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Steep Holm’s Inn

In June 1830 Steep Holm was sold by William Willes to John Baker, a Somerset solicitor.  On the east coast of Steep Holm he built a small harbour around the Landing Beach, an inn just above the high tide level and a cliff side cottage higher up to house boatmen, fisherman and labourers.  Cliff Cottage and the inn were both nearing completion by July 1832.  The inn was built of island stone and rendered.  It was three storeys high with a castellated roof balustrade and a small walled garden.  The lower storey was built directly against the rock face.  On the north side a large water catchment tank was built.  In October 1833 John Baker sold the island to Colonel Charles Kemeys Kemeys-Tynte.

Steep Holm Inn and landing beach
Inn and landing beach

In the early 1840s John and Betty Harse leased Steep Holm for a few years.  Betty ran the inn while John farmed.

The tenancy of Steep Holm was acquired by Frederick and Mary Harris c1846.  They moved to the island with their children Emily, Mary, Frederick Henry and Rosa.  Fred Harris was an accomplished sailor and he ferried visitors to and from the island in his own boat.  Sailors, waiting in the Bristol Channel for high tide to enable them to sail into Bristol or the Welsh ports, also frequented the inn.  In 1851 Rosa Harris drowned off Steep Holm, aged 4½ .

In 1854, while on a trip to the Newport area, Fred exchanged his Newfoundland dog for a young Russian bear.  In 1857 the bear severely injured a young Italian governess called Ann Caroline Besozzi, who was visiting the island.  In 1858 a civil action was held at Bristol Assizes to obtain compensation for the governess.  Fred Harris was ordered to pay her £50 in addition to the court costs for both sides.  He failed to pay and the following year he was called to Taunton County Court where he pleaded insolvency and the judge believed him, although in reality he had transferred all his assets to other people.

In 1859 there was a great storm in the Bristol Channel.  Fred Harris’s boat Mystery was badly damaged and Steep Holm’s harbour wall collapsed, which made it much harder for people to land on the island.  The wall was never rebuilt.

In 1866 the inn was enlarged by the building of an adjacent three storey annexe to house workers building the forts on the island.  The inn prospered from 1866-8 with all the extra resident customers.

Steep Holm Annexe ruins at low tide
Annexe ruins at low tide

By 1871 Fred and Mary Harris were managing the Royal Claremont Pier Hotel in Weston-super-Mare, which was renamed Harris’s.  The Steep Holm Inn was being run by Frederick Henry’s wife Ann.  In 1872 their daughter was born on the island.  She was named Beatrice Steep Holmes Anne Cooper Harris.

In May 1884 Frederick Henry Harris was summoned to Axbridge Petty Session Court to answer charges of selling alcohol without a licence.  He argued that Steep Holm was not part of Somerset and that in the 38 years his family had run the inn they had never been asked to obtain a licence.  The case was dismissed but the Inland Revenue appealed to the High Court and in 1885 they won.  The Harris family gave up their tenancy of the island the same year but soon after they leased Flat Holm and ran an inn there.

Mrs Caroline Davies and her two adult sons Harold and Wallace/Wallis rented Steep Holm in 1885. They ran day excursions and fishing and rabbit shooting trips to the island and also grew crops and raised farm livestock.  However their business was not a success and they sold their stock and equipment to Thomas Henry Waite-Hall from Glastonbury the following year.  He had left the island by 1891 and the inn was closed for the last time.

By the 1930s the inn was derelict and during the refortification of the island in 1941 the walls of the inn and annexe were demolished to make way for a narrow gauge railway.  The walls were rebuilt and the inn reroofed in the early 1980s by the Kenneth Allsop Trust for use as a wardens’ depot and store but it proved to be too damp to be of much use.

Inn and Annexe ruins at low tide
Inn and Annexe ruins at low tide
Annexe ruins at high tide, Steep Holm
Annexe ruins at high tide
Steep Holm Inn from the shingle spit at low tide
Inn from the shingle spit at low tide

Steep Holm during the Second World War

Steep Holm during the Second World War

The refortification of Steep Holm and neighbouring Flat Holm began in July 1941 to protect convoy ships lying at anchor in the Bristol Channel waiting for high tide to enable them to unload their cargoes at the various ports along the Severn Estuary.

On Steep Holm two jetties were constructed, an iron one at the Landing Beach on the east coast and a smaller stone one at South Landing. 

Steep Holm Wartime Jetty
Remains of the wartime jetty at South Landing 

Two batteries were built on the top of the island.  Steep Holm North was on the site of the Victorian Summit Battery in the north west of the island and had clear views across to Flat Holm and Lavernock Point on the Welsh coast.  Steep Holm South was on the site of Garden Battery in the south east of the island, which had views over the whole of Bridgwater Bay. Each battery had two separate emplacements for 6 inch ex-Navy guns.  The batteries were roofed with “plastic armour”, which was a bituminous cement mixed with flint and granite chippings.

