By Stephen Byrne

Published in B&AFHS Journal 101 - September 2000

Stapleton is an ancient parish covering Fishponds and Eastville in Gloucestershire to the north-east of Bristol, now part of the city of Bristol. It was anciently within Kingswood Forest and is now a suburban district with traces of its rural past. The forest covered an expanse of eighteen square miles to the east of the growing settlement of Bristol. The suffix ‘dun’ in Purdun and Stapeltun, as these places were recorded, indicates Celtic heritage, the latter covering an area of some 2,554 acres in 1086. According to the Domesday Book of that year, this territory formed part of the six-square mile Manor of Bertune in the Swineshead Hundred.

Yet, still earlier settlements on the site remain a highly feasible proposition. In February 1934, George LOVELL of Mayfield Park South, Fishponds found in a neighbour’s garden, a Roman coin dating from the time of Vespasian, Roman Emperor between 69 and 79 AD. The Roman roadway Via Julia, which ran from Sea Mills to Bath, is believed to have crossed the river Frome at Baptist Mills. The neighbouring hamlet of Stapleton was donated to Tewkesbury Abbey in 1174 by William, Earl of Gloucester. The Saxon hamlet of Stapleton, as it is first recorded in 1208, stood at the edge of the forest, to the north of the river Frome. From one mill on the river Frome at the time of the Domesday Book, there were five by 1297. Witherly’s later gave its name to Snuff Mills park while, six hundred yards downstream, Whitwood (sic) Corn Mill, as it became known after John WHITEWOOD, who ran the mill in 1609, was owned and run between 1846 and 1899 by Josiah BELL of Stapleton.

By the late sixteenth century the landlord was Richard BERKELEY of Stoke Gifford, through whose landed family the village was passed down to the Duke of Beaufort. The area had been developed for coalmining with some seventy pits working by 1700 and, by the middle of the eighteenth century; this industry employed a vast number of local men. The Reverend George WHITFIELD recorded meeting 2000 colliers at Fishponds on 5th March 1739. The shallow mines of the Kingswood & Parkfield Colliery Company on the Beaufort estate produced a thousand tons per day by the 1890s. It was a parliamentary move of 1779, which authorised the enclosure of parishes and led to many of the ubiquitous mud huts being replaced by sturdier, more comfortable stone dwellings. Jacob STURGE was commissioned to survey the area in order to draw up the Stapleton Enclosures Act – 19GeoIIIc65, which was to come into force in 1781. As a result, nine lots of Stapleton Common, comprising some 57 acres, were sold for £1,600 in October 1779. The Duke of Beaufort, the largest purchaser, bought 341/2 acres, though his claim to the rights of 41 coal pits in the parish was dismissed at a meeting in The Bell Inn, four days prior to Christmas Day 1779. Five years of wrangling over ownership ensued but, in truth, the age of English yeomanry was over. Although the largest landowners in the mid-nineteenth century, the Beauforts were forced to sell the estate in 1915.

One local collieryman was Victory PURDY, who had worked the mines through the enclosure period. A prominent evangelist, who had know Charles WESLEY, the writer of 1,853 hymns, PURDY worked in the Duke of Beaufort’s colliery at Stapleton, and on his greatly-mourned death in July 1822, was buried in Stapleton. Frances MILTON, the mother of the novelist Anthony TROLLOPE, was born in the village in 1780, while Sarah YOUNG, another Stapleton-born girl, was the mother of the poet Thomas CHATTERTON.

The Parish Church of Holy Trinity, a Norman edifice initially dedicated to St. Giles, with parish registers dating back to 1720 and Bishop’s Transcripts to 1675, was rebuilt by John NORTON and re-consecrated in 1857, creating a prominent local landmark as its spire measures some 170 feet. This was achieved with full financial support of James Henry MONK, Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, who lived in Stapleton for many years from 1840.

Besides the Beaufort family, another moneyed landowner had been the Bristol merchant and alderman John SMYTH, twice mayor of the city, who bought Ashton Court from Sir Thomas ARUNDEL in 1545 and set about acquiring other large estates in and around Bristol. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Smyth family owned Eastville Park, not the seventy-acre Victorian site purchased by the City Council in 1887 which now bears this name, but a more extensive parkland. They also owned Ridgeway or Rudgeway Manor. Sir Jarritt Smyth of Ashton Court, who died aged 91 in 1783, was hence the father of Thomas SMYTH of Stapleton, whose great-grandson, The Reverend John Hugh WRAY, Honorary Canon of Bristol Cathedral from 1897, was Rural Dean for Stapleton between 1889 and 1905. Humphrey Repton, who designed the 850-acre Ashton Court Estate, also designed Oldbury Court by the Frome in its long-demolished sixteenth century mansion once home to the properous VASSALL family.

