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The holy well and the Chapel of St Anne in the Wood

A History of Arno's Court Park

Report on the Archaeology of part of Arno's Park
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Brislington - an Historical View

The holy well and the Chapel of St Anne in the Wood, Brislington, Bristol

This new book draws together the facts about St Anne's Well and the medieval chapel, and challenges some of the long-standing ideas about these two sites. It questions whether they were ever part of a single pilgrimage complex, and disputes the claim that this was once one of the top three holy sites in England.

With 188 pages with 130 illustrations, author Ken Taylor covers a lot of ground, and also raises important new questions about our relationship with the heritage and the future of the sites - particularly the well which is enjoying a popular renaissance of interest that is being further developed by the Friends of Brislington Brook.

Copies have been donated to Wick Road Library, Bristol Central Reference Library, and Bristol Record Office, but it is only available to buy online, and is published in a limited edition of 200 copies (see here). Please note - this is a not-for-profit publication produced by without any grant funding.

A History of Arno's Court Park This 20-page A4 booklet is illustrated in colour and b&w with old pictures, maps, and photographs. It was written to help raise awareness of the heritage of Arno's Court Park, and was launched at the APAG Fun Day on 8th July 2007.

Following an introduction by Becky Thoburn (APAG Chair), the geology of the park is briefly described, and the story continues with the earliest inhabitants of the Stone Age whose flint tools have been found nearby. Likewise Bronze and Iron Age occupation in the area is discussed, as is Brislington Villa and the possibility of a lost Roman road in the vicinity.

The name 'Brislington' is Saxon, and the Domesday book offers an insight into life nearly a millennium ago. There are a few scattered references of land ownership in the medieval period and subsequent centuries, but the story of the park really begins with the purchase of the land from the Lord of the Brislington Manor by a private family in the 17th century.

The 18th century saw the erection of the elegant building that is now the entrance to Arnos Manor Hotel, and some features of its landscaped estate are still in evidence in today's park. Arnos Court, as it was called, ceased to be a private home in the mid 19th century when it became a convent, later becoming a reformatory school for penitent women.

A comparison of maps from 1887 and the present day shows the reader that much of what we see in the park today was already established at that time. The point is further illustrated by the comparison of a photograph taken 100 years ago with a modern view.

The area was repeatedly bombed in the Second World War, and were it not for this, the convent might still be in place. However, all the residents were evacuated, and the premises sold to Bristol City Council in 1948. Then, in 1960, the buildings were sold separately, and the parkland was opened to the public. Text from pages 14 - 16 of A History of Arno's Court Park, by Ken Taylor, published by Arno's Park Action Group, 2007. Copies of this booklet have been presented to the Reference Library, College Green, Bristol, and Wick Road Library in Brislington.

Postcard of Arno's Court in around 1910.

The 1901 Census lists the Reformatory School for Girls separately from the Refuge for Penitent Women. The former lists a Superior and 35 nuns, 13 female staff, and 103 school girls aged from 5 to 18 years old. The latter lists 162 female residents, almost all of whom worked in the laundry; their ages ranged from 14 to 73 years. They came from all over Britain, with a relatively small proportion from Bristol.

A photographic postcard (see below) entitled Arno's Court, Bristol is thought to be Edwardian in date (i.e. 1901 - 1910), and was taken one sunny afternoon in winter. The view indicates that the photographer was positioned at or close to the present-day entrance to the park on King's Road, suggesting that the high boundary wall with its gate posts were already present albeit behind the camera.

This boundary wall, incidentally, has clearly been repaired at various times, and contains some dressed stone of a quality superior to that required by such a structure, indicating the reuse of previously hewn masonry. It also includes isolated blocks of iridescent slag produced by William Reeve's smelting works in the mid 18th century - relics of an early attempt to recycle industrial waste (the same material was used to build the nearby complex now known as The Black Castle).

In the foreground of the postcard of the park are twenty uniformed young ladies, presumably nuns, arranged in informal groups on the short grass.

The photograph shows a complex of barns and outhouses that are absent from the 1887 Ordnance Survey map, and which are now almost completely demolished. They all appear to be within a walled enclosure immediate southwest of the convent's lodge.

Although most had tiled roofs, one small barn that was situated wholly within the present-day children's play area was thatched. The walls of some of these buildings are still standing just outside the play area, and some of the stonework retains vestiges of whitewash or white paint. What appears to be the cellar of another of these buildings, adjacent to the Redcliffe Sandstone outcrop, is now protected with a covering of railway sleepers.

An acacia tree that was already large in the postcard, is still thriving (the large and somewhat lopsided tree in front of the original 18th century part of Arno's Court, on the right of the picture).

The postcard also shows a metal fence running parallel with the high stone wall that separates the park from the convent buildings. Sections of this iron fence survive inside a privet hedge, and the space between the fence and wall is used as a path, which is likely to have been its original purpose. The path currently terminates abruptly at the Cemetery of the Holy Souls, and the boundary hedge (post 1887) that runs south of this junction is also privet and may date to the same landscaping plan that created the path.

Holy Souls is a Roman Catholic cemetery and, despite persistent rumours that nuns are buried under the Hotel's front car park, it may have been used by the convent, which was, as we have seen, also Roman Catholic. If so, the mood of those who originally trod this path may have been solemn. Incidentally, although there are many stories of ghostly nuns seen in the Hotel, no such stories have been recorded in respect of the park.

The convent suffered bomb damage during the Second World War, and in 1941 it was estimated that two-thirds of the complex had been destroyed in the air raids. In March 1941 six sisters, seven auxiliaries and all eighty girls of the Reformatory School (now renamed an Approved School) were evacuated. In 1943 the decision was taken to sell Arno's Court, and the convent officially closed in 1948.


Postcard of Arno's Court in around 1910 published with kind permission of Jonathan Rowe, chairman of Brislington Conservation and History Society.

Brislington - an Historical View

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.

The photograph below is the earliest known photograph of Brislington Village, circa 1880.

Photograph of Brislington Village circa 1880

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