The church of St James was founded in 1129 as a Benedictine priory by the Earl of Gloucester. After the dissolution of the monasteries (1536-41), it became a parish church. It fell into disuse in the 1980s and since 1996 is has been used as a Catholic church.
The following article was originally published in BAFHS Journal 129 in September 2007.
St James is one of Bristol’s original city parishes. It includes the Broadmead area of the city, and had its out-parish beyond the city’s original boundary extending over what are now the Bristol suburbs of Montpelier, St. Werburghs, St Andrews, and parts of Kingsdown and Ashley Down. The river Frome (now mostly covered) is on the parish’s southern boundary, and the northern boundary lies with the parishes of Westbury on Trym, Horfield and Stapleton. The eastern half of St James parish was carved into a new parish of St. Paul’s, created in 1794. The approximate boundary between the two parishes is in Merchant Street, Stokes Croft and Cheltenham Road.
St James church was originally built as a small priory for Benedictine monks, founded in the 12th century by Robert, Earl of Gloucester. Tradition has it that when the Bristol castle was being built, every tenth stone brought from Normandy was given for the construction of the priory. Late Norman features can still be seen in the front section. In 1374, the priory became a parish church. To house the parish bells, a simple early perpendicular tower was added on. The nave was also given a new timber roof, resting on carved stone corbels.
In the medieval times, Newfoundland Road existed as Earls Mede Strete, and Broadmead as Brode Mede, which was originally referred to the street of that name running between Nelson Street and Merchant Street. There were two other friaries in the parish: a Franciscan friary (now long gone and a modern office block called Greyfriars built on the site in Lewins Mead); and Dominican friary founded in 1229 (still existed as a different use in Quakers Friars). In 1497 the Bristol merchant, Sebastian Cabot sailed to Newfoundland (now part of Canada) and this was marked by the naming of Newfoundland Street. The week-long St. James Fair was held annually in the churchyard. A great deal of business and trading took place and the streets around were filled with stalls and booths. There were amusements as well, and the church elders gradually decided that such goings-on were not suitable. The 1837 fair was, therefore, the last one, attended by 30 merchants as well as circuses, actors and peep shows.
The most parts of the parish were originally part of the estate of the Priory of St James until the dissolution of the monasteries. These lands in the Kingsdown area were given to Henry BRAYNE, a London tailor, for a down payment of less than £700 and a yearly rent. Ownership then passed through the female line to the WINTER family. The Kingsdown ridge above its slopes formed an important part of the Civil War fortifications erected around Bristol by Nathaniel FIENNES, the Parliamentarian governor. The main fort in the area was Priors Hill Fort (now covered by Fremantle Square). During the sieges of Bristol in 1643 by Prince Rupert and the Royalists and in 1645 by Cromwell and Fairfax, the fort came under fierce attack. John Winter sold off his land after the Civil War.
Non-conformists flourished in mid 17th century. Broadmead Baptist Chapel, the first dissenting chapel in Bristol, was founded by five individuals with a concern for the right to worship according to conscience. Prominent among these was Dorothy HAZZARD. In spite of persecution by the civil and established church authorities, the chapel grew steadily stronger in numbers until the end of the 17th century. The former part of the Dominican friary became a Quaker meeting-house, hence the peculiar local name of Quakers Friars, land around of which William PENN (of Pennsylvania fame) purchased. Philadelphia, PENN, CALLOWHILL and HOLLISTER Streets were all interlinked by Quaker family connections. A Unitarian meeting-house was founded in 1694 in Lewins Mead. The oldest Methodist chapel in the world, started in 1739 by John Wesley, who called it the New Room, is in the Horsefair. Charles Wesley’s house, at 4 Charles Street was the simple family home of the famous hymn writer who composed over 7000 hymns here, including ‘Hark the Herald Angels’ and ‘Love divine all Loves excelling’.
Some of the very ancient street lines in the city survived from the early 15th century right up until the present day, although their names may have changed. Development continued gradually, timber buildings being erected and quite a number of these from the early 17th and 18th centuries survived until the 1940s and 50s. The houses that existed between shops, businesses, factories etc., were lowly cottages for the working man, although they were built in the same era. They were often spread over three storeys. It was very common for them to be overcrowded with two, three, four or even more families. This practise continued right up to the point when the houses were removed in the slum-clearance scheme of the 1930s.
The large population that existed in the city serviced the many industries, great and small, which were within walking distance of their homes. Perhaps the largest of these was Fry’s the chocolate manufactory in Union Street, which Joseph Storrs Fry, a Quaker moved to there in 1793, the workforce growing from 11 to 350 by 1860 and to 4600 by 1908 and before moving to larger premises in Keynsham in the mid 1920s. For the population’s religious needs, more chapels and a church abounded, some extremely large, coping up to 1000 of local congregation, e.g. the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist chapel in Broadmead – 400, the Methodist chapel in Milk Street – 620, the Tabernacle in Penn Street – 800, and Ebenezer Methodist chapel in Old King Street – 1000. St. Bartholomew’s Church was built in Union Street in 1860, but became redundant thirty-eight years later in 1898. It was taken down stone by stone and moved to a new district.
