Troopers Hill has a fascinating history that has shaped its appearance today. The most obvious feature is the Grade 2 listed chimney at the top of the hill which may date from as early as the eighteenth century. The Friends of Troopers Hill have incorporated the chimney, with its characteristic lean to the west, into their logo. A brief summary of what we have learnt is given below. You might also like to look at our Old Photographs and Memories of Troopers Hill pages.
The area that is now known as Troopers Hill is on the edge of Kingswood Forest or Chase overlooking the river Avon. As can be seen from the extract shown on the right, the hill was named as 'Harris hill' on a map of Kingswood dated 1610. A larger section can be seen here. A later map of 1672 also shows 'Harris hill lands'. Many thanks to Bristol Record Office for allowing us to reproduce this extract of the colour map and also to Dundridge Park Group for finding it for us.
Local tradition has it that the Parliamentary army, under the command of Sir Thomas Fairfax, camped on Troopers Hill prior the siege of Bristol in 1645. It has also been suggested that the ditch between the hill and the allotments was dug at this time as a defensive earthworks. It is known that the army approached Bristol via Keynsham and Hanham and it is possible therefore that Troopers Hill, with its views of the city, was used while the Parliamentary army was headquartered at Hanham, but we have found no firm evidence of it.
Copper, Brass & the Slave Trade
Crews Hole became a completely different place in the eighteenth century when the copper smelting industry was established in the area. Copper ore was brought by boat, mainly from Cornwall and north Devon and coal was sourced locally. The copper produced was mostly used with calamine (zinc ore) from the Mendips in the manufacture of brass at Baptist Mills and other sites in Bristol.
Many of the brass products (& some of copper) were exported to Africa to be exchanged for slaves as part of the 'triangular trade'. Indeed there is no doubt that the transatlantic slave trade was one of the main drivers for the development of the Bristol brass industry. Copper & brass manillas were the principal form of currency for the trade and are known to have been cast in Bristol. Other products including 'Guinea Kettles' and other forms of brass holloware that were traded for slaves were produced at the various brass mills in the area.
Abraham Elton (1654 – 1728), who was created a Baronet in 1717, established a copper smelting works at Conham in about 1698 and also purchased Troopers Hill in 1704. The Hill stayed in the Elton family until 1758. The family and particularly Sir Abraham Elton, 2nd Baronet (1679 – 1742) were active in the slave trade and invested in slave ships. The 1st & 2nd Baronets were both Mayor of and Member of Parliament for Bristol at various times and Masters of the Society of Merchant Venturers.
In around 1710 a copper smelting works was established by the Bristol Brass and Wire Company on land between the River Avon and where the Bull Inn now stands. This works became known as 'the Cupolas' and were the main industry in the vicinity of the hill.
One of the partners and an active manager of the brass company from its start was Abraham Darby I. In 1708 Darby moved to Coalbrookdale - 'The Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution' - while it was at Coalbrookdale that Darby made his name, it was in Bristol that he developed the process for casting pots in greensand moulds and experimented with using coal as a fuel for smelting instead of charcoal, the key factors in his later success. It was also Bristol Quakers who had been involved in the copper and brass industries in Bristol who funded his works at Coalbrookdale. Thus Baptist Mills, Conham and Crews Hole are important, but often overlooked, sites in the history of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.
From about 1750 the Brass Company started casting the waste copper slag into moulds to produce black building blocks. The best example of the use of these 'Bristol Black' blocks was in the building of the Black Castle at Arnos Vale but they can also be seen in many of the walls around the area. There is a group on flikr dedicated to collecting photographs of 'Bristol Black'.
The Brass Company purchased Troopers Hill from 'Sir Abraham Elton (3rd Baronet) and others' on 25th March 1758 for £150. From this point until the 1920s the land by the river that became the Tar Works and the Hill were in the same ownership. It is not clear why either Sir Abraham Elton or the Brass Company purchased the Hill, perhaps for access to coal and stone for building. In around 1780 the Bristol Brass and Wire Company moved its copper smelting operations to Warmley having purchased the works of their rival William Champion and by about 1790 the Crews Hole site was abandoned.
