A potted history of Bedminster/St John the Baptist church

The original church

Bedminster is older than Bristol, dates from Saxon times and is listed in the Domesday Book as a Royal Manor. It was founded as an ecclesiastical settlement (the name of Bedminster is supposed to come either from the name of the monk who founded the village – Beda – or from the old British word Bedydd, meaning baptism), on the bluff (slope) on what is now St John’s Street overlooking the old course of the Malago.  The word Malago is thought to derive from Melis (mill) and Agos (place).

The first Christian king was Ethelred II (the Unready 978 – 1016) and he was converted to Christianity by St Augustine. He succeeded to the throne after the murder of his half-brother Edward II (the Martyr) at the age of 10. His reign was plagued by poor advice and suspicions of complicity in Edward’s murder. His was a rather long and ineffective reign, notable for little other than the payment of the Danegeld, an attempt to buy off the Viking invaders. Relentless invasion by Danish Vikings, coupled with ever escalating demands for more money, forced him to abandon his throne in 1013. He was recalled to the throne after the death of Svein (Sweyn) the Forkbeard in 1014 having fled to Normandy for safety. He died in London in 1016.

The original foundation stone of the Church of St John the Baptist was dated 1003. It is unlikely, given the time that it took to build even small churches, that the building was completed in his lifetime (and we think we have problems with builders today!).

There is evidence for a timber building in 11th century Bedminster which comes from a slot trench cut into the natural sandstone at St John’s Street/Sheen Road. There is also evidence that the 11th century habitants were gardeners as their properties appear to have been hedged off. There are pits in the St John’s Street/Sheene Road area that were probably used to provide materials for the Bristol castle walls. It appears that Bedminster has always been a mining community of one sort or another.

The Domesday Book counts a number of sheep in the area and it appears that these were taken to market in Bristol to be sold as food. Bedminster also had its own watermill to grind meal.

In 1130 Robert Fitzharding purchased the manor of Billeswick and Bedminster. At Billeswick he founded the Augustinian Abbey which became Bristol Cathedral after the reformation. In 1154 he became Baron of Berkeley and he founded St Catherine’s hospital between Bedminster and Redcliffe as a resting site for those on pilgrimage to Glastonbury. The hospital had its own windmill giving rise to the name of nearby Windmill Hill. The windmill was demolished in 1820 and the hospital in 1880.

Around 1186 Geoffrey of Coutanes gained 112 acres of Bedminster meadow in order to guard the Avon. Bedminster remained royal land.

The leper of hospital of St Mary Magdalene that was situated between Brightbow (Bedminster Parade) and Redcliffe closed in 1572 to be used first as a glassworks and then as a tannery before it too was demolished in the 1880’s to make way for the new Wills factory. The paper bag manufacturer, Mr Robinson, opened the new Wills factory.

Edward Powell, the vicar of St John the Baptist was executed at Tyburn for refusing to take the oath of supremacy to Henry VIII.

The Smyth’s of Ashton Court purchased the Manor of Bedminster in 1605 and their name remains in wide evidence to this day.

Bedminster was on a par with other market towns in the west until the sacking and firing of both the town and the Church in 1644 upon the orders of Prince Rupert so that it did not fall into the hands of Cromwell. The Church was not built again until 1663 and from pictures of the time it is suggested that the burnt-out remains were incorporated into the new building. Bedminster at this time was an important place in its own right as it did not become a part of Bristol until 1831.

By the mid-18th century Bedminster was a decaying and dying place that welcomed John Wesley as he toured the country preaching.

Through it’s 960 year life the Church saw much controversial history including the reformation, Cromwell’s republic and it was the cause of some division within the Church of England after its third rebuild in 1855. St Mary Redcliffe was a Chapel of Ease to St John the Baptist until 1852. This meant that those God-fearing Christians that couldn’t get to the Parish Church for the Sunday service could use St Mary Redcliffe and not be condemned to an entire afterlife in Hell.

Matthew’s Directory of 1793/4 names the Reverend Robert Watson as vicar. The Directory has the following description of the Church.

“Bedminster Church, dedicated to St John the Baptist, is very ancient; on the north-west abutment of the tower is a stone with a date 1003 upon it; so that it must have been built in the reign of King Ethelred.  It is a vicarage, is mother Church to Redcliff and St Thomas in Bristol and Abbots Leigh (which was in the office of Thurston the Priest); the parish is of large extent and gives name to a hundred (a sub-division of a county or shire having its own court). The Church, situated in a southern, large and populous suburb of Bristol has two ailes, the longest about 90 feet, a gallery, several monuments and a handsome Altarpiece. The tower is large, low, has stone-railing and four pinnacles, and a rising between them on the top, which support a vane: it has two bells, on the largest of which the hour is struck. This Church has the appearance of great antiquity, and stands in a very pleasant and rural Church-yard.  On Easter and Whitmondays, vast numbers of young people flock from Bristol to a sort of revel held there on those days”

By the 1820’s there was over a dozen coal mines in and close to Bedminster. The deepest mine shaft (1,000 feet) is in Dame Emily Park on Dean Lane. Another famous pit was the Red Cow or Malago pit which was situated on the old Colodense/Mail Marketing site in West Street.

In 1825 the vicar of St John the Baptist is named as the Reverend M R Whish, the Curate and Evening Lecturer is Reverend W L Glover and the Clerk is B J Room. The senior Churchwarden of 1840, Mr William Goulstone, owned the Bedminster Northside colliery. In 1850 the Reverend Whish is still in office though the Curate is now the Reverend W Marriot.  The Clerk is still B J Room of East Street, Bedminster and the Sexton was C Lansdown of North Street, Bedminster. The two Churchwardens were C Ring and T M Nash – all men of course.

On 25 June 1854 that particular Church saw its last service and was rebuilt to a design by John Norton that was commissioned by Henry George Eland, vicar from 1852 to 1883.  It had a west tower, a six-bayed clerestoried (wall with high windows) nave, aisles, north porch and lower chancel to the west. A bellcote was provided over the chancel arch for a Sanctus bell which was rung when the Eucharist was elevated.  A tall broach spire was planned for the tower but this plan was never realised.

The new church was consecrated on 30 October 1855. Though the Church had been ready earlier there was a delay in consecration due to the furore over the three-bayed reredos that contained many statues which caused “widespread and violent opposition…the intensity of the feeling engendered is seen from the fact that two wagonettes of clergymen, led by the Dean, drove to the Bishop’s Palace in high dudgeon to lodge a protest.” This version of the Church was the first in Bristol to introduce a surpliced choir. On the west wall was a list of rectors from 1086 – 1862 and vicars from 1189 – [date].

The Bristol Directory of 1938 lists St John the Baptist, Bedminster as a Parish Church. The Vicar is Leslie Pearce and he had four assistant Curates, the Reverends Frank Earnest Gilks, Sydney Hindle Holgate, Frank William Gregory Wilkins and Marcus T Stephens. We can presume that this was the last team to minister the parish as in April 1941 the Church was bombed in the Easter blitz and never rebuilt, finally being demolished in 1967.

There is an anecdote from a local woman whose child went missing one day in the 1960’s.  They hunted for her everywhere, convinced that she had fallen down one of the many holes that were appearing in the ground around the sites of the gravestones.  The child was found safe and well, waving from the upper floors of the Robinson building at the people who were searching for her!

The land that the Church and Churchyard sat upon was converted into green space for the public use as a park on being sold to Bristol City Council in 1975.