A brief history of our churches

Holy Trinity Church Abbots Leigh

The origins of Abbots Leigh and the Church of Holy Trinity are lost in the mists of time, but there are definite indications of a Celtic Settlement well before the Roman Invasion. Later, the Saxons came and drove out or subjugated the Celts and settled in the area call ‘Lega’. ‘Lega’ means wood or meadow, or possible camp, lee, lea, ley, leigh, all meaning the same in Anglo-Saxon. Evidently a Saxon hermitage or small chapel was built nearby, possibly on a Celtic burial ground or holy place. The walls of the early chapel were built of small stones, locally quarried; this modest beginning became the basis of the chancel of the enlarged church, and contrasts noticeably with the later, more sophisticated, stonework.

           There is evidence that in Edward the Confessor’s reign, 1042-1066, there was a Prebendary of Lega. He is mentioned in the Gheld Inquest of 1084; the son of this priest, Turstin by name, held it after him, but William the Conqueror gave Lega to one of his barons, Geoffrey de Mowbray, Bishop of Coutances. The Domesday Book tells us that Lega, which later became the Manor of Leigh, was comprised of ploughland of 180 acres and two cottages. Although situated within the Manor of Leigh, the chapel held title to its own land.

In 1115, Henry I gave his chief minister, Roger of Salisbury, a gift of 21 churches. Included in this gift, was the Parish of Bedminster, to which the chapels of Redcliffe and St Thomas were attached.

Meanwhile, the Manor of Leigh had passed through several hands until purchased by Robert Fitzharding, a Bristol merchant. He was reputed to be a grandson of King Harding of Denmark and one-time Lord Mayor of Bristol. He had been rewarded by Henry II with the Berkeley estates for services rendered, and he was not only wealthy, but pious. In 1143, he founded the Abbey of St Augustine, subsequently to become Bristol Cathedral. He also endowed the Abbey with his estate of the Manor of Leigh. Later the Abbey built a rest house for the monks in the village, thereafter known as ‘Abbots Leigh’. The rest house was built near the present site of Leigh Court. The church at Leigh was still part of the Parish of Bedminster and referred to as a chapel of ease. (Chapels of ease were built for the convenience of worshippers who lived too far away from the parish church). The parish was very much under the influence of the Abbey but was administered by the Diocese of Bath and Wells, with the Diocese of Salisbury appointing the Rector. The Rector of Bedminster Church assigned a monk to the cure of Leigh.

The church, as we see it today, was built at intervals over a period of 800 years. No exact date can be put on the early construction. The first record appears in 1115, so it may be assumed that that part which is now the chancel is later 12th century. There was originally a crypt beneath, filled in later. The nave is possibly 13th century, built at the time of the Magna Carta.

The South aisle is believed to have been added in the 14th century. The tower is mid-15th, when the Tudors and Plantagenets fought each other for the crown of England. The small door in the South wall of the chancel is 15th century and was the entrance to the Lord of the Manor’s pew.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 brought change to the Manor of Leigh, but little to the chapel. The Manor became the property of Paul Bush, the first Bishop of Bristol. On his death, Edward VI gave it to the Norton family; under them the estate prospered and the population increased. Sir George Norton is particularly remembered for sheltering King Charles II at Leigh Court during his flight after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester. The Nortons were followed by the Trenchards in 1715. There was no enlargement to the church during this period.

Through the centuries, land and property had been acquired by the parish, since disposed of. The George Inn, to this day a popular public house in Abbots Leigh, was once ecclesiastical property. It was known in those days as ‘Church House’. Visitors and worshippers at the chapel coming from afar made use of its stables and hospitality. It was also used for Church festivities. Close by the Inn were the parish stocks, mentioned in the Vestry Book in 1816 as having been renewed.

In 1845, the parish Bedminster and the chapels were returned by the Diocese of Bath and Wells to the Diocese of Bristol. It appears that at this time, the parish was poorly served by the Mother Church. Joseph Leach, in his ‘Churchgoer’s Rural Rides’ in 1847, states that ‘gaving no permanent incumbent’, worshippers never knew from one Sunday to another who was going to take the service. Leach also described the chapel as ‘venerable and plain’ outside while the interior he considered to be in a condition of ‘primitive and almost rude simplicity’. There was no record of an organ, but Leach mentioned a balcony under the tower where musicians played. It all sounds pleasingly bucolic; however, all this was to change. A year later, in 1848, the chapel was gutted by fire.

The nave suffered most, the wooden roof of the chancel burning merrily, then collapsing down on the pews, pulpit and balcony. The fire was seen soon after Mattins on February 21st. The village turned out to fight the flames and someone was sent to Bristol for a fire engine, a horse-drawn one which arrived three hours later. As a result of their exertions, the tower and chancel were saved. The Miles family paid for much of the repairs. Various alterations were made at the time, including the addition of the North aisle, the dormer windows and the vestry. The balcony was not replaced, but an organ was installed.

