This house history was first commissioned and compiled in 2019 and is it grew and sprawled into many different areas concerning the history of Bristol and Somerset, it was suggested that a version might go online in order to aid others with their research. Although it started as an assessment of one property, it now tells the story of a number of other properties and their surrounds and much of it can be applied to the Leigh Woods area in general.
If you need any further assistance with this, please get in touch.
Ashley Coates 2020.
350BC-1AD – Dobunni occupation at Burwalls and Stokeleigh hill forts. The present day property stands on the edge of this camp.
43-410 – Romans establish a settlement at Sea Mills, villa at Kings Weston.
410-1089 – Anglo-Saxon Britain. Present day Ashton Court is managed as three plots according to the Domesday Book and archaeological evidence suggests some form of habitation here before the Saxons.
1066 – Norman Conquest
1089 – Land is given to Geoffrey, Bishop of Countances by William the Conqueror
1095 – Land returns to Crown ownership
1259 – Alexander de Auno inherits most of Leigh Woods, including Stokeleigh and Burwalls camps from his father. He grants the land to St Katharine’s Hospital, Bedminster
1331 – Land is given to the Abbey of St Augustine
1541 – Dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Land returns to Crown ownership.
1545 – Smyth family purchases Ashton Court, they owned it for the next 400 years
1568 – Land is owned by the Manor of Abbots Leigh briefly, there follows a dispute with Manor of Ashton, who takes ownership
1588 – Land is passed to Manor of Bedminster
1605 – Land becomes part of the Ashton Court estate. No change until sell-off in 1860s/70s.
1670-1720 – Present day veteran oak tree begins life
1830-1865 – Nightingale Valley and surrounds leased to William Watkins as a rabbit warren
1852 – Greville Smyth inherits the Ashton Court estate aged 16
1864 – Clifton Suspension Bridge is completed
1874 – Alfred Thornley (hatter, clothier and outfitter of Clare Street, Old City) purchases plot from the Leigh Woods Land Company and builds the core of the house
1880 – Arthur Edward Gregory Way buys the property from Alfred Thornley. Arthur was first cousin to both the “head of household” and “lady of the house” at the Ashton Court estate, Sir Greville Smyth and Emily Smyth (nee Way). His father was Arthur Edwin Way, the estate manager and MP for Bath. His brother, Claude Greville Way, moves in.
1884 – Marriage of Ashton Court’s second-to-last owners, Greville Smyth and Emily Edwards (widow of George Oldham Edwards)
1888 – Marriage of Arthur Edward Gregory Way to Ada Louisa Cave of Brentry House
1890 – Arthur Way publishes No. 747 Being the Autobiography of a Gipsy and contributes £1,000 to the construction of St Mary’s Church, Leigh Woods
1909 – Nightingale Valley bought by George Alfred Wills and given to the National Trust
1919 – Arthur Way dies
1936 – Ada Louise Way (nee Cave) dies. End of Way ownership. Evans family owns property. Land sold off.
1939-1940 – Sir Adrian Boult CH is moved to the house by the BBC to continue wartime orchestra activity
1946 – Lucas family buys property. Ashton Court estate runs out of funds. Esme Smyth dies.
1953 – Lucas family sells propery,
1959 – Ashton Court purchased by Bristol City Council
Burwalls area: The area in the early indentures given to mean the site of the Iron Age hill fort remains and surrounds. Before the construction of the property “the land” or “this area” generally refers to this zone at large unless otherwise specified.
Leigh Down: Another old term for the Burwalls area but encompassing more of the Leigh Woods district. It has several spellings in the pre-Leigh Woods Land Company indentures.
Stokeleigh Slade: An old name for Nightingale Valley
The Avon Gorge cuts through several different rock formations laid down hundreds of millions of years ago. The house is built on the Clifton Down Limestone Formation, laid down 153-277 million years ago, when the area that is now Leigh Woods was a tropical archipelago situated nearer the equator. The rock formation is around 266 metres thick at this point. The Bristol Geology Society describes the rock as: Splintery dark grey calcite and dolomite mudstones, pale grey oolitic, dark grey bioclastic and oncolitic limestones and some mudstones. Scattered cherts and silicified fossils in lower half. Sandy limestone at base in Bristol area. Deposited in a barrier/back barrier/shelf lagoon setting.
The Avon Gorge itself was formed much later, during the last Ice Age, when an ice sheet prevented the natural flow of the River Avon, causing it to divert and slowly erode the gorge we see today.
The house lies just north of the St Vincent Rocks Fault, on the southern side of Nightingale Valley, which borders a formation of Hotwells Limestone. Further to the north, the Avon Thrust Fault marks the northernmost end of Nightingale Valley. It is these “faults” (or fracture) in between the rock formations that resulted in the dry valley now known as Nightingale Valley.
The property we are concerned with lies just a few metres away from one of the most striking, if under-appreciated geological features within Nightingale Valley. What the caving community calls “Bloke’s Cave” but the National Trust rather more sensibly calls “Nightingale Valley Cave” lies just to the north of the property and runs partially under the road in front of the house. This area is notable for having a number of caves, Skeleton Cave and Burwalls Cave being perhaps the best known of them. The Trust estimates the Burwalls Cave to be Lower Palaeolithic to Unknown – 500000 BC? (between)) so it is likely the Nightingale Valley Cave is of a similar age. The last assessment of Burwalls also strong evidence for Palaeolithic occupation (Stone Age) and it is possible to speculate that the Nightingale Valley Cave may have been used as a form of shelter during this period as well.
The Dobunni and Burwalls Camp (350BC – 1AD approx)
Fast forward a few million years and we find people settled in the area, at the Stokeleigh, Clifton Down and Burwalls camps (also known as Burgh Walls, Bower Walls, or Bowre Walls), that date from 350BC. If the present day house had been around during the Iron Age (fully 550BC to 1AD), the window of bedroom five (2003 layout) would have looked out over the Burwalls settlement, a prominent hill fort occupied by the Dobunni people.
The house is just about positioned outside of the camp’s enclosure, by only a few metres. A mound in the grassy verge opposite the property is the remains of a rampart and one of the few above-ground indications that the fort was here.
Although both the Stokeleigh and Clifton camps are still easily visible today, the Burwalls Camp was largely destroyed to make way for the first houses built in Leigh Woods, around 1868. At one point, the camp enclosed an area of around seven acres, similar to the Stokeleigh camp which now sits in the National Trust section of Leigh Woods. An illustration in The History and Antiquities of Somersetshire (1839), indicates an outermost defensive ring consisting of a series of three earth banks with ditches in between.
Thankfully, George Alfred Wills had part of the camp mounds uncovered and preserved within the grounds of his house, Burwalls. They are still on private land but Burwalls Cave is now situated within the accessible National Trust-owned section of Burwalls Forest and can be reached on foot.
Norman Conquest to the Victorian land sell-off (1066 to 1865)
The plot and its surrounds were part of the Ashton Court estate (on and off) for many centuries before the property was built meaning the land has a long list of interesting owners. Although reduced to an 800-acre estate now, Ashton Court once encompassed most of Leigh Woods in the north, parts of Bedminster in the south and large tracts of North Somerset beyond the city.
The main Ashton Court property (previously the Manor of Ashton) is mentioned in the 1086 Domesday Book, and the site contains the remains of a Roman villa. From the time of the Norman Conquest onwards there are records of who owned the estate but tracing the owners of the patch of land we are concerned with is a little more complicated.
The most thorough assessment of the many different owners of this land was produced in 1913 by Lewis U P Way. I cannot trace whether he was related to the Way family that would become involved in the Ashton Court estate from the 1700s onwards.
When reading the indentures from any period before the Smyth’s selling off of the land, it helps to know that the part of Leigh Woods south of Nightingale Valley was known as “Leigh Down”, or various spellings to that effect. Helpfully, the documents use “Burwalls” as a way of describing the area we are concerned with, which takes a different path of ownership to the main Ashton Court estate.
Following the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror provided a close adviser and Norman noble, Geoffrey, Bishop of Countances with the land we associate with present day Ashton Court and includes the Burwalls area. At the time this was considered three separate Long Ashton manors operating as one. Geoffrey is the first true traceable owner of the land in the modern sense, notwithstanding the “three thegns” of Anglo-Saxons referred to as owners of the area mentioned in the Domesday Book and the Dobunni and Roman claims before that. We can therefore say with some certainty that the first owner of this land (in a strictly legal sense we would understand today) was French.
Geoffrey was born in Normandy and was part of the Norman nobility. He owned large tracts of Somerset and was responsible for the construction of Bristol Castle. It was from this castle that he orchestrated part of an uprising against King William III. When this uprising failed, Geoffrey’s family was stripped of his land and it formally returned to Crown ownership in 1095.
By 1259, the land was in the hands of Alexander du Auno who granted it to St Katherine’s Hospital in Bedminster. In 1331, it passed to the Augustinian Abbey (succeeded by the present day Bristol Cathedral). The land remained with the church until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1541.
It was in 1545 that Ashton Court’s best-known occupants, a merchant family by the name of Smyth, bought the t estate from Sir Thomas Arundel.
There then appears to have been some dispute between the then owners of the Manor of Abbots Leigh (Sir George Norton) and what was then known as the Manor of Ashton (Hugh Smyth).
In 1568, the land was passed to the Manor of Abbots Leigh before later transferring to the Manor of Bedminster.
An indenture from 1605 shows that Henry Neville sold the land to Sir Hugh Smyth and this is the point at which the land passed from the Manor of Bedminster to the Ashton Court Estate, where it would remain until the 1870s when the land was sold off to build the current properties.
It is possible to speculate as to what the land was used for during these periods, it was probably a mix of some light agricultural use, forestry, and hunting. More tantalisingly, during the English Civil War, the royalist Thomas Smyth (MP for Bridgewater) is said to have buried the family silver somewhere on the grounds, only for it to be lost. Maybe it’s here?
It was during this period that perhaps the single most interesting feature of the current property came into existence. Roughly between 1670 and 1720, the (now very large) English oak (Quercus robur) in the garden is thought to have germinated. It predates the house and was pollarded in its early life, during the period in which Leigh Woods was leased to William Watkins as a rabbit warren (1830-1865) as well as before then. What it was pollarded for is hard to know exactly. It may be that wood from the tree was used in Bristol’s ships, or used for housing or to assist with local farming. Whatever it was, the distinctive way in which it was managed during this period is very clear today.
It is difficult to age pollard oaks but a Bristol Tree Forum member assessed the tree in 2020 and indicated that it is likely to be 300-350 years old, meaning it predates the current property by over a hundred years at least. At the time of writing, it has a circumference of 604cm at 1.5 metres above the ground. It is classed as a veteran tree and is now registered with the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory.
The Smyths sell up (1865-1874)
Three hundred years after the purchase of Ashton Court from the Arundels, the completion of the Clifton Suspension Bridge connecting Clifton and Leigh Woods provided the Smyths with an opportunity to sell the land nearest the bridge and develop it into a suburb. Sir Greville Smyth paid part of the funds needed to complete the bridge in 1864, on the condition that the roadway was widened from 24 to 30 feet, allowing greater traffic to enter the Leigh Woods area.
Large scale local and national opposition resulted in the Smyths drastically scaling back their plans for Leigh Woods, a 170-acre area which was to become “a little town” consisting of 435 houses, an iron bridge over Nightingale Valley, and a hotel.
The first developer that bought the land planned an even more extreme project, the construction of over 800 houses, prompting an outcry in the local press, but he failed to pay his first instalment of the purchase money to the Smyths and the land was returned to the family.
With the very real prospect of Leigh Woods being extensively developed still on the table, a group of wealthy Bristolians got together to form the Leigh Woods Land Company, which bought the area off the Smyths for £40,000. The firm then built a series of villas and parcelled up the land into sections worth £650 each. Contracts ensured that building was done sensitively and did not spoil the view from Clifton or the integrity of Nightingale Valley, which had been an oasis for locals and an inspiration for artists for centuries.
The Hatter builds “Overvale” (1874-1880)
The original plot was bought from the Leigh Woods Land Company by Alfred Thornley (1842-1907). It looks as though there was an initial agreement to buy the land in December 1865, on the condition of the Land Company and Thornley paying off the remainder of the funds due to Greville Smyth. This was finally completed in October 1874.
Thornley worked as a “clothier, outfitter and hatter” in Bristol, trading with his brother under the name of “Alfred and Edward Thornley”. The Thornleys were based at 17, Clare Street in the Old City, a patch that was subsequently demolished to build a new office for Prudential designed by Alfred Waterhouse – the architect behind the Natural History Museum.
They then moved nearby to 31, High Street. This property also no longer stands. In a period when everyone wore hats, and department stores were yet to establish themselves, it was outfitters such as the Thornleys that were the go-to for people who could afford their wares. An 1871 trade directory for Bristol shows over 30 hatters were operating in the city, most based around Bristol’s medieval core (the area fanning out from the original crossroads of Wine Street, Broad Street, Corn Street and High Street).
Thornley secured not only the land the house stands on now but shortly after he purchased two additional plots behind the house, today occupied by properties that were once servants’ dwellings and stables for the main house and the land where several other buildings now stand. Up until 1936, the land consisted of this entire L shaped plot, which bent around the next-door property.
The original construction, which is the core of the modern property, was probably completed in the late 1870s and was known as “Overvale”, literally meaning “over the valley”. It is not clear whether Thornley ever actually lived in Overvale. Clifton and its surrounds have always been the target of property speculation and it is likely that the land purchases and the build were done as an investment, rather than for the establishment of a family home
The Leigh Woods Land Company were highly prescriptive in the sort of house they wanted to see built on the Smyth’s former land, detailing the sort of stone, roof tiles and style of any house constructed there.
Overvale was built in a no-frills late Victorian classical style, the slightly ornamental string course between the two floors being the only particularly decorative item on the exterior. The striking extensions to the dining room and living room, with their shields and mock arrow slit, were made by later owners, probably the Ways in the Edwardian period, and are in the Tudor Revival style that had become popular towards the end of the 19th century.
Many local connections in Victorian Bristol
Arthur Edward Gregory Way (1850-1919) purchased the house in January 1880 for £2,611.50, around £172,000 today. Thornley retained a “farm rent” of £30 per year, which he subsequently sold on. It is safe to assume Way and his brother Claude Greville Way were the first occupants of the house. Between them, Way and his wife (who would arrive later) owned the property for 56 years.
The Way family has an illustrious history going back many centuries, with the first recorded Way having been yeoman of the guard to Henry VIII. Arthur Edward Gregory Way was the son of Arthur Edwin Way (1813-1870), the MP for Bath (1859-1865) and the steward (a form of household and business manager) at the Ashton Court Estate 1851-57. A local historian, Dr Michael Marston, says that Arthur Edwin Way was a successful steward who did much to improve the fortunes of the estate in the Mid-Victorian period. It was also Arthur senior who had overseen the original plans for developing Leigh Woods into a town in its own right back in 1864.
Arthur E G Ways’s great grandfather was MP for Bridport and great great grandfather a director at the doomed South Sea Company. The many branches of the family tree shoot off in interesting directions which are not worth going into detail here.
The branch of the Ways we are concerned with were deeply embedded with the Smyth family both in the running of the Ashton Court estate and through two marriages. Arthur Way’s grandfather, Benjamin married Mary Smyth in 1798 and Arthur’s first cousin Sir John Henry Greville Smyth (1836-1901), married his first cousin Emily Edwards (née Way), the widow of George Oldham Edwards, in 1884.
Sir John Henry Greville Smyth (better known just as Greville Smyth) inherited the Ashton Court estate in 1852 at the age of 16 and is said to have been the second richest man in Somerset, with Ashton Court drawing an annual income of £27,000.
This means when Arthur E G Way was at the property, both the “lady of the house” and the “head of household” at Ashton Court were his first cousins. Edgar Way, Arthur’s uncle, took over the running of the Ashton Court Estate from Arthur’s father and was the estate’s steward when Arthur lived at the house.
Smyth was a notable Victorian naturalist famed for his large collection of taxidermy and other natural history specimens, most of which were kept in a private purpose-built museum at Ashton Court. It was one of the best collections in the country and was eventually given to Bristol Museum and Galleries.
This means that whilst Arthur Way would have visited this collection at Ashton Court, you can see many of the same specimens on the second floor of Bristol City Museum.
George Oldham Edwards (Emily Way’s first husband) was a director at the Leigh Woods Land Company and his name is on the first deeds of the house on behalf of the firm. Edwards was a local banker who lived at Redland Court (latterly now Redland High School for Girls and soon to be flats) and had been Sheriff of Bristol in 1857.
Emily Smyth had (according to local historians such as Anton Bantock MBE), been having an affair with Greville before the death of her husband, and bore an illegitimate child. Esme Smyth, the final owner of the estate before it was sold to the council, was therefore christened Esme Edwards.
There is no particular need to detail the lives of the Smyths and Ways at Ashton Court here as this is already well covered in Bantock’s volume on Ashton Court and elsewhere.
The other name on the first indenture is that of William Henry Powell Gore-Langton DL JP, a banker and a Conservative MP for Somerset Western at the time the deeds were signed. It is worth reflecting that Arthur Way Senior (who had overseen the more expansive plans for Leigh Woods) was MP for Bath at the same time, which goes some way to show how business and politics were allowed to operate concurrently in Victorian England, although it should also be noted that both MPs shared their seats with someone else, providing time for pursuing their business interests.
William Gore-Langton had inherited the right to mineral extraction at the bottom of Nightingale Valley and needed to be “bought out” by Greville Smyth before the sale of Leigh Woods to the Leigh Woods Land Company. This was achieved by providing William with the rights to extract minerals from a different part of the Ashton Court estate.
Arthur Way Junior followed his father and cousin in attending Eton College. He graduated from Christ College, Oxford in 1871 and became a student of the Inner Temple in 1872. Arthur Edwin Way died on 19 September 1870 at his house (Ashton Lodge), then part of the estate and near the estate offices which are still labelled as such on the corner of Lodge Drive in Long Ashton.
The 1871 census has Arthur E G Way living with his mother (Harriet Elizabeth Way) and brother in Clifton Down. Harriet Elizabeth Way died, aged 61, on 7 September 1879 at Rownham House, also part of the Ashton Court Estate. She left an estate valued at £30,000, providing enough funds for Arthur Way to purchase property in 1880 for £2,611.50 at the age of 30.
Way married his first cousin on the other side of the family, Ada Louisa Cave, on 29 May 1888 at St. John The Evangelist, Clifton. The Caves were a very wealthy Bristol family, with interests in banking, glass manufacturing and shipping. Ada’s grandfather was one of the beneficiaries of the compensation scheme set up when slavery was abolished in the 1830s, netting the family £1,644. It is worth mentioning at this point that the Smyth family are also listed as beneficiaries of this scheme.
Ada’s parents owned and lived at Brentry House, now a hospital, designed by Humphrey Repton and today known as Repton Hall. Repton is also responsible for much of the remodelling of Ashton Court and Paradise Bottom in the Forest England section of Leigh Woods.
The Victorian Zenith – (1880 to 1919)
One of the distinguishing features of the Way’s time at the property was the size of the household staff, larger than a house of this size could have needed at the time. It then consisted not only of the house itself, but of the three plots behind the house, affording space for a significant household staff in their own dwelling house and room for stables.
In the 1881 census, the 30-year-old Way was the head of a household which included his brother, Claude Greville Way, Annie Leppiatt (servant), Alice M. Brown (servant), Frank Salter (footman), Henry Vizard (groom), James Bishop (groom). A groom in this context refers to someone who looks after horses, having two on payroll suggests there would have been a fair number of horses as today one groom would be expected to maintain around 3-4 horses.
A system of sprung servants’ bells was in operation at the house, even though electric bells had started to be installed in large houses from the 1860s onwards. Part of the pully system for these bells is still visible in the attic. An electric push button on the floor in the dining room was in action up until the mid 2000s, allowing diners to ring bells without having to even move from their seats.
The fantastic Know Your Place initiative, run by Bristol City Council, allows you to view historical maps against the background of modern day maps and satellite images. From this we are able to see the full extent of the Way property at its Victorian zenith. Based on the Council’s Town Plan map (1879-1888), we can see that the three plots purchased by Thornley were still three distinct areas.
The “house plot” included a fountain in the front garden and a lawn at the back along with a series of outbuildings. We can probably assume these are the same greenhouses and log stores that were demolished in the early 2000s. South of this plot was the working part of the estate. It contained a house (possibly two) for the staff, a series of kennels and what looks like areas for working the land, possibly growing vegetables.
The third plot, to the west of the estate, seems to have been left as woodland, with a series of paths working through it. An OS map from the period seems to bear out the same details almost exactly. A later map (OS 1894-1903) shows a new building in the woodland area and several in the working area. A large building has now appeared in the middle of the lawn, this is assumed to be a greenhouse, which stood until at least 1949.
Exactly how Way’s life was funded is not obvious but it is clear that he had considerable family wealth and various investments, probably closely tied up in the Smyth’s businesses. The census data seems to bear this out – with entries simply saying “private means” or “income from dividends”, a position mirrored by at least three other Leigh Woods residents at that time.
One of the only pictures we have of Arthur E G Way from this time shows his on a shoot with Greville Smyth and – amongst other people – the celebrated imperial war hero, General Sir Redvers Buller VC. He appears in many of the Ashton Court photographs from the period, most of which are offline and can be found in the council’s archives.
Curiously, newspaper records from the time show that Way tried to register at least two patents, one for “an improved lamp” (approved) and another for “improved motor car”. Even more bizarrely, a book entitled “No. 747 Being the Autobiography of a Gipsy” was written in Bristol by one Arthur Edward Gregory Way in 1890.
According to the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society (of which Way was a member), Arthur Way was deeply interested in English gypsy and Romani culture, and took to spending time with gypsies, and was close friends with many groups.
The book, which was written under a pseudonym, is a fictional account of a West Country gypsy, and draws on real life events which happened in and around Bristol and Somerset. The Gypsy Lore Society published an extensive review of the book in the 1950s and asserts that the work is under-appreciated and represents one of the best literary interpretations of gypsy culture at that time. It remains in print today, in the British Library’s Historical Editions collection, and is still printed under the fictious name of F W Carew.
The society also tells us that Way used a room in the house for “pugilistic activities” – i.e. boxing and hosting meetings with “the fraternity”. This was almost certainly the billiards room and we are told that Way himself would engage in the boxing here. The two roof hatches are attached to a pully system which would have allowed them to be opened just enough to allow smoke from cigars and cigarettes to leave the room.
The use of the room as a sort of “den” (and latterly a garage) perhaps explains why, up until 2005, this room was not connected to the rest of the house. Way’s use of the room probably also explains the strange positioning of the windows. There would have been five originally, all are small and above head height. The Gypsy Lore Society’s interpretation was that Way may have tried to hide his interests in gypsydom from some of his family and friends. Oddly, he also did not reveal that he was the author of his own work to the society and appeared to have shun later approaches from members interested in his work.
One of the stories in his book is about a man becoming estranged from his family as a result of his interest in gypsy culture and the society has speculated that this may be semi-autobiographical. Nevertheless, Arthur (or Greg Way, as he is referred to in some of the estate archives) can be seen in pictures attending his cousin’s hunts at Teddington (Somerset), including one image where he is standing beside the imperial war hero General Sir Redvers Buller VC GCB GCMG. Way was probably a Victorian gentleman eccentric in the typical sense, capable of taking part in shooting parties one day, and then boxing with gypsies in his purpose-built boxing ring the next.
Claude Greville Way lived at the house for many years and would follow in the footsteps of the military side of the family, serving as a Captain in the South Staffordshire Regiment (38th and 80th Foot), he was at one time posted to Gibraltar. There is a local rumour that the stone archway that now stands on the grounds next-door was used as a rest for a gun used by a former occupant of this house with military connections. This may or may not be true but if it is, that person is likely to be Claude. Sadly, it looks as though Claude died at the age of just 39, on Park Lane in London. Arthur E G Way was the sole executor.
The 1891 census shows that Salter (previously the footman) had now become the butler, probably the first, at the age of 31. George Harvey and George Harding were grooms, Sylia Fry was the youngest employee at 17 years of age and worked as the kitchenmaid. Anne Willis was the housemaid. Arthur’s wife was also on the 1891 census.
Of all the property’s former tenants, it is the Ways that have left their mark most clearly. The “W” inset on a shield attached to the main staircase refers to their surname. The arm holding a baton on the opposite bannister is derived from the family crest and literally means “the way”. In medieval times, a man holding a baton would have shown “the way” for marching armies.
Highly decorative newel posts were a popular addition to late Victorian homes. Thewinged lions which hold the shields on the staircase are the heraldic symbol of Saint Mark, but it is unlikely that this connection is intentional, winged lions also being symbols of majesty and strength.
The full crest also shows six fishes, and you can see these on hybrid Way/Smyth shields in the Ashton Court mansion and adorning Church Gate. Sadly the arm holding a baton did not make it into these hybrid coat of arms and it is worth noting that these shields are really embellishments made by the family, rather than a formal coat of arms registered with the College of Arms in London. The family motto that accompanies it is “fit via vi” or “the way is strength”, another play on “way”.
Strangely, the surname does make an appearance in the family’s pet cemetery, situated at the front of the main Ashton Court house, where more than one dog was given Way as a surname. Igor Kennaway told Bristol Museum (OH573): “There’s a dog here, that’s actually got the surname of the family, Sonia Esme Way. Now I find that really creepy, I’m sure that’s one of Dolly Way’s dogs, because she looked upon her dogs as her children.”
The Ways are also responsible for the mock Tudor extension to the dining room (with its Corinthian columns and large fireplace which bares Arthur’s initials) as well as the extension to the living room and addition of a castellated bay window. It is highly likely that the shields on the exterior of the property also once held his coat of arms, a normal practice for Victorian families and something we can see at other houses nearby.
The Ways probably also extended the property (with the cheaper uncut stone work) to include what is now the kitchen, and installed the 1653 fireplace in the hallway, which may or may not be a genuine 17th century fireplace moved from another property. Further research is required to ascertain this.
These features give us a clue as to how the rest of the house might have looked at the turn of the last century. It was probably, like Ashton Court at the time, far fustier that it is today with a darker interior and much more ornamentation. Tyntesfield is probably the best nearby indicator of the styles of the time.
Arthur Way also left a visible mark on Leigh Woods itself. In 1890, Way offered up £1000 for the construction of what is now St Mary’s Church, on the condition that construction began without delay. That represented one fifth of the funds needed to build the church, around £82,000 in modern money. The Leigh Woods Society notes: “He must have been helpful in getting the necessary permissions from his cousin, who was patron of the living in Long Ashton from which the new parish was to be cut.”
He would also have had easy access to the church at the time, via the end of his garden.
On the opposite side of Bristol, another branch of the Way family were undertaking their own building project – the construction of Berwick Lodge, now a luxury hotel. General and Mrs Sampson Way built the property for their daughter Rowena Way as a wedding present.
The 1901 census also shows that a number of famous Bristol names were in the area, notably the Averys (of Averys wine), the Foxes (of sweets) and the Wills (Wills tobacco) who later bought Nightingale Valley and gave it to the National Trust. The Way’s immediate next door neighbours included the acclaimed naturalist Rev Thomas Hincks FRS (responsible for describing 360 invertebrates amongst other accomplishments) and the architect Samuel Coleman, who designed part of what is now Clifton High School, a lecture hall for the University of Bristol and several churches.
By 1901, the household staff had again changed with five permanent employees. Sarah J Nichols, the 31-year-old housemaid, was originally from Westerleigh, Gloucestershire. Frederick M A Smith is listed as a manservant and was 39-years-old. Ada G Smith. There is now only one groom, a Richard J Harris, aged 19 years and originally from nearby Abbots Leigh. Jane Sutton is the youngest servant, aged just 18 years and listed as the kitchenmaid. At 41 years the cook, Elizabeth U Linkham (from Swindon), is the oldest employee.
The census also lists a number of visitors, 47-year-old Sarah Cooper and 36-year-old Ada G Smith are both listed as hospital nurses, continuing in a long line of nurses that seem to be continually present at the property. Without direct contact from the family it is not easy to ascertain what happened to the Way marriage. It is obvious that the Ways did not have children. Ada is listed as having being “hip joint lame” in the 1901 census, and is absent from the 1911 census, where she appears to be living in Oxfordshire with three servants.
Arthur remained at the house, where by 1911 the household had grown to eight people, including a hospital nurse (Helen Frances Campion) and a lady housekeeper (Jessie Margery Featheringham). A Richard Harris remains the groom, ten years after the previous census.
The house had a new butler, Egbert Tom Parsons, originally of Blackwell. Egbert Tom Parsons signed up to serve in the Royal Army Service Corp during WWI. Records show he was at Huddersfield War Hospital for a while and was able to claim additional pensionable income after the war on account of having aggravated asthma. He had married Mabel Brown in 1912 and was formally discharged in 1919.
One unexplained object is a postcard dating from April 1907, found on Ebay by my aunt. It indicates a Mr Edward Davenport as being at this address. The postcard reads:
Sorry to have kept you waiting last evening, but had to go to St Adians Vicarage and did not return until 6.30 will see you tomorrow at 12.40.
Yours Sincerely, Fred
There is no record of any Davenports having lived here but it is possible he was a guest of Mr Way.
In summary, it would be fair to say that the house would have been quite an eccentric place even by the standards of the day. Living off income from the Ashton Court estate, Way would have been able to indulge his interests much like his first cousins were doing over at the estate itself. It held onto more land than the surrounding properties, kept more horses and dogs, and had an area for entertaining gypsies.
The animals probably gave rise to the idea that house was a hunting lodge. So persistent was this idea that the house was marketed by Savills as a former Smyth hunting lodge back in 2003, with the room built for boxing and gypsies suggested as a place where dead animals were hung after a hunt. This seems unlikely. With access to his cousin’s estate and its shooting parties, and potentially those of the other large estates around Bristol, it makes little sense to operate a hunting lodge from suburban Bristol, even if it is the outermost edge of suburban Bristol. Nightingale Valley was owned by the Leigh Woods Land Company from the 1860s onwards, through to 1909 when it was taken over by the Trust, so there is little chance that hunting parties were going into the woods at this time. Nevertheless, the property would have resembled a sort of country house setup in a suburban setting but quite how this might have looked and sounded in practice will difficult to ever fully appreciate.
Nightingale Valley is saved (1909)
On 15th May 1909, George Alfred Wills donated Nightingale Valley (80 acres) to the National Trust, having purchased the site from the Leigh Woods Land Company. In so doing, he saved both Stokeleigh Camp and what is now the Leigh Woods National Nature Reserve, from development. He would later donate most of the grounds of his own house, Burwalls to the Trust, which also remains part of the Leigh Woods National Nature Reserve. It was an extremely important moment both for the local area and for what is now the River Avon Area Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The indenture reads as follows:
Indenture Of Conveyance dated the 15th day of May 1909 between the Leigh Woods Land CO. Limited of the one part and George Alfred Wills of the other part witnesses that the said Company in consideration of a certain sum of money paid to them by the said G.A. Wills sell and convey to him his heirs and assigns the estate above named.
And whereas the said G. A. Wills is desirous of vesting the said hereditaments in the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty in order that the same may be held for ever for the benefit of the Nation in accordance with the National Trust Act of 1907.
Now this Indenture witnesseth that the said G. A. Wills conveys unto the National Trust all those lands, hereditaments and premises containing by estimation 80 acres and 22 perches, formerly part of the Leigh Woods estate, situate in the parish of Long Ashton co. Somerset comprising Nightingale Valley and part of the hanging woods all which premises are delineated on the plan annexed to hold the same in accordance with the Provisions of the National Trust Act of 1907 for the reason able benefit of the public subject to such regulations as the Council of the National Trust and the Committee of Management of the Leigh Woods constituted by an Indenture of even date herewith may from time to time think proper. In witness whereof the said G. A. Wills has here unto set his hand and seal and the National Trust have caused their common seal to be affixed.
Signed sealed and delivered by the above-named George Alfred Wills in the presence of E. J .Swann, J P and Henry Napier Abbot
Parting Ways (1919-1936)
The Ashton Court estate continued to downsize during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Anton Bantock attributes this to the lavish lifestyles of Arthur Way’s cousins as well as “a decline in farm rents, industrial troubles in the coal pits, super-tax, tax on land values and death duties”. By 1946 the estate was functionally bankrupt. What Arthur would have made of this we can only speculate. We know that his father was considered an effective manager of Ashton Court’s assets and it is possible that his successors weren’t able to keep control of the finances in the same way. But the decline of Ashton Court, and the reasons for it, are similar to what we can see having happened at a number of large and often very ancient estates in England over the same period.
Arthur Way died on 22 February 1919, leaving his estate to Ada. His wife then appears to have moved back to the house, where she stayed until her own death in 1936. There was a brief period during this time when Ada and her staff could have taken a train from the bottom of Nightingale Valley. A GWR station opened there for just under four years, 1928 to 1932 but was closed due to lack of traffic.
Ada’s funeral was held (appropriately) at St Mary’s in Leigh Woods and was covered in the Western Daily Press in some detail.
The beneficiaries in Ada’s will (William Henry Greville Edwards, Henry Thornton Locock, William Langham Carter) sold the property to Roy and Eugenie Boucher, who retained the plot with the lake and constructed a property there. Barbara and Stuart Evans purchased the plot that included the main house. Curiously, it appears that William Henry was a relation of George Oldham Edwards, of the Leigh Woods Land Company and lived at Butcombe Court.
The Ways continued to feature in Ashton Court life right up until the death of Esme Smyth in 1946. The city council took over the estate in 1959. The Sampson Way side of the family was also prominent in Bristol life – one Major General Sampson Way became chairman of the Clifton Club 1939-40.
Sir Adrian Boult CH and the War Years (1936-1946)
Barbara and her husband Stuart (a solicitor on Broad Street), lived at the house until 1946 with a break during some of the war years (1939-41).
A central heating plan from 1937 shows that some of the upstairs rooms were still being used as maid’s bedrooms and bathroom and a separate flight of stairs connected these rooms with the living areas below. What is now the kitchen and previously the “morning room” was used as a nursery.
This period saw the arrival of best-known occupant of the house to date. Sir Adrian Boult CH (1889-1983) was one of the most influential people in British classical music during the last century. Amongst his many achievements, he is known for having been the founder of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the first person to conduct a live performance of Holst’s The Planets and conducting the music at the 1937 and 1952 coronations.
It was the BBC orchestra which brought him to the house, as the group was moved to Bristol during the first part of WWII to ensure “continuity of service”. He never owned the house but lived in it for a short while (1939-41) as Stuart Evans served in the Army during the war and the family moved temporarily to Weybridge, and later to Bath.
“My wife and I were lucky to find a furnished house, and the owners were kind enough to turn out immediately,” Boult wrote in his 1973 autobiography, My Own Trumpet.
Boult would have crossed the Clifton Suspension Bridge on most working days as his offices were on Pembroke Road in Clifton. According to his principal biographer, Michael Kennedy, Boult have away his own protective hats used for air raids to the staff at the bridge, to the alarm and puzzlement of his own staff. Boult also served as a lieutenant in the Home Guard during his stay at the house, resigning his post when the orchestra was later moved. We know that the pianist Dame Myra Hess stayed a night in the longest of the three bedrooms overlooking the front garden.
Sir Adrian, the orchestra and Bristol suffered a great deal during the first year of the war. He was conducting at Colston Hall when he found out his own flat in London had been destroyed during a raid, erasing his own personal recordings and causing him to remark: “I shall have to conduct from memory in the future”.
Most tragically, a BBC orchestra bass player and his wife died during a raid in Bristol. On another occasion, the windows of their Pembroke Road office were blown out in the same raid which destroyed much of All Saints Church. The orchestra’s entire set of instruments were saved when their driver loaded them into a van and parked them in the middle of the Downs.
We can only assume that Sir Adrian and his wife Ann would have used the cellar as an air raid shelter during the night-time attacks on Bristol. One object the house has retained is a letter to Lady Boult, found behind the fireplace in the former breakfast room (now study), during a major renovation in the early 2000s. It appears to be a letter from her son, asking her view on remaining in the Officer Training Corp. This is almost certainly a letter from Jonathan Wilson, who later died in active service in 1944. The Boults did not have children of their own, Jonathan was from Lady Boult’s first marriage.
The extent of the Bristol Blitz resulted in the orchestra being moved to Bedford in early 1941, where it would remain for the rest of the war. Boult’s biographer, Michael Kennedy, says he protested this move but was overruled. It is worth noting that Boult had left the city by the time the Clifton Rocks Railway had adopted its role as a bomb-proof relay station and emergency studio. As such, Boult notes “it was decided we should record our concerts in the afternoon and then disperse to our homes, leaving the brave engineers to play it.”
“We were very sad to leave Bristol,” Boult wrote in his autobiography, “We had all made many good friends; it was in every way a delightful city, and we had splendid audiences there. It was deplorable that the fine Colston Hall should have been burnt down one night from unknown causes when it had escaped the raids.”
A few public buildings now bear his name, including a concert hall in Birmingham and a council block in London. His flat in West Hampstead has a blue plaque and he has a memorial stone at Westminster Abbey, but the house has no marker of his time here that we are aware of, apart from perhaps the rust stains on the hallway floortiles, (the result of a leak which happened while the Boults lived in the house).
The Lucas period (1946-1953)
The Lucas family acquired the property from the Evans’s in August 1946. Hastings (later Herbert) Pollard Lucas had taken on responsibility for the family firm, T P Lucas, a major supplier of cooking ingredients which is still in business as Lucas Ingredients in Bristol today. The company website tell us:
“The company was founded by Thomas Edward Lucas in Bristol in 1926 and was the first to manufacture yeastless rusk – a purpose designed cereal binder for butchers who had previously used returned stale bread for their sausages.
From there, the company achieved other “firsts” such as offering “own recipe” and standard blended seasonings to the trade in the 1930s, going on to introduce the first fully blended cure mix, making curing more practical for everyone. Lucas was also the first to introduce coloured seasonings, coloured crumb for hams and the first to manufacture textured soy proteins.”
H P Lucas is said to have been particularly pleased that the house came with a cellar and remained at there until 1953 when the family moved to Wraxall Court. Curiously, H P Lucas’s daughter, Elizabeth S Lucas, appears to have left her blue trunk in the attic, it remains in the house to this day.