A rocket launcher was constructed at Split Rock Battery.  Observation posts were built at Rudder Rock and Steep Holm South Batteries.

South Battery Steep Holm
Steep Holm South Battery
Steep Holm Flat Holm from Rudder Rock Observation Post
Flat Holm from Rudder Rock Observation Post
Steep Holm Plastic Cladding
Remains of the plastic armour roof at Steep Holm South Battery

Two instrument pillars were built, one at each battery.  Royal Artillery spotters mounted their Depression Range-Finders on them, which enabled them to observe targets and correct the fall of fire.  They were surrounded by blast walls.

Steep Holm Instrument Pillar at North Battery
Instrument Pillar at Steep Holm North Battery

The remains of the inn and Cliff Cottage were demolished to make way for a narrow gauge railway, which was used for winching wagons of sand, cement, supplies and equipment up the Zigzag Path from the Landing Beach to the summit and across the plateau to Steep Holm North Battery.  A separate track was also laid from the South Landing up to the summit. The railway track used had been captured from the Germans on the Western Front during the First World War.  Three winch houses were built at the top of the three sections of the Zigzag Path.  An open winch was constructed at the top of the path down to the South Landing.  Indian soldiers with mules transported stores from ships to the summit of the island until the narrow gauge railway was completed.   The mules were later used to pull the wagons along the level sections of the narrow gauge railway.

Steep Holm Railway Line up the ZigZag Path
Railway Line up the ZigZag Path
Steep Holm Railway Track to South Landing looking down on the Searchlight Post
Railway Track to South Landing looking down on the Searchlight Post
Steep Holm Winch Top of South Landing
Remains of the winch at the top of the path leading to the South Landing

Up to 300 men were stationed on Steep Holm during the construction phase. Officers were housed in the Victorian barracks but lower ranks had to live in tents until Nissen huts were constructed. 

Four searchlight posts were built around the island: at South Landing; above Calf Rock; above Rudder Rock and on the north coast to the north east of Steep Holm North Battery. The purpose of these was to look out for German E-boats sailing up the Bristol Channel.  The top of the island was too high to allow the searchlights to pan across the sea, so the searchlight posts were built low on the cliffs.  Long flights of concrete steps had to be built to reach two of them.  There were 120 steps leading down the Rudder Rock searchlight post and 208 steps down to the post on the north coast. The posts and the steps to them were painted with zebra camouflage to disguise them.  Two Generator houses were built to power the searchlights.

Searchlight Steps Steep Holm
Steps leading down to 208 Steps Searchlight Post on the North Coast
Steep Holm Searchlight Post South Landing
Searchlight Post South Landing
Steep Holm Generator House 2
Generator House: this powered the Rudder Rock and 208 Steps Searchlight Posts
Steep Holm Rudder Rock Searchlight Post
Rudder Rock Searchlight Post

Two 3,200 gallon water tanks were erected on the top of the island, one for fresh water and one for salt water.  Water was pumped up to the summit from a supply ship.

The refortification of Steep Holm was completed by October 1942.  However the ex-Navy guns were never needed against enemy ships and they were useless against air attacks.

By the end of 1943 the threat to ships in the Bristol Channel had reduced significantly, so the island was relegated to “care and maintenance” status and most of the troops were moved off the island.

After the end of the Second World War German prisoners of war dismantled and removed most of the railway winches and trolleys and demolished the wartime piers.

Further reading:

Steep Holm at war: Rodney Legg.  Wincanton Press, 1991

The Steep Holm Guide and Trail.  Published by the Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust, 2014

Steep Holm’s Pioneers: Stan and Joan Rendall. Published by the authors, 2003

 

 

Historical maps launched online

For the first time, historical maps of North Somerset are now freely available online thanks to the Know Your Place West of England project, supported by the National Lottery. 

From the coastal communities of Portishead, Clevedon and Weston, further inland to Blagdon and Leigh Woods, you can now discover how North Somerset has been transformed over time. Five historic map layers of North Somerset are now online, allowing you to explore some of the most famous natural and man-made landmarks, from Uphill to Wrington Vale, and Royal Portbury Docks to the famous Grand Pier at Weston. Alongside historic maps you can freely explore data from the Historic Environment Record for North Somerset.

Know Your Place logo
Know Your Place project logo.

You will also be able to upload and share your own information about the area straight onto Know Your Place helping to build a rich and diverse community map of local heritage for everyone – from schoolchildren to family historians and planners to enthusiasts of community heritage.

More than 50 project volunteers are working hard to prepare further historic maps, which will be added onto Know Your Place North Somerset over the coming months. South West Heritage Trust in Taunton supplied many of the original maps. In addition, collections from museums are featured in a touring exhibition that will visit North Somerset libraries in the coming months.

