By Jane Baker

Published in B&AFHS Journal 114 - December 2003

Fishponds, now a suburb of Bristol, is situated on the border of the old Kingswood Forest and was until 1869 formerly part of the ancient parish of Stapleton in south Gloucestershire (see BAFHS journal no.101 September 2000 for “My Parish – Stapleton” article). The river Frome is probably the boundary between Stapleton and Fishponds, but Eastville area in the south-west corner of the parish became a part of the ecclesiastical parish of Easton, created in the mid 19th century, and later in that century, the area became its own civil parish of Eastville.

By the late 17th century the "Newe Pooles" or Fishponds was a thriving village with many stone built cottages. It was very much a workaday district of miners and quarrymen who dug for the coal or quarried the pennant stone. The village grew up around the two pools on either side of the road to Chipping Sodbury. The ponds were formed from old quarries that had filled with water from a stream that ran down from Soundwell. The pools are marked on the Enclosure map of 1779 but were gone by the time of the Tithe Award in 1839. One was filled in about 1800 on the orders of the Duchess of Beau­fort, when a local child drowned. The other was filled in about the same time to make a withy bed.

In 1738, a Dr MASON founded a lunatic asylum at Fishponds, which was locally called "Masons Madhouse". In 1760, he had a large house built to house his asylum. This was Fishponds House. It was a large mansion of classical appearance with grounds. It stood at the corner of Manor Road and Fishponds Road and passed to members of the COX and BOMPASS families, descendants of Dr MASON who carried on his work with the mentally afflicted. The other large house in Fishponds stood at the top of what is now Beechwood Road. This was Upper Fishponds House and is marked on a map of 1769 when it was the home of James BRIDGES of Keynsham. It was a private home till 1816 then it became a Quaker school run by Joel LEAN till 1837. It was subsequently used as an annexe to Fishponds House lunatic asylum then a school again until in 1861 it was sold to Mr Alfred ROBINSON one of the founders of the packaging firm E.S & A ROBINSON. He changed the name of the property to Beechwood and it remained in the ROBINSON family till 1934 when his widow died aged 100.

In 1780, a prison was built along the road to Stapleton to house foreign prisoners of war. It was further used in the Napoleonic Wars to house French prisoners in pretty dreadful conditions. In Braine’s day (1891) there were still old folk at Fishponds and Stapleton who could show toys and ornaments made by the French prisoners and sold by them to local folk. Also, human nature being what it is, some young women of the parish had babies, the fathers of whom were the French prisoners. The French prison became the Stapleton workhouse where the needy found relief from starvation but at great cost to human dignity. In the twentieth century the site became Manor Park Hospital for the care of the elderly. Next to Manor Park when it was the workhouse, the Bristol Lunatic Asylum was opened in 1861 for the citizens of Bristol so afflicted and needing care. This later became Glenside Hospital for the mentally handicapped. Both hospitals are now united and renamed to Blackberry Hill Hospital.

The Parish Church of St Mary’s was opened in 1821 as a chapel of ease to Stapleton. For many years the church stood new and gaunt and struck the visitor as in a most miserable and desolate setting. But over the years many fine trees have grown up in the churchyard, many planted by a former vicar from travels to far corners of the world. So this little corner of Fishponds is now clothed in greenery and bears a most, intimate and old­-world village setting. The church and churchyard are behind the park once Fishponds common and the old schoolhouse (endowed by a local woman is the birthplace of talented writer Hannah MORE, whose father was the schoolmaster), nestles between churchyard and park.

In the 1840s a school run on Dr Bell’s system of pupil monitors, was built. This became the boys school and a school at St Matthias was built for girls these are now the infant and primary schools. In 1853 the Diocesan Training College for Schoolmistresses was set up and operated for many years.

Fishponds was made a separate parish in 1869, by which time it was well on the way to being a suburb of Bristol with a regular omnibus service going through the village from Bristol to Downend. Fishponds also had its own railway station. The line was originally the dramway from a coalmine at Coalpit Heath, and was an economical route because the line to Bristol was a downward gradient all the way. In 1897 the electric trams reached Fishponds and later that same year the area was taken into Bristol when the city of Bristol boundaries were extended. As well as the parish church there were, and are other places of worship in Fishponds. There was a Bethel Chapel, a Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Trinity Methodist Chapel, and Fishponds Baptist Church, which is still flourishing.

The hub of Fishponds is now the shopping area along by the Post Office and opposite the Park dating from the time when the Beechwood estate was sold for development. Fifty years earlier the shops were sited further down approximately running from just past the Portcullis pub to the bottom of Lodge Causeway. In 1891 John BALL kept an ironmongers shop, Hester GOOD a grocers shop, William HAMBLIN a grocers shop, Emma BAKER a drapers shop, James HOLLOWAY a shoemakers shop, William HITCHCOCK a bakers shop, Eliza KINGSTON a grocers shop, Charles HIBBS a greengrocers shop, Daniel WILLIAMS a grocers shop, George STONE a greengrocers shop, and Frank PALMER a grocers shop.

