The Parish of Easton-in-Gordano Otherwise St. George
A report to the Parish Council by John Rich. Parishioner
The parish of Easton-in-Gordano so called because of its geographical position as the easternmost parish of those which lie within the Gordano Valley; has since time out of mind been the most densely populated and hence the most industrious of all the Gordano parishes.
Since the beginning of national census returns in 1881 to the present day the hamlet of Pill, now a fully ‘hedged village and an ecclesiastical parish in its own rite within the civil boundaries of Easton-in-Gordano, has been recorded as the most populated part of the District. The figures in the following table are for the whole of the parish of Easton-in-Gordano, which is returned as a civil parish within the district of Bedminster in the diocese of Bath and Wells.
As the population became so dense in the hamlet of Pill and the parish church of Saint George was some considerable distance away, on the far side of the parish; not to mention that a number of dissenters chapels had sprung up within the already tightly packed buildings of the hamlet, the church of England authorities of the day decided to build a second church within the parish boundaries of Easton-m-Gordano.
It was not until the 11th of October 1861 when the ‘Consolidated Chapelry of Christ Church Pill’ was agreed to by Her Majesty Queen Victoria, and so the hamlet of Pill and ‘all that portion of the parish of Easton-in-Gordano, otherwise the parish of St. George, in the County of Somerset and in the diocese of Bath and Wells is comprised within the tything of Hamgreen‘ became an independent ecclesiastical parish partly from Easton-in-Gordano and partly from Portbury but from then on referred to as ‘the ecclesiastical parish of Pill within the civil parish of Easton-in-Gordano’
At that time Hamgreen, which included the Watch House area was an island of the parish of Portbury and a number of gravestones in Portbury church yard make reference to mariners. These being residents who usually were connected to H.M. Customs but lived in the Watch House area.
But – and there is always a ‘but’ in such arrangements. The new church meant that the vicar of St George would have an even less flock to manage and hence quite naturally a cut in income. This matter was resolved by considering the facts of life and realising that not everyone was christened, not everyone one confirmed, not everyone was married in their parish church, but – every single person has the inescapable fact of death and that was a vicar’s main stay of income at the time. So the then vicar of Easton relinquished all rites except that of burial to the new vicar of Pill, that is within his new boundaries, except burial rites. Therefore from 1861 onwards, indeed for over one hundred years, you could be born in Pill, christened in the church at Pill, married m the church at Pill, live all your life in the ecclesiastical parish of Pill, die in Pill, but you had to go to the civil parish of Easton-in-Gordano to be buried. Today there is a small area of ground at the rear of the church where one may have their ashes scattered and a small inscribed tablet laid.
The last time the boundaries for Christ Church Pill were amended was in 1959 in order to encompass most of the post World War II building such as Westward Drive, Brookside and Crockerne Drive and others.
There are no fixed boundaries for such districts as Lodway, Stoneyfields or Rudgleigh. The latter being a misspell by some over enthusiastic legal beaver at the turn of the century. Its original spelling being Rudgely. What a pity the area has lost such delightful names as Highway Street and Edgehill Row, Passage Bank and the Narrows.
Census returns are the most reliable way of gaining an overall picture of any parish but they are reasonably recent as they did not commence until 1801. To quote from the 1974 ‘Local Historians Encyclopaedia’ by John Richardson1 ‘The censuses from 1801 to 1831 were concerned with numbers; names were not recorded until 1841.’ he continues ‘In 1811 and 1821 more accurate information was obtained on occupations. In 1831 males over 20 years were classed in seven occupational categories: agriculture, industrial labourers, manufacturing, professional, retail trades, servants and others.‘
In 1841 persons names appear in census returns for the first time and as the ten year gaps are filled, so more and more information about an area emerges. Although the statistics acquired from a census return are available to the public fairly quickly after a return is made the detailed information such as names, ages etc. are kept under wraps for 101 years, so it will be 2002 before the 1901 details are released.
Information about the parish of Easton-in-Gordano before the census returns and especially about its people can be found in the church records of St. Georges church which date from the early 16th century and are currently held at the Somerset Record Office2. A large number of documents relating to the parish are also held there and can be readily researched by the public although it is best to make an appointment prior to a visit giving a detail or two of the particular tine of research that one wishes to follow.
