The former south Gloucestershire parish of Westbury-on-Trym once extended over a very large area: to the south-west took in Stoke Bishop and Sneyd Park edging onto Clifton Down (the old parish marker stone is still there) then almost into the city of Bristol itself; and further south to east took in a part of Kingsdown, Cotham, Redland, Westbury Park, Henleaze, and Southmead. The parish marker for Westbury and St. James (Bristol) is still in Kingsdown churchyard. The parish also comprised – a detached part of its further west – the former chapelry of Shirehampton, which included Avonmouth. In the 1920s Henleaze – where I have lived for about 50 years – was the last one to be carved out of the parish of Westbury. Thirteen parishes now cover what was originally Westbury, so Henleaze itself is comparatively modern; the only old bits were there when it was part of the original village.
Westbury – west of what? Burg means fort or dwelling within a rampart but there is no evidence of this, so the name is shrouded in mystery and its history goes back even further than Bristol. In Roman times at the point where the river Trym runs out into the Avon (now Sea Mills) it was the port of Abona where Roman soldiers sailed for the Welsh settlements of Caerwent and Caerleon. The date of the earliest surviving charter made with the village is 793AD and refers to an earlier charter when land was bestowed on Eanulf, the grandfather of King Offa by King Ethelbald. It would seem that the earliest church there was in 717AD. Westbury was certainly a thriving place in 800AD when King Offa (who was responsible for the dyke separating England from Wales) made a charter with the village to supply his men with “two tuns full of pure ale, a coombe full of mild ale, a coombe full of Welsh ale, seven oxen, six wethers (ewes) and forty cheeses… “.
In c.962 Oswald became Bishop of Worcester and he wanted to found a monastery in his diocese. He sent Germanus, together with eleven others to start a Benedictine monastery in Westbury-on-Trym, the furthest corner of his diocese, the first Benedictine monastery in England. By 1194 it had become one of the three principal centres of spiritual life in the country, and in 1384 John WYCLIFFE one of the earliest translators of the Bible spent some time there. In 1455 Bishop CARPENTER who styled himself Bishop of Worcester and Westbury extended the collegiate foundation and Westbury College was built. It was described later as “a high wall, in which he inserted turrets here and there, so that he rendered it more like a citadel than a college”. It backed onto the Trym and had access straight onto the river.
In 1544 the church and college were surrendered to Henry VIII who sold the college to Sir Ralph SADLIER, who used it as his private residence. It stayed in that family until the Civil War when Prince Rupert turned the family out and made it his headquarters – possibly because of its fortifications. He stayed there for two years, but on leaving set fire to the building. Some of it was eventually repaired and used again as a private house but during the 19th century it started to decay and in 1894 was purchased by public subscription and in 1907 was given to the National Trust. During the time that Henry VIII was reviewing the religious aspect of the country he created the new Diocese of Bristol, and it was hoped that he would make Westbury Church the new cathedral, however, he settled on the Abbey of St Augustine for Bristol. The college remained a private residence and the church became an ordinary parish church dedicated to Holy Trinity. The parish registers dating from 1559 and records are held at Bristol Record Office.
Not all the parishioners behaved themselves! There is a very interesting entry in the parish records:
June 26th 1562… that she shall repair to the Parish Church of Westbury upon Sunday next come se ‘ennight and there shall kneel before the Communion Table barefoot and barelegged having a sheet upon her clothes all the time of the reading of the suffrages until the time of the reading of the homily, at what time she shall repair and stand before the pulpit or where the homily shall be read whilst the curate shall read the homily of adultery, which done, the curate shall declare the cause of her penance doing, and so shall she repair to her place again until the service be done, and to certify in court in fifteen days time.
July 10th… Penance not performed and she was excommunicated.
(I always feel rather sorry for these young women – this girl must have been terrified at her excommunication – and the men seemed to get away with it!)
At an earlier date than this, the villagers were accused of slave trading. The Trym was a fast flowing river running out to the Avon it had many tributaries and was used much for transport and trade and according to Worcester Diocesan records the Bishop had to reprimand Westbury inhabitants for importing Irish girls, apparently it was a very lucrative trade and the Bishop had quite a job to stop it. There were also rumours of smuggling connected with the village, and secret passages running a long way underground.
The village itself was a thriving community. Situated on the Trym were a few mills and the farmland was good and lush. Later on towards the middle of the 18th century, some of the businessmen of the City of Bristol began to build their houses here and it became one of the commuter areas of the time. There is still a milestone, which reads “Briftol 3 miles”. Still today some of these large houses are used for businesses or converted into spacious flats.
