By Andrew Plaster
Published in BAFHS Journal 151 - March 2013
(Reviewed by the Author May 2017 - minor amendments)
The parish of Westerleigh, in South Gloucestershire is about nine miles north-east of the city of Bristol and is bounded by ancient parishes of Frampton Cotterell, Iron Acton and Yate in the north, Wapley & Codrington and Dyrham & Hinton in the east, Pucklechurch in the south, and Winterbourne and Mangotsfield in the west. The parish formed part of Pucklechurch until the 14th century and consists of the villages of Westerleigh and part of Coalpit Heath and the hamlets of Henfield, Kendleshire, Mayshill, Nibley, Oakleigh Green, Ram Hill, Rodford and Westerleigh Hill.
Westerleigh has its origins in Saxon times, having been mentioned in a document dating from 887. In 946, the Manor of Westerleigh was given to the Monks of Glastonbury to pray for the soul of King Edmund who was killed at Pucklechurch. At this time it was probably just a clearing in the woods with possibly a wooden church built on the site of the present one and yet it warranted an entry in the Domesday Book of 1086. The Monks relinquished their claim on the Manor to Joceline, Bishop of Bath & Wells in 1206 on condition they would be granted the election of their own Abbot. After the Reformation, in 1549, it was taken from the Bishopric by King Edward VI but in 1564 the Manor was granted to Sir Nicholas POYNTZ of Iron Acton, who in 1608 sold it to John ROBERTS, an Alderman of Bristol, who thus became the Lord of the Manor.
The present parish church, dedicated to St. James the Great, was originally built in 1304 with the nave, chancel, sacristy and pulpit, the latter of which is richly carved and one of the few stone pulpits left in England. The church was extended in the 15th century when the porch, tower and south aisle were added. The tower - once used as the village lock up - is a fine three-stage, tall and slim perpendicular in style, with diagonal buttresses and octagonal stairwell leading to the ornate turret and slim pinnacles. The entrance to the tower was put in place by church-wardens William PRIGGE and Thomas RUDGE in 1638. That year, the ROBERTS family improved the south aisle and adding paneling which later formed the base for the musicians' gallery. The tower is reported to have been struck by lightning and the church was partly burnt down in 1863. Some restoration work was undertaken in 1875. The 700th anniversary was celebrated in 2004.
In medieval times the village of Westerleigh grew in the medieval fashion of a green with the houses and church clustered around it and became quite prosperous, as shown by some of the more elaborate gravestones and by several large houses from this period. Like most rural parishes, the order ascended upward from the cottagers who had a small house and perhaps an acre or two of land. The husbandmen might have ten acres or more to raise a crop and support his beasts, held by a lease or copyhold from the lord of the manor. Next above them were the yeomen, a smaller but significant middle class. Yeomen usually held their land by freehold. They had considerable local status as they tended to be the churchwardens, and also saw that the business of the local manor was properly tended by the bailiff or steward. The Yeomanry might also improve their lot by a second trade in addition to husbandry. At Westerleigh some of the more ambitious families supported themselves as clothiers or by the weaving of cloth, often a cottage industry. By 1600 the village supported a shoemaker, a blacksmith, a sawyer, a flour mill, a malt house and two public houses, both brewing their own beer. The Kings Arms (now Ye Olde Inn) housed a contingent of Yeomanry who exercised on what is now the sports field. There were stone quarries at Kidney Hill, opposite Pansy Vale, and at Rodford that provided pennant stone for the building of local houses.
John CRANDALL, baptised at the church in 1617/8, the son of James CRANDALL, a yeoman of Kendleshire, emigrated to America and subsequently became one of the founders of Westerly, Rhode Island. A group of his descendants visited the village a few years ago. He is the ancestor of a number of prominent and noteworthy Americans, including Katharine HEPBURN (the actress) and Frances Folsom CLEVELAND (wife of the U.S. President).
