By Andrew Plaster

Published in B&AFHS Journal 119 March 2005
(reviewed by author May 2017 and amended)


The ancient parish of Clifton, formerly in Gloucestershire, did not become part of Bristol until 1835 and soon became the most fashionable part of the city, forming a western suburb. It is famous for an awe-inspiring gorge, on the sides of which grow plants and trees unknown elsewhere in the world, spanned by Brunel’s masterpiece, the Clifton Suspension Bridge (hence BAFHS’ logo), under which flows the river Avon. Add to this, the Downs, some superb examples of Georgian and Victorian architecture, an observatory and camera obscura, a grotto, a renowned public school and one of the world’s oldest and most attractive zoos and you begin to get some idea of the richness of Clifton.

The parish, included Hotwells, was an area of less than two square miles. Its boundaries stretched from the line drawn halfway across the Downs, along the present line of Stoke Road, Blackboy Hill, Whiteladies Road, Triangle West, Jacob’s Wells Road, the Floating Harbour to the river Avon and onto Black Rock quarry, beneath the Downs. Blackboy Hill and Whiteladies Road have nothing to do with Bristol’s infamous slave trade!

Bristol is, of course, an historic city but Clifton is much older. Up on Observatory Hill, above the suspension bridge and overlooking the gorge, are the remains of a large Iron Age fort. It was later used by the Romans, who built a road (Via Julia) across the Downs to their port of Abona (present-day Sea Mills). After this we know little of Clifton history until we come to the Domesday Book of 1086. From this, we learn the entire parish had a total population of about 30 people, all engaged in agriculture. One hundred and fifty years later, the manor of Clifton passed to William de Clifton and then through a series of owners, finally being split into two parts. In the Civil War, both Parliamentarian and Royalist forces probably used the Downs as an assembly points. When the Royalist held Bristol fell to the Parliamentarians in 1645, Prince Rupert and his followers retreated across the Downs after burning the whole of Clifton, except the church.

The parish church of St Andrew’s, stood on the summit of Clifton Hill, is first mentioned in 1154, when it was given to the Abbey of St Augustine (now Bristol Cathedral). The medieval church was not large, and was partially rebuilt in 1654. The first enlargement of the church that is recorded was in 1716 when a new aisle was added, indicating the growing population of the parish by then. John WESLEY preached in the church in 1739, and commented afterwards on the “many rich” (people) at the service. A south aisle was added in 1768. The parish registers from 1538 and records are kept at Bristol Record Office.

The manor of Clifton was bought by the guild of Bristol merchants, the Society of Merchants Venturers, in 1686. They now became owners of a spring of warm water, which bubbled through the mud in the river Avon below where the suspension bridge now stands. Although the spring is mentioned in 15th century literature as a cure for leprosy, the Hotwell became better known in the 17th century when the water was prescribed for various ailments. It was taken both internally and externally and received royal approval in 1677 when Queen Catherine of Braganza, the consort of Charles II, visited. The Merchants built a Hotwell House in 1696 on a ledge that jutted out into the Avon. It was housed in a brick enclosure, which would flood with filthy waters of the Avon at high tide. So many tuberculosis patients died that one group of lodging houses became known as Death Row.

The Hotwell had a short, but glorious period of fame in the late 18th century when rich and famous flocked to Bristol for season (May to October) before moving on to Bath. The spa was place to be seen at rather than a health centre and as the Hotwell House could not put up all the visitors, fine lodging houses were built around the Dowry Square area. A chapel-of-ease was erected there in 1744. Visitors spent their days playing cards, swapping scandal and listening to music. Walks or rides on the Downs were popular pastimes, as was sailing down the Avon or trips to see the splendours of the grotto and gardens at Goldney House. A small theatre at Jacob’s Well was also popular. Dowry Square probably has the strangest associations of any street in Bristol, deserving a place in the affections of literacy types, drinkers, dentists, and drug addicts. Here, in 1812, the economic migrant Jacob SCHWEPPE opened his fizz factory. Here Dr Thomas BEDDOES ran his clinic, attempting to cure consumption by intruding cows into patients’ bedrooms. He and his assistant Humphrey DAVY did much for the gaiety of nations by producing nitrous oxide, popular amongst the intelligentsia as a recreational drug. Another assistant Peter ROGET compiled the Thesaurus.