Little has changed since the rebuilding after the fire. Most important, perhaps, in 1852, Abbots Leigh became a parish in its own right. The first Vicar, the Reverend Charles Morgan, moved into the residence which is now known as the “Glebe House’/ The present Vicarage down the road was built in 1924.

Another fire occurred in the church in 1972. By a coincidence, the date was the same as the previous fire, February 23rd! The consequence of this fire was not nearly so serious; the organ was destroyed and one or two pews; the roof was badly scorched.

In 1976, the churches of Abbots Leigh and Leigh Woods were united under one Vicar. This union between the parishes has been a great success, bringing the two villages together, sharing services and activities.

In 1985, the vestry was extended to include a kitchen and a lavatory, bringing piped water into the church for the first time.

Holy Trinity remains to this day a thriving, well cared for and much-loved church.

It is interesting to note that at least two Abbots Leigh families were involved in the ‘slave trade’ and the church reaped some benefit from this.

The Churchyard – The octagonal stone steps supporting the War Memorial are thought originally to have been the base of an early Preaching Cross.

There is an ancient font beside the South porch which may have been used for christenings from the earliest days of the church, until replaced by the existing one which is 19th century.

Principal Monuments Inside the Church
The Norton Canopy Monument – This is the oldest monument, situated in the children’s corner of the South aisle. It has the appearance of being unfinished as it has neither effigy nor inscription; but since it was moved three times before it came to rest in its present position, some parts may have been damaged and removed. However, the carving is Elizabethan in character, executed after the death of Sir George Norton coat of arms of two lions appears on the shield below the pediment, and again in the shields in the lower part of the monument. Sir George Norton – This monument is in position on the North wall of the chancel in commemoration of Sir George Norton (1622-1677), the grandson of the first Lord of the Manor of Abbots Leigh. He is remembered for giving shelter to King Charles II, although in actual fact he was unaware of the monarch’s identity at the time, in spite of the inscription. This monument is also in commemoration of his son, George (1648-1715)

The Trenchards – There are two monuments to the Trenchards; one to Johannes Trenchard (d.1723) on the South wall of the chancel; the other on the North wall to Robert Hippisley Trenchard (d.1787)

The Miles Monument – The white marble monument on the North wall of the tower commemorates the death of Philip John Miles in 1845. The sculptor was E H Baily of Bristol, who was responsible for Nelson’s figure on the column in Trafalgar Square, and also the decorations on March Arch.

The Bright Family – There are several plagues to the Brights on the West wall of the Nave. Dr. Richard Bright (1789-1858) is particularly remembered for his research into the disease of the kidney, named Bright’s Disease after him.

The Miles Hatchment – The large wooden and canvas hatchment with the Miles Arms on it was carried in front of the cortege at the funeral of Philip John Miles.

This short history is based on research by Shirley Hood, KWE Harris and the Revered L J Carter.

Edited by the Late H G Mowat

To find out more go to Abbots Leigh Civic Society & Heritage Group

Saint Mary’s Church Leigh Woods

The history of Leigh Woods is much more recent than that of Abbots Leigh. When Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge was completed in 1864 there was only one house on the Leigh Woods side of the Avon Gorge. Land was acquired by the Leigh Woods Land Company and plots were sold off on which the wealthy could build houses costing not less than £650 and usually more! Several attempts were made by the residents to build their own church,

as travel to the parish in Long Ashton nearly two miles away, on foot or by carriage, was not easy. Land was given by the Land Company and the church was completed and licensed in October 1892. A year later, St. Mary’s, latterly St. Mary the Virgin, was consecrated with its own parish. More St Mary’s history here:

The history of Leigh Woods is much more recent than that of Abbots Leigh. When Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge was completed in 1864 there was only one house on the Leigh Woods side of the Avon Gorge. Land was acquired by the Leigh Woods Land Company and plots were sold off on which the wealthy could build houses costing not less than £650 and usually more! Several attempts were made by the residents to build their own church,

as travel to the parish in Long Ashton nearly two miles away, on foot or by carriage, was not easy. Land was given by the Land Company and the church was completed and licensed in October 1892. A year later, St. Mary’s, latterly St. Mary the Virgin, was consecrated with its own parish. more history of St Mary’s, Leigh Woods:

When Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Bridge was opened in 1884, five years after his death, there was just one cottage in Leigh Woods. The land between Rownham Hill and the edge of Nightingale Valley, now North Road, was put into the trust of the Leigh Woods Land Company. They sold plots to the wealthy and set a minimum cost of the houses at £650 (add at least three ‘0’s for today’s value). By the 1890’s many of the properties were occupied. The community had tried unsuccessfully several times to have a church built. They lived in the parish of Long Ashton and the journey down Rownham Hill to All Saints Church in all weathers in horse drawn transport or on foot must have been trying. A fresh effort was made in 1890 when Arthur Gregory Way offered £1000 provided there were no further hold-ups. He was cousin to Sir Greville Smyth at Ashton Court, the patron of All Saints Church, whose permission had to be gained for a part of the parish to be split off and become the Leigh Woods parish. Leigh Woods remains to this day as part of the civil parish of Long Ashton.

