known as Hung Road at Crockerne Pill, having a natural wharf with deep water at high tide, but at low tide the ships were ‘hung’ by their masts to rings and stout chains embedded into the rocks. This was to make sure the vessels remained upright and did not roll. Some rings still remain but during the First World War many were removed for salvage. In 1782, the Merchant Ventures of Bristol paid £600 to improve moorings for fourteen vessels with another £300 having been spent in 1745 to dredge the area. Pill seafarers or Pill Sharks, had a questionable reputation with customs officers but because of their clever seamanship were rarely caught. One example read ‘no less than twenty tankers of brandy and rum were found hidden along the banks of the river near Hung Road’. Stories of smuggling around Pill Creek have circulated through time, but this is what has given Pill its illustrious history. Ships left Hung Road for the African coast where goods were traded for slaves and returned with sugar, rum etc. I have found no documentation to confirm Pill seafarers were connected to this trade; one must assume they were not innocent! A question often asked “Did John Cabot sail from Pill in 1497 to discover Newfoundland?” because James RAY, the first licensed Pill Pilot, was aboard Cabot’s ship ‘The Matthew’ on that day. About 1804 is the last recording of ships leaving The Hung Road.
During the late 15th century Richard, Duke of York appointed a Welsh Knight, Thomas MORGAN, to guard the ferry over the Avon at Pill, to ensure all passengers paid their dues. This is the first mention of the MORGAN family in Easton, where they appear to have had a fairly illustrious and diverse living over a long period. Thomas MORGAN, squire of Easton died in 1723 leaving his young widow Ann and his stepchild, later known as Mistress Mary WILKINS. Until her death in 1747 she administered the Morgan’s Charities. Her eldest grandson Thomas WILKINS took the surname MORGAN, and his brother Richard WILKINS, became vicar of St. George’s church, where monuments to the MORGANS and WILKINS still hang. One monument, most intriguing, is that of Captain Samuel STURMY 1635-1669 (on whom I am preparing an article). He was a master mariner and mathematician, who wrote and had published the Mariner’s Magazine. He wrote his book “at my House and study at St. Georges or Pill, neer Bristol”. It is thought he is buried somewhere in St. George’s churchyard. But why within his memorial tablet is Richard MORGAN a Captain?
In St. George’s Parish Registers for Baptisms are listed many little MORGANS, HARDWICKS and PORTERS etc. with the following entries giving us a snapshot of village life!
- 1560 Richard born in the forest.
Jonas born on the sea coming from Wales.
Samuell son of a poore man born in a barn.
Burial Records –
- 1564 a flemming murdered at Pill.
- 1566 Cicely a servant of William Combe.
- 1616 William Mosley spent many years labouring in the ministry
of the Gospell
- 1637 Andrew Simpson or such like name.
During 1645, there were five cases of the plague recorded – followed by a change of handwriting. It is assumed Rev John HIGGINS either caught the plague or maybe fled the village in fear! Entries after this episode are either brief or forgotten. The villagers of Easton and Pill continued to lead their lives working around the sea and land, content with the seasons bringing forth change. The differing generations became even more entwined as the years passed by. The church continued to play a significant roll in village life and in 1817 the Reverend Henry MIREHOUSE became vicar at St. George’s church. During his ministry he was often at loggerheads with his churchwardens over the distribution of the MORGAN Charity money, which continues to this day. He insisted the old church be pulled down and rebuilt with a capacious galleried preaching-house built onto the tower. The new church opened in 1827 – it was a disaster! After his death in 1867, Arthur WALKER became Rector, and the church was replaced with the more comely Victorian building opened in 1872. The tower was built with pink sandstone probably locally quarried from The Bottoms, and appears to encase the lower part of the original structure, which bears a striking resemblance to the Lord Mayor’s Chapel in Bristol. During the late 1850’s, church attendances dropped, but at Pill, on the 27th September 1860, Christ Church was consecrated. It was built from stone transported from Nailsea and was a ‘daughter’ church to St. George, but it has no churchyard other than an area for commemorative plaques. Pill became an ecclesiastical parish of its own.
The communities of this area also supported the Salvation Army the Baptist and Methodist Chapels. John Wesley made many visits to Pill. About 1756 he wrote in one of his journals ‘I rode to Pill and preached to a large attentive congregation many of them seafaring men...’ Around 1770 Francis ASBURY sailed from Pill Creek to found Methodism in the Americas. A memorial tablet has been erected near the Creek to commemorate the departure of the founders of American Methodism.
