Pensford & Publow

Rowland James

Published in B&AFHS Journal Number 113 - September 2003

The North-East Somerset parish of “Pensford with Publow” is the name recently adopted for the parish which now contains the village of Pensford with the hamlets of Publow, Woollard and Belluton. The old parish of Publow excluded part of the modern village of Pensford but this and Belluton were transferred from Stanton Drew parish to Publow parish in 1847, bringing the total area of the parish to 1723 acres.

Population figures are recorded from 1801 when that of Pensford was 306 and that of Publow was 786. Both totals declined steadily through the 19th century and by 1901, the respective totals were down to 232 and 500. The 20th century has seen a gradual increase but the planning controls resulting from Pensford’s situation a few miles south of the city of Bristol but within its green belt, may have spared it from the excessive development which has spoiled so many villages. The combined parish population in 1991 was 1058 – almost exactly what it had been in 1801.

The parish is sited two miles east of Stanton Drew stone circles, one of the most important Bronze Age sites in Europe. From the pre-Roman to the Saxon era, Pensford and Publow appear to have been in a band of disputed territory between the tribal groupings that became Gloucestershire and Somerset. The construction of the Saxon earthwork, the Wansdyke, is probably evidence of one or more phases of those disputes.

Neither Publow nor Pensford were mentioned in Doomsday but they may have been included under Belluton. Publow and Pensford were two separate manors throughout the medieval era, although there is frequent confusion caused by the fact that most of Pensford was in the manor of Publow, the more valuable manor. The medieval ownership of the manors of Publow and Pensford is outlined in Collinson’s “History of Somerset” (1791) but unfortunately the details become vague around the middle of the sixteenth century. It is still unclear how Publow came into the possession of its best known owners, the POPHAM family. The earliest reference to a POPHAM as Lord of the Manor of Publow so far located is 1637.

The first POPHAM known to have occupied the nearby Hunstrete House which was to become the centre of a cluster of parishes owned by the family was Sir Francis.

In his impressive history “Queen Charlton Perambulation” (1999), G.A. Loxton states that Sir John POPHAM had acquired Queen Charlton by 1603 and implies that was probably between 1600 and 1603 on the evidence of a lease in the POPHAM archive at Somerset Record Office. Whatever the details, the acquisition was probably one of the many delayed consequences of the gradual process of privatising the immense wealth of the monasteries from 1539; a process which enriched many lawyers including POPHAM.

It is generally assumed that Publow is a village which must have shrunk from its original size in the medieval era but few suggestions have been made as to the extent or location of that settlement. Pensford retains at least two distinct ancient centres of development. There is the old village green showing a typical group of dwellings around an area extending from common land and the market area.

It is likely that Keynsham Abbey was responsible for the development of Pensford as a market town. The Abby, founded around 1170, had obtained licences for the markets at Marshfield in 1256 and at Keynsham in 1307. The Abbey may also have seen the potential of Pensford, sited on an increasingly busy thoroughfare. Pensford is not mentioned in the Nomina Villarum (1315-16) or the Exchequer Lay Subsidies of 1327 (although Publow is) so Pensford’s development probably began sometime after this.

The Black Death of 1348-1350 is in roughly the same time frame and could have also been associated with the decline of Publow and the growth of Pensford. There is little data on how the Black Death affected Somerset but G A Loxton quotes a manor roll for Ston Easton, a few miles south of Publow which records that 12 of the 16 tenants there died in 1348. Publow is about midway between there and Bristol where ‘almost the whole of the town died’ and so could well have suffered a similar fate.

There is a fragment of sculpture set into the wall of a cottage at the back of the Minors Welfare Institute and this could have come from the top of a medieval cross. It does not figure in Charles Pooley’s “The Old Stone Crosses of Somerset” (1887), presumably because no one had recognised it.

