I was very excited about meeting and talking to historian and writer Jane Lilly who I discovered has an encyclopedic knowledge of Clevedon and its history. I wasn’t disappointed.
Jane published her first book, called Clevedon In Old Photographs, in 1990. Her most recent work, Clevedon Cuttings: history, houses and a couple of characters was published through Clevedon Community Bookshop’s very own publishing press. They will be publishing another book by Jane in November this year. Jane also contributes to essays on local topics and to books published by Clevedon Civic Society and the Local History Group. It was Jane who provided the information and images for the local history displays in the Clevedon Pier Visitor Centre. She also helped set up the Heritage Centre at Waterloo House and helped dismantle it when it was handed over to the Pier.
Jane who is half English and half Norwegian was born in the Knoll Nursing Home and has lived in Clevedon for the whole of her life. Although her father’s family were all from Clevedon, her mother who was born in Portishead had Norwegian parents. Her grandfather was one of the engineers at Mustad’s Nail Factory which was built in Portishead in 1911.
Jane can just about remember living in Peterhurst, one of the two former maternity homes in Copse Road, the other being Brighton House. People often contact her on social media saying they were born in one of these and asking about the location because they would like to visit it. Whilst Brighton House is a thriving residential property Peterhurst sadly no longer exists.
Peterhurst started life as a large private house on the site of the 1960s houses opposite St Peter’s Church. It had been a maternity home for serving personnel, then after the war it was converted into flats for families whose members had served during the war. Having been in the RAF Jane’s father and her family were able to live there and had the flat below the top floor flat. Her family kept in touch with their old neighbours from the flats for a very long time afterwards. Jane has very happy memories of the people who lived there that they kept in touch with and was sad to see the building demolished. Throughout our conversation, Jane talked with great sadness about the many beautiful buildings in Clevedon that have not survived.
Finding surprises, linking facts together and making connections is what Jane loves about her research. An example she gave was discovering that C S Lewis had stayed in Clevedon for a while. Jane was pointed towards his letters and diaries where he had written up details of his visit and discovered that he had supported a friend at university by coming to a family funeral, where there were very few people expected. Lewis loved Clevedon and came here in the late 1920s for a couple of one month holidays. Later on Jane discovered that one of his friends Tolkien, had spent his honeymoon in Clevedon in 1917, although the exact location remains unknown which is a source of frustration for Jane.
Jane’s interest in the history of Clevedon started in about 1964 when she was in her last year at Highdale School which is now St. Nicholas Chantry School. Her teacher at the time was Ronald Wright, now in his late nineties and still living independently on Dial Hill Road. Jane spoke very warmly about Ron who she described as a fantastic teacher and remembers him telling her class to ask their parents about things they remembered about Clevedon. Since writing this post, I have learnt that Ron sadly passed away on 2nd May 2020. Jane commented that if the same question was asked today, a significant number of the parents would not be able to answer as they are not from Clevedon whereas back in 1964, most of her class were from Clevedon families, well rooted in the area. Jane clearly remembers one of her class mates talking about the livery stables at the back of the Curzon and had visions of the horses being kept tucked into a corner underneath the cinema! It was actually the area that is now the stone built part of the Teatro Lounge; Albert Type who ran the stables lived in Coly House opposite.
Jane’s Uncle Derek was also a huge influence on her love of Clevedon history. Derek took her to meet Gray Usher who used to write for the local newspaper. Derek and Gray would give talks about Clevedon and Jane would type up their notes. Looking back through her notes today, she realises that some of what they said was incorrect. For example, Gray had the theory that the cottages in Copse Road were the fishermens’ cottages which is completely wrong. They were the cottages that were built on the end of the plots on The Beach and very often the families who owned the bigger house would rent them out and live in the smaller houses or sublet the smaller houses to someone else. This explains why the whole character of the houses on the Clevedon Community Bookshop side of Copse Road is so varied, being dependent on when the people on The Beach sold their gardens for development. The other side of the road was fields, and houses were only built when the fields became available at the end of their leasehold.