One must also remember that although the City of Bristol has never exercised any direct control over the parish it has, by virtue of its maritime links with the area; had many dealings with Easton, or more to the point with Pill. The City records are held in the Bristol Record Office which has excellent research facilities and is within easy reach of the parish being a mere 4 miles away.
The Bristol Central Library (Reference Section) is also an excellent source of local information and has complete collections of the various directories for the area, all of which have a fund of detailed information on people, businesses, general trade and often costings for their day. All of which can help build a colourful picture of times past in the parish of Easton-in-Gordano.
James Adam Gordon
Although many acres of the parish are and always have been used for agricultural purposes the number has decreased with the passing of time. Until the early part of 20th century almost the entire parish was farm land. The 1841 tithe map schedule illustrates the point by listing no less than 17 separate landowners, one of which was ‘The Officers of the Parish’ with 1 acre 19 perches against another, who in fact was a non resident, one James Adam Gordon, son of the late James Gordon a retired planter from Antigua and then Lord of the manor, with 904 acres 1 rood 24 perches under his name. This included the entire hamlet of Pill, ‘lock stock and barber. Every dwelling, every public house, all the bartons and alleys and what little open ground there was.
In fact his total ownership of the area was so complete that when the cartographer came to draw up the tithe map4, which incidentally is nearly 2 metros (6.5 feet) long by almost I metro (3 feet) wide and drawn in great detail; that the whole of the built up area of the hamlet of Pill is not defined, but merely left as a blank area on the map with PILL written in the centre. Although checks have been made at all known sources who hold original copies of the map including the Central Record Office at Kew in London, it would appear that Easton-in-Gordano is the only parish in the country with such an anomaly on its tithe map. More than a little frustrating for the student of local history.
James Adam Gordon was also responsible for putting Pill on the Parliamentary map so to speak, and a copy of a study into Gordons’ proposal to enlarge and dockise the ‘Crockarn Pill is appended to this report. His ‘Pill Dock Bill’ presented before Parliament on the 19th of March 1841, received two readings in the House and was only withdrawn at the very last minute. Gordon must have been confident of success for he demolished the entire row of buildings which line the northern side of the creek in preparation for the work. Those who made their living from the river must have been very worried people at the time for the loss of the tidal creek in exchange for a controlled dock basin would have severely inhibited access to the boats for pilots and river men alike. How the face of Pill would have changed if the Parliamentary Bill had become an Act.
Over time land usage has changed and agricultural acres have given way to several major changes. Changes that have totally altered the character of the parish. All of which have had to do with transport in one way or another.
The 1860s’ saw the building of the railway line between Bristol (Temple Meads) and Portishead. Opened to passengers in 1863, passing right through the village of Pill. A large number of properties having to be demolished to allow its necessary straight and level passage. It brought new life to the area, not to mention new blood as many of the navvies working the line met and married local girls and stayed on after the line was complete to raise their families. They brought new names, some of which are still with us today, over 100 years on. The railway consumed not only dwellings and other buildings but many acres of farm land during its construction
Over the years roads have been improved by being widened. Sharp bends straightened out and new routes being made. All of which have consumed more farm land. But the greatest road of all the M5 swallowed up more than any and in 1974 when the Avon Bridge opened yet another transport link was lost.
The ferry from Pill to Shirehampton closed because of loss of trade. One could now walk over the Avon. Few did of course, but some rode their bicycles and many more turned to their cars. So a transport link to and from the parish of Easton-in-Gordano, one that had survived since Medieval Times, was closed and the river mud has swallowed up most of the now unattended slipways.
But by far the greatest change in land usage for the parish came when the port of Bristol decided to extend its wharfage by building the Royal Portbury Dock. Its construction and further development has almost completely wiped out any agricultural use of land north of the M5 line and there is little doubt that one day it most surely will. But before reviewing the Royal Portbury Dock let us turn to the maritime history of the parish of Easton-in-Gordano in general and concentrate on that part of the parish of Easton-in-Gordano known as the village of Pill and its maritime history.