The book describes over 200 stone crosses, many of which had been destroyed in the 17th century and many of which were relatively simple wayside crosses at crossroads or in churchyards. A similar number had more elaborate heads on the crosses and some survived because they were removed to private houses. Pooley thought the Harptree cross (now in Taunton Museum) was late twelfth or early thirteenth century, whereas the Ditcheat cross could have dated from the fourteenth century or more specifically, from 1332, when Glastonbury Abbey was securing a licence for a market and fair at Ditcheat.

The Ditcheat cross is similar to the Pensford cross and there could be a similar background and date with the possibility of Keynsham Abbey securing a licence for a market at Pensford not long after this.

The importance of the cross was not just religious – Pooley noted of the crosses which stood at the centre of the village market places, ‘The market tolls which were paid at these crosses went mostly to increase the revenues of certain religious houses and it was to promote the payment of this tax, as well as to advance the cause of religion, that preaching friars frequently addressed the people on market and fair days at the cross’.

The parish contains two medieval churches, that of St Thomas a Becket, Pensford and All Saints, Publow. Pensford church was declared redundant after damage in the 1968 floods and the 19th century nave was sold in the 1990s.

St Thomas A Becket Church, Pensford (May 2010)

Publow church is the one used by villagers today and is a more distinguished building with a fine Perpendicular tower considered to be 14th century by Pevsner. Parish registers are held at Somerset Records Office: Baptisms, Marriages and Burials at Pensford start at 1651 and for Publow they start at 1569.

All Saints Church, Publow (May 2010)

Regarding the later growth of Pensford, Savage noted it as ‘a good example of cloth workers migrating into villages with water power to escape the restrictions of the town guilds’. By 1540 Leland was able to describe Pensford as a ‘small but ancient’ market town. One indication of its status in the early 17th century is a map of Great Britain by Guilemus Blaew (1571 – 1638) which shows only five towns in the area: Bristol, Bath, Axbridge, Wells and Pensford.

The textile industry in Pensford seems to have just about survived to the early part of the 18th century. Daniel Defoe, in his ‘Tour Through Great Britain’ probably came through Pensford in the 1720’s and he noted that it was one of half dozen or so Somerset towns producing ‘Spanish medleys’ The industry, small scale as it may well have been, must have virtually all gone in the next 60 years according to Collinson’s remarks in ‘History of Somerset’ )1791), that Pensford ‘has dreadfully decayed since that time (the 16th century) and now, bereft of the benefit of trade, many of the houses are fallen into ruins’.

Most towns of similar importance to Pensford in the 16th century still have numerous fine and substantial buildings from that time. The question as to why this is not the case in Pensford is one which has not really been addressed. A possible clue as to a specific cause for the ‘decay’ noted by Collinson comes from some early 17th century Somerset quarter session records.

From 1616 to 1634 there are records of various villages in the surrounding area (including Saltford, Stanton Drew, Queen Charlton and Brislington) having to pay a levy for the ‘poor of Pensford’. The Sessions hearings were to hear the objections of those villages to continued payment of the levy, so presumably it had been in force for some time before then.

This levy is reputed to have become necessary after a disastrous epidemic struck Pensford but I have not been able to locate a source to confirm this or give any details of cause and effect, or the mechanism by which such a levy was imposed (presumably by the Somerset Justices of the Peace).

The implication of such a levy must be that many people might have died or been disabled or orphaned by the epidemic and it has been suggested that this epidemic probably occurred in the late 1590s. Either the epidemic did not spread to neighbouring villages or Pensford was worse affected than other villages because it was already in a state of relative poverty or decline. There had been food shortages in the 1590s and outbreaks of plague locally in that decade and the next.

Pensford’s best known native is probably the wonderful Acker BILK but the philosopher John LOCKE (1632-1704) was one of the few people born in Somerset who achieved a truly international recognition for their life’s work. He was born in Wrington, during a visit to relatives there by his parents who lived in Belluton about ½ a mile north of Pensford. LOCKE spent his childhood in Belluton, until going to school in London at the age of 14 but he retained links with Pensford and Publow via several properties he owned and via communications with friends and relations in Pensford and the area around.