More about the Copper Smelting & Brass industries in Bristol including their links to the African slave trade can be found on the Saltford Brass Mill web site:
Much of what is known about the Bristol brass industry was found by local expert, Joan Day who wrote 'Bristol Brass: The History of the Industry' in the 1970s and was the leading force in the restoration of the Saltford Mill. Joan gave a talk to Friends of Troopers Hill in July 2004.
Troopers Hill Chimney
The 1790s did not mark the end of copper smelting in Crews Hole; the site was leased to the Elton & Tyndall copper company until about 1796 and Matthews & Arnold had a brass and spelter (zinc) works in Crews Hole in the 1820s. So far we have no records of the use of the site between these dates but it could also have been used for lead smelting.
Maule's 1803 map was shown to the Friends of Troopers by the late John Cornwell, who ran the Bristol Coalmining Archives and was very enthusiastic about the industrial history of the area. This showed the 'Old Brass Works' where the cupolas were sited but also shows a separate 'Copper Works' adjacent to Troopers Hill. This works is located exactly where the flue from Troopers Hill chimney came down to the riverside. There seems to be no reason to have built the works on this site, which was set back from the river, if it was not to benefit from using the hill. Since the hill and the riverside site were both owned by the Brass Company it seems very likely that the chimney was built to serve this new Copper Works, probably in the 1790s.
It is certain that the chimney was built before 1826, since it is shown in a drawing from this date of the view from Arnos Court commissioned by GW Braikenridge.
By the end of the 1800s the chimney was being used by Stone & Tinson who had a large chemical works on the site shown as a copper smelter on the 1803 map. Stone & Tinson are shown as the occupiers of this area on the plan relatings to fire clay mining in 1886. There is a lease dated 1889 where the land is leased to Thomas Stone and in a document dated 1904 it was said to be in the occupation of 'Thomas Stone Chemical Manufacturer'. It seems that they this company continued to use the chimney until about the time of the First World War. As described below Butlers took over the Stone & Tinson site in 1923 or 24 after it had closed but by then the chimney was disused so it was never used by Butlers.
The chimney is currently 15.92m or 52ft 3in tall (measured in 2016). We believe that originally it would have been taller, with a brick section at the top extending it by about half of the current height, so that the chimney would have been two-thirds stone and one-third brick.
As can be seen in the 1970s photo part of the bottom of the chimney had been broken away where the old duct used to connect to it; the current arch must have been constructed in the 1970s or early 80s by the Council. Bristol City Council remain responsible for maintaining the chimney and have done some work on it over the last few years, for more details click here.
The Somers Family and Industry by the River Avon
Troopers Hill and the land next to the river was put up for auction by the brass company in 1813 but it was not finally sold until 1828 when Dr Benjamin Somers became the owner. From 1843, and possibly earlier, the site by the river, as well as mining and quarry rights on the Hill, were leased to various companies.
These companies included Stone & Tinson who, as mentioned above, used the chimney. Their works were between the Pheonix Chemical Works (later Conham Chemical Works) and the Crown Clay Company (fire clay). The east of the site owned by Somers was leased to Roberts & Daines for the Tar Works. Butlers purchased the area they were then leasing in 1901 before expanding to and purchasing the rest of the site by 1924 when the Somers family also sold Troopers Hill itself to J. J. Ballard. South-East of the tar works was the site of a school, we don't think this area was owned by the Somers family but it was later purchased by Butlers.
There was a report to the St George’s Local Board in October 1879 from Mr Henry Grace, the medical officer of health for the district. This gave a description of the various works then operating along the Avon starting at Netham (which was then part of St George) and moving east to include the tar works. The locations of many of these can by seen on the Council's Know Your Place maps.
Dr Benjamin Somers was born in 1784. In 1827, the year before he bought the Hill and adjacent land, he had registered a patent 'for improvements on furnaces for smelting different kinds of metals, ores &c.'. He is known to have been involved in lead smelting in the Mendips (near where he lived) and he is also listed as the occupier of part of the leadworks in Blackswarth in the 1840s Tithe apportionments. It seems likely therefore that his purchase of the Troopers Hill site was linked to his smelting activities.
Dr Benjamin Somers was obviously very wealthy by the early 1840s as he bought Mendip Lodge (which was a very large house and included what is now Dolebury Warren Nature Reserve in its extensive estate). Dr Benjamin Somers died in 1848 leaving the house to his wife, Mary, for the use of their son, Thomas.
