Proposed Pill Dock






Researched and written by J. Rich

July 1978  (Revised July 1995)

In the middle of the eighteenth century the hamlet of Pill was so vastly different from the village we see today that a few comparisons are best looked at in order to set the scene.

For instance, the row of tiny tenements which were alongside the creek, as shown on the map herewith as numbers 3 to 22; were already demolished in preparation for the dock by the time the 1851 census was taken and the stark brickwork of today’s crumbling railway viaduct would never have been constructed where it is if The Parliamentary ‘Pill Dock Bill’ had become an Act. It is indeed interesting to speculate just where the railway line would have passed through the village in 1864, if the dock had been constructed. Surely it would never have crossed over the dock with a single span of some 70 mtrs (200+ feet) as the construction cost alone would have been prohibitive, let alone the engineering problems and in any event it would not have been high enough to allow clearance for the masts of many vessels.

More than likely the railway would have been routed across the valley in which Pill nestles by using an enormous viaduct stretching from half way up Hamgreen Hill, passing across the bottom of Westward Drive and over Water Lane into Church Path Road. Thence by a long and expensive cutting, which would have had to accommodate the station. Ultimately ending somewhere near Stoneyfields and on towards the present course of the line  at approximately where Portbury Shipyard Station was built during the first World  War

Without doubt Pill was the most important part of the Gordano Valley at the time of the proposed dock  and to justify that statement a study of the 1841 census reveals that the hamlet of Pill had 360 inhabited dwellings whilst the whole of the rest of the valley could only muster 408 in total, Portishead contributing a mere 159 houses. Clevedon returns its number of inhabitants as 1748 which exactly matches Pill, but one must remember that Hamgreen, which includes the Watch House area and Happerton were islands accredited to the Parish of Portbury at that time  and Hamgreen alone could add a further  32 dwellings and 150 people to swell the total for the Pill area to a total of 1898 heads. For readers information  a complete breakdown 1841 census appears here.

Before we start the story of the ‘Pill Dock Bill’ let us look briefly at the row of creek side tenements mentioned earlier. Long gone and until the rediscovery of the dock plans at the Somerset Record Office at Taunton in April 1978, long forgotten.

By referring to the official National Census returns for 1841 it is possible to obtain a fairly clear picture of these buildings and of the people who lived in them. It seems that most of the male inhabitants must have been mariners of one sort or another as the census names the majority of the occupants of Union Row as it was called, as female or  children and a footnote to the census states “85 men (pilots) were at sea on the night of the return”. Naturally one realises that not all were licensed pilots, but some of them must have been and others were men and boys manning the pilot boats and of course, other types of craft..

There were 20 dwellings in all, the backs of the buildings, their Eastern aspect falling sheer to the mud of the creek. Some being of three story construction whilst having a frontage of less than 3 mtrs ( 10 feet). Of terrace type construction, with no gardens  or even balconies, front or back. Their frontage built directly onto the narrow lane passing between a similar row of dwellings built into the side of the steep rising ground which remains to this day. The width of the lane between the two terraces narrowing to as little as 1.5 to 2 mtrs (5-6 feet) in places making the passage of most average sized wheeled transport impossible. Therefore supplies to the many ale houses and to gain access to the ferry crossing, especially for large items; would have had to use either the lanes called, Myrtle Hill or Back  Lane were also narrow, not to mention steeply inclined and constructed of cobble stones which were extremely slippery at the best of times.

Dwellings number 3 and 4 were already derelict in 1841 and mark the beginning of the decline of that particular row of buildings. All of which were owned by the then Lord of the Manor whose intention it was to promote the dock project. No firm date for the demolition of any of the tenements has yet been discovered.

In number 5 lived 28 year old Charles Rumley with his 25 year old wife, Jane and their two sons George, aged 11 and Charles 5. Rumleys neighbours in tenement  listed as number 6 were Sarah Adams, the 33 year old mother of  young Sarah age 7 and whilst no licensed pilot by the name of Adams is listed for 1841 a surname which has been linked to the river Avon and pilots, both before and after  this period. So it is fair to assume that Adams was one of the 85 men at sea on the night of the census.

It is not possible to trace all of the occupants accurately but, remembering the size of the tenements one or two more are worthy of note. Number 11 housed 64 year old William Dyer, a mason; plus Harriet  (29) and Charlotte  (25). Dyer was probably a widower as it is unlikely that his wife would be away from home alone in those days, but that comment is best left for the genealogist to sort out.

Next door in number 12 was James Rowles, a 38 year old shoemaker; with his wife Elizabeth (35) and their five children. Mary (15), James (13), Louise (8), Elizabeth (3) and Eliza (1). Seven people in a minute tenement without any main services, although there is little doubt where any effluent went; even though the road frontage of the building was less than 4 mtrs (13 feet)

60 year old Edward Seville, a boatman; lived in number 14 and a tombstone in the churchyard of St. Mary in the neighbouring parish of  Portbury names one Seville ‘Boatman’, probably of the same lineage. One must remember that the parish of Portbury had a large influence over the history of the hamlet of Pill until the Ecclesiastical Parish of Christ Church Pill was set up in 1861.

