Overview of the History of the Oldbury Court Estate

The Oldbury Court Estate mansion, date unknown.

Note: this is the first in what we hope will be numerous posts about the histories of the Oldbury Court neighbourhood in Bristol, England. We use the plural histories because we will be as interested in exploring the neighbourhood’s ‘headline’ history as its popular history. The headline history (one might also say History with a capital ‘H’) is the one that has made it into the archives and books, and which represents the kind of events that have given the neighbourhood its name, its present physical geography, its urban layout and so forth. By contrast, popular history is the one of events which are most often not considered worthy of historical inscription: all those everyday happenings and experiences which give a place and a time their rhymes and their rhythms, their living and fleeting embodiments. This post will begin with a headline history article that summarises the developments that led to the emergence of Oldbury Court as an estate. The following are some excerpts taken from the history of Oldbury Court written by Anthony Nott, and published in a short essay titled ‘Oldbury Court: The Place and the People’. The essay appeared in The Regional Historian, Issue 12, Spring 2004 pp 15-17. If you would like to read the full article, you may access it via this UWE Regional History Centre link (membership of centre required).

“The Oldbury Court Park and housing estate has a recorded history dating back to 1086 and the core of the original Domesday land holding has remained remarkably clear of development for over 900 years. Its proximity to Bristol has inevitably meant that throughout its long history it has been intimately connected with the economic and social development of Bristol.”

“… the survival of the original Saxon name of Oldbury (the old fortified place) suggests a possible late bronze age or iron age embanked farmstead as the original settlement on the site. The first historical mention of the Oldbury site appears in Domesday Book when a riding man is shown as holding a carucate of land (a taxation unit of roughly 120 acres) in 1066 as part of the royal manor of Barton Regis which also included the hamlets of Easton, Stapleton and Mangotsfield. Riding men were free men of fairly low status who were usually found on the estates of large landowners, mostly royal or ecclesiastical. The Oldbury riding man was exempt from labour services and was the only man as such designated in the Barton, his job being probably to carry messages for the reeve.”

“By 1402 the manor of Barton had become much depleted with only 40 acres being under the direct control of the Constable of the [Bristol] castle with much of the peripheral land leased out to local landowners. Oldbury was affected by this change and by 1429 was part of the estates of William Doddisham the younger, a lawyer from Cannington in Somerset and MP for Bridgwater with a legal practice which extended to Bristol. However, by 1485 one third of Oldbury was in the hands of the Kemys family that had originated in South Monmouthshire and become established in Gloucestershire by 1422 at the latest. The core of the Oldbury estate was to remain with the Kemys family until 1667. The rest of Oldbury was in the hands of other men: a surviving rent roll of 1498 shows land at Oldbury as part of the land portfolio of the wealthy Bristol merchant, Philip Grene, sheriff of Bristol in 1499/1500 whose daughter Joanna was married to John Kemys of Oldbury. Grene was also shown as owning two mills on the River Frome, which had been under the control of the Constable of Bristol castle during the earlier medieval period, one of which Oldbury mills was rented from him by John Kemys. Between 1485 and 1667 the Kemys family rebuilt Oldbury House with its three gables and gradually added land to the estate. By 1667 most of the original 11th century estate had been recovered. In 1667 Isabella Collett, the last surviving Kemys, sold 74.5 acres of land at Oldbury, including the house, to the Bristol glover Robert Winstone.”

“Winstone lived and carried on his business in what was later to be called the 15 Dutch House on the corner of High Street and Wine Street which he leased from 1676. His business obviously prospered for he was able to purchase part of Oldbury in 1667 for £1410 and in 1668 bought the tithes of corn and hay belonging to the rectory of Stapleton for an additional £50. Part of his capital may have come from shrewd investments in the fast developing West Indian trade and his son Thomas was able by 1696 to move to the more fashionable address of St James Back and cease living over the shop. Thomas … embarked on a programme of building up his Oldbury Court estate, buying by 1715 the land on both sides of the River Frome which is part of the park today. His son, another Thomas Winstone, was then able to call himself a gentleman instead of a glover, reside at Oldbury House, enlarge the south wing and develop the land to the rear of the house as a pleasure garden while letting out the land in front of the house to local farmers.”

“Winstone died in 1760 and after his widow Albinia’s death in 1769 the estate reverted to her nephew, William Hayward Winstone, who systematically mortgaged the estate during the next twenty years to finance his Bath lifestyle and finally sold it to his major creditors, three Bristol merchants, in 1798. In October 1799 Thomas Graeme, who had leased Oldbury from Hayward Winstone since 1794, bought the Oldbury estate from the new owners for £9000.”

“Graeme described recently as a ‘West Indian sugar baron’ from Barbados, with estates there and in Grenada, was keen to remodel the estate grounds and in 1800 called in Humphrey Repton, who during the next three years made substantial changes in the layout and character of the grounds around the house.”

“Graeme died in 1820, followed by his heir, Valentine Jones, in 1833, and the property eventually passed to the Vassall family, relatives of Graeme’ s sister Margaret. The family were descended from French Huguenots who had emigrated from England to America in the 17th century and had been forced to return to England after the American Revolution because of their loyalist sympathies. The Vassals held the estate until 1936, when having no male heir Harry Graeme Vassall decided to sell the estate to Bristol Corporation [the older name of what is today the Bristol City Council], who wished to use the land for ‘an open space and playing fields’, reserving land to the south for housing. However the war intervened and although the land was put to good use growing crops the house inevitably deteriorated. A fire in 1948 severely damaged the coach house and burnt down the stable, and less than a month later lead was stolen from the roof. An architect’s report revealed the decay of the main house structure, irreparably damaged by ‘a widespread and devastating attack by dry rot fungus, death-watch beetle and woodworm’ and recommended demolition. The Public Works Committee of the City Council, despite wanting to keep the house, did not have the funds to restore it and by February 1949 it had been demolished. The other buildings of the Graeme/Repton collaboration disappeared at the same time, except Glenfroom Cottage that had been burnt by suffragettes. Since 1949 the park has become a major leisure area for local people and as such has fulfilled the original aspirations of the City Council in 1936.”


B[ristol] R[ecord] O[ffice] 2408: Estate documents concerning Oldbury Court from 1667.
BRO Bristol City Council Planning and Public Works Committee minutes, 1935-1951.

J S Moore, ‘The Gloucester section of Domesday Book: geographical problems of the text, part 2’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society,106 (1988), p 96.

M Sharp, Accounts of the Constables of Bristol Castle, Bristol Record Society, 34 (1982).
Land use Consultants, 43 Chalton St, London, ‘Oldbury Court, Bristol, Survey and Management Plan’ (1992.)

S Harding & D. Lambert, Parks and Gardens of Avon, (Bristol, 1994).

Note: Do you remember what the old mansion was like before it was knocked down? If so please do get in touch to share your memories!

Return to the index of the Oldbury Court Journal Issue No. 1

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