Thomas Somers had married Elizabeth Williams and their son, Benjamin Edward, was born at Mendip Lodge in 1852. Thomas died in 1862 and hence it is Elizabeth Somers of Mendip Lodge whose name appears on many of the leases related to Troopers Hill and the various works adjacent to the river. It was also Elizabeth (sometimes refered to as Lady Elizabeth Somers) who gave permission for the Smallpox Hospital to be built in 1888.
In 1924 it was Benjamin Somers, son of Thomas & Elizabeth Somers and grandson of Dr Benjamin Somers (the original purchaser 96 years before) who sold Troopers Hill.
Heaps of Dross
Writing in the 1830s Elizabeth Emra (see our Memories page) described "the barren and quarried hill, with its yellow spots of gorse and broom, and its purple shade of heath, raising itself above the dark heaps of dross". The dictionary definition of dross is 'The scum thrown off from metals in smelting' and refers to the the slag that was left from the copper and lead smelting in the valley.
There was another short lived industry in Crews Hole based on these heaps of dross. Nigel emailed us from Cheshire to say that he had found a reference to James Michell, responsible for copper mining at Alderley Edge in Cheshire in the 1860s, being declared bankrupt in 1856. His address then was given as Crews Hole, St George and Westbury-upon-Trym and he is described as a lead smelter.
Nigel has now found a
newspaper article in the Bristol Gazette for 6 November 1856 which explains Michell's role in Bristol. Nigel writes, "Michell went to Crews Hole in 1853 to reprocess the slag left
by the earlier working, said to be 130 years old. He probably brought with
him knowledge from his lead smelting experiences in Spain and Derbyshire and
possibly had made contact with the chemist William Henderson at this time.
Henderson developed the processing of copper ores with acid to extract the
metal without having to roast it at high temperatures and, possibly, this is
what Michell was going to do. Either way, it didn't work because the 'good'
slag was buried under more recent material and after 3 years (June 1853 to
August 1856) Michell declared himself bankrupt."
It seems that after the failure of his business venture in Crews Hole James Michell continued to be involved mining in Cheshire while still living in Bristol. Sadly this led to his death in 1862. The Bristol Gazette of 4 December that year reported 'a shocking accident occurred on Thursday morning last to Mr Michell, of the Hermitage, Westbury on Trym, which, we regret to add terminated fatally'. It reports that his foot slipped as he turned round to talk to his agent while ascending the pit and he fell over 30 feet to the bottom.
So, while some copper and lead smelting continued in Crews Hole during the early years of the nineteenth century it seems to have been on a much smaller scale than in the eighteenth century. On Troopers Hill itself there was some quarrying of pennant sandstone during this period, but the most significant development was the opening of Troopers Hill Pit.
The chimney or stack that still stands at the junction of Troopers Hill Road and Crews Hole Road is all that remains of this colliery. Originally the chimney was at the corner of the engine house and parts of the walls of that building can still be seen. The corners of the stack are formed with black copper slag blocks. This structure is also Grade II listed. A Desk Study into the history of this chimney was carried out by Bristol & Region Archaeological Services for Bristol Parks in 2008. In 2013 some works was carried to prevent the stone work from deterioating; at the same time brickwork was reinstated to replicate the start of a brick section that is believed to have originally existed at the top, more details are here. The mine shaft was behind the engine house on Troopers Hill in an area now covered in bramble; it is assumed that it was filled in after the colliery closed. The colliery, which was also known as Crews Hole Pit, was mining coal from the early 1800s and although the exact closure date is not known it was before 1845.
A second mine shaft and engine house was situated further up Troopers Hill Road and is shown in this drawing by Samuel Loxton from about 1914 (click on the drawing for a larger version). Both engine houses would have looked similar and the two shafts would have been linked below ground with one acting as the updraft ad one as the downdraft to ensure the mine was kept ventilated. In his book 'The Bristol Coalfield' John Cornwell refers to the Loxton drawing and says: 'A notable feature of the engine house is a large archway set in the side of the structure for installing and changing the cylinder of the engine, which is a feature of the early 19th century'.
Our thanks to Bristol Reference Library for their permission to reproduce the Loxton drawing.
