Local history: Luxury home site's past as a prison, workhouse and hospital

October 28 2021
Local history: Luxury home site's past as a prison, workhouse and hospital

PRISONERS and the poor were the previous occupants of the new Blackberry Hill homes, writes Mike Jempson.

THE luxury Blackberry Hill housing development on Manor Road is quite a turnaround from the site’s grim history.

Originally known as Stapleton Prison, the buildings undergoing 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: "They wished to intrude on me a variety of devices in bone and wood of the most obscene kind, particularly those representing a crime [not to mentioned among Christians], which they termed the new fashion. I purchased a few…"

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 at 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.

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, 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-mistress; 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 seven 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 one-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 people who were referred to as ‘mental defectives’, then a psychiatric unit as Stapleton Hospital, before changing its name to Manor Park Hospital, specialising in geriatric care. 
Manor Park Hospital eventually merged with the Glenside Hospital next door to become Blackberry Hill Hospital in 1993.

Picture: Bristol artist Samuel Loxton’s drawing of the Stapleton Workhouse