Court House Farm  

 

Portishead Historian, Sandy Tebbutt, recalls meeting the last tenant Miss Gertrude Gale, whose family had farmed here since the 1930s.

The Gales, who had a family of eight children, moved into Court Farm in 1930. At that time the house was covered in ivy and trees and known to be haunted.

The family had previously lived in Church Farm, a little further up Church Road South, but this was condemned and pulled down because it was too unhealthy to live in. The Gale family, who were then offered the Court House tenancy, farmed 300 acres of land, some of it on the golf course and as far up as the old wireless station on Down Road.

Miss Gale – who described her childhood as extremely happy – helped her father during World War II and drove a tractor. The well-known woman, who died in 2008 in her 90s, now lies in the churchyard next door. The  previous tenants, who farmed here in Edwardian times, kept donkeys and had an orchard where the front garden is today.

 A visitor to the tower at Court House Farm marks the occasion of Gertie Gale's 90th birthday 

A visitor to the tower at Court House Farm marks the occasion of Gertie Gale's 90th birthday 

 

Before the Gales came the Wedmore family, many of whom lie buried in the local Friend's Meeting House. John and Samuel Wedmore, who were Quakers, had a tea and grocery business in the High Street – it was probably the village's very first shop. The Wedmores, I believe, became substantial land owners in the town before emigrating to America.

Who actually built the first "Great Mansion" here, sheltered from the winds by the surrounding hills, is lost to history.

Before the Norman conquest the land belonged to the powerful Godwin family – ill-fated King Harold was a member – as a single manorial holding.

By the 13th century, however, it had been divided into two rival manors, with the area around the present Court House Farm belonging to a man called William Le Bret. His ownership extended to the all important water powered grist mill (near where the White Lion pub is today), the lands around the church and Woodhill, then bare of trees.

The other manor, a smaller property held by the Tilly family, was centred around the present Grange, at the southern end of the High Street.

In 1300 the Le Bret's sold their lands – they now included a one third part of two mills, four hides of land and three acres of meadow – to the De La Salles, a family from Bradford-on-Avon. One of the perks included the right to appoint the church's rector, which could, should you wish, be a member of your own family.

In later years, and especially after the decimation of the Black Death of 1348, both manors were let out to tenants, often rich wool merchants or sheep masters, but also farmers.

Capenor Court and manor, a newcomer on the scene, became home to the Chappell family. Across 300 years the Chappells rose from being lowly tenant farmers to men of power, wealth and quality. Although parts of the building dated back to the 16th century, the court was unfortunately demolished in the 1960s.

Four hundred years ago, in 1616, Bristol's Mayor and Common Council decided to buy the Manor of Portishead from John Hall of Bradford-on-Avon. With it came about 200 acres of meadow and pasture, nine houses, woodland and a mill. One suggestion for the purchase is that the council already held Admiralty Courts, along with their associated feasting and drinking, in Portishead. Often held in the open air, perhaps they felt the need for their junketings to be held somewhere a little more sheltered – and give them somewhere to stay overnight.

It was certainly in the council's interest to try to protect the Kingroad – a stretch of water just off Portishead where ships would wait for wind and tide – and its surrounding lands. It was also, no doubt, a good investment, easily accessible by river.

A few years later the Common Council decided to increase its holdings by buying The Grange and its lands from William Winter of Clapton-in-Gordano. This no doubt gave them another excuse to travel up river for more feasting and drinking. It was around this time that Court House Farm, parts of which date back to 1400, was rebuilt or updated.

George Chappell, who became Portishead's bailiff, took over the tenancy in 1652, which then included about 120 acres of land. It was George and Katherine Chappell who, in 1664, built a fireplace in the old parlour in order to commemorate an important event in their lives.

On one side are the initials 'GC' with 'K' underneath and on the other side is the date. It may have been to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary but as there is no documentation we don't really know. George would have been 45 years old and his wife, 42. Katherine, who died childless in 1700, aged 78, left "Pancake money" (it was distributed on Shrove Tuesday) to the people of Portishead."

As the name suggests, manorial courts – they dealt with everything from domestic disputes to theft – were held in an upstairs room in the building. But by that time they were dying out and only really held for prestigious reasons by the Lord of the Manor. But the courtroom, with its high ceiling, is still there. In 1662, George was reimbursed eight pounds, 13 shillings and 10 pence to cover the cost of entertaining the mayor and his surveyors.

 Court House Farm, Spring 2015

Court House Farm, Spring 2015

An addition to the main building, and one which gives it the appearance of a fortified manor, is a striking hexagonal tower. This is said to have been built – without much authority I hasten to add – by Edward Morgan, a prosperous merchant whose family came from Easton-in-Gordano, so that he could spot his ships out there in the Bristol Channel.

One thing's for sure, there's a lot of history to digest here – and a lot of mysteries too. Was there, as people say, a secret tunnel between the court and the church? Or was it, as others believe, a cellar where contraband, illegally bought in from the coast, could be safely stored? Was there really a hiding place for banned Roman Catholic priests?

Both the Court House and Springfield Farm hold a special place in the hearts of Portishead people, many of who have bought their children, and grandchildren, here to see the horses, donkeys, geese, ducks and hens.

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