The Kingswood Forest, Stapleton and Fishponds
from royal domain to modern parishes
by John Penny
The Forest of Kingswood in south Gloucestershire appears originally to have been a royal domain appurtenant to the palace of the Saxon kings at Pucklechurch, where in 940 King Edmund was assassinated. At this period the forest covered about 18 square miles, extending from the River Severn to the Sodbury Hills, and thence southwards to Lansdown, near Bath, and across the River Avon to Filwood, in Somerset, before turning straight north to the Severn again, leaving Bristol on its western border. These Royal forests and chases belonged to neither county or diocese and were governed by a law of their own, neither municipal nor civil, acknowledging no sovereign but the king, who then acted with arbitrary powers. From early days the Constable of Bristol Castle, the king's officer in the area, was also the Chief Ranger of the Kingswood Forest and the first of these recorded is Ella who died in 920. At the edge of the forest, to the north of the River Froom, lay the little hamlet of Stapleton, the name of which is Saxon in origin, being held to mean "The farm, homestead or croft - by or near the Stapol, post or pillar".
Following the Norman invasion of England in 1066 the extent of the lands acquired by William I were listed in the famous Domesday Survey, carried out in 1086. This recorded that at the time of the conquest the locality now known as Fishponds was a very small part of the Manor of Bertune, or Barton, in the Swineshead Hundred of the County of Gloucestershire.
The Manor of Barton, comprising an area of about 6 square miles, was one of several within the Forest of Kingswood, and was so called because it was attached to Bristol Castle and under the direct authority of its Constable. There was the Barton proper, just outside the castle walls which acted as an area of supply and provision for the castle (today's Old Market Street area of Bristol), as well as the rest of the parish of St.Philip & Jacob (later St.George, Upper and Lower Easton), Mangotsfield and part of Stapleton parish. As the whole area was Crown Land, it was described as "Barton Regis", a title which was later given to the new Hundred, (Clifton, Stapleton, Mangotsfield and St.Philip & Jacob parishes) carved out of Swineshead as the population increased.
Sections of the Manor of Barton were early divided smaller manors and one of the first to be formed was Ridgeway or Rudgeway Manor, covering today's Royate Hill and Eastville Park area, which by the late 16th century was in the hands of the Smyths of Long Ashton. Some estates were also granted to various Bristol churches and in 1174 part of the Manor of Barton, including Stapleton, was given to Tewkesbury Abbey by William, Earl of Gloucester, whose father Robert had founded the Priory of St.James in Bristol, a cell of Tewkesbury Abbey. The Prior of St.James thus became Lord of the Manor of Stapleton.
In 1228 Henry III was compelled by want of funds to grant Charters of Disafforestation, whereby several extensive tracts of land, hitherto within the original forest bounds, were converted into common land, or land held in common by the various inhabitants of the parishes affected. The old Kingswood Forest was thereby reduced in status to that of a Royal Chase and its size cut down to some 4500 acres which extended some 6 miles north east of Bristol and covered the present day St.George, Upper and Lower Easton, Bitton, Hanham, Oldland and Brislington, together with parts of Stapleton and Mangotsfield parishes. It was, however, still under the authority of Bristol Castle, the Constable remaining as Chief Ranger as in previous times.
There is no mention of a church in Stapleton until 1438 when the Abbot of Tewkesbury granted the parishioners license to bury their dead at Stapleton, rather then in St.James's churchyard, providing they came to hear mass at St.James's regularly, and paid 2 lbs. of wax for the privilege for ever. The church itself, dedicated to St.Giles the patron saint of forests, was probably in existence well before this time as a font in the present church dates from around the year 1000.
Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 Henry VIII granted the Priory of St.James and its lands to one Henry Braine, a wealthy London merchant tailor, an agreement which also gave him the right of presentation to the vicarages of the parish churches of Stapleton and Mangotsfield, Stapleton paying him 2 lbs and Mangotsfield 1 lb. of wax yearly. By the time of Elizabeth I Stapleton Manor was in the hands of Richard Berkeley of Stoke Gifford and from his heirs passed down to the Dukes of Beaufort, who by the mid-nineteenth century were the largest local landowners.
Shortly after, in 1564, the Kingswood Chase was separated from Barton Manor, when Edward VI granted the lordship of the Manor of Barton to the Earl of Pembroke and William Clark for about œ8500, neither Pembroke or Clark making any claim upon the Chase itself. The manor was then held briefly by Sir Maurice Dennis before passing to Thomas Chester in 1610, at which time the first known map of the area was prepared.
The final separation of the Bristol Castle from Kingswood Chase came in 1631 when, by Charter, Charles I made over Bristol Castle to the Mayor and Burgesses of the City of Bristol. After this we find the chase prey to all comers in regard to cutting down wood, coal mining, quarrying stone and pasturage for cattle and horses. By 1652 the area of Kingswood Chase was standing at 3432 acres and by 1670 it had been unofficially divided into a number of so called "Lordships" or "Liberties", land claimed totally without any authority by the Lords of the adjacent Manors and other local landowners. Of these, the two in the western part of the chase were the largest, Sir John Berkeley's "Liberty" covering that part lying in Stapleton parish and Thomas Chester's covering the present day St.George Parish (formed 1753 out of St.Philip & Jacob). These together comprised about 1600 acres.
Although the Crown was still making half hearted attempts to recover the chase, the landowners proved too powerful and influential and after 1734 the crown agents struggles ceased for ever. About this time we find the first usage of the name "Fish Ponds" to describe the hamlet then developing in the vicinity of the "New Pools" as they were known in 1610. However, it was not until 1779 that all common rights were extinguished in that part of the "Kingswood Common in the Parish of Stapleton" (the present day Fishponds), by the Stapleton Enclosure Act - 19 Geo III c65, which came into force in 1781 following a detailed survey of the land involved by Jacob Sturge.
Following this the area's population began to grow rapidly and on August 31st 1821 St.Mary's church at Fishponds was consecrated. This was initially a chapel of ease to Stapleton Church but in 1830 a separate parish was carved out for the daughter church, Fishponds itself becoming officially becoming a "District" in 1869 with the granting of a chapelry.
In 1840, James Henry Monk, Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, came to live in Stapleton Palace, later to be known as the Bishop's Palace, a large house and estate south of the church. Bishop Monk lived in the village for several years and when an urgent need arose for a new church, the old St.Giles being too small and inadequate for the requirements of the parish, he promised some funds towards its construction. As a result the existing church, dedicated to Holy Trinity, was opened in 1857 and today is one of the most prominent local features its tower and spire soaring to some 170 feet. As the population continued to increase further daughter churches, parishes within their own right, were established in the area, with All Saints and St.John being formed out of St.Mary, Fishponds, in 1880 and St.Thomas the Apostle at Eastville breaking away from Holy Trinity in 1889.
A final administrative adjustment came in 1897, when the Civil Parish of Stapleton, the whole area of the ancient parish, was taken out of the County of Gloucestershire to become an integral part of the City and County of Bristol, where it remains to this day, while Fishponds itself is officially defined as comprising the three ecclesiastical districts of St.Mary, St.John and All Saints.