Finally it is safe to assume that number 19 was a shop of some kind, for here lived one Elizabeth Parker, shopkeeper; aged 48 and her daughters. Mary (19) and Sarah (17). But, also recorded in the same building are James Smith (38), Thomas Hook (21) and another Sarah Parker aged 66. Assuming the husband of Sarah the younger was still alive and perhaps one of the 85 at sea this makes a total of seven adults living in number 19, plus the fact that it was also a shop.

Let us now look at the proposed dock plan……..

1840 was drawing to a close. The penny post had been running well since January, with its now valuable ‘penny blacks’. Captain Wilkes had discovered the Antarctic coast soon after Beau Brummel had died in March. Not a particularly outstanding year, but for the Crockerne Pill and the inhabitants of its surrounding hamlet, especially those who worked in it and from it, the month of November 1840 must have been the most important of their lives.

James Adam Gordon. Lord of the Manor of Easton in Gordano, otherwise St. George and also Lord of the Manor of Portbury, both in the County of Somerset, in which the Crockerne Pill and its dependent population is situated; put forward plans to ‘dockise’ the Crockerne Pill in order to compete with the City of Bristol for the steadily increasing mercantile traffic that was using the River Avon and its attendant Roadsteads.

The dock itself was to be of some 280 mtrs (880 feet) long with a maximum width of approximately 70 mtrs (200+ feet), which would have required a massive amount of excavation and would destroy existing boat building yards and the dry dock, not to mention the local saw mill and a considerable number of dwellings. It was to have a single pair of ‘leaf-type’ gates placed at the mouth of the creek, opening to a width of 19 mtrs (60 fleets placed centrally between two large solid piers to be built out, one from each side of the creek but inside the tidal flow line of the river.

Unfortunately a copy of the ‘Pill (Somerset) Dock Bill’ is yet to be found although searches of the House of Lords Record Office show that James Adam Gordon petitioned the House of Commons for leave to bring in the ‘Bill’ on the 12th of February 1841 and it is recorded that on the 24th of February 1841 a committee reported that the ‘Bill’ complied with the ‘ Standing Orders of the House’ and leave was given to Sir William Miles (Conservative) of Leigh Court and Colonel William Gore-Langton (Liberal) of Newton Park, both members of Parliament for the then East Somerset Constituency; “to bring in the ‘Bill”‘.

The ‘Bill’ was read for the first time on the 19th of March 1841 and had a second reading on the 30th of April of that year.

The feelings of the waterside people of the day must have been very mixed indeed and it is doubtful if the plan gained much local support. James Adam Gordon owned practically the whole of the property which would be affected, plus the banks of the creek and it is unlikely that the feelings of local residents had even crossed his mind for there were no laws of protection from unscrupulous and profiteering landlords in those days.

But it was not only the residents of Pill who were disturbed by James Adams Gordon’s plan. The City Fathers of Bristol together with the Merchants of that City who had large capital investment in their own ‘floating harbour’ some 5 miles further up river raised more than just an eyebrow at the Pill scheme and on Wednesday the 21st of April 1841 a minute of the Bristol Corporation reads:

Upon the consideration of two ‘Bills’ now pending in Parliament, the one for making a pier in the parish of Portbury in the County of Somerset, with works and approaches connected therewith—and the other for making a dock adjacent to the River Avon at Pill in the County of Somerset.

It was resolved that the said ‘Bills’ be referred to a special committee now to be named with a request to report thereon to an early meeting of the Council and that such Committee shall consist of.

Alderman John Vining. Alderman Edward Harley. Councellors John Evans Lunell. Robert Edward Case. Charles Bowla Hare. William Done Bushell and William Tothill.

 This Committee completed its report in time for the Quarterly Meeting of the Bristol Council held in May 1841 and chaired by the Mayor, the Right Worshipful Robert Phippen Esquire and the Bristol Gazette of the 5th of May 1841 reports the discussion in detail. The minutes of the meeting are preserved in the Bristol Record Office and the following extracts from both are worthy of note.

Bristol Gazette report.

The usual Quarterly Meeting of the Council was held this morning. The attendance of members was not numerous.”

After by statements the following heading appears.


The Mayor said that it would be necessary to take these subjects at once into consideration, as the ‘Bills’ were in progress through the House of Commons, and the Pill Dock Bill was fixed for a second reading on Friday, and if any opposition was intended a petition must be sent off that day. The report of the Committee, to which these subjects were referred, was accordingly read.”

