By Andrew Plaster
Published in B&AFHS Journal 143 March 2011
The former south Gloucestershire parish of St George was in the eastern part of the out-parish of St. Philip & Jacob, Bristol until 1751, when the ecclesiastical parish was created. The civil parish formed in 1784, comprised of what are now the east Bristol suburbs of Crews Hole, Crofts End, Greenbank, Lower Easton, Moorfields, Redfield, St George, Speedwell, Two Mile Hill, Whitehall, and White’s Hill. It bounded on the north by the parish of Stapleton, on the east by the former chapelries/tithings of Oldland and Hanham Abbots both in the parish of Bitton, and the west by the out-parish of St Philip & Jacob, Bristol. The river Avon marks the southern boundary and the old division between the counties of Gloucestershire and Somerset.
The parish was once covered by the Royal Forest of Kingswood. It started to be cleared for agriculture from the 13th century. The forest was progressively reduced and developed over the centuries. The area first came into industrial prominence in the late 17th century, because of coal mining. The first new church, later to become the parish church of St. George, was built in the mid 18th century to serve the growing number of coalminers who had moved to the area for work. Non-conformist religion first came through the preaching of George WHITFIELD in 1739, followed by John Wesley. The bishop of Bristol, Bishop BUTLER, concerned about the lack of Anglican care, offered £400 towards the endowment of a new church. An Act of 1751 divided the parish of St Philip & Jacob, and Thomas Chester gave the piece of ground for the church, churchyard and parsonage. The foundation stone was laid in 1752 by David PELOQUIN, Lord Mayor of Bristol, but was not completed until 1756 when it was consecrated by Bishop Butler's successor Bishop HUME. The church gave its name to the surrounding area.
From the heights of the forest, the road, which was a part of ancient “London Waye”, was cited in 1756 as the ‘Turnpike Road from Bristol to Marshfield’. It was bordered by a patchwork of fields. The business of market gardening became firmly established, as the land was well suited to this occupation. Vegetables and fruits were grown for sale in Bristol’s markets and for local consumption. Families such as the LEONARDs, GERRISHes, JOHNSONs and PHIPPS successfully cultivated a large number of fields, overlooked by their homestead and outbuildings. In other fields, mining significantly benefited from the invention of the steam engine. Primarily used for pumping water out of pits, a Newcomen steam or ‘fire engine’ was used in Whitehall area. It gave name to the Fire Engine Farm, the fire engine turnpike tollhouse and the still surviving Fire Engine Inn, opposite the main entrance of St George Park. Coal was in great demand by both Bristol householders and industrialists. Ranks of cottages were built to house the ever-increasing population of the parish. Areas of meadows and market gardens were later evolved into suburbs with characteristic shops, pubs, schools, chapels and churches.
The growing population in the 19th and 20th centuries led to the provision of eight new churches built across the parish: St Marks, Lower Easton (1848); St Michaels, Two Mile Hill (1848), St Matthews, Moorfields (1873), St Aidan, White’s Hill (1883), St Anne, Greenbank (1900), All Hallows, Easton (1901), St Ambrose, Whitehall (1905) and St Leonards, Redfield (1908). Avonview Cemetery, created on the site of Mugland Farm and opened in 1883, was an extensive burial place for the whole parish. The city boundary was not extended until 1897, but as early as 1874 the St George Local Board was created.
St George area grew from the hamlet of Don Johns Cross and around the church adjacent to the main road junction, which forks at this point to Kingswood and Hanhan. A poorhouse was built in 1801 in the western end of Hudds Vale Road. It was later taken over by the Clifton Poor Law Union for housing pauper children until 1869, when it then began to be used for a number of industrial purposes, and was recently converted to apartments. The church was rebuilt in 1846, and again in impressive style with a west tower in 1880 following a fire.
