The Knoll, Chapel Hill

One of the silhouettes that is hard to miss when you’re approaching Clevedon from the south is that of Christ Church, built in 1838 and consecrated the following year.

Below Christ Church, on Chapel Hill, is the house where a great many Clevedon babies were born between 1950 and 1976, The Knoll, which was a maternity hospital between those years. I was born there myself one January, with a blizzard howling outside and me howling in the room above the porch!

In the past, I’ve been quick to refute the suggestion that the house was the vicarage for Christ Church. It wasn’t, but the man who had the house built for himself in 1855, was the Reverend George Law Harkness, curate of Christ Church while G W Braikenridge was the incumbent.

George Law Harkness came from a long line of reverend gentlemen. His father was Vicar of East Brent when he was born, and his mother was a daughter of Bishop Law, the Bishop of Bath and Wells. The bishop lived in Banwell in the house known as The Caves, surrounded by a wonderful fantasy landscape of his own making. The caves are ancient bone caves, and the bishop thoroughly relished adding follies to his landscaped garden, summer houses and a tower among them.

When Revd. Harkness first moved to Clevedon, he bought a house built by Sir Arthur Elton on the coast in Elton Road. Sir Arthur called it in his diaries the Elizabethan house and named it Fairfield. Sadly, like most of the houses in that part of Elton Road, it was demolished in the 1960s, and the only survivor of the group of houses there is The Little Harp. The photograph below shows Fairfield, taken by Ted Caple, date unknown.

However, Harkness lived at Fairfield while he had The Knoll built, having bought his plot in August 1855. He put Fairfield up for sale a few weeks afterwards. There were in Fairfield a mere eleven rooms, compared with fourteen at The Knoll. He named the house after the landmark near his birthplace, Brent Knoll – it may even be visible from his house. By September 1857, he was paying rates for the house and it would be complete. For the first time a directory lists him as living in The Knoll.

He stayed for the next three years and then in 1860 his aunt, Mrs Margaret Clarke, the widow of a surgeon, lived there with George’s brother James until he was appointed Vicar of Winscombe and embarked on a serious restoration of the church there. George had four brothers and they were all ordained!

The photograph, below, dates from the later 1860s I believe and the added note to one side calls the house The Parsonage – only strictly accurate while Rev Harkness lived there.

The photograph, below, is an aerial one showing the church and house with the Belmont on the left. I have no doubt that a car buff can date is for me just by looking at the car top left.

Mrs Clarke died in 1873 and in September the house was advertised for sale in the Western Daily Press:

‘Clevedon – The Knoll – near Christ Church – to be sold:

This very attractive detached residence, with terrace walk and well-planted ground of an acre in extent, commanding extensive prospects. The house has a south aspect, and comprises hall, dining and drawing-room, with bay windows, library, 9 bedrooms etc. Housekeeper’s room, butler’s pantry, kitchens and very convenient domestic offices. The stable and coachhouse are complete.’

The new occupant was Richard Woodward who moved here with his wife Julia and daughter Julia Lucy from Bath. He had retired from the Bengal Civil Service, and was living on the income from land he owned. He lived to enjoy the house for almost two years, dying of heart disease in 1875. His widow remained at the house with their daughter.

In 1892, Mrs Woodward died, leaving the house to her daughter. In 1899 Julia Lucy was still at The Knoll. Her uncle, Vincent Stuckey Lean was living with her and died that year, leaving over £400,000. His mother was a daughter of the Stuckey family of Langport, who owned Stuckey’s Bank. He bequeathed £50,000 of this to the Central Library in Bristol for the erection of new buildings, which were completed in 1906 to designs by Charles Holden of H Percy Adams. He left many other charitable bequests.

In 1902, Julia Lucy published her uncle’s collection of proverbs and folklore, available in fascimile from the internet – here is their description of the work:

‘Lean’s Collectanea’ is a vast collection of proverbs, folklores and superstitions acquired over a lifetime by Vincent Stuckey Lean of Bristol (1820-99). Painstakingly collected and researched during Lean’s travels on the Continent and throughout Britain, the 5-volume “Collectanea” is packed with many thousands of entries, helpfully arranged by theme and fully indexed. Covering all periods and many countries, the “Collectanea” goes well beyond simply listing proverbs; it includes superstitions, popular customs and saying, proverbial witticisms, rhymes and aphorisms; it records death customs, cures for disease, omens and signs, good luck sayings, charms, and more. Lean unearths the provenance of many obscure proverbs, and consults an author’s death, this lively work also contains Lean’s extensive contributions to “Notes and Queries”, “A New Treasury of Similes”, and a biographical memoir of Lean by Julia Lucy Woodward. The proverb was at its peak in Britain in Elizabethan times, and Lean’s work is particularly authoritative and helpful in illuminating the literature of this era. In addition to English literature departments, it should be of interest to philological and language students, scholars in cultural studies (many proverbs are based on racial, nationalist and class beliefs), oral historians, linguists and folklorists.’

When Miss Woodward died in 1910, like her father, from heart disease, she left some £32,000. Her Will left numerous charitable bequests, among them a villa in Shurdington along with her horses, dogs, carriages and the contents of her stable to her coachman, William Austin, ‘in recognition of his faithful service to her dear mother and herself’.When the National Trust purchased Barrington Court near Ilminster, they had insufficient funds left for the conservation of the building. I am told by Neil Foster that Miss Woodward contributed the crucial sum of £14,000 for the repair work needed to the house, which was in a state of dereliction.

A more local body helped by Miss Woodward was the YMCA; the old Church House in Marson Road ceased to be the Vicarage for St Andrew’s in 1900, and in the garden a large building went up and became a Temperance Hotel and Coffee shop. Miss Woodward owned the greater number of shares in the building and left them to her friends the Misses Marson, who had lived in the Vicarage there with their late father, Rev. Charles Marson. This enabled them in turn to give their shares to the YMCA, who then used the building and the land to the rear as their base and club house from December 1924.

The house stayed in the family as the next occupant was Miss Woodward’s nephew, George Woodward Willock, the son of her sister Caroline. For much of his ownership, he was away, as a professional soldier in the Royal Inniskillings, and his wife Lucy Minna Willock lived at the house with their three children.

Mrs Willock died in 1926, after which her husband kept the house until his own death in Bath ten years later. The house was occupied next by a widow who had previously been living in Jesmond Road, Mrs Catherine Lina Fair. She and her late husband, Thomas Conroy Fair, had both been born in Argentina, as had their two older children, James Conroy Fair and Helen Mary Conroy Fair, aged 9 and 7 respectively. Her younger son, George Patrick Fair, aged 4, had been born in Sussex.

Sadly, during the Great War, both sons were killed, James serving in the Coldstream Guards, and George in the Somerset Light Infantry. They were buried at St Andrew’s Church here in Clevedon. When Catherine herself died in December 1947, she left her entire estate of over £100,000 to her daughter Helen. Catherine must have had money of her own, as when her husband died in 1897, he only left £881.

Helen had married Major Stanley Bickham Sweet-Escott, who she divorced in 1932. I suspect that when she inherited The Knoll in 1947, she put the house up for sale. Certainly, only three years later in 1950, the house opened as a maternity hospital. Advertisements were in the local press for staff between September and December 1950.

After the maternity hospital closed in 1976, The Knoll became a home for young people with learning difficulties for some years. Now, it is once more a private house and a family home.

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