Luxury development could bring down a falcon’s aerie and monuments to Bristol’s industrial history.
A speculative development plan to link three large brownfield sites in Bristol’s Fishponds area has been given the weighty title of ‘Atlas Place’. A first phase of public consultations is under way but developers admit it could take many years achieve their aim of transforming the neighbourhood.
In the process two of the area’s most iconic landmarks, now a hunting perch for peregrine falcons, could be lost.
The towering brick chimneys beside the cycle track on the Filwood Road site are all that remain of a Bristol family firm that became a global brand.
In 1840 a young man called Elisha Robinson arrived in Bristol from the Cotswolds determined to prove himself in business. He came from a paper-making family though he had been brought up by his grandfather who doubled up as a Baptist Minister and grocer.
Feeling spurned by the family firm Elisha had the benefit of knowing both paper-making and the uses to which it was put by shop-keepers. By 1844, still only 27, the entrepreneur had set up a packaging and printing company in the Redcliffe area of the city with the grocery trade in mind.
His younger brother Alfred joined him in 1848, initially as a travelling salesman, extolling the virtues of the versatile new product – the brown paper bag.
The business really took off, moving to several extensive printworks in Bedminster, the first of which would later house Cameroon’s Balloons and a street of luxury apartments.
The company started branding its paper bags and packaging for customers, as well as producing calendars. Alfred was now a partner in the flourishing firm and moved his family into Upper Fishponds House, an extensive estate on the edge of the larger of the Newe Pooles which had given the Bristol suburb of Fishponds its name.
The Upper and Lower ponds had been formed by quarrying and would have been fed by the Bally Brook, a stream now culverted in the dell between to the two parts of nearby Brook Road. The dip behind what is now the Fishponds Conservative Club is all that remains of the Lower Fish Pond. In 1801 the Duchess of Beaufort had it filled in after a young girl fell from a weir and was drowned there.
The Upper Fish Pond was also gradually filled in during the nineteenth century to make way first for a withy bed and then an extensive orchard. A magnificent willow in Beechwood Road may well date from those days.
Originally owned by lawyer James Bridges, Upper Fishponds House was leased to a variety of tenants after his death in 1783. Among them was the ill-fated Sheriff Robert Castle, the shortest lived Mayor of the City in 1802 who died before his year was out.
The house sat on a 16 acre site on the eastern side of what is now Beechwood Road, roughly opposite a present day car park. The rather grand house and estate incorporated the Upper Fish Pond which originally stretched from below what is now a Health Centre down to Fishponds Road, which was then a Turnpike Road.
From 1816 to 1837 the building was in use as a well-regarded Quaker school for boys run by mining engineer Joel Lean (1779-1856), from a celebrated Cornish engineering family.
Then in 1838 it was leased to Dr. George Gwinnett Bompas, superintendent of the private lunatic asylum at nearby Fishponds House. His son Dr George Joseph Bompas moved in with his new bride Marianne Beddome, and for a time they ran it as an adjunct to the main asylum, caring for convalescing women patients.
The young Dr Bompas quickly tired of the task and on 29 January 1844 the doctor re-opened the doors of his home as a school. It was the same year Elisha Robinson opened his first factory. Dr. Bompas proudly announced in the Bristol Journal that: ‘The health, happiness, intellectual development, and moral and religious improvement of his scholars, are objects of his sedulous attention, as well as their instruction in all those branches of knowledge which are necessary or important to a liberal education.’
His aspirations were not to last. After relocating first to the more salubrious climes of Clifton, then downgrading to Redland, by 1858 Bompas was bankrupt, and he emigrated to Canada with his family.
Upper Fishponds House was kept going as a school until 1861 a William Henry Paglar (1815-1879). It was then bought by Alfred Robinson, now a partner in his brother’s firm.
Robinsons had massively expanded and was the biggest buyer of paper in the country, and owned huge printing works in Redcliffe and Bedminster.
Elisha, now a respected benefactor of Bristol charities, was to became the city’s Mayor in 1866 and went on to serve briefly as a Liberal Member of Parliament. Successive generations of the family would also have a lasting presence on the Gloucestershire cricket scene and beyond.
Alfred renamed Upper Fishponds House as Beechwood House, perhaps to rid it of its past associations. He died there in 1901, just as Robinsons’ enormous Filwood Road printworks were being developed.
Behind the packaging factory, tall chimneys providing an exhaust for the production of waxed paper as the company expanded it’s reach and range even further.
Young women who wanted to work there had to provide evidence of good conduct and attendance from their Sunday school teacher. They even had their own song: “We are the Robinsons girls, we are the Robinsons girls; we pay our tanners, and we know our manners; we are respected where ever we go…..”.
Alfred’s wife lived on at Beechwood House until she passed away aged 100, in 1934. The house was auctioned at Bristol’s Grand Hotel later that year, fetching £11,400 (a huge sum at the time). Demolition followed and it was replaced with the family houses that now grace Beechwood and Radley Roads.
E.S. & A.Robinson Ltd far outlived the brothers. Elisha’s sons took over when he died in 1885. and by the 1960s the Robinson Group were operating in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe with assets of £30 million and more than 13,500 employees. Its new 1960s headquarters at 1 Redcliffe Street, on the site where Elisha started off, has been dubbed Bristol’s first skyscraper.
Later the company would become the DRG Group, a major international business owning such household brands as Basildon Bond and Sellotape.
DRG continued to expand into the 1980s when it was taken over first by Pembridge then in 1992 by Bowaters. It rebranded as Rexam in 1996 and, in 2018, was absorbed by the massive Ball Corporation, the US packaging giants.
All that survives as a reminder of the Robinsons in Fishponds are the two sturdy chimneys that have become the vantage point for peregrine falcons hunting the woods along the cycle track. Local residents alert their neighbours to the comings and goings of ‘Peri’, caught on his high perch by local artist Ben Mitchell.
- There is a monument to Elisha Robinson in Arnos Vale Cemetery, and the story of the firm’s beginnings is told in elaborate detail by Bernard Darwin in The Robinsons of Bristol 1844-1944 http://www.binson.co.uk/robinsons/robinsons.htm
- A more contemporary account of life at the Fishponds print works is told in Tremors of Discontent: My Life in Print 1970-1988′ by Mike Richardson, recently published by Bristol Radical History Group.
- Details of the development proposals can be found here https://www.atlasplacefishpondsfuture.com/index.php?contentid=30