Another painting recently came to auction that’s of Kings Weston interest; it’s a watercolour of the house and park from Penpole Point. It’s a view that’s already familiar to us through one of the most widely published and most attractive prints of the park in the early 19th Century. The artist was the impressively named Anthony Vandyke Copley Fielding (1787-1855) who visited Kings Weston in 1816. It’s not clear whether it was intentionally painted as part of a larger project, but reproduced it found its way into a Series of Picturesque Views of Noblemen’s and Gentlemen’s Seats seven years later.
This month the news has been filled with a number of serious storms that have brought winds and flooding to several parts of Britain, but 164 years ago Kings Weston also experienced a shocking gale.
Two historic photographs (or perhaps four depending how you’d like to count) have come to us recently that mark a significant event in the history of the estate. The photos are extremely early, now thought to be the earliest photos of Kings Weston know, and are designed for use in a stereoscopic viewer; each of the two photos is taken using separate lenses set the same distance apart as the human eye; when seen through a viewer the eye sees a 3D impression of the view. Whilst the two photos on each card look the same at first glance, they are taken from fractionally different perspectives to create the effect.
The views focus on large a number of massive fallen trees pulled out by the roots and thrown over. On the reverse of each the location is identified as Kings Weston and dated as being from November 1859. They were taken following a violent storm that severely damaged Shirehampton and the Kings Weston estate on the first of that month. We’ve known of this event before, from newspaper articles that described the devastation, but these photos add incredible insight into the aftermath. The UK was subjected to a number of heavy storms around the same time in 1859, the most famous being the “Royal Charter” storm the week before Kings Weston’s. The Royal Charter sank off Anglesey on October the 25th with more than 400 fatalities and the loss of a substantial cargo of gold being brought from Australia. The sinking occupied journalists for days as details of the story became known, but Kings Weston would shortly join it in the national newspapers.
Newspapers at the time describe the winds as arriving before dawn, sudden and ferocious, there’s even the suggestion that it was a tornado, considering the relatively localised trail of damage from Lamplighter’s, through Shirehampton, and into Kings Weston park it’s certainly a possibility. Reports suggest that in just seven minutes upwards of 300 trees brought down. They describe 20-30 trees lying on top of each other and thrown down some northwards but also eastwards. The lawns of the house were scattered with branches and timber and the whole scene became an unlikely public attraction the following day. Particular attention was made of the loss of many great old elms that lined Penpole Lane: it’s these trees that are shown in the recently discovered photos.
Philip William Skinner Miles, then owner of the estate, must have been faced with a huge challenge in cleaning up, and he appears to have quickly set to replanting many of the lost trees with new. A slightly later photo of Penpole Lane, from the 1860s, shows the replacement trees protected by paling fences and are already becoming well established. Opposite Penpole Lodge in this view can be seen one of the elms that survived the carnage, the branches of which are sufficiently distinctive to be recognised in the background of one of the storm photographs seen from the other side; a helpful landmark in locating the photographer’s position in 1859.
Thankfully, for the modern visitor, Skinner Miles chose lime trees instead of elm, or the estate would again have lost them all from Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s and 80s. Many of these lime trees can still be seen lining Penpole Lane and the avenue into Penpole Wood from the Circle.
A couple of KWAG’s regular volunteers recently attended a ceremony at the Ardagh on Horfield Common, to receive awards from the RHS Britain in Bloom It’s Your Neighbourhood scheme. These are held every year to celebrate local community action in greenspaces across the South West.
Earlier this year we toured one of the awards judges around the estate highlighting a lot of the volunteer action taken on the parkland as well as the establishment of the Penpole meadow, last year’s bulb planting, and our continued efforts to celebrate the historic Kings Weston estate. We were delighted that KWAG has had its efforts recognised by the RHS scheme with a Level-5 award for outstanding work. We’d like to share thanks to everyone who has come out to help over the last 12 months, and pass on that your efforts are being noticed, welcomed, and now recognised in these awards. Thank you!
The declining condition of the lilypond, lodges and walled gardens on Napier Miles road has long been a concern to us. The structures were already on the national Heritage at Risk Register when KWAG formed in 2011, and the condition over the last three years has declined alarmingly. The pond is now clogged with reeds and self-seeded trees whose roots are damaging the lining, probably the cause of the water having been lost. The lodges are gradually disintegrating and without any future plan for restoration. The walled gardens on the opposite side of the road, behind the old stables, are also in a parlous state. This month’s working party marks a refocus on this important part of the parkland.