Although the traditional cloth industry declined locally in the 17th century, this was more than counterbalanced by the rise of felt-hat making, whilst in the 18th century half of the population in the parish worked in felt making and coalmining. The two industries were interdependent, for felt making required coal to boil the beaver fur, rabbit fur and wool remnants with chemicals in order to make felt. The discovery of coal in the 17th century made a big difference to the parish life and further finds at Coalpit Heath and Parkfield (in the parish of Pucklechurch) provided employment for many years until eventual closure last century, when the seams were exhausted. There were three phases of coal mining in the parish of Westerleigh. The first phase, 1600 to 1750, consisted of working the outcrops and sinking shallow shafts to a depth of around 100 feet. The second phase began around 1750 with the introduction of the Newcomen engine. It is possible that first engine at Coalpit Heath was erected on the site of the Old Engine Pit, which is now under the Great Western railway line. Donn’s map of 1769 shows two engine houses at Coalpit Heath on or near the site of the Old Engine Pit. By the 1790s two more engines were working, one at Ram Hill, and the other at Serridge.
The final phase of working at Coalpit Heath saw the sinking of Frog Lane Pit to the east of the Coalpit Heath fault, whereas previously all workings had been to the west of the fault. The first of the coal owners was Samuel ASTRY, who was the Lord of the Manor of Westerleigh. He died in 1704 and his wife in 1708. The estate then passed to Sir John SMYTH of Ashton Court when he married one of three ASTRY daughters. Later Sir John SMYTH established a partnership with Lord MIDDLETON and Edward COLSTON. The MIDDLETON family still had shares in the company as late as 1853 when Frog Lane was sunk but by the 1870s only Sir Greville SMYTH is listed as an owner. The SMYTH family retained an interest in the colliery until 1947 when all coal mines in Britain were nationalised. Two single sheeet documents held at the Bristol Record Office (ref. AC/AS/97-9) are a labour inventory dated 1784 and 1789 examining the names and duties of men employed at all coal pits operated by the Lord of the Manor.
The Avon & Gloucestershire Railway built a nine-mile horse-drawn dramway in the early 1830s from Coalpit Heath to the river Avon opposite Keynsham. The whole length of the Dramway was constructed on a downhill gradient dropping 225 feet along the route, and was designed to provide cheap and easy transport from the mines to the wharves on the Avon which supplied both Bristol and Bath. This second earliest railway system in the West Country, the Dramway pre-dated Brunel’s Great Western Railway by some ten years. The Ram Hill Colliery was the northern terminus of the Dramway and to the south of Bitterwell Lake, a small reservoir for soaking the pit props for the mine, there was also a southern spur to New Engine Pit which could also have served the other three pits in the near vicinity. It lasted only nine years before a steam railway connected the pits. In the first edition (1881) Ordnance Survey Map it shows that the southern branch of the railway finishes at the New Engine Pit at Henfield, the centre branch having served Ram Hill Colliery. In around 1860 a northern branch was construct-ed near Boxhedge Farm that served the new Frog Lane Colliery at Mayshill. In the 1860s the area would have been a very busy industrial scene, as is suggested by the adjacent woodland at "Branch Pool Wood". Following the closure of the New Engine Pit towards the end of the 19th century, railway infrastructure at Henfield remained in the form of railway sidings and engine shed. These served the Frog Lane Colliery until its closure in 1949. Some dilapidated built remnants of the railway remain including the old engine shed at New Engine Yard and the weighbridge house near Boxhedge Farm.
There are some interesting burial entries in the parish register in connection with mining accidents, for instance (1) 1700 – John BUSH buried 28th Sept killed by ye fall of a stone upon his head in a cole pitt, (2) 1705 – Job WILLIS killed with ye fall of a bucket in a cole pitt at Prinham, and (3) 1745 – Robert DAVIS aged 67 drowned in a gravel pit. The South Gloucestershire Mines Research Group has done a lot of research into the history of mining in the area.
The ecclesiastical parish of Coalpit Heath was established in 1845 from the hamlets of Coalpit Heath, Mayshill and Nibley together with a portion (Brockeridge and Adam's Land) of the Parish of Frampton Cotterell. The countryside around St Saviour's Church was, at the time the church was built, dominated by the coalmines from which the area gained its name. William HEWITT was a devout Christian and one of the principal residents of Coalpit Heath (he lived in Heath Cottage). He held a position of eminence, being the agent for, and senior representative of, Sir John SMYTHE & Co, the principal employer in the district. He later became one of the first churchwardens.