The two industrialists, William BUTLER and Handel COSSHAM, contributed much of their wealth, energy and entrepreneurial skills to the building of the St George community. Butler was instrumental informing the local board and was also the first chairman of the Bristol Tramways Co., whose services were to have a profound effect on the development of the area as well as Moorfields and Redfield. A horse-drawn line from central Bristol had been extended to the depot in Beaconsfield Road by 1876, but of much greater significance for St George and for the UK was the pioneering use of electricity in 1895. Initially, this was provided by a new power station at the depot. The Victorian drinking fountain, which is in the road junction, was BUTLER’s gift of 1896. COSSHAM was elected as the first MP for Bristol East in 1885 and was a champion of mass education and advocate for a local park. St George Park was eventually laid out after his death on 38-acre land of Fire Engine Farm in 1894, the year the architecturally impressive St George Higher Grade (later St George Grammar School and now a Sikh Temple) was opened. He also bequeathed his coal mine interests to be sold, the proceeds to go to build a hospital for the people of East Bristol. Cossham Hospital was built in 1907 in Lodge Hill, outside the parish boundary towards Fishponds. BUTLER and COSSHAM are buried in Avonview Cemetery in the community that they did much to shape.
The success of the electric tramway, extended to Kingswood in 1895 and Hanham in 1900, encouraged the development of streets of terraced houses off the main roads eastwards from the road junction – Clouds Hill Road, Bell Hill Road and Summerhill Road. Boot and shoe and corset manufacturers were attracted to these newly accessible spaces. St. George Police Station in Church Road, with Fire Station behind in Northcote Road, both of which are no longer in use, were converted to private flats. Opposite the police station, there is a block of modern flats and on this site used to be The Park Picture House. This was a great favourite with children who used to attend the nine-penny rush on a Saturday morning and they always left desperate not to miss the following week as the final picture was always a serial, which had left the hero strapped to a train track or dangling over some life threatening piece of machinery. St George Public Library is a prefabricated style building which replaced the previous stone built Victorian building, demolished when it was fashionable to pull down older buildings. For over a century, the focal point of the area has been St George Park, East Bristol’s playground, and the fairs in the park were always recalled with particular fondness.
Redfield is an area to the west of St George. From the 1870s onwards there was steady drift away from market gardening in the area. The landowners moved out, selling their land to speculative builders, eager to satisfy the increasing demand for houses. Plots of land were disposed of gradually as the landowners’ estates were whittled down. Church Road was part of Bristol’s eastern urban shopping line: the ‘golden miles’ of shops stretching from the city to St George. Many people will remember those vibrant shops, such as Gwillams and David Greigs. Bristol’s oldest Tesco at Redfield has been a local landmark since 1967.
Moorfields, an area to the west of Redfield, is not a name commonly used today. Historically there are two angles. Firstly, the huddle of basic early 19th century dwellings erected by Solomon MOORE, centred around Moorfields Square and adjacent to the main Church Road. These were demolished in 1930. Secondly, the 1870s Moorfields estate, the hundreds of houses in uniform terraces, which revolved around Dean Lane (now Russell Town Avenue), with its imposing school, corner shops, off-licences and mission halls, this very working class area survived as a distinct community until redevelopment came in the 1950s and 60s.
Whitehall is an area to the north-west of St George. From the description of Easton Colliery in 'Bristol Times & Mirror' dated 1883, it appears that, by this time at least, the workings of the Easton & Whitehall pits are connected by an underground roadway two-third mile long. Towards the Whitehall shaft there were two 30 horsepower engines in an underground engine-house, 380 yards below the surface. The engines were used for pulling wagons up inclines. There are still many streets and houses from the Victorian and Edwardian eras and in the part is the Gordon Estate with houses that were built in 1936. This area originally consisted of market gardens and the new estate was built on the rhubarb patch and as a result, rhubarb was quite commonplace in many gardens. Some houses ("villas") overlook the adjoining St. George Park and these have small balconies. Newer houses have since been built on the former Co-op Bakery and Rose Green High School sites. There is a plaque on the original school wall, which was retained, giving some history, about John WESLEY having preached on this site. Whitehall Zion Methodist Chapel is now in use as offices. The Kings Head public house has long been part of the Whitehall scene and was originally owned by the PARSONS family. There were stables attached as dray horses from George's Brewery were quite a common site on Bristol roads. In the north-western end of Whitehall, here was the Midland Railway line (now a cycle path), behind of which are the other suburbs of Lower Easton and Greenbank.
