The November gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeological Society kicked off with AGM matters. Enough said, but I must remark that the programme for 18/19 looks particularly interesting, especially with the inimitable Ronald Hutton, my favourite TV historian, on the 8th of January (come early if you want a seat). Then we were treated to a brilliant film about ‘Bristol’s Great War’ presented by Clive Burlton. Clive is a researcher and writer who became interested in the subject while looking through the memoirs of Bristolian George Pine. In 2004 a trunk belonging to George’s sister was unearthed full of photos, medals and other materials from the war. Ten years of further research resulted in Clive’s book ‘Trenches to Trams, the life of a Bristol Tommy’.
Our film began with idyllic scenes of Bristol’s ‘White City’ basking in the glorious summer weather of 1914. It was built over 30 acres of Ashton Meadows to house Bristol’s International Exhibition, complete with mock castle, pavilion, ‘Shakespeare’s England’ and a replica of Drake’s flagship ‘Revenge’. Next, cut to remarkably clear footage of euphoric, flag-waving Bristolians welcoming the 4th and 6th battalions of the Gloucestershire regiment on their return from a camp for territorials at Minehead. It was the 3rd of August. The next day war was declared.
The recruitment office initially set up in Colston Street soon proved too small, and Colston Hall itself was recruited. Thousands of Bristol’s finest volunteered, forming battalions such as the 12th Gloucesters ‘Bristol’s Own’, parading up and down White Ladies road in their civvies while waiting for their uniforms. ‘Bravo Bristol’ was their marching song. The 14th Gloucesters were nicknamed ‘Bristol Bantams’ because they were under the (regulation) height of 5 foot 3 inches. One young lad, on announcing his age at Colston Hall, was told to make himself 3 years older by running 3 times round the block. On his return he was duly signed up. In all, 25 military units were associated with Bristol, including the Gloucestershire Hussars, Bristol Gunners and the Royal Navy Reserves. And where were four of these units barracked? Bizarrely, at the fantasy ‘White City’.
It wasn’t long before the casualties returned. Bristol Royal Infirmary was taken over by the military, together with the workhouse infirmary at Southmead (which evolved into the current hospital). The asylum at Fishponds became the Beaufort War Hospital (later Glenside Hospital). In September hundreds of people turned out at Temple Meads station to welcome refugees from Belgium. During the war 2000 Belgian refugees were given a home in Bristol, an act of humanity commemorated by the Belgian government.
Bristol docks played a significant part in the war effort. A third of a million horses and mules were imported here from the USA and Canada to be trained at Shirehampton Remount Depot. The other essential import was food. Where the M-shed now stands huge granaries were filled with cereals to meet the growing shortages. Sadly, many sailors from Bristol were lost at sea, some sunk by the very U-boats that were exhibited in Bristol docks after the war to tourists, at one shilling a ticket.
During the Great War the air itself became a battle ground, and George White’s tram sheds at Filton developed into an enormous aircraft factory producing iconic early aeroplanes such as the Bristol Fighter and Bristol Scout. You can see this history at the ‘Aerospace Bristol’ museum in Filton, where Concorde is the icing on the cake. There were many other aircraft and engineering factories around Bristol, such as Parnall’s making naval fighter aircraft, and a redundant roller skating rink in Bristol was turned into a factory constructing aeroplanes.
As the men signed up they were replaced in the factories by women, doing hard and dangerous work, handling toxic materials such as the dope used on the fabric wings of aircraft. Women worked in Bristol’s munitions factories, as police and nurses, on trams and buses, on farms in the Women’s Land Army. Bristol’s factories were producing vital supplies to support the troops, such as boots, cigarettes and, by no means least, chocolate.
One of the workers at Fry’s chocolate factory was young Elsie Griffin, who was talent spotted and sent over to entertain the troops in concert parties in France, where she was locked up at night for her own safety. Elsie made famous the well-known war-time songs ‘Roses of Picardy’ and ‘Danny Boy’, written by Bristol’s own Fred Weatherly. Elsie went on to sing opera with the D’Oyly Carte.
Another scion of Bristol was Major General Sir Fabian Ware, founder of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which is now responsible for the memorials of 1.7 million fallen in both world wars. Much of Bristol’s Great War has now disappeared, but the silent ranks of graves are perhaps the most evocative reminder of that catastrophic time.
Many thanks to Clive Burlton for presenting his excellent film to us.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall.
Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.
NB during the uncertainty caused by Coronavirus pandemic the Society is not holding meetings at St Mary’s Hall but Zooming their meetings free of charge! Please contact Jenny Ovens, Secretary at for log on details.