A far cry from luxury

Prisoners and the poor were the previous occupants of the new Blackberry Hill homes win Bristol.

The luxury Blackberry Hill housing being developed by Linden Homes on Manor Road, Fishponds is quite a turnaround from the site’s grim history.

Originally known as Stapleton Prison the buildings under conversion were once cell blocks in an internment camp for Dutch and Spanish sailors and others sympathetic to the American cause during the War of Independence (1775-1782). And during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) it was expanded to house captured French soldiers, who had to help build new wings to their prison. 

They ran their own market to earn pocket money. In 1808, Mr Birtle, Secretary of the Bristol Society for the Suppression of Vice, wrote that ‘They wished to intrude on me a variety of devices in bone and wood of the most obscene kind, particularly those representing a crime ‘inter Christianos non nominandum‘, which they termed the new fashion. I purchased a few…’ [The crime ‘not mentioned among Christians‘ was a reference to anal sex and bestiality]

When the war was over the building was used as a naval store and then as a boys’ school, but not for long. When the Bristol Corporation of the Poor needed an overflow for its crowded, insanitary Workhouse in St Peter’s Hospital in what is now Castle Park, they rented then bought the buildings in 1837.

Now called Stapleton Workhouse as demand grew over the coming century and Fishponds developed an identity of its own it was gradually extended, with medical facilities and its own vegetable gardens.

Drawing of the Stapleton Workhouse by Bristol artist Samuel Loxton (1857-1922)

By the time of the 1881 Census, the then Bristol Union Workhouse contained almost 2,000 men, women and children with a staff of 25 led by a Master, Irishman Richard Hughes. Among the staff, there were also six nurses to deal with ‘imbeciles’ a term then used, along with ‘idiots’, to label those we would now say had learning disabilities or suffered from forms of dementia.

Boys had a schoolmaster and assistant, and girls an infants’ school-mistresses, and there was an industrial trainer for girls and a male drill instructor. 

According to the 1881 Census the majority of inmates came from Bristol and the West Country, but there were 79 from Ireland, 37 from Wales, 31 Londoners and 7 from Scotland. Others were from as far away as America, Chile, China, France, Germany, Gibraltar, India, Italy, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia.

The oldest inmates were 97-year-old twins Maria, a domestic servant, and her ‘imbecile’ sister Mary, and 96 year old William Chedzoy from Minehead. The youngest were four 1-year-old children, a boy and girl from Stapleton and two girls from Surrey.

The buildings went through a succession of changes during the last century, becoming first a training centre for ‘mental defectives’, then a psychiatric unit as Stapleton Hospital, before changing its name to Manor Park Hospital specialising in geriatric care.

The complex of buildings eventually merged with the Glenside Hospital next door to become Blackberry Hill Hospital in 1993.  Glenside closed in 1994 and is now the Health and Social Care campus of the University of the West of England.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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