By Eric V Garrett
Published in B&AFHS Journal 134 December 2008
The village of Aust is located on the east bank of the river Severn in South Gloucestershire. It resides in the shadow of the first motorway bridge to cross the river Severn then opened in 1966.
The Domesday Book of 1086 informs us that Aust was rated at 5 hides (a hide varied between 48 to 100 acres), and remained so for a further 300 years. In 1901 the population was 150; land area 1221 acres - tidal water area 838 acres - foreshore area 683 acres.
The Manor of Aust was in possession of Turtin, son of Rolph in the early 11th century. It passed through many hands, when in 1550, it was granted to Sir Ralph SADLIER to be followed by Edward CAPELL of Henbury in the late 16th century, later a John BROWNING possessed it, who sold to Samuel ASTRY also of Henbury in 1662. The site of the Manor House at Aust is probably that of Hill House today.
Samuel ASTRY married a sole heiress Elizabeth MORSE of Henbury in 1667. He eventually became the owner of extensive lands, which included the ferry at Aust. He became Clerk to the Crown, in the Court of Kings Bench in 1677, a position he held for 27 years. He was knighted in 1683. They had two sons and four daughters. The sons remained bachelors, to be described as extravagant, intemperate, idle and vicious. Sir Samuel ASTRY died in 1704 aged 73, and was buried in a vault at Aust Church. His widow Elizabeth inherited his very large estate, and remarried a Simon Harcourt of PENDLEY, Hertfordshire in 1707. On her death, she left the estate in equal shares to her remaining three daughters. The two sons were disinherited due to their bad behaviour. She endowed a benefaction of £20 out of land rents at Aust, and for a clergyman to read Divine Service in Aust Church every Sunday. The daughters were Elizabeth (married Sir John SMYTH of Ashton Court), Diana (married Richard ORLEBAR of Bedfordshire), Arrabella (married Charles W. HOWARD of Henbury, the Lord Waldren & 7th Earl of Suffolk), and Anne (married Thomas CHESTER of Almondsbury). In 1715, the ASTRY daughters leased Tanhouse Farm to Charles HUMPHRYS of Tiddenham, wherein a widow Mary ROLSTON lived; it comprised one acre.
The Manor of Aust was sold in 1730 to Sir John SMYTH of Ashton Court, husband of Elizabeth ASTRY. It was then sold in 1770 to the Reverend Stauton DEGGE of Over Court, Almondsbury. His estate he left to his wife Felicia, to hold for three years, it then passed to Rev. Stauton Degge’s sister Dorothy WILMOT, wife of the Reverend Richard WILMOT of Derby in the 1780s. It passed to her son Edward Sacheverell SITWELL (who had adopted the name Sitwell); he was the grandson of Edward DEGGE SITWELL, both of Derby. In 1779, Dorothy WILMOT sold the tithes and tenths of corn, grain and hay together with other rectorial tithes in Aust, Northwick, Redwick, Compton Greenfield, to Sir Henry LIPPINGCOTT of Stoke House, Westbury-on-Trym, for £2400.
The Sitwells began dividing The Manor in the early 19th century and, in 1807 Tanhouse Farm now comprising some 140 acres was sold in May to Nicholas CORNOCK of Berkeley. The second generation of Cornocks sold the farm by auction in four lots in November 1917. Tanhouse Farm, with tenant farmer Alfred BENNETT since 1910, was purchased for £5765 by Capt. Henry Roope Pomeroy SALMON of Tockington Manor. Cote Farm, comprising 270 acres, together with, Aust Farm (now Manor Farm) were sold to William MILLER of Ozleworth who, in turn in 1813 sold both Cote and Aust Farms together with Aust Manor and its Lordship to Sir Henry Cann LIPPINGCOTT of Stoke House, Westbury-on-Trym, for £32,500, who paid £16,250 and raised a mortgage of £16,250.
It is suggested that a church have existed at Aust since the year 1100, but the current church possibly dates from the 13th century. John WYCLIFFE (1324-84) was appointed Rector of the church during 1362-75 together with a prebendary at Westbury-on-Trym College, Collegiate Church. It is assumed that he did much of his translation of the bible, whilst at Aust. The church tower contains two bells and a clock from an early period. The earliest clock had stone weights. These weights had iron rings attached, and when disposed of they were built into the inside wall of a barn at Tanhouse Farm. Speculation must exist how the church achieved a name. In 1906 it still appeared to be nameless. With the current name of St. John it may have a connection to the Astry’s, for one of the sons was named St. John (but he was a vagabond); also they funded a £1 charity to be distributed in bread on St. John’s day. Villa Farm was the original curates house until the 19th century, when the Old Parsonage in Passage Road was built to house the curates through to 1932. Aust parish registers dating from 1538 are kept at Bristol Record Office.