By the late 18th century, a new area emerged as a distinct and elegant part of the city where fine merchant townhouses were laid out in St James, Brunswick and Portland Squares and their adjacent streets. St Paul’s church was built in Portland Square in 1794 and became known as the Wedding Cake Church because of its unusual tiered tower. A Congregational chapel was erected, next door to a Unitarian graveyard in Brunswick Square.
Also in Kingsdown, in the out-parish of St James, landowners gradually disposed of the area as plots for building. Townhouses were laid out in Freemantle and King Squares. The latter square, according to Matthews’ Bristol Directory, ‘on a gentle slope at the bottom of Kingsdown Hill. … The houses are uniformly built of brink ornamented with stone’. In the centre was ‘an area surrounded by rails and lime trees; the walks neatly gravelled’. The prevailing brick and freestone construction is echoed elsewhere in the streets leading steeply upwards from the square. The history of one of the townhouses in Kingsdown Parade was featured in a television programme a few years ago. St Matthew’s church was built on the top of the hill in 1835. The parish boundary marker for Westbury and St. James is still in the churchyard where it was sited before the creation of Kingsdown parish.
Charitable institutions increased in the 18th century. Stokes Croft Endowed School and Almshouse were founded by Unitarians in 1722. Bristol Royal Infirmary was founded in 1735 in Maudlin Street by an unidentified group of citizens, who decided to work towards a local hospital for the poor. A ‘Benevolent School’ for 400 children in St Paul’s and George MULLER, a preacher from Prussia opened the first Bristol Orphanage in Wilson Street in 1836. Bristol Institute for the Deaf and Dumb was founded in 1884 in King Square.
Montpelier, in the out-parish of St Paul’s, is a hilly area to the north of St Paul’s. As time went by small groups of houses, some terraced and others in their own plot of land, were built alongside. Notably, Picton Street was built and named in honour of Sir Thomas Picton who, as Captain Picton, in 1783 endeared himself to Bristolians by bravely facing the rebellious 75th Battalion in the city and averting a military mutiny. There is also a fine double-bayed villa in the street named after him, Picton Lodge. St Andrew’s church was built in 1845. Cheltenham Road viaduct, known as The Arches, was constructed in 1874 to carry the railway line between Montpelier and Redland stations. For many years, in common with other Bristol railway bridges, it bore a paint advertisement for the local Georges Brewery on the parapet. Colston’s Girls School was built in Cheltenham Road, in 1891.
Ashley Down covers an area in the northern extreme of the out-parish of St Paul’s. By the 19th century, a few large houses were built there including Ashley Court. Ashley Down has no parish church of its own. It was in 1847 that George Muller’s first purpose-built orphan house for 300 children opened in Ashley Down on land originally owned by the Manor of Ashley. His project went from strength to strength eventually with five houses caring for 2000 children. His is a most inspiring story of faith and prayer, and the Muller Foundation as it now still holds the children’s original records. The original Muller Houses are still in situ and are listed buildings. During the Second World War, the children were evacuated and the houses were used as an American Army Base, but after became part of a college, which they still are. The outside shots of the BBC television programme ‘Casualty’ are done there. Next door to these houses is the Gloucestershire County Cricket Ground where the celebrated W.G. GRACE played many times, and the neighbouring roads around are named for famous cricket teams, Kent Road, Derby Road, Lancashire Road etc.
St Werburghs, in the out-parish of St Paul’s, is an area to the north-east of St Paul’s and was named from its church relocated to Mina Road from Corn Street in the city in 1878. The area was formerly called Ashley Vale (in the north) and Baptists Mills (in the south). In the 19th century, Baptist Mills was also known as Botany Bay and regarded as a fairly lawless area. In the 1870s, Brooks Dye Works opened and became a major employer of working-class people. Terraced houses, packed closely together, were built around it. The area was historically prone to serious flooding, notably in 1882 and 1889. There are still four Victorian flood marker posts. It was also the source of important water supplies for the city through the Quay Pipe and The Boiling Wells. Mina Road is St Werburghs’ ‘high street’, where shops each have an imaginative figurehead protruding from their frontages indicating the type of trade on offer. The park opposite the shops contains an exquisite and original example of a cast iron Victorian public lavatory.