There was also coalmining on Troopers Hill prior to the 1800s. Several coal seams outcrop in the area and it is likely that this would have been mined on a small scale from the 1600s or maybe earlier. On Troopers Hill there is evidence in the shape of the land of mine shafts that are likely to date from the 1700s. In 2010 one of these showed signs of collapse as described here.
Troopers Hill - Origin of the Name
1826 marks the first recorded use of the name 'Troopers Hill' when it was shown on a preliminary drawing of the Bristol area made by the surveyors for the Ordnance Survey. This was one of a series of drawings which were copied to produce the first OS maps. Prior to this date the hill had been referred to as 'Harris Hill' or 'Truebody's Hill' (which was used on another OS drawing of the Bath area dated 1815).
In 1937, local historian William Sanigar wrote to the Ordnance Survey to ask about the name. In his letter he states that the Truebody family were owners and tenants of land in and around the neighbourhood for about a hundred years.
Troopers Hill and Truebody's Hill were both used through much of the nineteenth century, with Troopers Hill becoming the accepted name by the end of the century, possibly because of its use on the Ordnance Survey map. It remains in doubt as to whether the name came from the use of the hill by troopers in the civil war or at some other time; or whether it was simply a corruption of Truebody's Hill.
Fireclay Mine and Works
The plan shown here formed part of an 1886 lease of the land to the west of Stone and Tinson, together with mining rights under the hill, to the Bristol Fireclay Company. The lease is difficult to read but the wording was kindly typed for us by Margaret Watson from a copy given to us by the Council's property office, who have also given us permission to reproduce it. You can download a copy of the typed document here. In the lease the land is stated to have been formerly occupied by Mrs Elizabeth Braine and Ann Randall followed by Messrs Johnston Andrews & Company and then the Crown Clay Company. The plan shows the duct to the chimney, the cottages and the engine house as areas that shouldn't be undermined. The fireclay mines extended right under the hill and continued in use until they were abandoned in 1908. Two seams of clay were mined the five feet thick Dibb Clay and the deeper six feet thick Buff Clay. Two mine entrances were within the works area, while a third was in a quarry on the south-west side of the hill. Fireclay is often found below coal seems and it is possible that some of the works were opening up old coal mines.
Pennant Sandstone Quarrying
The industry that had the most effect on the shape of Troopers Hill as we see it today was the quarrying of pennant sandstone for use in building.
The 1890 Ordnance Survey map shows a quarry in what is now known as 'the gully'. Comparison of this map with the second edition Ordnance Survey map of 1904 clearly shows that a lot of rock was removed between the dates of the surveys for these two editions. The shape of the hill in 1904 was much as it is now so quarrying must have ceased soon afterwards. The humps between the gully and Troopers Hill Road are tipped waste from this quarry. A quarry is also shown on the south-west of the hill on the 1890 map that has become an 'old quarry' by 1904. The 1890 map also shows an 'old quarry' adjacent to the colliery engine house at the Crews Hole end of Troopers Hill Road.
1843 saw the start of a new industry adjacent to Troopers Hill that dominated the area until 1981. The Great Western Railway from Bristol to Paddington was built under the direction of I K Brunel between 1835 and 1841. While the railway was under construction in 1838 John Bethell patented creosote as a timber preservative and Brunel realised that its use would be a benefit to his new railway.
Brunel took out a licence with John Bethell for use of his patent. He also took technical advice from Bethell in the erection of a Tar Distillery on the site of the original copperworks at Crews Hole. The works were owned and financed by Roberts & Daines who also owned an Iron Works in Silverthorne Lane. William Butler was appointed as manager of the works from the start of operations. He had previously employed by Brunel on the Bristol and Exeter Railway so it seems likely that Brunel was responsible for his appointment. In 1863 a fire broke out that nearly destroyed the plant and Robert & Daines then sold the works to William Butler who operated the plant under the name of William Butler & Co Ltd.
William Butler & Co Ltd became a very successful and innovative company. When the adjacent Conham Chemical Works closed in 1904 and Stone and Tinson's in 1924, both sites were incorporated into the Butler Works together with the site occupied by the fireclay mine. Butlers were then the only industry in the area immediately adjacent Troopers Hill.