Gray and Judith Usher gave Jane membership of the Civic Society for her eighteenth birthday and she’s never looked back. Much to her delight, at the first meeting she went to in 1972, they reformed the History Group. Derek joined when he retired. It would have been very difficult for him to be part of the group prior to this because as a milkman trying to get adequate sleep, getting up at 3.00am, doing six weeks in a run with a week off made it very difficult to organise a night out!
Jane has a huge collection of photos that she can scan and when Derek retired at the age of 82 from being the butcher’s boy on Hill Road, he decided that one of his first jobs was to scan all of his interesting negatives dating back to the 1950s. Added to this, Jane has photos from her uncle Tom going back to the 1920s, the collection belonging to the traffic warden Phil Ellis who always carried his camera with him and those belonging to Joe and Peggy Ruddy.
It’s an impressive collection filled with thousands of beautiful photos which Jane enjoys sharing and answering questions about on the dedicated Clevedon Facebook sites. The enjoyment is reciprocated because people respond with such warmth and positivity and will always tag her in if there is any query about Clevedon’s past. I too love seeing posts from Jane and reading through people’s memories about what she has shared.
Jane has grouped Derek’s scanned pictures under road names so it is very easy for her to respond to a query. I was very grateful to Jane for sending me a photo of my own house dating back to 1980, which Derek had taken when he was out on his rounds.
I wondered if Jane could help me with my ‘monkey story’ that I picked up from Paul Ruddock the macro photographer when I interviewed him for a Humans of Clevedon feature. Check out Paul’s story here: https://facesofclevedon.com/2018/11/15/humans-of-clevedon-paul-ruddock/
Paul used to come to Seavale Road to see the monkey in the copse at the Copse Road end of Seavale! Although Jane couldn’t shed any light on the story, it reminded her of the true story of the circus elephants getting flooded off the Salthouse Fields. They had to shelter in the workshop at Willcocks Garage and there’s a picture of Mr. Willcocks feeding the elephants who are all bedded down with fresh supplies of straw. Perhaps Paul’s monkey came from the very same circus or perhaps it was part of a travelling zoo. Who knows!
Somebody was asking recently about the Stephens car which was built in Clevedon by Richard Stephens who travelled all over the world before finally settling here and setting up an engineering company which produced the first all British car in 1898. When Mr. Stephens left Clevedon and retired, his son took over the business which was eventually sold.
Archie Binding who set up Binding and Payne Garage in Old Church Road, Clevedon’s first proper garage was one of his apprentices. On returning from the Great War, Archie and his newly found friend Harry Payne set up the garage and the engineering side of the business later became Cam Gears.
Interestingly one of Derek’s photos dating back to the 1960s and showing the old Veteran Car run that used to come through Clevedon, features the Clevedon car, outside Binding and Payne with Archie Binding driving it! Those connections again!
Jane discovered that Archie was actually christened Archer Ormond Binding. He was named after Godfrey Archer the jockey because his father won a big bet on a horse called Ormond which was enough money, as the family legend has it, to build four houses in Kenn Road.
Jane commented that more and more people are becoming interested in the history of Clevedon. When they started the History Group, which is part of the Civic Society, they had a membership of about a dozen or so people but they now have fifty or sixty at each meeting and if the topic is particularly interesting it may even reach ninety or a hundred.
Jane does talks for local community groups, she goes annually to the Friendship Group at Pembroke Court and gave a really interesting talk based on maps for the recent AGM of the Clevedon Community Bookshop. Of her own admittance, she’s no technology wizard so expect something hugely interesting but very straightforward.
I wondered what Jane enjoyed most about living in Clevedon and she likened it to being a part of living history. She recalled a memory from years ago when she used to go along to Clevedon Court to look at the account books. Sitting typing in the Porch Room with a view of the moors, she could see the medieval pond field and there she was reading about how in the 1830s and 40s the Court employed workmen to empty all the mud out of the ponds and repuddle the linings with fresh clay. They spent exorbitant amounts of money on the work and then just eight shillings and sixpence refilling it with carp! With so much background information going around in her head and a memory like an elephant Jane takes huge pleasure in making such connections.
I asked Jane what else she thought had boosted the town besides the Pier and the Curzon and she felt sure that the transport links notably the railway and then the motorway had played a crucial role.