St. Andrews, in the out-parish of St Paul’s, is an area to the north of Montpelier. In the middle of the 19th century, a road was built from Montpelier towards Ashley Down and called St. Andrews Road after the church of that name on the corner of the road in Montpelier. The other end of the road flourished and large Victorian houses were built, so much so that the area was named St. Andrews. Soon a new church was needed for the increasing population of professional people living there. In 1898, St. Bartholomew’s Church, next to the chocolate factory in Union Street in the city, became redundant so it was taken down stone by stone and moved and St. Andrews Park was laid out next to it. We now have the anomaly of St. Bartholomew’s being the parish church for the district of St. Andrews!
By the late 19th century the social aspirations for St Paul’s area had largely vanished, and it was densely populated and contained a glorious mixture of shops, factories, schools, public houses, chapels and residential properties. The large houses of Portland Square were for numerous boot manufacturers, while the large houses on the south side (nos. 11 & 12) were the base for the stay manufacturers, Young & Neilson. Boot, corset and similar manufactures continued in nearby streets, together with a smattering of doctors and surgeons, most famously at the corner of Wilson Street and Lemon Lane, where Elizabeth BLACKWELL, the first woman doctor, lived for many years. Further out those inhabitants, as mentioned in the directories, were generally tradespeople, travelling salesman, dressmakers, beer retailers – though there is an occasional surprise, such as a teacher of shorthand and an agent for the Bristol & Clifton Anti-Vivisection Society in Martin Street (though that last is somewhat cruelly placed next to a furrier). St Nicholas Road trailed its way between a patchwork of market gardens and small fields and network of small paths used to transport vegetables to sell in the city. Grosvenor and Newfoundland Roads were full of small businesses – the whole area bustled with people and life. Hepburn Road and City Road were elegant residential streets where ladies and suited little boys would stroll along. There was no traffic, just the tram passing quietly down City Road. The three new churches in St. Paul’s district were built – St. Barnabas (1843) in the corner of Ashley and City Roads, St. Clements (1855) in the corner of Houlton Street and Newfoundland Road, and St. Agnes further up in Newfoundland Road. The biggest of the three Bristol cinemas opened in Ashley Road in 1910 and was called The “Metropole”, and there was also “The Magnet” in Newfoundland Road.
During the Second World War, Bristol suffered badly from the bombing raids. Most buildings in the Broadmead area were blitzed, and some places were very badly affected. Two churches were also casualties and later demolished – St. Andrew’s, Montpelier and St Clements, Newfoundland Road. After the war, redevelopment of the Broadmead area entailed the demolition of some of older buildings including most chapels, and a new shopping centre was built over the area. Rosemary Street was incorporated into Broadmead, and Old King Street into Merchant Street. A new replacement for Broadmead Baptist Chapel was built on the top of modern shops in Union Street. The only five surviving old buildings in the area are John Wesley’s Chapel (The New Room), Quakers Friars, an almshouse in Merchant Street, Greyhound Inn, and one of the two arcades.
The Council of the time invested its money in new housing estates in other parts of Bristol and the inner city was left to decay. An air of seediness began to pervade St Paul’s. The 1950s saw the start of large-scale immigration from the Asian continent and the West Indies to meet the nation’s demand for employment. Many residents moved from Jamaica and settled in St Paul’s and were joined by their families later. 1963 was the turning point for race relations in Bristol, with a major struggle against racial discrimination on the buses. The Bristol Omnibus Company had established a ‘colour bar’ against the recruitment of black bus crews. Although an Immigration Act had been passed the previous year, no law yet existed against racial segregation or discrimination. When the bus company tried to defend their actions, black residents and activists declared a bus boycott, and university students marched in protest. After four months of struggle, the colour bar ended and by mid-September Raghbir Singh became Bristol’s first ‘coloured’ bus conductor. In 1967, after constant complaints about the condition of homes and dereliction in St Paul’s, there are now high proportions of social housing. A new dual carriageway linked to the M32 motorway demolished all rows of terraced houses in streets between Newfoundland Road and the River Frome.
As in so many other cities, the large houses in Brunswick and Portland Squares and their adjacent streets were gradually converted to offices, and the population in the city centre had reduced considerably. Also, a decrease in religiosity in other areas meant that the four churches were redundant – St James (now a custodian of Little Brothers of Nazareth), St Paul’s (now a circus training centre), St Barnabas (now demolished and a community centre built on the site) and St Werburghs (now a climbing centre). Next door to St. James Church, the Welsh Congregational Church built in 1859, was mostly demolished and one of the omnipresent office blocks and restaurants now crowd its remains. Today, there are only three working Anglican churches in the whole parish – St Agnes in Newfoundland Road next to M32 roundabout, St Bartholomew’s in St Andrews, and St Matthew’s in Kingsdown.
Many Anglican and non-conformists registers are kept at the Bristol Record Office. They also have a list of Bristol City Inhabitants of 1696 (like a census), which was compiled to show liability under the 1694 Act by which Parliament taxed births, marriages, burials, bachelors and childless widowers to provide war revenue. The earliest extant record for St James parish register is 1559.
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