Origins of the Church of St Mary the Virgin . Part 1.
The real start to this Church was on 1st November 1890 when residents of Leigh Woods were asked to attend a meeting at the Harvey’s house called Glenside, which stood on the site of today’s Telford House flats. The meeting was called because Arthur Gregory Way of Woodleigh, North Road had offered £1000 towards the building of a Church if the erection proceeded without any undue delay. The Leigh Woods Land Company donated a suitable piece of land. There was no charge for the pew seats and no endowment demanded to support the Clergy. The ten ladies and nine gentlemen present accepted the conditions. A committee was then set up of nine gentlemen ( equal rights for women had some way to go! ). Some of these nine gentlemen were not present at this first public meeting which would suggest, and events prove, that the members had been carefully selected from men of standing, worth and business acumen before the event. The committee never seemed to be at a loss on how to proceed. In the carefully written minutes it is recorded that they were not only building to the greater glory of God but that it would also increase the value of their property and save the journey to their present Parish Church in Long Ashton. That journey must have been trying in all weathers as Rownham Hill must have been less well surfaced than now. The Gentry probably went by carriage and the rest walked. Short cuts through Ashton Park would not have been allowed when the Smyths were in Residence. Manoeuvring a horse drawn carriage in Church Lane, Long Ashton would have been daunting.
The nine worthies consisted of John Harvey of Harvey’s Wine fame. His next door neighbour at Oakhurst, which was then one property, was Edward Burrow Hill. He was in his early thirties and the grandson of Charles Hill the founder of the ship building company. Burrow Hill was a City Councillor and Chairman of the Docks and harbour Committee. In 1894 he was Master of the Merchant Venturers. He collapsed and died on Templemeads Station having cycled down to see his son who was travelling through, when he was thirty seven. His memorial is the cross in the Churchyard.
Arthur E Gregory Way of Woodleigh, who made the original move to build the Church was Sir Greville Smyth’s cousin. He must have been helpful in getting the necessary permissions from his cousin, who was patron of the living in Long Aston from which the new parish was to be cut.
Thomas Davey lived in Bannerleigh House, which has a very elegant carriage entrance. He was in the tobacco business and the company in Raleigh Road, Bedminster was eventually sold to Imperial.
John Harvey’s son, Russell lived at the Woodlands on Bridge Road with a large number of children. He and Edward Burrow Hill were the secretaries to the committee.
Next door in Towerhurst lived Hoskin Lowe, a timber merchant.
Edward Swann lived in The Gables, Bridge Road and was a solicitor and Merchant Banker. His efforts were vital to the success of the venture as he won and retained the support of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. He kept up a steady stream of letters to Wells and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, which finally won the day after an almost three year battle. This established a Church and Parish separate to Long Ashton supported only by weekly offerings from the congregation rather than the interest on a large sum endowment. He was greatly supported by the diocesan Registrar, Richard Harris. The Bishop was of Noble family but extremely old and frail. His Grandfather, the sixth Earl of Bristol was also the Bishop of Derry. His father was the 1st Marquis of Bristol and the family seat was Ickworth in Suffolk, which is now part of the National Trust. The Bishop was, therefore, by courtesy, Lord Arthur Hervey. The Registrar made the suggestion that if people promised donations that they should write ‘promissory notes’ which were legally binding even if the donor died. Mr Swann also made sure that the Rev. Hugh Falloon, Vicar of Long Ashton, was happy with the loss of part of his parish. This was done by agreeing that the offertory from one service a month should be given to Long Ashton’s poor, as Leigh Woods had none… then! This was a little surprising as Mr Swann gave coal and blankets to the poor of Leigh Woods and Abbots Leigh. This distribution continues to this day, as cash, by the establishment in his will of the Swann Benefaction. About £100 is distributed every Christmas.
The last two men were William Garnett, who lived at Rownham House. His son and John Harvey’s daughter were the first couple to be married at St Mary’s on October 19th 1892 the day after it was licensed, not consecrated, as a Chapel. The other was Francis Fry, a chocolate manufacturer, from a family more associated with the Quakers. He lived at Everleigh. This house in Bridge Road changed name to Foye House and was a convalescent home to soldiers in the Great War. It was pulled down and rebuilt as flats around 1970.
Nine National architects submitted plans to the committee by January 1891 and John Medland FRIBA, a pupil and assistant to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was successful. Amongst the instructions were that ‘it is essential that the Church be of a rustic and picturesque character of stone or red brick with a tile roof, small spire, rustic porch and in keeping with the surroundings, as contrasted with the formal architecture of a City Church’. Other requirements were a bell of good tone, ornamental tiled flooring, heating apparatus and pipes throughout, an organ chamber (no organ initially , clergy and choir stalls, gas pipes (for lighting), a lightening conductor and a weather cock’. His plans later had to be altered as he had wildly under priced the project.