The Domesday Book of 1086 records that Twerton, once known as Twiverton on Avon, was held by the Bishop of Coutances, when the population only consisted of 32 households. Catherine Pitt investigates the village’s rich history
Twerton has always been on the peripheries of Bath’s history, although it contributed hugely to the city’s economic wealth. Much maligned in the press, the suburb continues to enjoy a community spirit which goes back to its days as a small village.
Absorbed by the city boundaries in 1911, Twerton, or Twiverton on Avon as it was once known, began as a Saxon settlement on the banks of the River Avon, its waters being utilised for milling corn and later fulling cloth. Originally part of the Hundred of Wellow in Somerset – one of the 40 historical Hundreds in Somerset dating from before the Norman conquest – Twerton’s name means ‘Two Weirs’ in Anglo-Saxon, indicating its riverside location.
There is some evidence of early occupation in both the Bronze Age and Roman period, but by 1086 the village was owned by the Bishop of Coutances, who leased the land to two men – Geoffrey Malreward and Nigel de Gournay. At the time the population of Twerton was 32 households, there were four mills, and the land was mainly used for agricultural purposes.
De Gournay held the East Manor that once stood near Upper Mill, and Malreward the West Manor where the High Street is today. There is still evidence of medieval Twerton in the landscape today. High up around Kelston View and Round Hill one can still see the medieval field system. At St Michael’s Church a Norman doorway dating to c.1100 remains, and roads such as Connection Road and The Hollow follow ancient tracks like the Roman Fosse Way and Wansdyke.
Travellers from Bristol or the south west heading to Bath had to pass through Twerton. During the English Civil War (1642–1651) the village was commandeered by various troops. At one point Colonel Montagu’s Parliamentarian Regiment of 800 men spent the night at Twerton. The households were expected to feed, water and shelter men and horses, but with only 28 households the impact was huge. The Civil War ended up costing Twerton £219. 11s. 11d. – nearly £23,000 today.
From the 17th century onwards the village of Twerton gradually became more industrialised, and the population increased to 800. As Bath developed into a fashionable spa resort, industries such as weaving were forced out of the centre and into the surrounding villages of Twerton, Widcombe and Weston.
Initially weaving was produced in workers’ homes on handlooms, and the cloth was taken to mills for fulling or dying. In the early 1700s around 160 homes in Twerton contained hand looms. The industrial revolution in the late 18th and 19th centuries saw the mechanisation of weaving which meant that hand looms were swiftly replaced by machines that could produce cloth at an astounding rate. In December 1797, Bath magistrates learnt of a plan by unemployed weavers in Twerton to march to Upper Mill and burn it down in protest. A company of soldiers and dragoons were ordered to defend the mill against an expected 1,000 men – however only 60 turned up.
One visitor to Twerton described the blue-tinged faces and hands of those who worked as dyers in the mills
Today all that remains of Lower Mill is a gatepost into the student accommodation that was built on site. The holiday venue of Bath Mill Lodge Retreat has been incorporated into what was once Newton Mill. Mill owners such as Broad, Wilkins, Chapman, Sperring and Carr, are still remembered however in local records, and in the names of local parks, woods and surrounding streets.
The mills that used to exclusively produce cloth started to produce leather and paper, and armament manufacturing during the wars. By the start of the 20th century Twerton industries had grown and included a malting, tannery, gas holders, stone quarry, two coal mines, the Pitman Printing Press, Bath Cabinet Makers workshops, and the Stothert and Pitt crane works.
Access to and from Twerton improved in the 18th and 19th centuries, which encouraged industry to set up in this area. Between 1724 and 1727 the river between London and Bristol was made much easier and safer to navigate with the construction of the Avon Navigation, including Weston and Kelston Lock.
During the 1840s Isambard Kingdom Brunel extended his Great Western Railway from Bath through to Bristol, dissecting part of Twerton’s High Street and what is now Lower Bristol Road with his viaduct. Twerton did get its own station, but it closed in 1917 never to reopen. Bath’s tram system – which was begun in 1880 and electrified in 1903 – linked the suburb with the centre until 1939 when buses became a more popular method of transport.