For years we’ve been looking at the possibility of working with Kingsweston Special School to put together a project to rescue the site, but it’s recently come to our attention that the pond and lodges have been declared surplus to the needs of the Council’s education team, and returned to the city’s property team. Having enquired, there is no current maintenance happening, or plan for what to do with the difficult site. KWAG has contacted the Council with the offer of taking on these important historic elements of the park. This is at a very early stage, but we’re glad that the Council have even been responsive to our approach. We hope to explore how we can seek grant funding to restore the lodges for some productive future use that might support the restoration and opening up of the pond to the public. We are also keen to discuss whether areas of the grounds on the opposite side of the road can be brought into the mix, to enable greater flexibility in what could happen across the whole of the walled garden area. But, like we said, this is a first step into what might become a major project for us. What we would like, from everyone who reads these newsletters, from neighbours of the site, from parks visitors and local residents, is some ideas as to what people would find most valuable to them here. KWAG have previously looked at projects that might:
- Provide respite accommodation in one of the lodges to support Kings Weston Special School
- A small affordable housing unit in one of the lodges
- A small lettable office or self-catering cottage in one of the lodges
- Growing space around the former stables to support local growers.
- A nature garden in the former “View Garden”
- Improved visitor facilities
We also want to hear from anyone who wants to get involved in shaping this project. We need volunteers to come forward to help in the short term to clear the areas that we might end up with, help maintain them, take care of the gardens around the edge of the pond, and anyone with interest or experience in helping set the project up with partners.
As the project develops we’ll be going out to more formal consultation, making sure everyone is on board with anything we might do. But, as we said, this is all at an extremely early stage right now, and the most important thing is to gauge interest, and establish whether a project of this scale could be supported. Any messages or offers of support you can offer will help us determine whether we are in a strong enough position to take on what would be our biggest challenge to date, so please do let us know any thoughts you have on what should happen here.
The Walled Gardens in the 1950s.
We’re grateful to Shirehampton resident and long-time supporter of KWAG, David Pickering, for his donation of a small set of photos to add to our permanent collection.
The photos are a record of the House in the Garden, and the Georgian walled gardens in which it sits. The original walled gardens were begun in around 1762, but when the last private owner of Kings Weston house, Philip Napier Miles, died in 1935 it became redundant for its original purpose. Here, in 1937, the widowed Sybil Napier Miles decided to build a smaller house for herself where she lived until her death in 1948.
She was a keen gardener and turned the flower and produce gardens within the historic walls over to a private garden for her new home, removing many greenhouses but retaining certain elements she thought useful or attractive. The gardens were already established by 1940, when they were opened to the public to raise funds for the Queen’s Institute for District Nursing.
The exact date and circumstances of these photos taken by an official Western Daily Press and Bristol Observer isn’t known. The house and grounds were purchased in 1948 by the City Council to form a new primary school before new premises in Lawrence Weston were complete. They do not appear in the sales literature of that time, and there appear to be school sports court markings painted on the front drive, narrowing it down further. One source suggests 1954, which may be correct, as the condition of the old stables seen through the arch is better than when it’s next recorded, derelict, four years later. Regardless of when they were taken, they are a beautiful record of the house not long after it ceased as a private residence.
The Lilypond and Georgian Lodges have now been declared surplus to the needs of Kingsweston Special School, and we hope now to be able to discuss restoration with the Council more directly
Last month we featured some of the Eighteenth Century letters written between Katherine Southwell and her son Ned Southwell; these mentioned the estate manager, or Steward, called Mr Nicholls. By chance an interesting snippet of history relating to him fell into our laps just recently.
We now know that Mr. Nicolls Christian name was Edward, and he was a Gloucestershire man born around 1723. He married Mary Churchill of Clifton in 1743, and is known to have held the key role of Steward at Kings Weston for at least 24 years, between 1755 and 1779. Whilst living and working at Kings Weston the couple had around 10 children. Katherine’s letters reveal that one of them, Ned Nicholls, had a nasty accident falling of a wall onto spikes behind the house, but was unharmed. She also mentions the eldest daughter, Betty, who she suggests might be available to act as her maid to attend her on a trip to Kings Weston, so was presumably also employed at the house. It was, however, another of their sons, Henry, who would go on to far greater things.
Henry was baptised in Henbury church in 1759. His father, aged 36, was already established in the management of the house and estate for the young Ned Southwell. Ned had recently embarked on his Grand Tour of Europe, but on his return seems to have taken an interest in Henry.
Henry took a keen interest in ships he’d regularly have seen arrayed below Kings Weston house, sailing to-and-from Bristol’s docks, and moored in Hung Road waiting for the tide. It was said of him that he “was born of the winds, and cradled in the storm”, and a fascination for the sea no doubt developed from an early age. He reputedly displayed an honest bluntness that earned the respect of Ned Southwell. Recognising the bright nature of the child, and his eagerness to join the navy, Ned arranged schooling for him in Yorkshire, before, in 1774, aged around sixteen, he joined the Royal Navy.