Cat Lodge, Archaeologist at North Somerset Council, said: “We are grateful for the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund in facilitating such an exciting project which will enable residents of North Somerset to better interact with and explore the history and heritage of their local areas. Through the use of digital mapping, users are able to see how their communities have developed over time and add to the historical knowledge of those places.

“Know Your Place is a valuable resource which will not only aid community historical and archaeological groups and schools in local research, but also contribute to adding new information to North Somerset Council’s Historic Environment Record and raise the profile of heritage in the district.”

Nerys Watts, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund South West, said: “Know Your Place West of England is a fantastic resource, bringing together the history of this area so people can discover the ever-changing make-up of the places where they live and work. If you have bought a National Lottery ticket recently, you have helped to support these types of projects that are preserving the precious heritage of our communities for future generations. Thank you.” 

Heritage Lottery Fund
Heritage Lottery Fund logo

Thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, the Know Your Place West of England project was awarded £379,800 by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), with generous match-funding and in-kind support from local authorities and heritage groups in the region, including £5,000 match-funding from lead partner South Gloucestershire Council.

You can start exploring North Somerset’s maps and heritage information at the project’s website www.kypwest.org.uk.

George Fiott Day V.C. C.B.

George Fiott Day was one of the first recipients of the Victoria Cross.  He was born in Southampton in 1819 or 1820 and joined the Royal Navy as a volunteer in 1833.  The first ship he sailed on was wrecked off the coast of Patagonia in 1835. He then served off the west coast of Africa, followed by six and a half years in the Mediterranean Sea from 1838.  He returned to the coast of Africa for three years from 1845 and then travelled across to the eastern coast of South America. In 1854 he sailed to the Baltic Sea and then to the Mediterranean Sea. 

The Crimean War was in progress when George arrived as a Lieutenant on HMS Recruit in the Black Sea in 1855.  On the night of 17th September 1855 he went ashore alone at Genitchi, Crimea on a reconnaissance mission to check out the batteries, bridge and Russian gunboats on the Arabat Spit in the Sea of Azov.  He had to cross 4 or 5 miles of swampy ground and wade through water, which was knee deep in places, in order to get close enough to see the enemy position.  It was only lightly defended and undermanned.  He decided that a surprise attack would be feasible but when he carried out another reconnaissance mission on the night of 19th September he discovered that the gunboats were fully manned and that the Russians were on the alert.  On this occasion the weather was cold and squally, his mission took much longer and he returned exhausted from it.  The planned attack was called off.  George Fiott Day was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1857 for his reconnaissance missions at Genitchi.  He was promoted to the rank of Commander in November 1855.

George Fiott Day served off Africa again in 1857 and in 1858 he sailed to China.  He married Mary Ruddell-Todd in 1858 and they had three daughters.  He retired due to ill health in 1867 with the rank of Captain.  In 1875 he was appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) by Queen Victoria.  The same year he moved to Weston-super-Mare with his wife and daughters.  He died at the Anchor Head Hotel in Claremont Crescent, Weston-super-Mare on 18th December 1876, aged 56.  He was buried in Milton Road Cemetery in Weston-super-Mare but his grave had no headstone until 2002 when a ceremony was held to unveil one.

Hotel where George Day lived and died
Anchor Head Hotel George Day lived and died on this site
Blue Plaque George Day
Commemorative blue plaque on the Anchor Head Hotel
Gravestone George Fiott Day
George Fiott Day Grave, Milton Cemetary

Vote for your favourite blue plaque

The Weston Mercury are inviting readers to vote for their favourite blue plaque in Weston-super-Mare.  The town’s heritage is being celebrated with 13 blue plaques dedicated to prominent people from the town’s past. The first – for Olympian Paulo Radmilovic – has already been installed by Weston Town Council. But now you have a chance to vote which plaques you would like to see go up next, subject to the agreement of the building’s owner. Simply read the biographies of these 12 people, then vote for your favourites in the poll on the website.

New heritage walk in Clevedon

Marlens have compiled a new walk covering the Clevedon seafront heritage trail.    

The trail begins at the pier’s toll house in Marine Parade and leads walkers to the other side of the seafront, along Poet’s Walk before ending at St Andrew’s Church in Old Church Road. The route also passes a number of interesting and historical landmarks and buildings along the way including the bandstand, Marine Lake and Clevedon Hall.

Littleton Gunpowder Works

Gunpowder was the only explosive available for military use and for blasting in mines and quarries until the mid-19th century.

Production of gunpowder is thought to have begun at Littleton between Winford and Chew Magna in around 1650. The production of gunpowder was hazardous, so the site chosen was away from existing towns and villages but reasonably close to the port of Bristol, to enable the export of the finished product.  The Winford Brook, a tributary of the River Chew, provided a source of power for watermills. There were two other gunpowder mills in Somerset: one at Woolley to the north of Bath and one at Moreton, which now lies beneath Chew Valley Lake.