The family of CHURCHMAN were prominent and recorded on church internal memorials. The Heralds summoned Robert CHURCHMAN in 1682 and 1683. He had a son who became Captain Henry CHURCHMAN of Bristol who died in 1761 aged 50 years. His wife Jane may have been related to John BAKER, who left a benefaction of £1. Henry’s daughter Ann married Sir Robert CANN, when she died, she was buried at Aust church and a coat of arms was erected as a memorial to her in 1771.
A survey dated 1650 of church livings suggested that Aust and Northwick were fit to be joined together as a separate ecclesiastical parish from Henbury. Aust church in 1889 had 150 seats and attached to Northwick living. In 1924 a dispute occurred at Aust and Northwick churches, the churchwardens, choir, church officials and congregation, went on strike, to oppose the appointment of lay readers instead of curates. Letters were sent to the Bishop, who responded by stating that because they were not separate parishes and under the control of Henbury, he was unable to intervene. It was the mid 20th century before separation happened. In 1950 Aust became attached to Olveston Church much against the parishioners’ desire.
Aust is well renown for the ferry crossing over the river Severn it existed for some two thousand years, the Romans ferried their troops to and from their garrison at Caerleon. The DE CLARES lords of the manors of Tidenham and Thornbury in the 12th century held majority shares. The CROK family at Olveston Court for 200 years held a 12th share in the ferry company. Competition to this ferry occurred in 1630, with the opening of the New Passage Ferry in Redwick. Sir Samuel ASTRY in the 17th century operated the ferry at Aust with 12 boatmen. Road improvements came with the Turnpike Acts of 1758 to speed-up mail journey times to the ferry. A new road was laid between Olveston and Northwick linked to the ferry. A turnpike cottage was located in Passage Road for toll collection between 6am to midnight. Queues would form before midnight to await the gate opening. Drovers brought cattle across the river to markets at Tockington, Thornbury, Chipping Sodbury and Bristol. In the 18th century, John Wesley, founder of Methodism when on his travels using the ferry at Aust and whilst waiting in adverse weather for the ferry to operate, would preach to the villagers. The church has witnessed many mass funerals of ferry passengers and crew, as a result of severe weather or crew error. Samuel Astry’s daughters eventually sold the ferry. It later went into receivership and was sold in 1780 at the Exchange Coffee Tavern in Bristol for a quarter of its previous value.
The ferry at Aust has been at various locations. It was originally sited at the northern side of cliffs with Sandy Lane providing the access. It then moved to the southern side, under the cliff at various points but always moving south. The final move occurred in 1826 when a stone jetty was built, for the introduction of a steamboat service in 1827. In the early 19th century, fierce competition for trade occurred, between Aust and New Passage that resulted in many improvements. In March 1829, the ferry was let by auction. At Aust, a number of tragedies happened in 1839, 1841 and 1855 resulting in loss of life. The WHITCHURCH family living at Aust were captains operating the ferryboats between 1780 and 1855. The Bristol & South Wales Union Railway Company was formed in 1846. They purchased the Old and New Passage Ferry Companies for £50,000. Both ferries continued to operate, until the last tragedy in 1855 at Aust, and then the railway company closed the ferry at Aust. In 1886, when the Severn Tunnel opened, the New Passage ferry became redundant.
The shoreline and cliffs of Aust have always been a visitor attraction, much for what they expose, through erosion, and with loss of buildings at its edge. Alabaster fallen from the cliff used to be gathered for commercial use. Fishing took place for salmon and other species of fish. Conger eel would be caught off the Black Rocks. During receding tides fish would become trapped in pools on the rocks, which gave an easy catch. The local community used these rock pools in summer for swimming. The anchorage buttress for the Severn Bridge stopped this entertainment. William BUCKLAND, a Dean of Westminster Abbey, who also was an excellent geologist. In 1785/6 he worked jointly with a Mary ANNING at Lyme Regis excavating prehistoric reptiles from the cliffs. This type of exploration brought him to Aust cliffs. He met up with a German chemist Baron Liebig who was working on the theory that bone was full of nitrogen. They both came to Aust to explore this natural burial ground of Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus. It was discovered that bone from here, when ground to powder, produced a new source of agriculture fertiliser, in the form of nitrogen. The nitrate industry of Chile was a spin-off from this discovery in Victorian times. (The saying “I will grind their bones to make my bread” resulted). In August 1900, James SPRATT of Bristol whilst visiting the foreshore under the cliffs, found an ancient bronze female figure, 5½ inches long and one inch wide across the shoulders. It also had a granule of quartz for eyes, one of which was missing, arms with no hands, haunches and a well developed behind with the legs partially parted. It is assumed that it is Romano-British and is retained in the British Museum, London.