As industry increased so did the population in Twerton. In 1801 around 1,700 people lived in the village. By 1851 it had risen to 6,000 people, and in 1901 this number had almost tripled to 17,000. Local factory owners resolved some of the housing issues, building accommodation for their workforce, such as Rackfield Place, which was built 1820 by mill owner Charles Wilkins.
Although many Twerton factory and mill owners donated money and housing to the area, these philanthropic efforts were in fact the consequence of the hard work of local men, women and children who facilitated these owners’ wealth.
In the 18th century it was a novelty for visitors to Bath to walk out to places like Twerton to observe the small industries. One visitor to Twerton described the blue-tinged faces and hands of those who worked as dyers in the mills. There are also extant reports by Twerton factory workers at The Museum of Bath at Work that describe the cold and filthy conditions endured during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Children as young as seven were employed, and in the mills and factories they were exposed to fast-moving and dangerous machinery. Donkey boys from the local collieries were paid a mere 6d a load to take coal to Broad Quay, an eight-mile round trip, sometimes twice a day. This was before the NHS and before incapacity benefits. It wasn’t until 1876 that Parliament passed an act making the employment of children under 10 illegal.
Twerton didn’t lose its village atmosphere. The author Henry Fielding moved to a cottage in 1748 (which was pulled down in the 1960s) to write part of Tom Jones and Jane Austen wrote of a country stroll she took to Twerton in April 1805.
Much of the surrounding hills were still countryside, with some areas utilised by the company Langdon and Blackmore, a nursery business set up in the 19th century that exported begonias and delphiniums from the slopes of Twerton around the world.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, slum clearances from areas such as Avon, Peter and Milk Street, meant many people were rehoused in suburbs like Twerton. In 1875 a byelaw instructed developers to ensure new housing had gaps in-between, running water, and green space. This was a far cry from overcrowded and disease-ridden tenements in the city centre.
New estates such as Southdown (begun in 1927), Whiteway (begun in 1938 and continuing post war), and adjoining Kelston View began to be built. After the end of the First World War the national Homes for Heroes scheme accelerated Twerton’s housing development and after the severe bombing in Twerton during the Second World War, further housing was built or rebuilt.
Despite the expansion of Twerton over the centuries the area still maintained a village feel. The local flower show (first launched in 1876) brought people together. Twerton’s Co-operative Society was one of the earliest established in 1889. Also, the morning after a local’s death St Michael’s Church bell would toll and households would gather outside their homes to pay their respects as the coffin passed.
With an increase in housing came additional infrastructure like religious and municipal buildings. A number of non-conformist churches established themselves here, such as the Methodists and Baptists, and each of them provided facilities such as halls, cemeteries, and schools for the local population.
In 1843 a gaol was opened on Caledonian Road to replace Bath’s Grove Street Gaol. It could house 122 people in single cells (one of the first prisons at the time to do so) and cost £20,000 to build, but it closed after 35 years. Today only the governor’s house remains, transformed into flats.
I hardly think the citizens of Bath know what a great place Twerton isRev G.G. Hickman
In 1930 Bath City Football Club (founded in 1889) bought Innox Park. The club moved 15,000 tons of soil, trees and plants to establish their football stadium. The club are still investing in Twerton today with a significant amount of money earmarked for a new stadium as well as High Street improvements.
Twerton should be proud of its past, and of its future. Built around a village community, it continues to embrace this spirit in the 21st century. On the High Street the family run Bakers of Bath still supply the area with their bread and pastries as they have done since 1935. Groups like The Golden Oldies (est. 1988), a singing group for pensioners, and The Community Play Rangers, who for 40 years have facilitated outdoor play for local children, also offer community opportunities to society. Places such as Bath City Farm (est. 1990) enable adults and children to enjoy nature and animals, and pubs such as The Centurion (built 1954) has been awarded a Grade II listed status for providing a community hub in an urban environment.
In conclusion, let’s remember the words of the Rev. G.G. Hickman in 1935:
“I hardly think the citizens of Bath realise what a great place Twerton is. Twerton contributes very much to the well-being of Bath as a whole. We are Indispensable Twerton. We are IT.”