Gunpowder was produced by mixing saltpetre (potassium nitrate) with sulphur and charcoal.  The saltpetre, which was imported from India by the East India Company, was boiled, drained, washed and crystallised to refine it.  The charcoal and sulphur were boiled and sieved.  Once prepared the three ingredients were mixed, moistened, glazed, pressed and heat dried.  The gunpowder was then packed into 100lb barrels. Most of the gunpowder produced at Littleton was sold in Bristol to merchant and privateer ships or exported via Bristol to Africa and America.  The remainder was sold for use in local mines and quarries and for private uses such as hunting.

At the height of production in the mid-18th century Littleton was the largest gunpowder producer in the South West of England. It had three watermills located in a row between the Winford Brook and a 250 metre long clay lined mill pond, which had been constructed to provide a head of water for the mills.  The three mills were used for different processes:

  1. Crushing – preparing the raw materials
  2. Incorporating – mixing the ingredients
  3. Corning – forming the gunpowder into pellets

A house was built to house the manager of the mill, a terrace of three cottages was built to house the millworkers, a clock tower was erected and other buildings were constructed to store and dry the gunpowder.  There was also a cooperage on site.

In the 1750s the mill at Littleton was owned and operated by five Bristol merchants led by Jeremiah Ames.  In 1755 a fire at the Littleton Gunpowder Mill destroyed most of the buildings but they were later rebuilt. The site was owned by the Strachey family in the second half of the eighteenth century. 

Production of gunpowder at Littleton ceased in the 1820s after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  The site then became a farm: the manager’s house became the farmhouse, the storage facilities were used as a barn and the watermills fell into ruin. The farmhouse (which is still called Powdermill Farm), barn and the millworkers’ cottages are on private land but can be viewed from the public road to Upper Littleton.

Littleton Powdermill Farm
Powdermill Farm, Littleton
Littleton former Millworkers' cottages,
Millworkers’ cottages, Littleton
Littleton gunpowder storage barn
 Barn formerly used for gunpowder storage on left of photograph

 

Dundry’s Dole Table

Dole tables were stone tables or ledges usually located in church porches and more rarely in churchyards.  From medieval times until the 16th or 17th centuries they were used for settling contracts and the payment of debts, bequests, tithes and church dues.  They were also used to distribute money or bread to the needy of the parish and passing travellers in need of help. Very few dole tables have survived to the present day.  There are three in the historic county of Somerset: at Dundry in North Somerset; Nynehead near Wellington and Oake near Taunton.

Dole Table Dundry Churchyard
Dundry’s dole table

Dundry’s Dole Table is located in the churchyard of St Michael’s Parish Church.  It is a 1.5 metre cube of locally quarried Dundry Stone/Freestone, which is an Inferior Oolite limestone. An alternative theory is that it isn’t a dole table but is a sample of dressed Dundry Stone, which acted as a demonstration of its qualities as a building stone. 

Dundry Stone, which contains many fossils, especially ammonites, was quarried and mined around Dundry for use as a building stone from Roman times until the 1920s.  The quarries are now important wildlife habitats. The ornate tower of Dundry Church was built of Dundry Stone in the 15th century and is said to have been paid for by Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers. The church is on the top of a hill and the tower can be seen from most parts of Bristol and it also acted as a landmark for ships sailing up the Bristol Channel.

Dundry Stone was also used in the building of St Thomas’s and St Mary Redcliffe Churches in Bristol; Cardiff Castle and Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff; Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin and other parish churches across Ireland.

Church Dundry Village
Dundry Church
Top of Dundry Church Tower
Dundry Church Tower

Denny Island

Denny Island is a small rocky island in the middle of the Bristol Channel, three miles north of Portishead and halfway between Avonmouth and Redwick near Newport.  It lies at the southern end of the Bedwin Sands.  These are part of a huge complex of sandbanks collectively known as the Welsh Grounds, which are exposed at low tide. The boundary between England and Wales runs along the southern foreshore of the island, which is located in Monmouthshire for administrative purposes.

In 1373 Edward III granted a charter to Bristol, which made it a county of its own separate from Somerset or Gloucestershire.  Denny Island is referred to in the charter as Dunye.  This may mean that the name meant “island shaped like a hill” in Old English.

Denny Island has an area of 0.24 hectares and is covered in scrub vegetation. It becomes much larger at low tide, due to the Bristol Channel having the second highest tidal range in the world.  Strong tidal currents and the danger of quicksand on a rising tide make the island almost impossible to land on.

The island provides a roost for seabirds.  Small colonies of cormorants and great black backed gulls and a few pairs of rock pipits nest on the island.

View of Denny Island
Denny Island, Bristol Channel from Portishead