In order to understand the topography of the village it is best to look at its very name, ‘Pill’. Its location is beside a creek. A creek that at one time not only dominated its entire existence but was indeed the very reason for it being there.
‘PILL’ literally means creek or inlet off of river or channel. A small harbour, often tidal and occasionally used as a dock. The Oxford English Dictionary5 describes it as ‘A local name on both sides of the Bristol Channel, in Cornwall, etc., for a tidal creek on the coast, or a pool in a creek, etc.’
A map showing the navigate part of the river Avon, the mouth of the river Severn and the eastern portion of the Bristol Channel shows quite a number of creeks referred to as a ‘pill’. But without exception they all have a proper name before the word ‘pill’. for example. In the Severn there is Lydney Pill and Chepstow Pill, whilst in the Avon there is Broad Pill, Morgans’ Pill and Chapel Pill – formerly St. Katherines Pill.
Also in the river Avon we fmd the largest creek of all, variously called The Pill, The Creek Crockerne Pill, Crockarn Pill, Crockam Pill, etc.
The very first map to show the hamlet of Pill is Saxtons’ map of ‘Somersetsen’6 and it names the creek and hamlet as ‘Crockhampil’. Speedes map of Somerset dated 1610 adds an ‘l’ which makes it ‘Crockhampill’. Both making the name one word.
On the next two maps, chronologically speaking; we find the creek and surrounding area marked as just ‘Pill”. The ‘Division of Hundreds’ map of 1805 once agam brings in a prefix this time as ‘Crockery Pill and the ‘General Map of Somerset
Gloucester’ also dated 1805, shows ‘Crockerne Pill’, adding a letter e. By 1828 J. Rutters’ ‘Delineation of Somerset’ and subsequent maps mark the hamlet as just plain ‘PILL’
Is it because this particular ‘pill’ has been so intensively worked whilst all the others remained relatively dormant, that its prefix, what ever it was; has disappeared in the mists of time. The difference between ‘Crockarn’ and ‘Crockam’ are relatively easy to explain as the pen hand of a scribe in times past could easily make an ‘arn‘ appear as an ‘am’ and the ‘e’ and ‘a’ are not easily distinguishable in some early writing. But why the name in the first place. Was it the ‘creek of the crocks’. After all a large pottery was excavated at Ham Green and pottery shards from its products have been found all over the Bristol Channel area including West Wales. It is doubtful if we shall ever know the truth but what a lovely time historical dreamers can have.
As for the Romans they seem to have passed Easton-in-Gordano by. The Rua Julia, their road from the Severn to Bath passed, well to the North and East of the Avon at Pill but by the time of Henry VII mariners from Pill were well into their stride, for it was in that Henry’s reign one Zuan Giovanni Cabotto, allegedly a Genoese but more likely a Venetian, convinced the merchants of Bristol to fund his first voyage of discovery and with letters patent from the King set out so to do. How then did this involve the parish of Easton-in-Gordano, or more to the point the hamlet of Pill.
To set the scene one must imagine the port of Bristol at that time. the entire river from its mouth to the very limits of its flow was tidal, no lock held water in a “floating harbour until well into the 19th century and we are now talking about 500 years ago in the latter part of the 15th century. 1497 to be exact.
No plans, not even an illustration of the vessel used by ‘John Cabot’ as Bristolians came to call the Italian, have ever been discovered, therefore no one has the faintest idea of what the ship actually looked like. Its measurement either in tonnage or linear size is not recorded and various reports tell of 18 or 20 persons sailing in the vessel when it finally departed these shores.
It is said that the vessel left the ‘Bristol Key’ (Broad Street in todays terms) on May 2nd and on his return Cabot said that he made a landfall, on what is now known to be Newfoundland; on June 24th, after 35 days passage8…..
Passage from where – Bristol? Hung Road? Pill, may be? Perhaps even King Road the anchorage used by numerous vessels, just outside the mouth of the river Avon where vessels awaited the prevailing South Westerly wind to move to the Easter quarter of the compass.
A departure on May 2nd + 35 days = 6th of June.
Question?…What happened to the missing 18 days.