She took me back to 1799 and the Enclosures Act which established exactly what was common land. This enabled the Eltons in 1820 who were living in Clifton at the time, to work out what land was available for them to develop and make Clevedon into more of a resort town. This land was known as the manorial waste, verge land that actually belonged to the Manor. That’s why they built initially along Highdale Road, Hill Road and down The Beach. Chapel Hill existed then but was really too steep for horses to pull carriages up and down.
After 1841, the railways made a big difference in terms of visitors to Clevedon. The main line from Bristol and Exeter bought a service as close as Yatton and in 1847 a branch line from Yatton to Clevedon opened. The growth in population was exponential: in 1801 it was a mere 334, rising to 1,147 in 1831 and exploding to 5,500 in 1891.
Cholera in Bristol made an impact, the merchants wanted to move out and live somewhere healthy for the summer. They didn’t necessarily build houses but the local builders saw a chance for speculative building, they knew when the plots were up for sale, they knew where they were and were bold enough to grasp the nettle.
There was further development by the Eltons when John Griffin, a local landowner and his wife died. They were the named lives on the lease and when the lease was up, farm land became available for the Eltons to consider whether they wanted to carry on renting the land to farmers or divide it into building plots. That’s what started the development of the Bellevue, Elton Road, Seavale, Albert Road, Linden Road area. The railway, the motorway and the death of crucial leaseholders were without doubt responsible for a huge boost to the town.
I asked Jane what she considered to be the greatest errors in the development of Clevedon and she was quite clear in her response which was careless demolition and greed. She felt that the demolition of Salisbury Farm and Knap House which stood on land owned by St Brandon’s School was simply because St Brandon’s saw them as a burden. There were so many houses like these that outgrew their use. There were three large houses on the Hawthorns site and a number of cottages in Old Street that suffered the same fate. Jane thought that if they had been there now there would be plans to redevelop them rather than demolish them.
On the Salisbury Farm site there is executive housing which Jane doesn’t dislike but she would have preferred to see a medieval farm. Knap House on Chapel Hill was replaced by Western Court flats which are lovely to live in and have spectacular views but in the context of Clevedon when you are far enough away to see it, a huge crescent shaped white block does not seem like a good idea although it provided much needed rental properties in the 1960s.
Jane feels the luckiest thing ever was the Pier being fought for shortly after it collapsed in 1970. Although there is a lot about the 1980 law suit that preserved the Pier she felt there was little acknowledgment that when it first fell into the sea, a group immediately formed and started making a fuss and the need to do something quickly. The fight then was to stop the District Council from knocking it down and had it not been for this group the Pier would not have been there to be saved. I was shocked that there had been serious talk about demolishing it.
I asked Jane who are the people associated with Clevedon that she is interested in at the moment? This wasn’t an easy question as her file on ‘Famous people associated with Clevedon’ has a list of over seventy! She has however recently written about the Morris family which is a chapter in her next book coming out in November.
Enid and Walter Morris moved here in the 1920s soon after they married. Enid was a very interesting person: a Leipzig trained concert pianist, a linguist and a voracious reader who taught piano. Their oldest son became Britain’s premier flautist Gareth Morris and he was playing the flute at the Coronation when James, now Jan, who was the youngest was reporting the conquest of Everest by Hillary and Tensing.
Jan known particularly for her Pax Britannica trilogy (1968–1978), A History of the British Empire, and for portraits of cities, notably Oxford, Venice, Trieste, Hong Kong, and New York City published under her birth name, James, until 1972, when she had gender reassignment and was able at last to be a woman.
Conundrum her biography was one of the earliest books to discuss transsexuality and tells the story of a hidden life, how she decided to bring it into the open as she resolved first on hormone treatment and then on risky experimental surgery that would turn her into the woman that she truly was.
The Morris’ middle son Christopher essentially formed the music wing of the Oxford University Press, Jan says that she is not musical but one of her biographers recently said that when you listen to her and read her prose aloud, all of it is lyrical.
Years ago, Jane asked Gareth and Jan to write a short piece about what it was like growing up in Clevedon. This is yet to be published but is included in her new book.