The first cinema at Fishponds showing the silent films was a relatively small and modest building, which is now the Library. This cinema superseded by a much bigger more impressive one, the Van Dyck, only emerged as a bingo hall. Eventually the building was completely refurbished and reopened as Wetherspoon’s pub in 1998.

When E.S & A Robinson opened their new factory among the green fields in 1902, the girls who worked there who lived in places like Bedminster or St Philips had to catch the train to work every day and home again at evening. They were allowed to leave the factory at 5pm on the dot and had to race down Filwood Road to catch the 5.05 train to Bristol. The girls used to sing a song... “We are the Robinsons girls, we are the Robinsons girls, we pay our tanners, and we know our manners, we are respected where ever we go…..”. At that time to get taken on at Robinsons a girl had to show a certificate of good attendance and good conduct from her Sunday school plus a sample of her sewing.

With adequate rail and road transport to Fishponds the erstwhile village grew apace and the late 19th century saw much house building in the area bringing wealth to contractors like John YALLAND or John MONKS and quarrymen like Maberly PARKER who provided the pennant stones for the houses and walls. Over the years housing has continued to grow steadily as the old estates of the big houses, Fishponds House and Beechwood and Oldbury Court became available and much 1930's style semi­-detached housing is spread throughout the area so that from a village it has become a suburb indistinguishable from many other similar places throughout the country but a very pleasant and desirable area of Bristol to live in offering a good quality of life to residents there.

All Saints Church in Grove Road was established in 1905 to serve the growing district off Fishponds Road. It has a keen and enthusiastic congregation. The growing population in Lodge Causeway area made the provision of another church necessary and St John’s was opened in 1910 at a ceremony presided over by Misses ROBINSON from Beechwood. The fundraisers for the new church met with an enigma in the form of a generous donation from a northern philanthropist who as far as anyone could tell had no known links with the district. A church of St Bede’s built in 1929, was provided for the district of Hillfields when that area was developed, but the decrease in religiosity of the 20th century meant that it closed in 1962.

Following parish registers for Fishponds are kept at Bristol Record Office: St. Mary’s baptisms and burials from c.1833 and marriages from 1870; All Saints baptisms from 1905 and marriages from 1910; St. John’s baptisms (1907-43), marriages (1912-70) and burials (1925-54); and St. Bede’s marriages only (1948-62).

For eons of time Hillfields did not exist. This area in the south-east of the parish bordering with Mangotsfield parish, was part of Kingswood Forest, common land or 'waste' where few people lived, one Charity EDWARDS c.1720 lived in a cottage in the waste [inventory at BRO]. In 1780 the land was apportioned up and sold off under an Enclosure Act and the Duke of Beaufort, one of the prime movers of the Act bought much of it incognito through an agent. Still not many folk lived on Hillfields, which became an area of arable and pasture fields known as the 'Ten Acres'. The Stapleton Tithe Map of 1839 shows owners of land in the area as; Henry Duke of Beaufort, Robert CROOM, William ELLIOTT, William FRANCOM, Sir Thomas Francis FREEMANTLE Bt, Thos JONES esq, William KENDALL snr, William Kendall jnr, John LINES, Charles Penny MARTIN, Joseph SCUSE, Thomas Harmer SHEPPARD, Sir John SMYTH Bt, Walter SWAYNE and Bristol & Gloucester Railway Co; the occupiers of land were Abraham BISP, William BRAIN, Mary BROWN, Samuel CHURCHILL, Robert Croom, William ELLIOTT, William Francom, William Kendall snr, William Kendall jnr, Thomas MAGGS, Charles Penny MARTIN, Samuel MONKS, Thomas Parker, Joseph Scuse, and William SMITH. The fields of Hillfields lay peaceful under the sun farmed from Fishponds and Staple Hill. Horse mushrooms grew for picking, primroses and violets blossomed in the meadows and cuckoo flowers in the wet heavy clay pastures, all the while the Corncrake stalked the hayfields. A truly vanished world. Apart from a cluster of cottages at Thicket Lane (now Thicket Avenue) the local folk lived at the Rabbit Burrows, which was an area of mazy lanes and pretty but insanitary low cottages where Ledbury Road is now. Mrs CORNOCK who grew up there recalled a real village community. If you were not seen regularly at St Mary’s church, Mrs VASSALL of Oldbury Court would not employ you. One woman spent all day watching who went in the pub "the red brick house on the corner" and reported them to Mrs VASSALL, everyone was afraid of her.