We shall never know as Cabots original map is lost. A transcription of his verbal report to Henry V11, was accidentally burned in 1860 and in any event is believed to have had inaccuracies. There is even no definite evidence of his vessels name
One possible answer is to be found by looking at the topography of the area through the eyes of a hydrographer and not to put too technical a sense into the argument one should allow oneself a moment to readjust ones mind to life in the reign of Hem y VII.
The boatmen of Pill at that time were unrivalled. There was no Avonmouth, Shirehampton did not exist, Sea Mills just wasn’t there and the Hotwells hadn’t been invented. The entire Gloucester bank of the river Avon from its mouth to the walls of Bristol was undeveloped, save for a tow path along its entire length. One must also remember that the river was actually a little more than a mile longer in those days. So it is safe to say that ‘The Crockarn Pill’ and its inhabitants had total control of the river.
The inhabitants of the City of Bristol were ‘citizens’ born and bred inside a walled enclave, far from being men of the river they were ‘townies’
The reader should also remember that the river flowed freely in and out of the City of Bristol. There were no lock gates to hold the water high and keep the ships afloat over the ebb. In fact the tidal part of the river Avon at the ‘Key’ probably only allowed vessels to float for very short periods over high water time and for the greater part of the day and night ships nestled in the soft mud of the river bottom as if in dry dock. The datum of the river bed in the centre of Bristol being considerably higher than at its mouth.
Therefore when a vessel was ‘fitted out’ and ready to depart the City and proceed to sea it would necessarily have to leave the ‘Key’ at or near high water and having no motive power, a bit like a dumb barge really, and being as susceptible to the winds as any hot air balloon, with not much more directional control, it would have to be pulled along either by oarsmen rowing in small boats or ‘hobblers’9 and indeed proceed thus from Bristol to the river mouth. This work was always carried out by men and on occasions women; from the village of Pill and numerous references to them and their life and times are available in the ‘Hall Books’ (minute books) of the Bristol Merchant Venturers All of which are now on microfilm. A complete set is available for public use in the reference section of the Central Library in Bristol.
As ships grew larger so the passage right up into the centre of the City of Bristol became more and more hazardous and many became stranded some becoming a total loss. Hence the port moved down river to Hung Road. That great bend on the Avon that lies between the ‘Crockarn Pill’ and ‘Saint Katherines Pill’, now called Chapel Pill for it was there that a chapel was set up for the sailors to have access to a place of worship in order to pray for a safe return from their forthcoming voyage before sailing from Hung Road and no doubt to give thanks on their return The actual site of the chapel has never been discovered although there is written evidence of its existence, but it would have been in the district of Ham Green and indeed in Easton-in-Gordano from 1861 on, but by then it was just a memory as the floating harbour in what we know as the City Dock had been established since early in the 19th Century and Hung Road long since abandoned.
One could write forever on the deeds and misdeeds of the mariners of Pill, as the pilots, hobblers or general boatmen and hopefully one day someone will find the time to sit down, put pen to paper and publish the numerous stories, much factual, documented evidence and some just delightful legendary tales.
The Pill pilots for instance, require much more than a passing comment in order to do proper justice to their story. Unfortunately this is not the place to go into great detail However as an example of how that profession must have influenced the local community for centuries, suffice it to say that in 1863 there were 74 licensed pilots listed with 45 named boats. Each and every one working from the creek at Pill and each pilot came from a Pill family.
A complete list of every person known to have been authorized to act as a pilot in the Port of Bristol since licensing began is in the final stages of preparation it will cover a period of almost 500 years and include dates, boat names and boat registration numbers.
Today a large chunk of the parish has been occupied by the port. Almost half of if in fact and at present the port is the largest vehicle handling port in the country with several hundred thousand cars, trucks, vans and a variety of other motor vehicles moving through the port every year. Both imported and exported.
As one passes over the Avon Bridge, South bound on the M5 the huge industrial complex to the North of the motorway, complete with the modern port of Royal Portbury Dock, which incidentally has the largest ship lock in the United Kingdom, is starkly contrasted by the green fields and woodland to the South. Both are parts of the parish of Easton-in-Gordano and both are held dear to its population, as one half brings work and prosperity to the area whilst in the other one can still enjoy the peace of the countryside much treasured by us all especially the residents of the parish of Easton – in – Gordano otherwise Saint George.