I wondered if Jane knew much about Clevedon’s contribution to the war but as she pointed out, she’s not a military historian. However, I will record the little she said because it is interesting.
During WW1 masses of soldiers were billeted here and she thought that would have had the biggest impact on the town apart from shortages. The thing that she was most conscious of was that one of the local grocers Jacko Brewer made a real drive to recycle paper and raise money to buy an ambulance for the local Red Cross Hospital so they could move patients around. Jane’s eldest aunt Marianne recalled her first memory was of being held up to watch the soldiers marching to the station.
During WWII, there were lots of small industries in Clevedon, Follands were based here at Binding and Payne making engine parts, the ladder works at East Clevedon went over to making propellers, the small engineering company in the Market Hall was also supplying aircraft parts. BAC moved their drawing offices to Clevedon Hall.
General Bradley was billeted at the Walton Park Hotel along with other American generals, Eisenhower is said to have visited and Roy Jenkins was here during the war. There were all sorts of interesting coming and goings!
Knowing so much about Clevedon and its history, I wondered, if she was able to, who Jane would dedicate a new blue plaque to? We currently have just two, one dedicated to Edith Cavell which is on the wall of Number 1 Elton Road. And the other just a short distance away at Number 5 Elton Road.
Edith Louisa Cavell, born 1865, was a British nurse celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides in the WW1, and in helping about 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium, for which she was arrested and court martialled. Under German military law, she was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad in October 1915. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage.
The plaque at number 5 commemorates all the people who worked in the building from 1943 to 1961 to develop and produce penicillin and other antibiotics.
Jane suggested Jan Morris for a blue plaque and either the Curzon or number 2 Herbert Terrace as suitable places for it to be situated. It seems that Jan’s mother inaugurated the cinema organ in 1928 when Jan was two and she was born at number 2 Herbert Terrace.
I liked Jane’s choice of Jan who is such a renowned essayist, historian, chronicler of places and the author of more than four dozen books. Not surprisingly and especially given the date of publication which was 1974, Conundrum generated enormous interest around the world, and was chosen by The Times as one of the ‘100 Key Books of Our Time’.
We finished off with that very cheesy question……… if you were able to invite people from Clevedon’s past to a dinner party, who would you be dining with?
The first person Jane mentioned was William Beny from the 1400s, a gentleman who was rich enough to be leaving silver spoons and his best blue gown and she was intrigued to know exactly where he lived. Sounds like a very interesting character!
Thomas Hartree who built many houses in Clevedon, Jane wanted to know how he was related to John Newton Cox, Victor’s father who taught stone carving and stone masonry.
Lady Mary Elton, the last Sir Abraham’s second wife who worked with Sir Abraham laying out paths when Alexandra Gardens and the Pier Copse were just a cope called The Ripple. Lady Mary also did a great deal of fundraising to establish schools in Clevedon.
William Hollyman who was managing the finances of the Clevedon Court Estate and oversaw the selling of building plots in the 1820s and onwards.
George Caple who started the Clevedon Mercury when he was 17 having trained with George Dare who ran the Clevedon Courier. By the time George was 17, he had bought out his own mentor and set up his own newspaper. After selling the newspaper George moved to Australia and wrote lots of interesting, informative letters reminiscing about Clevedon.
Tolkien to find out whereabouts he stayed on his honeymoon and how they came to choose Clevedon.
And lastly Audrey Salkeld who is now in her eighties and used to live in Clevedon. Audrey has the biggest mountaineering archive in private hands and it was she who put Jane in touch with Jan Morris.
Audrey also spoke about someone, retired to Langford, who had published a book about the time she spent travelling in India, which was published in 1876 and had an interesting foreword which concluded ‘Nina Mazuchelli Clevedon 1876’. Jane would like to know more about where this lady was staying in Clevedon , so she would also be on the guest list.
It was a pleasure to learn more about Jane and more about Clevedon’s interesting past. If the history of Clevedon interests you then you can always pick up a copy of Jane’s books at Clevedon Community Bookshop Co-operative. Here’s the link if you’d like to join the Civic Society or the History Group. http://www.clevedon-civic-society.org.uk/