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Lifestyle Article - The Powder House

Proud owner Clive Davies outside the Powder House (Evening Post, 1992)   It appears the Willington's have had a long association with the powder house for close to a centuary. Stephen Willington (1735-1813) is identified in a 1774 survey as 'Powder House Keeper'. This Stephen's son and grandson are referred to in The Bristol Mirror, Sat. 6th September, 1823, which carries an account of 'a robbery across the Avon river at the Blue Anchor Public House. Four men robbed the aged landlady, 2 were caught in a ditch and the other 2 jumped into Chapel Pill (the creek almost opposite the Powder House) and were caught and dragged out by Mr. Wellington and his son at the Powder House. They were sent for trial.' Stephen (1772-1842) or Stephen (1802-1846) paid £20 rates in 1829 for ‘magazine’, and again in 1835. John Russell Willington (1815-?) became the powder magazine keeper at The Powder House sometime between 1841 and 1851. Previously a hooper, he was the keeper for at least 10 years till after 1861. One of John's eight sons was also a keeper in 1861. It is family gossip that after John died, the substantial wealth that had come from the keeper's job was quickly fritted away by some of his sons.

The house fell into ruin, but was renovated during the 1990's by Clive Davies (see photo).

A history of the Powder House was written by Mrs Ethel Thomas in her book "Shirehampton Story". The book (in its second edition) was published by Ethel and can be purchased directly at 55 Cook Street, Avonmouth, Bristol BS11 9JY, England. Permission has kindly been given to present the following extract.


On the Shirehampton side of the River Avon at the approach to Horseshoe Bend is the 18th Century building commonly called the 'Powder House', or, to give it its correct name the 'Gunpowder Magazine'. This historic and now almost derelict place which stands on the very cliff edge, is easily recognisable by its white-washed walls and blue slate roof.

No one seems to know exactly when the Powder House was built, the earliest reference to it being supplied by Isaac Taylor on his map of Gloucestershire dated 1777. Here it was that vessels in former times, both privateers and merchant ships were required to off-load their stocks of gunpowder and other highly inflammable materials, before proceeding upstream to the congested Bristol wharves, replenishing their stocks on their outward journeys. The need for the Powder House, which originally was out in the wilds of the countryside, is all too apparent from the description of Bristol given by Alexander Pope in 1732, viz:-
-'In the middle of the street as far as you can see, hundreds of ships, their masts as thick as they can stand by one another, which is the oddest and most surprising sight imaginable . . .'

Fire was an ever constant threat in the City, and never more so than when the wooden houses were tinder-boxes, and fire-fighting equipment almost non-existent. For this reason in Mediaeval times all fires had to be extinguished in the town's houses when the 9.0.p.m. curfew was sounded from St. Nicholas Church. Even by the middle of the 18th Century appliances for extinguishing fires were still very primitive. It is recorded that in 1745 the magistrates 'bethought themselves of the peril arising from the vast quantities of gunpowder stored at Tower Harratz' (i.e. a bulwark now covered by Temple Meads Railway Station), and orders were given for the removal of this magazine to Portishead creek. Despite its perilous character Tower Harratz magazine survived to the close of the 18th Century and was so carelessly guarded that in April 1796 its owners, Elton, Ames & Co., offered a reward for the discovery of thieves who had broken into the premises and stolen four barrels of gunpowder. However, in 1776 an Act of Parliament was obtained -
'to remove the danger of fire amongst the ships in the port of Bristol, by preventing the landing of certain commodities on the present quays, and for providing a convenient quay and proper places for landing and storing the same . . .'
In all probability Shirehampton's Powder House dates from 1776.

The Powder House consists of two separate buildings, the small stone structure on the cliff edge, and a larger rectangular building close behind it. The smaller one is equipped with an old fashioned hand-operated wooden crane on a railed platform, used as a loading and unloading bay, whilst the larger block was presumably the storehouse. Since iron might have produced a spark, only copper nails were used in the construction of the Magazine, as a safety precaution, and all door locks made of wood. Set in the cliff may still be seen two mooring rings with short lengths of greatly worn chain attached, used to secure ships. The Powder House was used during the First World War as a major store for explosives, which were brought here by barge.

In the 1850s and 1860s the Magazine-keeper was Mr. John Willington. Latterly this property and small-holding was occupied by Mr. Harold Little, who used the old magazine and it's out-buildings as battery hen-houses!

During 1982 the grounds of the Powder House were developed by Messrs. Bovis with detached houses and cul-de-sac named 'Riverside Close', and the days of storing gunpowder at Shirehampton's historic Powder House have at last come to an end.

Shirehampton Story, pp.74-77.

Also see:
Link 1
Link 2

Ralph Hack made the following enlightening remarks "Stephen Willington at the Powder House supplied the towing horses from the Powder House along the tow-path down as far as Broad Pill near the estuary of the river. The horses were used in towing ships of sail in and out of the river. They were often driven by a man and a boy. Out in the river depending on the size of the vessels there were men in tow-boats rowing shoulder to shoulder towing the ship with the assistance of a horse or horses on the tow-path. At this time Stephen Willington charged 3s and sixpense for each horse used, 2 shillings for a tow up river and 1 shilling and sixpense down. He was also entitled to dotage when horses were ordered and then not employed.

By 1823 the Bristol Chamber of Commerce in favor of steam towing said it was, 'quite unnecessary that so many as 30, 40 and frequently 50 men and boys of the indolent character, with four or five tow boats, the greater part of them in most cases rendering the ship no service whatever. Indeed many of them being very old men and boys they are incapable of the duty of able men. We trust now that steam boats are introduced they will be employed in towing ships up and down the river whereby the heavy charges for horses, men and boats will be much diminished.'

The advent therefore of steam tugs on the river caused great consternation among the people of Crockern Pill and Shirehampton who for generations had found employment in hauling ships. By 1826 it was known that steam navigation would cause unemployment to these people. The Haven Master had spoken in favor of steam. There followed 'violent disturbances in consequence of competition with steam tugs.' In 1834 the steam tug 'Fury' came into the mouth of the Avon which resulted in 30 Pill men in two boats who boarded the tug and did much damage finally setting her adrift."

Last update: 4th September 2010