The river Avon was the main artery of communication for all its past history. When lives were lost to the sea the whole area mourned ‘their own’. Depending on which side of the river a body was landed, determined the price paid, but Pill seafarers were skilled and brave men – September 1896 James HAZELL, a Pill boatman, rescued two children, Ruby and Elsie BROWN, who were thrown by their father over Clifton Suspension Bridge. The fashion of the day acted as parachutes and the sisters survived. Major change was to happen in 1867 with the coming of the railway. A brick viaduct was built over Pill Creek with a shallow tunnel dug through the grounds of Ham Green House, later to become Ham Green Hospital. A large siding was built next to the railway and a coal yard developed. Avonmouth Docks brought work for the locals and again the ferry crossing from Pill to Shirehampton played its part. Ham Green Hospital was opened in the early 1890s bringing work for the villagers, but as one doctor said, “the import of new people will ensure sanity for the area”, then during the mid 1980s an announcement was made for it to close. It had a worthy heritage and continues to be remembered for its great work. Today there are family houses built together with a small office complex. A local Doctor, Herbert NEWSOME gave the village a playing field sited opposite the Anchor Inn and next to the hospital, from where patients could watch Lodway Cricket Club play league cricket. There are two pubs in Easton, The Kings Arms and The Rudgleigh Inn behind which, village cricket has been played for more than 100 years, with football played at Court Hay field for almost as long. Many of the old houses pubs in Pill have long since been demolished - there were in excess of 18 pubs in the 19th century! Had ‘developers’ not moved into the area this would have been a tourist gem, with many a story to go with it!
During the Second World War, three anti-aircraft defence camps were strategically placed around the village in order to protect Avonmouth Docks, with Barrage Balloons being a regular sight at that time. On 16th January 1941, Christ Church, Pill was totally destroyed by enemy action; it was re-consecrated in May 1958. The only bell from the original church survived and continues to be used. After the war, families from Bristol were temporarily housed in the vacated Nissan huts whilst new houses were built; these huts have since been demolished. In 1959 ecclesiastical boundaries were again adjusted, taking into account the then modern housing estates. Road names were changed – The Back Lane became Rectory Road, The Rocks no longer exists and Mirehouse Hill became St. Georges Hill to name but a few. The horse trough was re-sited next to Manor Cottage, where it often holds a riotous display of flowers.
Over the years many characters, some colourful, have emerged from this close-knit community. One landlord would often stand at the Creek wall where his songs would echo through the late evening for all to hear – he was known as the ‘singing docker’. Emma MILLER (1878-1966) known to all generations of her time only as ‘nurse’, travelled the area day or night by foot and claimed to have delivered more than 3,000 babies without losing a mother. She retired at the age of 70. Another character was Maurice GERRISH, the local baker, known as ‘Crusty’, who had an amazing bass voice. He continued the seasonal group known as ‘The Owls’. This group would dress in Dickensian costume and sing Christmas music and Carols, collecting for local charities; likewise he played a part in continuing the Pill Charity Rag, both of which still exist to this day. In 1892 at Pill, a son was born to William and Eliza THOMAS, he was named Bertram. During the First World War he was posted to Arabia, where he remained after the war was over. He became the Wazir (Prime Minister) to the Sultan of Oman. Many awards were bestowed upon him from various countries, for his daring exploit - being the first European to cross the Rub Al Khali, the empty quarter of the Arabian Desert. In 1947 he was appointed Director of the Middle East Centre for Arabian Studies in Jordan, he returned to Pill where he died in 1950. A plaque has been erected outside his home in Springfield Road Pill to commemorate the life of Bertram THOMAS, Pill’s most famous son.
The area is now a commuter belt for Bristol via A369 road. The M5 motorway, the Gordano Services and Portbury Dock with its wind turbines, container and new-car port, have taken over from the now closed railway and ferry, with Pill Creek now used solely by pleasure craft. The once thriving school at Easton is now a private dwelling, but Pill does have its own Infant and Junior School. The senior school at Pill was replaced by St. Catherine’s Comprehensive and situated at Ham Green. From Bristol, approaching Gordano Services on the M5, the church tower of St. George stands tall, watching over the traveller, and reminding everyone that this is a proud area steeped in history. Somewhere in the churchyard lay the remains of many generations, from all denominations, who lived in and who loved this area.
So far I have traced the PORTER family – my maternal family – back to the mid 18th century. In my naivety I believed that a family having lived in the same area for many generations would be easy to trace – how wrong I have been. There are more to find.
Somerset Record Office: Easton-in-Gordano Parish Register dating from 1559, plus other documents in the parish collections.
Books: “Gordano” by Eve Wigan; “Pill in Postcards” by John Rich; “Around Gordano” by Michael Tizer
Leaflet: “Parish Church of St. George”
If you have questions about this article or the PORTER family, the author Glinda Hooper may be contacted by email: email@example.com
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