A Brief History of Kingsdown

The area was called ‘Kingsdown’ because it was used, in the Middle Ages, to exercise the King’s horses for the Royal Garrison of Bristol. It became more important in the seventeenth century, as the Civil War loomed, and the 13-gun Prior’s Hill Fort was set up in what is now Fremantle Square – see the plaque. Earth ramparts linked the fort to the small Colston’s Redoubt at Montague Place (and beyond that to the Royal Fort) on St. Michael’s Hill.

Wheel Window, St. James's Priory
Wheel Window, St. James’s Priory

THE NAME: It is said that in medieval times the plateau at the top of hill was used as the exercise ground for the soldiers and their horses garrisoned at the Royal Castle – hence the name, originally King’s down.

Spring Hill/1912 (Loxtori)
Spring Hill/1912 (Loxtori)

THE LAND: on which the suburb was built, was part of the extensive estate of the Benedictine Priory of St James, founded 1129. The Priory was surrendered to the agents of Henry VIII in 1541 and, three years later, its buildings and land were granted to Henry Brayne, a merchant tailor. His descendents gradually disposed of their inherited lands, selling the Kingsdown fields in 1667. It was the family of the new owner, a brewer called Henry Dighton, who, during the following century, sold off the land piecemeal for development.

Fanlights, Kingsdown Parade (Mellor)
Fanlights, Kingsdown Parade (Mellor)

The first residents were generally from the professional and mercantile classes, who wanted to move out of, but not far from their businesses in the crowded smoky city. A new house on the heights of Kingsdown, offering fresh air, lush gardens and panoramic views was exactly what they desired. The new suburb retained its popularity during most of the 19th century until increasing urbanisation, improved transport links and competition from newly residential Cotham and Redland made Kingsdown less attractive.

Portland Cottages c.1912 (Loxton)

THE 18th CENTURY SUBURB: Roque’s map of 1742 shows house building on Marlborough Hill, some plots prepared for development at the west end of Kingsdown Parade and the lower slopes laid out streets and courts. But the new suburb was slow to grow. Over the next 40 years, building was sporadic and small scale with houses built singly or in pairs.
It was only in the last two decades of the 18th century that substantial planned development occurred when Kingsdown Parade and Somerset Street were built up. By the end of that century, the Georgian suburb was almost complete.

THE 20th CENTURY: As movement to the outer suburbs increased, many houses were given over to multi-occupation. Some were still without modem sanitation and were allowed to fall into disrepair, verging, in a few cases, on dereliction. In the 1950s ambitious slum clearance plans and proposed grandiose road schemes effectively blighted the whole area. In addition, the Hospital Board was intent on acquiring houses, at minimal cost, for future expansion. Kingsdown’s fate hung in the balance. It began to look as though what had been described as the finest Georgian suburb outside London could be swept away.

Kingsdown Conservation Area

[Illustrations by David Mellor from ‘A Kingsdown Community’ by Penny Mellor. Copies of this book, essential reading for anyone interested in the area’s history, may be obtained from the author at 52 Kingsdown Parade]

Then slowly, in the late 1960s, attitudes began to change. A strong campaign against the indiscriminate demolition of the modest houses on the lower slopes and replacement by the large out-of-scale slabs and roads that cut a swathe through historic street pattern had raised appreciation of what remained. Soon young couples search of affordable homes began to discern the elegance and potential behind the shabby facades. Many moved in and started the long process of sensitive restoration. 1971 old and new residents, determined to protect their area, came together to form the Kingsdown Conservation Group. Then in 1973 came official recognition of the importance of preserving its unique character when Kingsdown was designated a Conservation Area.

Bootscrapers (Mellor)

THE 21st CENTURY: Though one can never relax in the inner city, Kingsdown in the early 21st century can hopefully look forward to a secure future.
Several of the larger houses in Kingsdown Parade are in flats, providing accommodation for a range or residents , though a number have returned to single-family use over the years. Buying a house on Kingsdown’s summit is no longer the bargain it was in the 1960s and 70s, but thanks to dual incomes and the variety of house types and sizes, families with young children – essential residents for any vibrant community – are part of those who somehow manage to afford to buy homes.,The area retains a strong sense of community with regular communal events continuing to be organised.

To the south east, the flats may continue to feel out of place, but they answer an ever present need for social housing and remain popular because of their central location.

To the north west, High Kingsdown remains a very successful example of post-war urban housing

Despite the vicissitudes of history, the residents of Kingsdown – to misquote the 1765 poet – can still happily say:

Oh, lovely Kingsdown! Nature’s sweet Parade!
Our delight at Morn and Even Tide,
To breathe thy healthy Air, and view thy prospects wide …….


11 comments on “A Brief History of Kingsdown”

A really interesting article.
I lived at 52 Paul Street.In the Forties and Fifties
Where my Mother had a grocers shop.She was Spanish and her name was Powell.
Wondered if there are any more pics of Paul Street.

Hello Dot. I work for the George Muller Museum in Ashley Down – George Muller set up the 5 huge orphan homes up there in the 19th century. At one point he lived at 21 Paul Street, Kingsdown. I’ve seen a photo of it on this website: https://www.georgemuller.org/photos.html

I’ve been trying to find out whether Paul Street used to be longer than it is now (I’m guessing it was as there are only a few houses there now) and whether there are any photos of it when no 21 was still there. Let me know if you find anything!

Hi my name is josh Cummings, I lived in 35 Paul Street opposite the King’s Arms pub with my parents and brother and sisters. I remember Mrs Hodges shop the only building left standing after the war and we used to play on the area behind it. I also remember playing in the air raid shelter opposite. Oh happy days but hard times.

My father came to Bristol in the late 1950’s and bought a house in Paul Street Kingsdown where my family lived for five years and where I was just a baby.
The house had been bombed in the war and the top part of the IT could not be lived in.
My father gave £100 for the house and after five years the authorities said it was unfit to live in.
The house next door was derelict. The house on the other side had a family in where the husband suffered continuous beatings because my mother contacted Social Services to complain – then the husband was killed being pushed down the front steps.

There was a Cafe on the corner with whom my brother was best friends with the boy who lived there.

My father had a tatter’s license and would go tatting in a van with my mother and sell goods in the front,where then he bought a shop in Newfoundland Road (212). Then purchased by Bristol City Council in 1972 for demolition ready for the M32.

Does anyone have any information if there are any photographs of Paul Street during the 1950s’ around anywhere?

My grandfather was born at 50 Southall Street in Kingsdown in 1904 so I would be interested to know more about this address as so far, I’ve not had any luck.
Many thanks.

Thanks for this lovely website. I am interested in finding out if 57 Kingsdown Parade was lived in by my several greats grandfather, John Brittan, a very special pottery man who was manager of Champions porcelain company. I do know that his grandson Meshak Brittan, lawyer, lived in Somerset Street. Any idea if there is information or documents of interest in this matter?

kind regards

Penny Atkinson

Interesting. I lived at 78 Kingsdown Parade from about 1950 – 1966 finally leaving when I was 20. My aunt and uncle also lived at 12c. Many happy memories of growing up.
All the best
Jeremy Holmes

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