The history of Fishponds, or ‘New Pooles’, as one reference in 1610 names it, is inextricably linked into these developments. Two of its many quarry pits were filled with water, from which derived the area’s name. One of these ponds was drained in or around 1800 on the orders of Elizabeth SOMERSET, wife of Henry, the fifth Duke of Beaufort, after a small girl had slipped off the weir and drowned. The second was filled in by Joel LEAN so that BOMPAS senior, in purchasing the land in 1839, promptly turned it into an orchard. The church in Fishponds, built on a one-acre site purchased in 1806, had been dedicated as a chapel-of-ease on 31st August 1821, but did little to enhance the appearance of the mining village if Joseph LEACH, proprietor of the ‘Bristol Times’, is to be believed. ‘Fishponds’, he wrote, ‘is a most miserable-looking place, so cold and cheerless, indeed, that a man instinctively buttons his coat and quickens his pace as he passes through it’. It became the Parish Church of St. Mary’s and designated a separate parish on 14th December 1869, at that time Reverend William Henry Bromley WAY, later a vicar in north Gloucestershire and Huntingdonshire, was Rector of Stapleton. The Reverend Arthur Benjamin DAY was vicar of St. Mary’s from 1869 to 1889.

By 1898, a total of 11,096 Bristolians lived under the care of guardians at asylums, orphanages or workhouses and an understanding of the development of such places is essential in any study of the socio-economic conditions prevalent in east Bristol in the late Victorian era. On 1st October 1774 Joseph MASON was granted a licence to keep asylum in the parish, for which privilege he paid £15. Within five years he was dead and the asylum was continued by his two daughters. Between 1817 and 1837 the owner was Joel LEAN, who simultaneously kept the school at Beechwood. A Cornishman, born at Gwennap in 1774, he was to return to Penzance in 1837, though his death on 2nd February 1856 was at Briton Ferry, Glamorgan. Dr George Gwinnett BOMPAS bought the property in 1839, but his attempts to run the school and the asylum led to complaints and an enquiry. He resided there until 1855 but, from 1849, the new superintendent of the asylum was his cousin, Dr Joseph Mason COX, a great-grandson of Joseph MASON and undeniably the most distinguished of several generations of asylum keepers. By 1861, the establishment was abandoned, though Dr Joseph Carpenter BOMPAS, a son of the earlier surgeon, open an asylum at Fishponds in February of that year with provision for 200 patients, accommodation for a further 849 patients being added between 1868 and 1923. Equally, the Clifton Union Workhouse had, in 1847, and opened the Eastville Institution in 100 Fishponds Road, which was assimilated in 1898 into Bristol Union.

From the parish of 700 people in 160 inhabited dwellings in 1734, grew steadily in size through the early nineteenth century. The largest changes in development are indicated by the census returns showing 6,960 inhabitants in 938 dwellings in 1871, rising to 10,833 in 1,554 homes ten years later and 14,589 living in 2,391 inhabited homes in 1891. The census returns for 1901 reveals that, in 3,755 houses, the settlement was now home to some 21,236 residents.

These were indeed times of great change. Huge population growth coincided with the new concept of leisure time among the working classes. In 1866, a cricket club was formed at Stapleton, which could boast the following year four members of the celebrated GRACE family, including a nineteen-year old club captain in the future Gloucestershire and England batsman, Dr William Gilbert GRACE. The rise in popularity in the north of England of the relatively new sports of Association Football was sweeping inexorably across the entire country. In Bristol, as in numerous other industrial cities in Britain, many football clubs were formed during the 1880s, factories spilling out workers every Saturday lunchtime to watch or play for a local team. By 1883, with urban development stretching through Eastville and incorporating ancient villages, St. Thomas the Apostle in Eastville was consecrated in 1889, though H.C.M. Hirst’s design was not completed for a further fifteen years. It remained in constant use until 1975 and is now a Pentecostal hall. Urban growth may also be measured in terms of the abundance of late Victorian churches of many denominations in the area.

Purdown was, by 1793, ‘…… a fine verdant hill – the surrounding woods…..well deserve the traveller’s attention’ stated in Matthew’s Guide & Bristol Directory. Purdown was essentially a series of dark conker woods, reachable from Eastville down a narrow lane to the left of Bell Hill and just below Stapleton Court. Purdown had become a series of hillside fields on the edge of the city of Bristol. It was here that the Black Arabs, later known as Bristol Rovers Football Club, played their first home matches during 1883 on a field flanked by rugby pitches. Yet, here the Duke of Beaufort’s family, which recurs as a leitmotif interwoven through the club’s history, appears in the form of the ghost of a long-lost Duchess who was killed when struck by lightning and apparently haunts Purdown on horseback. Seriously under-used through the twentieth century, the hill today overlooks the M32 motorway which acts as the vital link with the city centre just one mile away and boasts a communication tower, Purdown Hospital, established in 1916 and closed in the 1990s, and the remains of a World War Two anti-aircraft gun site.

In addition, the introduction of large-scale, efficient public transport system revolutionised the daily lives of many people. Two Great Western Railway branch lines adjoined at Eastville, offered fast links to London and major cities, while Stapleton Road station was opened to passenger and freight traffic on 8th September 1863. Fishponds station was opened in 1866 on the Bristol & Gloucester (later Midland) Railway. The Bristol electric tramway, set up in 1875, promoted extensive urban development along its routes. Despite its evident reputation for tardiness, as cumbersome cars drawn by four horses struggled with the numerous hills, an estimated five to six million passengers per year travelled on Bristol trams in the 1890s. It reached Fishponds in 1897.

As size of the local population increased at unprecedented rate the civil parishes of Stapleton, Fishponds and Eastville were placed in 1897 inside the bounds of the City and County of Bristol.

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