In the churchyard there is the grave of a coachman reputed to be the last man in England killed by a highwayman as he was driving his master home across the Downs. The tombstone reads: “To the memory of Richard RUDDLE who was coachman to Sir Robert CANN, Bart. 21 years and was robbed and murdered by BURNETT and PAYNE October 27th 1743, aged 52 years.” Andrew Burnett and Henry Payne appeared among the lists of prisoners in Gloucester Castle in January 1743/4. The entry against their names reads “Comd by Sir Robert Cann Bart. and Jacob ELTON Esq. on suspicion of robbing and murdering Richard Ruddle, which they on examination severally confessed.” Was he the coachman for whom the white tree was painted? For the uninitiated, there is a tree with the trunk painted white next to what is now the White Tree roundabout in Westbury Road on the Downs. There was originally an elm tree painted white and the story goes back to possibly the late 18th century, when coachmen waiting for their masters in the City of Bristol, spent the evening in the local hostelry and needed guidance on their way home to Westbury! The white tree is still painted regularly.
This influx of “the gentry” brought more prosperity to the village and gradually smaller houses and cottages began to be built to house the tradesmen, wheelwrights, carpenters, butchers, bakers etc. These houses are still there well kept up with very pretty cottage gardens. The old tollhouse is there at the start of the old road to Aust, the three small stone bridges over the Trym and Chock Lane – a derivation of Chalk where the limekilns were. There are two old pubs in the centre of the village (among other more modern ones) – the White Lion and the White Horse which were both coaching inns and they both display their original respective Lion and Horse signs over their doorways. As Westbury was still in Gloucestershire it was quite independent of Bristol, it had its own courthouse, police station, and the lock-up is still on Westbury Hill. It also had its own workhouse and “Female Penitentiary”. A large and still much used village hall was built in the mid 19th century. In Victorian times it had Primitive Methodist and Wesleyan Methodist Churches, but these joined up about 1900 and it now has a large thriving Methodist church.
Gradually over the years Bristol’s tentacles crept out, beautiful very large houses were built in Sneyd Park and Druid Stoke overlooking the Avon Gorge, the parishes of Stoke Bishop, Kingsdown, Redland and Cotham came into being among others, then Westbury Park stretching out towards what was Westbury Road and Henleaze Lane (now Henleaze Road), streets of large late Victorian houses were built on the farmland between Bristol and Westbury, but many little houses and cottages can be found tucked away in attractive corners. Acres of 1920s and 1930s houses fill in the gaps. Further along Henleaze Lane into what is now Southmead, a workhouse was built. During the First World War this was converted into a military hospital, and by the 1930s, was a large thriving community hospital – today Southmead Hospital is one of the most respected in the area.
These parishes were formed over the succeeding years, and served by the following parish churches:
|Redland/Clifton||St. John the Evangelist, Whiteladies Rd *||1841|
|Shirehampton||St. Mary (chapelry until 1844)|
|Stoke Bishop||St. Mary Magdalene||1860|
|Redland||St. Mary, Tyndalls Park *||1874|
|Redland||St. Saviour, Woolcot Park *||1875|
|Cotham||St. Nathaniel *||1876|
|Redland||St. Katherine *||1898|
|Westbury Park||St. Alban||1913|
The churches marked * are now closed. The dates at the side refer to the date of the present building; many churches were being built or refurbished in Victorian times to accommodate the quickly growing population. The present Redland Parish Church was the chapel of Redland Court, once the home of the COSSINS family. The other churches in the Redland area have now found other community uses. Cotham has its own parish church, which was once Highbury Chapel.
Shirehampton, in the 18th century, became famous for its beauty spots, and attracted visitors from far and wide, who came to enjoy the wonderful views to be seen from here, especially those from Penpole Point, where the views of the River Severn and the Welsh Hills are still a joy to behold. On this account the area was mentioned by Jane Austen in her ‘Northanger Abbey’. At this time the hamlet grew into a village, when numerous rich merchants and ship owners moved here to live, and made it a fashionable aristocratic place. In 1844, Shirehampton became a separate parish, which also included Avonmouth. With the coming of the railway in 1865 and opening of Avonmouth Docks in 1877 with King Edward Dock in 1908, bringing all the accompanying trade and industry. People moved into the parish attracted by the new found employment, and from thence there was a gradual and drastic change in the parish scene. An even greater change came about following the First World War when Shirehampton was chosen a site to house hundreds of new council houses in Bristol’s slum clearance schemes.
Westbury didn’t come under Bristol’s banner until 1904 although locals still refer to “the Village”. A war memorial and traffic roundabout is now on what was once the village green, public toilets are on the site of the old animal pound and village stocks, Carlton Court shopping precinct where once the Carlton Cinema used to be. The Trym has reduced in size considerably owing to various necessary sewage schemes, which have affected the little tributaries that ran into it. The stone bridges are still there although the mills have gone, Dial House, which was the tollhouse, Bishop Carpenter’s house reputed to be the oldest house in Bristol possibly 15th century, and residents in Chock Lane still dig up remnants of clay pipes which were once made there. Half close your eyes when you look at some of the older buildings and you can see the shapes of the old farmhouses they once were. Westbury is now a bustling attractive suburb of Bristol; it has retained its very early reputation for education and learning with at least four excellent schools, a public library and a large public park. Take a walk around the area – particularly behind the church – and its rich history becomes evident.
“Shirehampton Story” by Ethel Thomas. ISBN 0 9507477 1 8.