This aerial photograph showing the Tar Works and the lower part of Troopers Hill, was taken in 1926 and is from the Britain from Above collection. You can click on the image to see a high resolution version The image 'EPW016976 William Butler and Co (Bristol) Ltd Tar and Rosin Works, Crew's Hole, 1926' is © Historic England and used under licence.
In 1952 Butlers separated their tar distillation and other businesses with the formation of Bristol and West Tar Distillers, in which the Southwestern Gas Board took a 25% stake.
In 1962 the Gas Board became sole owners of this company, and soon afterwards Butlers moved all their operations away from Crews Hole and Silverthorne Lane to a new base at the Rockingham Works at Avonmouth where they operated under the name of Butlers Chemicals Ltd. Below Troopers Hill the Gas Board continued to operate the tar works to treat the crude tar generated from the production of town gas. The introduction of North Sea Gas took away this source of tar, but tar was still being produced by the coke works linked to the steel industry in South Wales and so a means of getting rid of this waste product was still required.
On 1st April 1970 the ownership of Bristol and West Tar Distillers changed hands for the last time when it became owned by the British Steel Corporation (BSC). The contraction of the steel industry in the late 1970s reduced the need for tar distillation and so the Crews Hole works closed in 1981 as BSC reduced the number of tar plants that they operated.
The Tar Works and Troopers Hill in Photographs
In 1953 a book was produced by the company giving details of its history over the previous 110 years. Friends of Troopers Hill were given a copy of this book, which was written by Dr T. Howard Butler, the founder's grandson, at their history exhibition in September 2005. Another excellent account of the history of the works is in paper written by Raymond Holland, who worked at the tar works for 20 years. Raymond gave a talk based on his paper to the St George History Group in September 2009. It has been published by the Society of Chemical Industry under the title 'A History of Tar Distillation at Crew's Hole, Bristol' and can be downloaded here. The photographs of the works on this page were taken in 1953 and belong to Raymond Holland who was kind enough to give us permission to use them. More of Raymond's photographs can be seen on our Old Photographs page, together with many other photos showing the Tar Works and Troopers Hill and the changes that have taken place since the works closed.
Troopers Hill Smallpox Hospital
A major controversy raged in St George in 1888 over the construction of a Smallpox Hospital on Troopers Hill.
The 12 bed wooden structure built in March 1888 was located on the relatively flat area of the Hill next to what is now Greendown.
There was a strong local campaign to get the hospital removed with many letters to the local papers, meetings of local ratepayers on the Hill and a petition. More direct action was taken at the end of April 1888, when there was an explosion apparently caused by gunpowder placed next to the hospital and ignited.
The hospital was only on the site for a short time as it was reported in July 1889 that ‘in deference to the agitation against it’ the owner of the land had called upon the Local Board to take it down. A celebration to mark its removal took place in September 1889.
Read more details and newspaper extracts here.
Playground & Gathering Space
During the debate about the Smallpox Hospital in 1888 described above there were many claims made for the importance of Troopers Hill as one of the few open spaces in the area.
"Trooper's hill was the only place of recreation open to the children and adults the parish."
"from time immemorial it has been the common place for all kinds of meetings, political and religious, and it has been the recreation ground of the children of the district also"
"the only park and pleasure ground in the parish, where thousands of people resort in summer, and which is used by the children in its vicinity at all times"
There was of course also the counter argument:
"As to Troopers’ hill being a recreation ground, I think it is mostly used for pigeon-flying on a Sunday"
The largest recent crowds on Troopers Hill have been for watching the balloons flying from the Balloon Fiesta at Ashton Court; this photo is taken from a drone flight showing the crowds of around 600 people in 2015 - note that drone flying is now against the Parks Byelaws.
There is no doubt that prior to the opening of St George Park in around 1897 Troopers Hill was indeed one of the few publicly accessible areas of open space and was an important gathering place; some of these gatherings and demonstrations were significant enough to be recorded in the local press.
Many of these related to strikes, the Western Daily Press reported in August 1878 on a mass meeting of the operatives the Great Western Cotton Works, Barton Hill. There are also reports of mass meetings in the 1880s of Quarrymen from Fishponds & Hanham and Bootmakers from Kingswood.