From his beginnings at Kings Weston, and through the support of Ned Southwell, Henry rose through the ranks of the Royal Navy, first being stationed in Guinea, before involvement in naval skirmishes of the American Wars of Independence. During this period he was promoted to Lieutenant, at the age of just 21. By 1781 he was made Commander of HMS Barracouta, and in 1791 had worked his way up to Flag Captain, commanding HMS Formidable, Flagship of Rear-Admiral Leveson-Gower. His next commission was the flagship Royal Sovereign which, in 1794, he commanded fighting against the French Revolutionary fleet in the Battle of the Glorious First of June, an action in which he performed so honourably he was awarded a gold medal.
He was promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1807, and Vice-Admiral four years later, knighted, and then appointed an Admiral in 1825. Admiral Sir Henry Nicholls, as he then was, retired from the Navy and returned to Bristol, but not Kings Weston itself where few would remember him from his childhood there. Ned Southwell, his biggest supporter, had died young in 1777, and most of the staff had been laid off during the minority of his son, Edward.
Henry resided at Sion House in Clifton for the remainder of his life. Described in old age as “stoutly-built and above the middle stature. A direct, un-affected man who in later life was regarded benevolently as a rough, kind, seaman, he was an avid snuff-taker”. His 1830 obituary recorded “Sir H. Nicholls, though a strict officer, was still admired and respected, not more for his uniform zeal, perseverance, and ability, than for his excellent disposition, which displayed the kindest heart of a rough seaman in all his dealings with mankind.” Appropriately he was buried in the church where he’d been baptised, back in Henbury.
Strangely, for such a high-ranking Naval officer, with a glowing war record, there is little written about him, and less still on his connections to Kings Weston. Even his final home on Sion Hill lacks a blue plaque. Perhaps this son of Kings Weston deserves to be better know.
Way back in 2013 KWAG made contact with the John Russell, 27th Baron de Clifford, ancestor of the Southwell family. Initially we were most keen to record a number of paintings the family possessed, those which once hung at Kings Weston before the last member of the direct lineage died in 1832, but the family were eager to show us a large collection of documents too. We were delighted to be able to arrange for these to be transferred to Bristol Archives on their behalf, and were privileged to be able to review them before they were added to the city’s collections.
There was a much of interest to Kings Weston, perhaps nothing more so than a fascinating series of letters written from Katherine Southwell to her son, Edward Southwell, whom she affectionately called Ned, the third of the family to carry that name at Kings Weston. We know Katherine today through a glorious portrait of her that still hangs at Kings Weston house. Painted by Allan Ramsay in 1740, it faces her husband across the hall where they were installed there by her son shortly after her death in 1765; indeed the whole of the portrait gallery may have been designed as much to memorialise her as the rest of the family.
Katherine and Ned’s father, also Edward, appear to have had difficulty in conceiving, the young heir not being born until nine years into their marriage. Another child, a daughter also named Katherine, died but ten years old, and perhaps a second son may never have survived infancy. Edward Senior died in 1755 leaving his wife and son alone. It is perhaps in this context that Katherine’s affections for her surviving son were so great.
The letters between mother and son begin in 1749, but climax after 1758, the year that Ned left for the Grand Tour of Europe, an essential component in the life of any young man of means at the time. Ned, then aged 20, left behind his 48 year old mother with few friends and family members around her. The parting was keenly felt by her, and the ensuing stream of letters that followed his departure exudes that affection and care felt for her son, but also the eagerness for him to improve himself and kindle ambition.
Throughout Ned’s three year tour of Europe his mother sent letters, each one was carefully preserved by Edward on his travels and returned with him to the country, testament that his affection matched that of his mother. The majority survive today, though sadly there are notable gaps, where batches of correspondence appear to have been lost to time. It’s also unfortunate that we don’t have a reciprocal collection of Edward’s writings to make full sense of Katherine’s letters, but this doesn’t dim their colourful and engaging insight into mid-18th Century life. In them she updates her son on the global political situation, intermixed with “tittle-tattle” and gossip, encouraging words, and descriptions of her own exploits. Her search for a suitable new home to act as a Dower house is also a regular feature of her letters. Moreover, the letters are an incredible insight into Kings Weston, the gardens and staff employed there, and the comings and goings of tenants, neighbours, and livestock long-known to them both.