From the marriage registers from 1845 to 1900 more than half of the professions recorded were 'collier' or 'miner'. The number of 'farmers' is a reminder that we have always been an agricultural community and the 'hatter' records indicate the local hat making trade which flourished in the early years of the church. Local craftsmen and services provide the registers with entries of smiths, butchers, inn-keepers, bakers, carpenters, cabinet-makers, stone masons, builders, plasterers, tilers and even a pianoforte maker, a watchmaker and a cutler. Various professional occupations were also recorded as well as a small number of servants. During the whole 55 year period only four of the young women getting married had jobs, two servants, a dress maker and a school mistress. The Manor School was established by the Lords of Westerleigh Manor in 1866.
In the 1840s, Bristol & Birmingham Railway, which later formed part of the Midland Railway, built the steam railway line along the west of Westerleigh. The Great Western Railway built the new direct London & South Wales main line along the north of the village between 1901 and 1902 and Coalpit Heath railway station (closed in 1961) was built at Ram Hill on the southern outskirts of Coalpit Heath. Westerleigh junction was of some importance as the crossing point of east-west and north-south main lines, and is often included in historical railway books.
There were at least nine public houses in the parish – The Kings’ Arms dating from 1270, The Dolphin (now a private house), The Golden Heart at Kendle-shire, The Ring O’Bells at Coalpit Heath, The New Inn at Mayshill dating from 1580, The White Hart (The Barton) now gone, The Swan at Nibley dated just before 1700, The New Inn at Westerleigh and The Half Moon Inn (rebuilt and renamed Badminton Arms in the 1970s) at Coalpit Heath.
By the 19th century, there were still a varied assortment of occupations in Westerleigh village, including farmers, a bootmaker, shopkeepers, innkeepers, butchers, a plasterer, a blacksmith, a wheelwright, a market gardener and a carrier, but these trades began to die out and at the end of the century many of the old houses were demolished.
At the beginning of the 20th century the railway and mining provided most of the work but since then the parish has begun to expand with residents finding employment nearby and in the many small businesses that have become established in recent years. Bitterwell Lake at Henfield was purchased and presented to the parish by a local benefactor, George NEWMAN, in 1930 and is now used as a fishing lake. In Westerleigh village, a village pump and a village pound have recently been restored. The pump was last used as the village water supply in the early 1900s. The pound was used for stray animals until the early twentieth century. A Grace Evangelical Church took over the disused Rodford Tabernacle in 1980, which was an Independent Chapel built in 1844 and is on the northern outskirts of Westerleigh.
Coalpit Heath is now a pleasant commuter village with a population of about 8,000 at present. This number is increasing with a large housing development on Park Farm, which is quite close to the church, and other developments around the area. Most of the occupants in the parish work in Bristol and Yate, in the large aerospace factories in Filton or in business parks close by.
Holdings at Bristol Record Office for the parish of Westerleigh show the parish register dating from 1693, though the Bishop’s Transcripts commence in 1596 and there are many other surviving records – Apprenticeship Bonds (1716-1729), Apprenticeship Indentures (1680-1896), Bastardy Bonds (1639-1729), Bastardy Examination (1746-1825), Bastardy Order (1654-1824), Militia Substitute (1725-1811), Overseers of the Poor (from 1713), Removal Orders (1677-1825), Settlement Bonds (1646-79), Settlement Queries (1721-72) and Vestry Minutes Books (1827-34 & 1871-96).
Sources and further reading:
“Collieries of Kingswood & South Gloucestershire” by John Cornwell
Images of England – “Frampton Cotterell and Coalpit Heath”, by Frampton Cotterell Local History Society www.coalpitheath.org.uk
Bristol Industrial Archaeology Society journal no.43 (2010), “The Lords of Westerleigh’s Colliery Workers and Methods in the 1780s”, by Steve Grudgings.
Bristol Industrial Archaeology Society journal no. 42 (2009), "The Coalpit Heath Coalfield: Developments in the Eighteenth Century"