The actual report does not appear in the Gazette but fortunately is preserved in the City archives and reads as follows:

With reference to the ‘Bill’ for making a dock adjacent to the river at Pill, your Committee consider that it embraces various points requiring the particular attention of the Corporation. Your Committee would first notice that the Company to be appointed by the ‘Bill’ is a Private Company, who are to carry the objects of the ‘Bill’ into execution for their own individual benefit and as it appears to your Committee, with power to admit to, or exclude vessels from the proposed dock, as they think fit.

That the Corporation are the owners of the Port of Bristol and Conservators of the Rivers within the same, and that the Pill or Creek proposed to be inclosed, is a part of the River Avon, which at the spot where the works are to be made, is narrow of breadth. That the Company propose to take possession of the aforesaid Creek or Pill, and apply the same and use the water of the River flowing into it, for their own purposes.

That such Creek or Pill, has been for a long period used by the pilots of the port, as a place for the mooring and laying up of their boats when not in service, and that great inconvenience would arise, if they were deprived of this place for the aforesaid purposes.

That there are several clauses in the ‘Bill’ prohibiting vessels navigating the River Avon from lying or being moored within certain distances of the entrance of the dock, which might tend to prevent the free use of the river and be attended with great public inconvenience, if not with danger to the navigation.

That the powers to be invested in the Dock Master to be appointed by the Company, will interfere with the rights and duties of the Haven Master of the Port.

That there appears to be no time limited for the completion of the works.

Your Committee are of the opinion, that on the points referred to, and on other details, it is quite necessary for the Corporation to interfere, and it is therefore submitted that the ‘Bill’ should be referred back to your Committee, with power to affix the City Seal to any petition to Parliament in respect of the same, and to propose such alterations and modifications in the ‘Bill’ as may be deemed expedient – and also, if necessary, to oppose the ‘Bill’ in Parliament, and that the Treasurer be authorised to make the necessary advances for those purposes.”

The Gazette report continues.

Mr Hellicar moved that the report be received and confirmed. Mr Clarke seconded the motion. Mr Powell strongly opposed the formation of a pier at Portbury and the Pill Dock, and contended that the Dock Company, had no power to reduce the tolls upon vessels using such a pier, and not coming into the harbour or works of the Company, as had been agreed to at a meeting of the proprietary. (discussion had taken place earlier regarding charges to Portbury Pier)”

After much further discussion on tariffs and other matters surrounding the proposals, the original motion that the report be received and adopted and the necessary steps taken for carrying its recommendations into effect, was carried unanimously.

Remembering that the Gazette states that the attendance at the meeting was small it is fair to say that just a handful of City Fathers had hammered the first nail into the coffin of the Pill Dock.

Professor Patrick McGrath, in his book ‘The Merchant Venturers of Bristol’ notes that during the period when the Society was so well represented on the Board of the Bristol Dock Company…..

“It (the Society) did not show any enthusiasm for schemes which might interfere with the prosperity of the City Docks. In 1841 it joined the Corporation in opposing the ‘Pill Dock Bill’. The Society claimed that the proposal to convert Pill into a public creek was put forward by ‘a private company’…. for their own individual benefit.”

It is not exactly what the Bristol  Merchants themselves were doing. Or any entropeneur for that  matter.

The urgency put forward by the Mayor at the Quarterly Meeting was taken up and  on the 7th of May, just two days after the meeting, petitions from the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of Bristol were presented to Parliament, seeking leave to be heard against the ‘Bill’ and on the 12th of May 1841 the House ordered that the ‘Bill’ be withdrawn.

The final episode was enacted in London and as a report to the Corporation from the sub-committee set up to look into the matter states.

Your  Committee referring to their report to the Council upon the subject on the 5th day of May last, now report. That they caused a petition to be presented to Parliament against the said ‘Bill’, and obtained evidence in support of the allegations contained therein. That subsequently a negotiation took place in London by the sanction of your Committee between the Solicitor of the Corporation and Mr Gordon and his Solicitor the result of which was the abandonment of the ‘Bill’ .”

No further mention of the proposed Pill Dock plan has been found in any records. A copy of the ‘Pill Dock Bill’ has not been found in Parliamentary archives. The word ‘negotiation’ leads one to believe that, in order to persuade Mr Gordon to agree to withdraw his proposal, he was possibly reimbursed by the City for his expenditure on having had proper plans drawn up and the costs of presenting his ‘Bill’ in Parliament. No small amount even in those days, relatively speaking, yet no account has been found of money paid out by the City to Mr Gordon, the City’s records are taciturn on the matter. Did Mr Gordon just give up the entire project ?

However, the idea to dockise the area was abandoned and the hamlet of Pill was left undisturbed, except — the terrace of little tenements which backed on to the muddy creek. As mentioned earlier they were all demolished, and by the time the 1851 census was taken they had disappeared completely. The pilots and watermen went about their business as usual and continued to use the tidal waters of the Crockerne Pill long into the 20th century and only left the creek as maritime developments overtook them.

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