Arguably LOCKE owed everything he achieved later to these local links. Initially it was his father’s work for Alexander POPHAM that led to LOCKE’s acceptance at Westminster School and later Christ Church College, Oxford: necessary paths to acceptance among the nation’s elite.

Coal mining in the parish has a long history with various documentary records from the 17th century onwards. Mining was often associated with the parish’s extensive commons, none of which was recorded as common land on the Tithe Map of 1839.

Several of those early records relate to the hazards created by early mines and the remnants of some old bell pits are still visible while other old bell pits show up as blackish circles in various fields around the parish after they have just been ploughed.

Local mining developed with the technologies to allow deeper and deeper working and bigger and bigger mines and collieries. Early bell-pit mines would have preceded the long-wall technique of mining which began to be used in Somerset from about 1725.

By the end of the 18th century, Billingsley recorded that the depth of the pits in the area varied from 60 to 80 fathoms (i.e. 360 – 480 ft.) and as early as 1610 a depth of 48 ft. was recorded in a pit at nearby Clutton.

The POPHAMs had been content to take their freeshare rather than become involved as owners or shareholders in mining operations. This was probably in the belief that the profits of mining were not equal to the risks – a view expressed by Billingsley. The POPHAMs did eventually take over full ownership of their mines from 1819-29 but by then most of the pits had been exhausted.

The above ground operations of the big coalmine known as Pensford Colliery from about 1910 to 1959 were in the parish of Stanton Drew. However, the underground workings of Pensford Colliery extended far and wide below ground – the only ‘out of bounds’ area was that below the big railway viaduct which was built in the 1870’s. The new railway brought the viaduct and a station to Pensford which to some extent revived its status among the local villages but these innovations were not associated with any significant population growth in the Victorian era or the early 20th century.

Coal mining was probably a source of employment for local people continuously from the 16th to the 20th centuries. All the available local census data from 1841 to 1901 shows numbers of coal miners employed locally. In the 1901 census before Pensford Colliery opened, 22 men and one women were listed as having occupations directly connected with coalmining, probably in largish collieries – a number of local parishes had working mines within walking distance.

Whether the individual’s work was above or below ground is generally noted and four men are listed as ‘banksmen’. Banksmen* were probably responsible for controlling mineshaft top and signalling cages for men and coal etc. The ages of the colliery workers were from 14 to 80 – and the 80 year-olds 76 year old wife was listed as a coal haulier!

Somerset Records Office at Taunton is naturally the main source of archive material for Pensford and Publow and details of their holdings can be seen by checking Pensford and Publow separately on their website at

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Note added May 2010:- *1825: the man stationed at the bank or top of a pit who unhooks and empties the laden corves into carts or wagons, from a frame or stage. 1849: the man who draws the full tubs from the cages at the surface, when wound up by the engine, and replaces them with empty ones ; he also puts the full tubs to the weighing machine, and thence to the skreens, upon which he teems the coals. It is also his duty to keep an account of the quantity of coals and stones drawn each day. 1894: Person who controls the unloading and loading of the cage at the pit top, and signals the descent of the workmen.

A little grave stone slowly disappearing beneath the earth in a corner of the graveyard of St Thomas Becket church, Penford.

The inscription reads:-
In memory of
Frederick William
Infant son of Henry and
Mary Butler of this parish
who died Feb 7th 1862 aged 13 mths.

A marker on a wall records the level of the flood at Pensford in 1968 which devastated the village, swept away the road bridge - and caused the church to be closed.

Additional Notes:
The B&AFHS Research Room at the Bristol Records Office has the following typed transcriptions and indexes for Publow Parish Church:
Baptisms 1651 - 1758
Marriages 1656 - 1734
Burials 1643 - 1729
A Baptism index 1813 - 1901
A Burial index 1813 - 1880
Burials 1813 - 1880