By far the largest gathering we have seen reported, however, was in November 1885 to celebrate the election of Handel Cossham as the first MP for Bristol East, reported in the Western Daily Press on Saturday 28th November 1885.
"The scene at Trooper's Hill is not likely to be soon forgotten by those who were present. The spot for the demonstration was not altogether a favourable one for a wet and dark night, but a large crowd of three or four thousand persons assembled, and the utmost enthusiasm prevailed. Numerous tar barrels were placed together and ignited, and the bonfire might have been seen from the greater part of Bristol."
Religous meetings were also held on the Hill, this continues to this day with the annual Good Friday Service - you can see a video of the 2005 service here.
However, not all these religious meeting have been peaceful, the Bristol Mercury reported on Monday 8th May 1882 that
'a most disorderly scene was witnessed on Trooper's hill, St George's, yesterday afternoon.
The Kingswood detachment of the Salvation Army, headed by a brass band and by banner-bearers, after parading the neighbourhood, made their way to the hill with the intention of holding a service there; but on arriving on the breezy plateau found they had been preceded by a party of Bristol secularists, who were expounding their views.
Some of the "Salvationists" endeavoured to hustle the Freethinkers off the ground, and a regular melée ensued. In the course of the struggle turf and rotten eggs were thrown and sticks freely used. The disturbance lasted a considerable time, and ended in the rout of the secularits."
Mr Ballard, who purchased Troopers Hill from the The Somers Family in 1924, died in 1936. Mr Ballard's son then sold the Hill to Frank Viner of Whites Hill Farm, Kingsway. Bristol City Council then purchased Troopers Hill from Mr Viner in 1956 for use as a public open space. The adjacent land between the hill and Lamb Hill was purchased in the same year, but this was for use as Malvern Road Tip. The Hill was largely left to take care of itself and seems to have remained largely unchanged until the early 1990s, though some work was done to the chimney.
Following the closure of the Tar Works and St Annes Board Mills in the 1980s various plans were made to regenerate the Avon Valley & surrounding area - including a Bristol City Council Development Brief and Conservation Policy adopted in 1983 (ammended in 1986)
In 1989 the Bristol Development Corporation (BDC) was formed by the Government to regenerate the area.
BDC installed fences around Troopers Hill and constructed new paths in 1991 (see Set G on our Old Photographs page). This was aimed at keeping motorcycles off the site and 'stopping Troopers Hill from wearing out'. The BDC plans and ideas for Troopers Hill and for development in Crews Hole and surrounding areas are shown in various leaflets produced by the BDC.
The first Management plan for the site looking at the Hill's habitats and wildlife was produced by the BDC in 1992. Since then there have been several updated plans. Plans and associated projects are shown on our website here: Troopers Hill Management 1992 to 2012 - Troopers Hill Management from 2012.
Troopers Hill was declared as a Local Nature Reserve (LNR) on 22nd June 1995 (click for copy of public notice) in recognition of the wide range of wildlife present on the hill and its importance as a unique habitat in the Bristol area due to the presence of acidic soils.
Bristol City Council produced a leaflet describing the site at around this time. Unfortunately there was also a major fire on the Hill in that year which left much of the site burnt and blackened.
The start of the Wildspace! project in 2002 run by Sally Oldfield was the next significant event and led directly to the formation of Friends of Troopers Hill in December 2003.
Our Work Parties & Events pages have records of Friends of Troopers Hill activities since 2003.
The links below show how this website developed and also shows posts to the forum that we used before facebook and twitter became so popular.
Archive of Online Forum 2006 to 2014
Archive of this website as it was on 23rd April 2012
Archive of this website as it was on 2nd September 2006
There are three pdf documents that give more information on the history of the site that you can down load from the links below. The desk study into the lower chimney was commissioned by Bristol Parks and they and BARAS have both given us permission to post it here. It contains images of several old maps.
A Brief History of Troopers Hill by Rob Acton-Campbell (469KB)
Lower Chimney - Desk Study by Bristol & Region Archaeological Services
We have also produced a 'Hill History' leaflet, which summarises some of the information on this page.
Download Site Leaflets
Special thanks are due to the late John Cornwell, Joan Day and Raymond Holland who all provided information to Friends of Troopers Hill before they passed away.