After the First World War, Bristol City Council bought the land at Hillfields principally from two large landowners, the Duke of Beaufort and Capt COTTRELL-DORMER of Rousham House, Oxfordshire, the heir of the Smyths. The houses, red brick council houses with large gardens and hedged round with green privet, a sort of poor-mans 'Hampstead Garden Suburb' were 'Homes for Heroes' of which all too few were built. The Garden Cities Movement influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement were influential in their design. As many labourers as possible were employed on the construction of the houses to soak up unemployment. Ashes were brought by horse and cart from Deep Pit Colliery to make the mortar, door and window frames were constructed on site. E.S & A Robinson built the houses in Maple Avenue for their employees. The Maple trees in Maple Avenue were sent over from Canada to be planted there. The first tenants felt like pioneers moving into isolated houses in unmade roads among the fields, ponds and old coal shafts. Mrs Lily COLE could watch the cows grazing from her house in The Greenway as she washed up at her kitchen sink. Often the family would picnic by the pond in the field or pick mushrooms.

The local churches in Lodge Causeway - Baptist, St Johns C of E, or Morley chapel provided social activities like choir, harvest suppers or Sunday school outings. The vicar of St Bede’s in the 1930's was a formidable but compelling man who often lambasted the Council in the local papers for creating a 'dormitory' with no social facilities for the residents. He did a lot for poor people, he ran a soup kitchen, recycled old clothes, bred fancy rabbits and provided a 'paradiso' in the Vicarage garden where the children could play all summer on swings, slides, sandpit and donkey rides. However many would not attend his church as he was a follower of the 'Movement’ an admirer of Mussolini and regarded with suspicion by many, so I was told by many who recalled that era. A Rev. Barry MORGAN was a well-remembered and charismatic Minister at the Baptist church at the heart of Hillfields. The Baptists of Bristol were very influential in the development of Bristol council estates and campaigned for them to be 'dry' i.e. no pubs.

As time went by the area filled up. Sam MILSOM built many of the shops in Lodge Causeway and when the local folk saw the school completed they knew they had a permanent community. From the very start Hillfields had a very mixed social range of tenant, a doctor would live next door to a Docks Labourer and a Civil Servant next door to a family on the Dole. After the Second World War, a group of Hillfields residents got together to create a Community Association. Mr Leslie MORSE was the prime mover assisted by Hugh EDWARDS. A.C. CAVILL, Jack GOAD, Arthur BENNETT, Victor HUMPHRIES, Percival STALLARD, Mr HEATH, J.C SEYMOUR, Edgar PHILLIPS, Joe PRATTEN and many others. Mrs Olive TURNER was a very positive figure on Hillfields for many years running a Ladies Club with bold ideas, they took day trips to France from Bristol Airport, and she was also the first Lollipop lady on Hillfields keeping up this duty in all weathers for years.

The 1991 OPCS survey showed that by then 70% of the houses in Hillfields were in private ownership, a result of 'right to buy', 25% in long term tenancies and only 5% at any time available to let. Now in the 21st century Hillfields is as wide a social mix as ever, not so much one community as many circles of folk based on shared interest and background, folk mix with whom they recognise as like-minded and feel comfortable with. The area is subject to a 'Regeneration Scheme'. Being purely residential activities such as shopping, social life, entertainment etc require travel out of the area. In such a wide and varied population of all ages there is a broad range of interests and religious and political affiliations.

Postscript:

Since writing this article there have been a couple of significant changes to the area. The main Post Office on the corner of Beechwood Road closed down and the business transferred to the Co-op store at the top of the Straits, which is a much less convenient location in all truth. Another retrograde step is that the doctors’ surgery in Lodge Causeway, now known as Lodge Causeway Medical Centre is moving down to St Mathias infant school site. This doctors’ practice was set up by Dr PRATT in the 1920s to serve the new estate of Hillfields and the area around Lodge Causeway. It’s relocation to the heart of Fishponds on a busy corner served by no buses and with very limited parking is a very unpopular move among many patients and it leaves a huge residential area once more bereft of medical services as in this age not everybody has a car.

Comment added 29/03/2013 from B Curtis (formerly a nurse at Glenside Hospital):-

Glenside hospital (previously Stapleton Lunatic Asylum, then Bristol Mental Hospital) was never used for patients who were 'mentally handicapped' - now termed learning disability (formerly 'mentally subnormal'), but was a psychiatric hospital.  It's a common mistake amongst those who don't know, but the two - Mental Illness and Mental Handicap - are entirly different, with different causes, diagnoses and treatments.  (There were a few patients there who were learning disabled, but they were there because they also had a psychiatric illness.)

I thought it might be helpful if you can correct this mistake, as it could be the cause of mis-information to people exploring their family history, particularly if they were wanting to understand how their relatives came to be in that hospital.

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