 At 4pm on 1st November 1890 a meeting was called at the home of Mr John Harvey (Harvey’s Wine). A committee of nine men with business acumen and money was formed including Thomas Davey (Franklin Davey Tobacco Co later subsumed into Imperial Tobacco), Mr Edward Swann (an influential solicitor and banker and on very good terms with the Bishop of Bath & Wells), Mr William Garnett, Mr Hoskens Lowe (timber importer) and Mr John Russell Harvey (John Harvey’s son) and Mr E Burrow Hill (the son of Charles Hill, shipbuilder) who became the committee’s secretaries. By the end of the month sufficient funds had been pledged and, with land given by the Leigh Woods Land Company, to proceed to plans. Nine national architects submitted plans by January 1891 and John Medland FRIBA, a pupil and assistant to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was successful. His plans were later altered as he wildly under priced the project. Amongst the instructions were that ‘it is essential that the Church should be of a rustic and picturesque character of stone or red brick with a tile roof, small spire, rustic porch and in keeping with the surroundings, as contrasted with the formal architecture of a City church’. Other requirements were ‘a bell of good tone, ornamental tiled flooring, heating apparatus and pipes throughout, an organ chamber (no organ initially), clergy and choir stalls, gas pipes (for lighting), a lightening conductor and a weather cock’. Ten local and four national builders tendered for the contract and Messrs R Wilkins & Sons (now Wilkins & Coventry) were successful.

By Saturday 1st August 1891 the work had gone ahead to the point where Lady Smyth could lay the foundation stone with a canister of contemporary artefacts underneath. Although photographs exist of this occasion the stone can no longer been found – it is probably concealed by later additions in the region of the present choir vestry. There was general disappointment that because of bad winter weather the church was not completed until autumn 1892. The continuing job of the committee was to raise further funds to provide all the necessaries to furnish a functional church. Everything from chairs (sold for 5/- with a hassock) to the bell weighing 4cwt (Llewellins & James, Bristol), the communion plate and the alter frontals, the altar table (carved by E. Halliday of Bath) the eagle lectern (carved by J.T.Wilson, London). All this was done in time for the Church to be licensed for marriages by October 1892. After some problems about the legal setting up of a parish, Assistant Bishop Bromby consecrated the Church on St Luke’s Day, 18th October 1893. After which the company enjoyed a luncheon at the Clifton Down Hotel then on Zion Hill.

In the next five years or so the choir vestry was added, a Father Willis organ installed and the Vicarage was built next door. In 1906 Sir George Wills replaced the pulpit (the original given by Lady Smyth), and installed the rood screen in memory of his wife, Susan Britton Wills. The carvings on the pulpit are St Gregory the Great, St Augustine of Hippo and St Jerome – three of the four ‘Fathers of the Church’.

In 1976 the church was merged into a single ecclesiastical parish with Holy Trinity, Abbots Leigh and left the diocese of Bath & Wells for that of Bristol. The Vicarage was sold and the kitchen and improved toilet facilities built from a small part of the proceeds.

The first Vicar was The Rev John Gamble MA, BD. He retired in 1923. His memorial plaque is on the south side of the sanctuary. It was carved by Eric Gill known for his lettering and statues including that on Broadcasting House, London. The second Vicar, Canon William Yates died on Christmas Day 1951, He had been Canon of Bethlehem in St.Georges Cathedral, Jerusalem. These two priests served for nearly sixty years and through two World Wars. There have been eight Vicars since and now our Priest in Charge, The Rev. Decia Smith, who started her ministry here in July 2000.

Walking round the Church you will readily identify memorials to the families of the founders. The south wall has windows and plaques in memory of the Davey family including a stone commemorating the son who was killed in the 1st World War. Eleven young men left Leigh Woods to serve their country and did not return and their names are listed in the lych gate, which is our ‘War Memorial’. Midshipman Peter Popert, who was drowned in 1941, has as his memorial the central part of the communion rail. The rest of the rail, the sanctuary windows and reredos below are all in memory of various members of the Harvey family – grapes appear prominently! There is a plaque on the north wall of the chancel in memory of Miss Bromby, daughter of Bishop Bromby, who became choirmistress. She endowed a charity to pay the fees of choirboys who came up from Bedminster every Sunday, to go to secondary school. The west window is in memory of W. Melville Wills and the window near it on the north side is in memory of his wife and his son, who was killed in the war. The church builders, Messrs R. Wilkins, gave the window in the baptistery.

The Churchyard cannot be used for burials, as the bed-rock is only two feet below the surface. However cremated ashes can now be interred in a consecrated area surrounding the calvary and cross, which is a memorial to E. Burrow Hill. He died in 1897 on Templemeads Station, aged 37, having cycled down to check that his young son was safely on a journey. Our Church, with its chairs not pews, is usefully used for indoor secular events and our churchyard, without gravestones, for outdoor fetes. Behind the Church is the Millennium garden created to be of value to our flower arrangers. Most of the churchyard is deliberately kept ‘wild’.

To find out more go to Leigh Woods Society