Lower Easton became a densely populated suburb by the end of 19th century. The LEONARD family were large landowners or tenants who, in 1842 at the time of the St. George Tithe map, were holding 72 acres of land. They were buying mining rights on all available land and were involved in Easton Colliery. Some members of the family were engaged in market gardening, and at one time were working land where St. Mark's Church was consecrated in 1848. Being largely open fields and market gardens, its population then was only about 2000. The rest of Easton including Upper Easton and the Easton Colliery is in the parish of St Philip & Jacob.
Greenbank is a mainly early 1900s terraced housing area. Greenbank Cemetery was laid out in 1871, but it served for the parish of St Philip & Jacob. Packer’s chocolate firm bought land at Greenbank and built a three-block factory. Steam engines were operating there in 1901 and production moved from St Paul’s to Greenbank in 1902. It continued Bristol’s chocolate-making tradition by making chocolate products under the name of Elizabeth Shaw until it closed down in 2006.
Crofts End (also known as Clay Hill) is an industrialised area to the north of St George, and in between Whitehall and Speedwell, with many small Victorian houses, built when this area was a coal mining community. Crofts End Mission was established in 1895 by George Brown, as a Christian work for miner's children in The Freestone Rank, Whitehall Road, and it became known as The Miner's Mission. It is now part of the local and much wider community but still very much a family church. The church was built on a site bounded by market gardens, a brick works and Deep Pit Colliery, which was over 1200 feet deep. The Beaufort Arms, then known as The Beatem and Wackem and now called The Wackum Inn was the place where most miners spent their hard earned wages! Another local chapel was Clay Hill Chapel which was demolished when the industrial estates were built. Over many years, the Market Gardens became housing, White's Brick Works became Somers Wood Yard (now an industrial pallet site) - where many older people will remember going as children to collect a sack or trolley full of firewood - and Deep Pit Colliery became industrial estates. When Deep Pit closed, men were having to walk underground as far as Frenchay to reach the coal face! Crofts End House, located at the junction of Plummer's Hill and Whitehall Avenue, still exists, but no longer as a single dwelling. The area is now undergoing more change as the majority of 'prefabs' (built by American Servicemen as post war housing) in the locality have recently been demolished. Planning applications will replace these with mixed style housing. The old, redundant Civil Defence building on the junction of Crofts End Road and Brook Road was demolished and flats were built on the site, now named "Craftes Court".
Speedwell is an area to the north-east of St George. Extraction of coal began in the area in the early 18th century. There were two mines - the Speedwell Pit (then known as the Starveall Pit) and Belgium Pit, the latter of which was closed by 1902 after a short life of twenty years. Both mines and Deep Pit were linked on the surface by a mineral railway, with the Midland Railway. The rest of Speedwell at that time consisted of mixture of arable and pastureland. The three main farms were Speedwell Farm, Crofts End Farm and Holly Bush Farm. The mines began to reach their full potential when they came into the ownership of Handel Cossham in 1875. He introduced machinery worked by compressed air and within 50 years the supposedly exhausted pits were producing 210,000 tons of coal annually. Rows of cottages were built near pits to house the miners, many of which are still standing to this day. The Bristol house-building boom in late Victorian times fuelled the expansion of the second most important industry - brick and tile making. The three principal makers were the Bristol Brick & Tile Works, Fussell’s Brick & Tile Works and Hollybrook Brick Works. After the First World War, the council embarked on an ambitious project to build several estates of council houses in Bristol. One of these was established at Speedwell on land that had previously formed part of Speedwell Farm. In the 1920s, thirty three acres of land was acquried from various landowners and streets of well-built council houses appeared. However, all was not well with local mining industry, as in 1933 the people of Bristol contributed £3000 towards new borings to prevent the entire clousre of the pits and the loss of 2000 jobs. Two new tunnels were driven. However, it was not enough; the East Bristol Colliery Company lost a further £20,000, and in 1936 the last load of coal was brought to the surface. The Speedwell housing estate was further expanded before and after the last war. Other facilities such as shops, the swimming baths, the clinic and school were built. The old colliery buildings disappeared for the construction of the new fire station and private housing was also built. The brick-making fared much better and survived into the early 1960s. Today Speedwell is a mainly residential area. The old brick-making quarries have been filled in to provide much-needed playing fields.