From Victorian times it appears that the only provisions shop to exist in the village was that of William KINGSCOTT, continued by his son Charles who added a post office in 1906 and later a bakery. There were a number of tea gardens catering for the passing tourist, i.e. The Boars Head Inn, Esperanza and Cliff House. Esperanza tea gardens in 1915 had 3000 visitors during the season, many by motorcar. The village has had a total of seven inns, the Boars Head being the sole survivor. Not much is known today, of the Waterloo horse races that were held annually on 18th June on the warth; they ceased around 1890 but a bell that started each race still exists. John Churchill MILLARD, a builder of Olveston who owned a parcel of land at Aust, built on it the Zion Methodist Chapel in 1896. A stone-laying ceremony occurred on the Easter Monday, with an official opening on Monday 1st August, to seat 65 persons. Opposite the chapel building is where the stocks formerly existed. An infant school was built in 1878, to accommodate 30 children. The elder children attended school at Northwick. In 1889, the average attendance at Aust was 16, and in 1906 had increased to 18. The school closed in the education reform following the Second World War. The school children were transferred to Olveston School. The education authorities transferred the school building, to the parishioners of Aust in 1978.
The parish boundary of Olveston, in ancient times, was much closure to the village of Aust, and included Cote Farm. With extended boundary changes to Aust parish, the area of Cote and the farm remained part of Olveston parish but detached. With the review of parish’s, for the commencement of County Council administration, the detached area of Cote, was ceded to Aust parish in March 1884, and for the creation of a parish council in 1894.
The Aust ferry remained closed until 1924, when a Welshman Enoch WILLIAMS bought a 21-year lease from the Duke of Beaufort, who owned the ferry rights. An hourly service started in July 1926. A new car ferry company was formed in 1931, together with extended piers and a new boat. Further new boats were added in 1935 and 1959. A Bristol Bus service came to Aust with the opening of the car ferry. It operated six days per week, with an approximate two hourly service. It stopped the horse drawn coach service that operated out of Aust to the Full Moon Hotel in Bristol, via Elberton, Olveston, Tockington, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
In the Second World War (1939-45), the entrance to the ferry pier off Passage Hill was diverted to the hill bottom: this allowed military vehicles use of the ferry. It eliminated a steep incline off the hill. A target range was erected in the river between Aust and Littleton, for flight firing practice, with constructed observer towers at each end. The observers were billeted in wooden huts at the entrance to Tanhouse Farm. Opposite the Boars Head Inn, a cottage had a direct hit with a bomb; fortunately the occupiers were not at home at the time. A large number of bombs fell in the river with the intent of stopping the ferry and the railway beneath. The church had a miraculous escape from total destruction. Bombs fell in the churchyard, one near to the tower splitting the stonework and roof in May 1943.
Sightseers, to view construction of the Severn Bridge, plus the car queue waiting to board ferryboats, widened the road on the warth in the 1960s, because of congestion. The warth was open land until the road was widened, then, a fence was erected along the full length of road. The ferry finally ceased with the opening of the road bridge across the river in 1966. There had been an admiralty inquiry back in 1846 into feasibility of a bridge crossing the Severn at Aust. Several bridge designs were prepared during the Victorian period.
Beyond the north side of the cliffs, at low level, a tunnel dug under the river emerges. The tunnel retains national grid electric cables exiting onto pylons. It came into operation in the early 1980s. At Manor Farm, clay was excavated for use on the construction of the Second Severn Crossing, during 1995/6. This exposed many fossils. Some remain on site for interested parties to view, together with a display diagram.
The village, as a result of the construction of the bridge and motorway since 1961, had their community separated, not only by the motorway, but also, by a dual carriageway leading to Avonmouth. The old road through the heart of the village became a cul-de-sac. Since the 1960s, many new houses have been built in the centre of the village, to nearly double the housing stock.
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