Those avid users of social networks living in South Bristol couldn’t have missed the regular updates of the recent night time antics going on in Bedminster Down. The previous few months have seen a constant flow of thefts or attempted thefts that seem to be plaguing those living in this popular area. Of course Bedminster Down is not unique in its sufferance, but social media has the ability to give instant information to those who wouldn’t in previous years, pre social-media, have been any the wiser.
Growing up on this estate in 1960’s I would say that life was a little more “gentile” then, in fact we didn’t even lock the front doors, such was the trust amongst neighbours. And of course the transportation system wasn’t as it is now – so people pretty much stayed in their own communities. They went to school there, they shopped there and they even went to Church there. Not so many cars, – very few in fact. The red telephone box on the corner of the green was our means to contact those living outside the area, or of course you could “write a letter”. So when the Council Rent Man was robbed in Ilchester Crescent one day the locals were aghast. (for those much younger than myself the Council sent the rent man around weekly to collect the rent from all those living in Council Houses).
As a member of the Zion History Group we have been delving into the past to find out what we can about Bedminster Down and its history. With the advances that have been made in technology it’s much easier now to do your “research on-line”, and make use of what others have done before you. However, not everything that has been written is available on the “internet” – and there still a lot of reliance on individuals personal memories, collections of photographs or other documents that we can all benefit from. To make this point whilst we were accessing the records of Bedminster Down Boys’ Club we came across copies of a number of articles written by one of their members for a monthly newspaper produced by the Churches of the area called “Contact”. The articles, under the header “History of Bedminster Down”, was written by RJ Lewington, or Bob as everyone at the Club then new him. Bob was an older member when the Club opened in its new building in Winford Grove and quickly became involved in producing the Clubs own magazine called “The Key”, as well as penning the articles for Contact. Bob was quite deaf, and was in the habit of pronouncing his words very slowly with profound mouth movements, which made him a prime target for the good natured micky-taking that used to go on. Bob’s faith was very important to him, but this didn’t stop him taking part in the Clubs Annual Christmas Show (called Show Down) for all the local pensioners, dressing up, and making a fool of himself for the enjoyment of others.
Bob did a lot of research for the articles he wrote, and they reveal a very “dark side” to the area. Below are some paragraphs extracted from the articles Bob wrote for Bedminster Down’s Contact Magazine between 1965-66.
“In time immemorial, the area of Bedminster Down was a barren, rough marshy land, almost uninhabitable. Not until the development of the mines at South Liberty Lane and District, did any person settle down in humble dwellings. At night no-one would venture to travel outside, due to the popular belief that the stretch of road known as Bridgewater Road, was a notorious district where vagabonds roamed the countryside. In consequence the Merchants and rich people also feared this last part of their journey to Bristol where they were frequently robbed and left penniless. It is with no-doubt that the “Cross Hands”, a once coaching inn was filled to the capacity until the morning light”.
“Toward the end of Bridgewater Road on the now common-land, are three large tree plantations, jutting out on the hillside. Old people yet affirm that these were the plague pits where countless numbers of people who had died during the Black Death of 1348-49 lie. A plague known as Bubonic Plague caused by fleas on rats, swept the country like wild fire”.
“Near to the site now known as the Corporation Estate the Public gallows were erected. On September 14th, 1740, a soldier named Millard, accused of highway robbery with violence, was hanged. . According to Latimer, Millard with his companion murdered a servant of Mr Thomas Knight of Southmead, named Westbury. He was found nearly dead on the Downs, with twenty cuts on his skull, and his pockets rifled. His horse was later found at the foot of the Downs Hanging Post. Within two weeks the two murderers were charged with the crime by a comrade called York, who confessed that he had been a companion in the perpetration of the two atrocious robberies at Brislington and Bedminster. One was a burglary in Wine Street, the other that of stealing twenty-one sheep at various times in the southern suburbs. York was thereupon arrested and the three men were sentenced to death, and afterwards hanged, together with a fourth culprit convicted of a robbery in Brislington. Miller and York spent the night prior to their execution in “Bedminster Bridewell”, a prison maintained by the County of Somerset. The former was hung in chains on Bedminster Down, and the latter on Brislington Common, in the presence of thousands of spectators”.
“A few days later Millard’s father-in-law, a cobbler in Thomas Street, strongly concerned about being connected with the above crimes, was executed in Bristol for a shop robbery”.
“No information has been given as to where the hangings were exhibited, but as far as accounts go, a handful of people have been hanged, including two men Thomas Perryman and John Roach, on April 19th 1750, who was hanged for aiding and assisting in pulling down Mr Durbin’s house during the recent Toll House riots throughout the city. Another-Thomas Cox was also tried for the same offence but was acquitted for being a lunatic!”
“Also on Bedminster Down, on Saturday morning 6th September in the year 1783, a seventeen year old youth, by the name of George Gane, was hanged for stealing a quantity of linen from the Bleachng Yard of John Gomer at Ashton. Richard Blake, an accomplice, who was charged with him for the same offence was reprieved.”
“Most of the events which happened on Bedminster Down and in that locality up to the year 1800 were robberies and villainous attacks. As already has been explained this was amongst the commonest crimes found on barren, marshy lands where vagabonds and other notorious characters lay in wait to pounce on their victims with a shout of “Stand and Deliver”, to the astonished traveller who might well be a rich merchant or a person who did not fully appreciate the consequences of travelling alone at night instead of waiting until the crack of dawn before setting out on their journey.”
The mining industry on the 19th Century provided vital work to the area, and saw the development of groups of miners cottages, some still exist. Towards the latter part of that century we saw the building of the first Primitive Methodist Church (as it was then called) on Bedminster Down.
Zion will be opening its Bedminster Down Museum on Sunday December 2nd at 2pm, whilst still in its infancy it is hoped that we will be to continually add to it over the coming months
However, if you want to learn more, or know more about the history of Bedminster Down, then seek out the History Group at Zion Bristol. (They also do a dam good sausage sandwich)
Further information on the Zion History Group is available through: