The Ways owned the property for the greatest length of time, and by some margin. Between Arthur E G Way and his wife, Ada, they owned the property for 56 years. As we shall see, the Ways had married into the Smyth family of Ashton Court twice and Arthur Way was able to live off income from the estate. So to some extent the house can be seen as a continuation of Smyth ownership, which began in 1605 when Sir Hugh took over what was then Leigh Down, with a break of just six years when an outfitter by the name of Thornley built the house. This is covered in the previous chapter.
This was also the time when the property was at its grandest, and strangest. Arthur Way (who also called himself Greg Way and appears in the City archives as such) had a long standing interest in gypsy culture and would pen a first person fictional account of gypsy life under a pseudonym in 1890. He also had a room built for boxing and entertaining the gypsies he knew personally. The house appears to have taken the form of a miniaturised country estate within a suburban Bristol setting. Roughly 0.7 acres was left as woodland, kennels were installed for around six dogs. Two grooms were employed to look after (probably) as many as six horses, giving rise to the idea that the property was a hunting lodge. The grooms formed part of a household staff of 5-7 people over this period, housed in a separate property, now demolished, at the end of the plot.
This period also saw a considerable decline in the fortunes of Ashton Court itself and this would have impacted the Ways very directly. The mansion of 1880 would have been at the height of its Victorian pomp, Greville Smyth having been the second richest man in Somerset at the time he took over. By 1936, the estate was just ten years away from running out of money completely.
A Tangled Web – 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.
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 and was appointed the guardian of Greville Smyth and held his funds in trust when he inherited the estate at the age of just 16.
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. There is a 1913 book “A History of the Way Family” for anyone who wants to delve into this further.
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.
Greville 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, but the vast majority are held in storage.
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. Ada’s grandparents on the Cave side (John Cave of Brentry and Penelope Oliver) owned and lived at Brentry House, 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. Today a large portion the grounds of the property are open parkland known as Royal Victoria Park while the main property has been converted to flats following a long period as a hospital. Both are Grade II listed.
Ada was the first child from the second marriage of John Cave’s youngest son William Cave. He married Louisa Frances Butterworth in 1850 (the side of the family that connects Ada and Arthur as first cousins).
The Victorian Zenith – (1880 to 1901)
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. From this map it is possible to discern with some certainty that the kennels had capacity for around six dogs. In all, there are around seven buildings separate to the main house, the majority of which no longer stand and would today be separate from the plot.
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.
Arthur’s brother 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.
Aristocrat By Day – Gypsy By Night: The Strange Case of Arthur Way
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. Unknown to the occupants until this research was carried out, this is probably the single most surprising discovery covered here.
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, and on the census results) can be seen in pictures attending his cousin’s hunts on their grounds 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.
Extensions, Heraldry & A Mysterious Fireplace
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. The winged 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. Interestingly, a large number of these appear to have ended up in a house in York.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. It bears the initials “H D B”. One Hugh Smyth owned the Ashton Court estate in 1653 – so the H may be from him but it is not obvious what the other letters would indicate. Another line of enquiry – that the B would be for Butterworth from the side of the family that Ada and Arthur both shared as cousins – did not show up any obvious results. There were H Butterworths around at the time but the trail becomes very hard to trace.
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 Victorian Household and Leigh Woods at the Turn of the Century (1901-1919)
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), Harvey (later of Harvey Bristol Cream) 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 (36-year-old Helen Frances Campion) and a lady housekeeper (Jessie Margery Featheringham, a married 26-year-old from London). Neither have listed themselves as employees or servants.
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.
The youngest employee in 1911 was the kitchen maid, May Baufield, aged 17 and from Somerset. A 25-year-old Cardiff-born Fanny Clark is now the housemaid, along with a 47-year-old Fanny Collins. The domestic cook is now a Sarah Jane Boyd, originally of Durham. Apart from Arthur and Jessie, all the staff are listed as single. Notably absent from this census are the staff previously employed to look after horses (and presumably also the dogs).
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.
The Hunting Lodge Rumour
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 contributed to the idea that the 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.