Bedminster Down – Laying the New Foundations

And so the demolition of the former Bristol Water Depot on Bishopsworth Road has been completed, and one assumes at some point in the very near future the work to lay the foundations of the new houses will commence.

As I stand here viewing the City of Bristol form the “Down”, my eyes are naturally drawn to the view of Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, but it’s the area nearer to the place that I am standing which interests me more. Behind me is the former Zion Chapel.  The first “Zion Primitive Methodist Chapel”, as it was then called, and was the dream of Joseph Jenkins. When it opened for its first service on Sunday October 25th 1863, with twelve pews and seating for 150 it served amongst its parishioners the local mining community. Mining provided that vital employment to the working class families that soon began to populate the area, an area that was previously barren and occupied by thieves, robbers and vagabonds.  Standing on the green opposite the Cross Hands Pub and looking down on to Ashton Vale the former mining area is still clearly visible. Turning my head slightly to the right is the new Ashton Gate Stadium. The City have been there since 1904, and of course football was the game of the working class, and yes, whilst accepting that there is no place in a modern society for a “class system”, it cannot be ignored that the very roots of our modern post 20th century world have been built on the pain of the class system, a class system that was designed to keep the “working class” in their place. Every Saturday in the football season thousands of working men would make their way to Ashton Gate or Eastville Stadium to watch City or Rovers. Many would just alternate between the venues just to watch “footy”, devoid of any primeval feelings of hatred or loathing to any of the teams. They went to watch a game played by “working class” sportsman, many of which took other paid employment when the season was over.


Photo  provided by Alana “Curly” Lewis

On working on a project recently at the local school to catalogue their historical records I became very much aware of the struggles that challenged the lives of many of the residents of Bedminster Down post World War 1. The School in Cheddar Grove opened in 1927 in a Temporary Building, and moved into its present building two years later, the Junior School came some five years later in 1932. It served the children living in the recently built Council Houses that were now part of the growing Bedminster Down Estate. It had 80 pupils or “scholars” as they were called, and the Head Teacher was a DE Salter.

The School and the Chapel provided a base for much of what went on during that post war period, and continued until society, and communities begun to change, or perhaps I should say “evolve”.

The challenges for children growing up in the period between the two wars were great, and yet there was obviously a great sense of nationalism that existed at that time. Every opportunity was taken to celebrate a Royal Birth, or “The Empire”. Empire Day was celebrated every year, the “Great” in Great Britain signifying our status in apparent world domination at that time. However the wheels on the “Great” bit were slowly coming off and it wouldn’t be long before the “days of the Empire” would be gradually destined only for the history books.

As many households return to putting their central heating back on to cope with sudden drop in temperature over the Bank Holiday weekend, our children of the era I refer to had no such luxury. Schools closed when they run out of coal for the boilers. In a period prior to the formation of the National Health Service, epidemics of influenza, chicken-pox or measles were commonplace, and tragically – so was infant death. On the 5th January 1931, the School opened after the Christmas Holidays with over 100 children absent due to a measles epidemic.

On Monday August 12th 1940, the Air Raid Warning sirens sounded for the first time in anger across Bedminster Down. Having been given an instruction from the Education Authorities that Schools should remain open during the summer holidays, the children at both schools in Cheddar Grove ran for cover. I cannot for one minute image the fear that went through those children’s minds at that time. All pupils had already been given instruction in the use of a gas-mask, and now they were running from “bombs”. On the basis that there was not enough room at the shelters for all the children at the school, a rota system was introduced to reduce the daily attendance at school to the maximum number the shelters could accommodate, effectively giving every child one day off from school every week. Just twelve days later on Saturday August 24th four incendiary bombs hit the school grounds.

On September 11th 1941, as the estate tried to cope with so many of its men folk either in the Armed Forces or on other War Work, a Club for Lads was started at the Junior School. Bedminster Down had always found a way of looking after its own, and it is also worth mentioning that in September 1951, with over 550 pupils at the Junior School alone the Lower Church Hall at St Oswald’s, and the Cooperative Building on Bishopsworth Road were used as classrooms.

Christine Parmenter 1 (1)

Photo provided by Christine Parmenter

I am always mindful when writing of not to be caught in the very dangerous mind set of always looking, referring or talking about the “past”. I do believe however that it is important to ensure that the human stories related to our history are recorded for prosperity. And of course, with so many new people moving into this wonderful area there does seem to be a renewed interest in local history. The number of “locals” who lived through that period between the late 1920’s and 1940’s is reducing, and there memories will soon be lost for ever.

For me as I walk “The Crescent” (Ilchester Crescent) on this brisk Spring morning in May I can’t help but remember many of the families that lived here when I was a mere boy walking the streets. As a cub I used to walk around here on “Bob A Job Week”, looking for the tale-tale sticker in the window that somebody had already visited the house. If there was no sticker there was an opportunity to “knock” the door. An errand to the local shop, cut the grass, sweep the steps, washing the car was not much of an option as there weren’t that many– anything to get that “bob” for Cub Funds.

Zion is empty this morning, so I have consumed my bacon sandwich on my own, with just Tanya to listen to the sound of my laptop keyboard tapping away as I do a duet with Bruno Mars (I think I’m going to marry you).

Building  foundations for the future – sometimes we have to rip the existing one’s up and start again. Whilst on other occasions we just need to build on the solid basis that has already been put down by others.


Published by: The Retired Utility Worker at Zion Community Space.


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