The spa started to decline at the end of the 18th century and fashionable society moved on. The old Hotwell House was demolished in 1822 and a new pump room built in an attempt to revive the spa. This failed and the new pump room was demolished in 1867 along with Hotwell Point as part of improvements in the Avon’s navigation. Those in search of pleasure were driven away to other cheaper and more modern spas and the Bristol Hotwell soon acquired the sinister reputation of being the last resort of the incurable. Many of these visitors who died are buried in the Strangers’ Burial Ground at the foot of Lower Clifton Hill. One gravestone there is inscribed ‘Here lie the Remains of Mr John REEVE of the City of Norwich who died May 16th 1806 Aged 39’. All that remains of the spa is part of the colonnade alongside the river, next to the modern road.

However Clifton on the hill grew rapidly, the spa in Hotwells may have been in long-term decline. A few prosperous merchants had built mansions on the hill in first half of 18th century and moved out of the pollution and cramped houses of the old city of Bristol to the clearer air on the hill. Some of these mansions still survive such as Clifton Hill House, the Bishop’s House, Goldney House and Clifton Court, now the Chesterfield Hospital, standing around the original village green. Other mansions were later built along what is now Clifton Down Road such as Mortimer House, Rodney Lodge and Duncan House. However most of Clifton on the hill remained grazing land and market gardens with bulk of the population down by the river in Hotwells.

In the 1780s, Clifton village itself started to expand, beginning with a few gracefully landscaped roads around Boyce’s Avenue, followed by The Mall and then spreading down the hill in a positive cascade of magnificent terraces. Unfortunately this enthusiastic building programme was interrupted by the Napoleonic Wars and the crash of 1793, leaving many houses half-built and roofless. Within twenty years, however, Clifton had recovered and the great terraces and crescents on the hillside were all complete. Most splendid of all is Royal York Crescent, which is reputedly the longest terrace of its type in Europe and is most sought-after addresses, with views over the Floating Harbour to the countryside beyond.

One of Clifton’s strangest buildings, the Observatory stands on the site of the Iron Age fort and was once a windmill for grinding snuff until a fire in 1777. It was taken over in 1828 by a Mr WEST, who converted it into an observatory and Camera Obscura. He also cut a passage to St Vincent’s cave, which was formed by underground stream and has viewing platform on the side of the gorge.

Clifton began to attract the leisured classes. The Bristol, Clifton and West of England Zoological Society opened in 1836, making it the second oldest Zoo in Britain. An Assembly Room and Hotel, now the Clifton Club were built in The Mall. One of its visitors was the young princess Victoria being shown off to her future subjects by her mother, the Duchess of Kent. These rooms soon proved too small for a growing population and the much larger Victoria Rooms were opened in 1842. Clifton became even more attractive in 1861 when an Act of Parliament stopped the gradual encroachment onto the Downs and created a permanent space. Brunel’s world-famous suspension bridge across the Avon Gorge was finally completed in 1864; Leigh Woods and Nightingale Valley became more easily accessible. A Bristol School of artists found the Avon Gorge and Leigh Woods attractive subjects.

The increased middle classes continued to settle in Clifton on the hill and the fields, which were once market gardens and grazing land soon became covered in Victorian villas and semi-detacheds and Gallows Acre Lane, at the end of which once stood the gibbet, was re-christened Pembroke Road. Between 1801 and 1851 the population grew from about 4,500 to 17,500. This more permanent population also established schools and twelve non-conformist chapels. As well as many small private schools already existing, Clifton College was founded in 1860 and Clifton High School for Girls in 1877.

The old parish church of St Andrew’s also proved too small to take the increased population, and in the 1820s, a new and larger church was built slightly to the north of the old church, which was later pulled down, carted away and buried in a quarry. Further, to relieve the problem, the following nine new churches were built across the parish:

o St John the Evangelist (1841), in Whiteladies Road, once shared with Redland part of Westbury parish.

o Christchurch (1844), in western end of Clifton Park. The spire is 200 feet high and its summit is one of Bristol’s highest points above sea level.

o St Paul’s (1854), in St Paul’s Road.

o St Peter’s, Clifton Wood (1855) in corner of Jacob’s Wells Road and Hotwell Road.

o Holy Trinity, Hotwells (1864).

o All Saints (1868), in Pembroke Road.

o Emmanuel (1869), next to Clifton College in Guthrie Road.

o St Andrew-the-less, Hotwells (1873), rebuilt on the site of the chapel-of-ease.

o St Anslem, (1897), in Whatley Road

Amongst the many famous residents of 19th century Clifton were Dr W.G. GRACE who lived in Victoria Square and the historian Thomas MACAULAY in Caledonia Place. The future Empress Eugenie of France was a schoolgirl in Royal York Crescent for a short time. Many of the famous residents of the area have green plaques on their houses erected by the Clifton & Hotwells Improvement Society. The cultural life of the area greatly increased with visits to the Victoria Rooms from ‘stars’ such as Charles Dickens, Jenny Lind, ‘the Swedish nightingale’ and Oscar Wilde and societies for all arts and sporting clubs became firmly established. A bequest by the artistic SHARPLES family enabled the Royal West of England Academy to be established in Queens Road. Clifton formed a cultured counterbalance to the commercial city of Bristol.

To the north and south of Clifton the scene was not one of prosperity. Around Blackboy Hill were a number of poor quarrymen and lime burners scraping a living while Hotwells area declined rapidly and the buildings, which had once housed the famous became overcrowded tenements for the poor. The death rate in lower Clifton was twice that of Clifton on the hill. The Merchants made one last attempt to revive the spa in the 1890s when the Hotwell spring was piped up to the Clifton Grand Spa and Hydropathic Institution, now the Avon Gorge Hotel, but the popularity of hydropathic treatments waned after about 1914. At the same time the Rocks Railway was tunnelled through the rocks of the gorge alongside the hotel. Hydraulic cars brought passengers up from the tram stop at the foot of the tunnel to Clifton. It finally closed in 1934, but the lower terminus can be still seen in the cliff-face on the Portway below the suspension bridge.

In the 20th century, there was a gradual decline in numbers of upper-class people living in Clifton. The University of Bristol expanded by taking over some properties including Victoria Rooms and Goldney House. Some houses were converted to apartments, flats, or student accommodations. Although the bombing during the Second World War did not cause much destruction in Clifton, three churches were casualties. Sadly, the oldest one, St Andrew’s being largely destroyed was demolished. Its pretty churchyard survives, together with the path through it called Birdcage Walk. St Anselm’s was burnt out and Whiteladies Health Centre was built on the site. All Saints was rebuilt in a modern style round the base of the surviving Victorian tower. Also a decrease in religiosity meant that the further four churches were redundant. St Peter’s, Clifton Wood was closed in 1938, St Andrew-the-less, Hotwells in 1958, and Emmanuel in 1974. All were demolished, except the latter tower, and a block of flats was built on each site. St John’s, Whiteladies Road, closed in 1984, was converted to a different use. A huge modern Catholic Church of St Peter & St Paul was built in 1973 and is the Roman Catholic Cathedral for the Diocese of Clifton.

Nowadays, Clifton is still the nicest area of Bristol. Clifton Village itself – still so called, perhaps out of a continuing desire to ward off the encroachments of the city - is known particularly for its fashion and antique shops, many of them in the Clifton Antiques Market, and its plethora of restaurants and wine bars. Whiteladies Road is a popular venue for university students to meet for drinks. In Hotwells, timber wharfs have been swept away and replaced by splendid visitor attractions and a thriving resident community. But the sand wharfs and boat building and repairing businesses, which flourish there, add the authentic note of a working waterway. The Downs are large enough to accommodate football pitches alongside large areas of open space for informal recreation, and also the home of the annual Bristol Flower Show, the largest such show in the West Country and still expanding. The suspension bridge and the zoo are still Bristol’s main tourist attractions.

Sources and further reading:

o ‘The Clifton Guide’ by Michael Pascoe, Redcliffe Press, 1985

o ‘A Chronicle of Clifton and Hotwells’ by Helen Reid, Redcliffe Press, 1992

o ‘History of Clifton’ by Donald Jones, Phillimore, 1992

o ‘On the Waterfront: the Hotwells Story’ by Helen Reid & Sue Stops, Redcliffe Press, 2002


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