March 2024: News from local history group CHAP

WHEN you start your working day, or keep up with local developments like the new AI supercomputer being built at the Bristol & Bath Science Park, do you ever wonder what work would have been like in days gone by? 

There are clues all around us.

The first jobs in Downend and Emersons Green were on farms, in quarries and mines.  Some old farms are still standing, including Lincombe Barn, which was probably built in around 1750, and Baugh and Vinney Green Farmhouses, both from the late 1800s.  

The bowl-shaped dip in the landscape from Westerleigh Road into Stockwell Drive and Springfield Avenue is the scar of a limestone quarry used from the mid-17th century. 

Limestone was made into lime in lime kilns and used as a soil conditioner, reducing acidity. 

Lime was used for building, including in lots of the walls around Downend, and to make cement and aggregate. 

It was also used in glass making, iron foundries, paper, animal feed, and even to help reduce explosions in coal mines, as the powder suppresses methane.

Coal was recorded locally as early as 1228, and mining went on from the 1500s to the late 1800s.  You can still see the mine engine house in Collier’s Break, and spot place names containing the name of one wealthy local mine owner, William Player.

In the 1700s and 1800s people travelled by horse and carriage at about 5mph, stopping to eat and rest at local inns like The Horseshoe in Downend. 

Trades such as blacksmiths, wheelwrights, ironworkers and timber yards set up nearby.

By the 1900s life must have been very noisy, smelly and grimy, as all sorts of other items were being made here: boots and shoes, nails, buttons, combs, bricks, lace, wire, candles and soap.  

Much work was done at home, and was called ‘piece work’ because people were paid by how many pieces of work they produced. 

There were also factories where children worked alongside adults, which were dangerous places.  

There were hundreds of small workshops and factories, including hat makers at Buckingham Place in Downend. 

In fact, felt hat making went on in our area from the 1500s until the 20th century. 

The work was extremely hard, and hatters had a reputation for heavy drinking. 

The fibres in the air caused asthma and other bronchial complaints, whilst chemicals including toxic mercury led to brain diseases (leading to the expression ‘as mad as a hatter’) and early death. 

But hatters didn’t just put up with this. They were amongst the first groups of workers to form trade unions, and went on strike as early as 1768.  

There was also a pin-making factory close to the Green Dragon.  The metal grinding process created dust, which was made worse by the damp conditions and the toxicity of the materials used. 

Incidentally, the expression ‘pin money’ comes from a 14th century law which decreed that pins could only be sold in an open shop on two days in January each year. 

This was because pins were expensive and in very short supply at that time. 

Ladies flocked to buy them using their ‘pin money’ – an allowance from their husbands or families.  When pins became more plentiful and cheaper, women branched out and spent their pin money on clothing, fans, books, scented soaps and other luxuries.

Helen Rana