In Ned’s absence, Katherine spent time at Kings Weston, working with the head gardener, Gould, and the estate manager, Nicholls, carrying out her son’s instructions. Sometimes she is at the centre of the action, actively out in all weathers assisting in planting trees, and other times an observer, sending on vivid descriptions of the flourishing parkland. She wrote:
“I got hither to dinner yesterday, and was lucky in having good weather, and took the advantage of a very fine afternoon, to visit your plantations in the quarries, who thrive very well and are very clean, as is the garden; nay even the park is more free from nettles than usual; a prodigious quantity of grass and bullocks and sheep fatting on it; your colt frisking about very gay and for what I know very fine ones; ………I live on the hope of once more enjoying you all together and let the intermediate space run on as it can.”
Kingsweston, 27 Sept. 1758.
And soon after:
“Having no letter of’ yours, my dear Ned to answer, and having had no visitor but Mr, Berrow this can bring you no news but of the mute and vegetable part of the creation. To begin then your serpentine plantation at the bottom of Penpole looks much less like a snake than it used to do, the trees in general are flourishing and, the laurels almost cover the wall; it is extremely clean and has been twice sow’d this year, once with turnips and once with fetches.
The quarries have lost but few trees, but the hares and the lambs have crept under the rails and nibbled some, out. I find they took good care to keep them out as soon as they perceived it for ‘tis very little damage that is done.
The old kitchen garden is transformed into a nursery, but Gould cou’d not entirely part with the sparrowgrass (asparagus) beds, so has planted only between them, but the want’ of room this year will force him to quit his beloved.
There’s a fine parcel of young things of last year’s sowing in the flower garden, viz beach, swamp oak, Weymouth pines, cyprus, holly, laurel and some larch.
Now for my own particular friend the tulip trees that were removed are in health the arbutus are full of fruit and the two small magnolias are alive, but, alas, the great one is dead but what is still a greater misfortune to me, some Dutch sailors stole Jewel (a horse) but the day before I came.”
Kingsweston, 1 Oct. 1758.
Throughout his time away, Ned was replanning his estate. Katherine writes frequently about floor plans and elevations of the house being sent out to him in Europe with her letters; evidently there were plans being sent back to her and Nicholls too, and schemes which she intimates were significant in ambition. A plan for firing bricks and setting out new kitchen gardens was already in train in 1758. These plans would finally come to fruition after 1762, with the stables and walled garden complex on modern Napier Miles Road being begun; indeed, brick was made extensive use of in these walls.
“Gould advises you to make bricks for the kitchen garden wall; he says there’s earth fit for it, and ‘twill save a great deal, for they are very dear here; send me word if I shall begin; the earth must be dug six months before ’tis worked”
(Kingsweston, 1 Nov. 1758)
“My dear Ned,
I have sent you by Mr. Gaussin, Gould’s plan for the house and garden; l don’t imagine ‘tis quite the design you will follow, but as the ground is regularly measured and marked, I hope ‘twill give you some amusement.”
“…I come now to yours of 30 Dec. I have sent you, Gould’s plan, it is not so extensive as your: scheme, tho’ it does take in some of the road.”
(Spring Gardens) 23 Jan. 1759.
“I am in a fright about the bricks; for as that was not Nicholls’s own proposal, I find he does not approve of it, and make great puzzling and difficulties and works, so unintelligibly about it, that I don’t know what he is doing.”
In this letter Katherine implies that the line of a road, probably part of Kingsweston Lane, is included. That may have been the southern end that now faces onto the side of Kings Weston inn cottages, but before then looks from maps to have been aligned further to the west. Katherine eventually settled on a house at Westhorpe, Little Marlow, which she figured would be convenient for her son to drop in on between the family’s town house at Spring gardens and Kings Weston. Most of the letters after 1760 are written from her retirement there.
From 1759 Katherine leased the place as her Dower house. She agreed to buy the furniture already there, and a boat that she fancied Ned would enjoy using in the park’s lake. After his return to England in 1761, Ned quickly took works on the estate in hand. Unlike his father, who had been created Secretary of State for the Kingdom of Ireland by entail, he had no position in court or government, and sought to rebrand Kings Weston as a political powerhouse. With an ambition for a seat in Parliament, he set about modernising house and grounds as a statement of intent, as many of his peers had also done. His first task was to move the collection of old stables and kitchen gardens from a cramped position next to the house. Employing the architect Robert Mylne, a gentleman whom he’s believed to have met in Rome during the Tour, Ned began work quickly. It is perhaps not a surprise that he turned to his mother to lay the literal and metaphorical foundation of this political ambition.
“You are very ‘obliging in seeming to think what I have done at Kingsweston prospers; alas, ’twas so very little, that to me ‘tis not perceptible; I shou’d very gladly lay the first stone of any building projected by you for I have a great propensity to like your designs.”
