The ancient parish of Brislington was much larger than the area it covers today. The 1846 tithe map shows that it took in parts of what are today Hengrove and Knowle West, and stretched from Arno's Vale to Hick's Gate.
The River Avon formed a natural boundary for much of the St Anne's and Broomhill area, while Brislington Brook meandered its way from its source on Dundry's slope, through West Town Lane, The Rock, St Anne's Woods, and Nightingale Valley. It still links the fragmented Brislington that we see today.
In 1087 at the time of the Domesday Book, "Brisilton" was part of the Manor of Cainesham (Keynsham) and, in the same year, became a manor in its own right. The settlement grew from a collection of wattle and daub huts around Brislington Brook in the area still referred to today by locals as "The Village".
Brislington's origins of course go back much further. The first documented evidence comes from the remains of the Romano British villa, dating from 270 - 300 CE, which were discovered when Winchester Road was being built in 1899. Prehistoric flint tools dating from the Neolithic age have also been discovered in several locations, showing that Brislington was inhabited more than 4,000 years ago.
In medieval times, Brislington became a place of pilgrimage rivalling the great shrines of Walsingham and Canterbury. The Chapel of St Anne in the Wood was built near the Holy Well and was twice visited by Henry VII. The Chapel was virtually destroyed in 1538 under Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monastries but fragments were still visible until the early 20th century, and modern associations are retained with the Pilgrim pub and Holymead schools.
Brislington rose to prominence again in the mid 18th century when local gentry and Bristol merchants built fine mansions, such as Wick House, The Grove, and Arno's Court, and Brislington became a favourite retreat for those "when got up in the world". Many estates had their grounds landscaped in the fashionable natural romantic style made popular by landscape gardener "Capability" Brown, and ornamental lakes were made at Wick House and West Town House, the latter being once skated on by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales.
In the 19th century, Brislington became particularly well known for two buildings. Brislington House, believed to be the first purpose-built mental asylum for the humane treatment of the insane, was built by Cornish Quaker Dr Edward Long Fox, and opened in 1804. "Dr Fox's" as it became known, continued to be run by the Fox family, who became great benefactors in the village, for nearly 150 years until it closed in 1952. In 2001 it was developed into luxury flats and renamed Long Fox Manor.
Arno's Court was built by rich and eccentric copper smelter William Reeve in the 1760s, together with other buildings including "The Black Castle" once dubbed by 18th century writer Horace Walpole "The Devil's Cathedral".
In 1850 Arno's Court became a Roman Catholic convent and girl's reformatory school. Girls from as far away as Manchester were sent there for such heinous crimes as stealing a reel of cotton. The convent survived until 1948, and in 1960 the house began a new lease of life as an hotel and nightclub.
It is hard to believe today but, in Victorian times, Brislington was once called "the prettiest village in Somerset", and much of the area was still very much a rural, semi-agricultural community until well into the 20th century. The village smithy survived until the mid 1940s, and there were still working farms until the late 1950s.
The late 19th century saw the earliest beginnings of the transformation into the Brislington we see today.
In 1878 the very first planned "town houses" were built in Bellevue Park, and in the early 1880s Victorian villas were built on the Bath Road in the grounds of Kensington House.
In the 1890s Brislington began to expand rapidly with the development of the Sandy Park area, and "New Brislington" (St Anne's). In 1898 part of the old parish boundary was taken into Bristol, but the area around the old village continued to be part of North Somerset until 1933.
The days of Brislington as a rural village were numbered but the feudal, yet benevolent regime of "Squire and Spire" (the Gentry and the Church) lingered on until the 1920s. 1923 saw the death of Alfred Clayfield-Ireland of Brislington Hall, the last "Squire of Brislington". His large estate was broken up and, from 1927, Brislington Trading Estate began to develop along the Bath Road.
Modern industry had begun in 1902 with Terrell's Rope Works at Arno's Vale, followed by the CWS Butter Factory in Whitby Road (1904), Motor Constructional Works (later Bristol Commercial Vehicles) (1912), St Anne's Board Mills and Robertsons Jam Factory (1914), Smiths Crisps (1936), and John Wrights, printers (1948). Brislington became an important centre of employment until the 1980s and 90s when all major industry closed.
The Brislington area has become increasingly fragmented as Brislington, St Anne's, St Anne's Park, and Broomhill are often seen as separate areas. Voluntary organisations, church groups, clubs, and societies are all ways of bringing people together as a community and giving people a pride in their area, and a sense of "belonging". Like many other Bristol suburbs, Brislington has suffered greatly from industrial decline, increase in traffic, and ill-advised planning development.
Today, Brislington is often seen by many as somewhere they pass through in traffic jams, or visit to shop at Tesco or B&Q, or to watch films at the Showcase Cinema, but we are lucky enough to still have a thriving local community with many clubs and organisations, including sporting clubs, drama groups, churches, playgroups, youth clubs and groups for the elderly, many of which are listed in the Brislington Community Partnership's directory.
Parts of Brislington Brook may often be full of shopping trolleys and rubbish, but others are home to kingfishers and bluebells, and it still links all the areas that make up Brislington today, just as it has done for all of Brislington's thousands of years of history.
© Jonathan Rowe, 2004