Netham was an east Bristol industrial giant area to the south-west of St George. The Netham chemical works dominated the approach into Crews Hole. Evolving from the 1860s, there were monumental chimneys towering over a jumble of assorted structures, including furnaces and steam cranes. It boasted an elaborate light railway network, which served a vast sprawling waste tip that stretched west to Barton Hill. To the south the Feeder Canal and the River Avon were vital to the operation. Two groups of men, the ‘process workers’ and the ‘yard men’ toiled in this huge, dark labyrinth of a works. In 1949, the plant closed down, and since then, the whole site was transformed to a public park.
Crews Hole is located to the south of St George. From the early 18th century it was an industrial area including oil refineries and a tar works site at the bottom of Troopers Hill. The tar works was established by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1843 to provide creosote to be used as a preservative for railway sleepers and by 1863 had passed into the ownership of his manager, William Butler. It continued to operate until 1981. Troopers Hill is a local landmark, and was a mining area from the early 19th century until its closure in 1904 when the last fireclay mines were abandoned. It was declared as a Local Nature Reserve in 1995. Local tradition has it that the Parliamentary army, under the command of Sir Thomas Fairfax, camped on Troopers Hill prior to the siege of Bristol in 1645. It has also been suggested that the ditch between the hill and the allotments was dug at this time as a defensive earthworks. It is known that the army approached Bristol via Keynsham and Hanham and it is possible therefore that Troopers Hill, with its views of the city, was used while the army was headquartered at Hanham. In Victorian times, Crews Hole was compared to the north Devon village of Covelly, as both were steep, with ranks of cottages that tumble down lanes and narrows roads to waterfront. Today, original cottages co-exist with the ‘Quayside Village’, built on the tar works site. Although the heavy industry has gone, along with many buildings, the countryside character and narrow lanes of Crews Hole remain.
Two Mile Hill is an area to the east of St George. The land was chiefly set out in freeholds of an acre or more, and appropriated to market gardening; a portion was in small grazing-farms. Coalmines were wrought; and there was a pin-factory set up in early 1830s by Robert CHARLTON, a Quaker. He built a school for his workers and their families, the only factory school in the district. The church of St Michael the Archangel was consecrated in 1848. With the extension of the electric tramway to Kingswood in 1895, the area was boosted with the developments of streets of terraced houses off the main road.
White’s Hill is an area to the south-east of St George. With the extension of the electric tramway to Hanham in 1900, rows of terraced houses were built alongside the main road – Air Balloon Road, Nags Head Hill and Bryant’s Hill. St Aidan’s Church was built in 1904 on the top of Nags Head Hill to replace the iron church built in 1883 and situated in Casseybottom Lane. In the 1920s, the area was still mainly consisted of farms, old quarry workings, allotment gardens and maze of quaintly named footpaths and fields. Many houses were subsequently built in the period before the Second World War. Nurseries, glasshouses, and cottages vanished in the process.
By the end of the 20th century, a decrease in religiosity in most areas meant that the three churches were redundant. Also many chapels have been demolished and a number have changed use. Sadly, St George church was closed as a dangerous structure and demolished in 1976. Sheltered housing has been built on the site. Its next door, the Sunday School, was adapted into a church for several years, then derelict until converted into flats in 2000-01. St Mark’s Church in Lower Easton was converted to flats, and St Matthews, Moorfields to apartments and offices. Many Anglican and non-conformists registers are kept at the Bristol Record Office.
Sources and further reading:
Images of England books:
(1) St George, Redfield and Whitehall
(2) Crews Hole, St George and Speedwell
(3) Kingswood and Two Mile Hill
(4) Old Market, Newtown, Lawrence Hill and Moorfields
Old Ordnance Survey Map – Bristol (St George) 1902
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