3 May, 1762.
She appears to have had concerns over the height to which the garden walls were to be carried for she wrote later the same year:
“I honour your spirit and resolution, that has carried your walls up against all your ministry, but know that from this time forward you’ll be charged with every blight that falls on your trees and must never complain of unripe fruit, or backward pease, without being told you wou’d have the walls so high no sun can come into your garden.”
Westhorpe, 3 Sept. 1762
We had long believed that the landscape gardener Thomas Wright, the “Wizard of Durham” had worked at Kings Weston, but it is only through Katherine’s letters that this has been confirmed. Wright had been working nearby at Stoke Park on the other side of Bristol, but also for the Duke of Beaufort at Badminton. That he worked at Kings Weston too explains some of the landscaping introduced during the 1760s and the celebration of the quarries in Penpole Wood as rustic garden features.
“… I am glad you are agreeably detained and that Mr. Wright and you have not quarrelled. He must be a very odd creature for he has refused very advantageous offers from Lord Halifax to go with him to Ireland and prefers liberty tho’ joined to poverty. I don’t blame him for I think I shou’d do the same.
Saturday, 11 April. 1761 (Westhorpe?)
“I wish I could see your new designs with Wright but you will tell them me and they will shew better when executed”
Tuesday 8 April 1761 (Westhorpe?)
Wright probably advised on the deformalisation of the Kings Weston landscape, the thinning of avenues and grandiose architectural features in favour of a naturalistic pastoral landscape. It may have been his suggestion that resulted in the pulling down of the Great Court in front of the house. An important note from Katherine records the year this was planned:
“You are a lucky man, my dear Ned, to have nothing, to find fault with on your return home. I hope your perturbed spirit is at rest now, my dear Irishman and that you no longer overlook your works after ‘tis dark and before it is light. I shall find great fault when I come if the return wall to the parlour window is not down.”
Westhorpe, 22 Aug. 1762
Katherine writes in an incredibly genuine and engaging manner, making her letters a joy to read. They are sometimes candid and amusing, whilst her campaign to resurrect the de Clifford Baronetcy in favour her son shows her as determined and intellectual. The total collection of around 200 letters is a vast trove of fascinating details on mid-Eighteenth Century life. We are only now transcribing the collection, possibly for future publication. The original letters are available free to view in Bristol Archives: Letters from Mrs Southwell to her son Edward (bristol.gov.uk)
Perhaps it was the forecast of bad weather, or the holidays, but we had a very low turn out in July for the working party. However regrettable, we were still able to make headway on our challenge of clearing cherry laurel from an area close to the historic Scouts chapel in Penpole Wood. We will need to return here again this coming week, to today as much as to complete the job.
The work over the last couple of months has revealed another post quarry, later turned into part of the landscaped grounds of the house. As well as views through the woods to the tall lime trees around the Scout’s chapel, itself part of the Georgian landscaping, work has opened around a mature beech tree and yews. The last push in August should add another beech tree to this collection of veteran parkland trees and open the woodland floor for colonisation by native species.
Because of the small turnout, and the rain that eventually curtailed efforts in the afternoon, we were unable to property and safely tidy up the area, but we made sure that nothing was blocking any public areas around the quarry. Apologies for the unsightly mess, but we’ll make sure to clean it up this time around!
Heritage Open Days is nearly upon us! This year Kings Weston house will be opening on Saturday 16th September for FREE! There will be guided tours around the state rooms, our exhibition panels, and plenty to see on the day. Everyone is invited to come along between 10am and 4pm! Full details HERE.
This year’s participation in the national scheme again replaces the traditional Bristol event, which, sadly, appears not to be taking place this, it’s 30th, year. If you have anywhere to mount a poster please print off a copy of this PDF, or let us know where you would like one.
Fantastic news as the café at Kings Weston house is set to reopen next week, with a new identity inspired by the architect of the house: The Sir John Vanbrugh Coffee House. The café closed in its previous guise, Morgan’s Coffee House, in February, and work’s been underway since then to refurbish the venue. Whilst a coffee concession has been on-site intermittently over this period, its irregular openings have proved difficult to publicise. The reopening restores an important resource to the parkland.
We’re delighted to announce that the coffee shop will have a soft opening on the 14th July initially, before a Grand Opening on Sunday 16th July (please note it will not be open on the intervening Saturday 15th). The grand opening is being advertised with a BBQ, cake, and bouncy castles. We wish the new venture good luck, and look forward to seeing it return as the focus for so many visits to the estate.
Coffee House opening times are advertised as 8am-4pm 7-days a week