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  • Writer's pictureGVHeritage Group

Crew's Hole & Creosote

Two miles upstream from Bristol Bridge on the River Avon is Crew’s Hole (laying outside the Bristol conurbation), which started to be developed for industry in the early 18th century. There are a range of theories about how the area got its name.

Rock Cottage, Crews Hole, Bristol BS5

One is that it takes its name from Cruses Cottages, which once stood on the opposite side of the river, the Cruse family owned most of the land there. From Cruse came Screws Hole, and finally Crews Hole.  Another theory that the area took its name from the crews of old Sailing ships who sheltered here from the dreaded press gangs. It is believed they carved steps and terraces into the hillside in 1682 to serve as a make shift gallery for their congregation with lookouts  posted at the top of Troopers Hill to watch for the sheriff or a mob.

Troopers Hill Follow the land up behind Crew’s Hole towards the single chimney that stands at the top and you will find yourself on Troopers Hill, overlooking the River Avon below. Until the 19th century it was known locally as Truebody’s Hill. A government survey of the area in 1652 says: “along down Conham’s Hill to the lower end of Stode Brook, so to Deanridge’s lands, rounding then to the river Avon; thence turning short about to the north-west by Harris’ Hill, unto the north-east of the said hill, near to the Bath Road” [History of Kingswood Forest by A Braine].

It is clear that the hill was used as a defensive position across the centuries, potentially by the Parliamentary army prior to the siege of Bristol in 1645 and by the Baptists of Bristol during their persecution in the 17th century but we are interested in the development that occurred in relation to the River Avon below.

Abraham Elton A member of a prominent Bristol family Abraham Elton had established a copper smelting works at Conham (a short distance up stream from Crew’s Hole) in around 1698 and it is thought that he purchased Truebody’s Hill in 1704 from the Lancelot Dobson of Patterdale.  It is thought that Elton bought the hill for the quarrying that had taken place in the area as early as the middle ages.

Abraham was a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers and Sheriff of Bristol, later Mayor of Bristol and High Sheriff of Gloucestershire and Member of Parliament for 5 years until his death in 1727.

On March 1758 Sir Abraham Elton (the grandson of the original purchaser) sold ‘Harris’s alias Truebody’s Hill’ to the Bristol Brass and Wire Company for £150. There seems to be no evidence as to what use if any was made of the hill.

Although it is thought that the mining of mineral deposits, primarily coal, sandstone and lead, had been carried out in the area from at least the Middle Ages, the Bristol Brass and Wire Company brought new industry to the area in 1710, and by 1724 there were twenty-four furnaces operating in Crew's Hole. This rose to forty-nine and production continued until 1828, when the derelict mills were sold. The Copper works, known as ‘the Cupolas’ were so successful that it drew the attention of the Swedish Board of Mines who came to the area to investigate. 

Between 1766 and 1803 there were three glasshouses here, two of which produced soap. Also here was the Bristol Fire Clay Co., producing almost unbreakable bricks. The company operated from the 1800s until the early 1900s. The Crown Clay Co. was another firm making firebricks, but they also produced sanitary pipes and terracotta ware from about the same date.

You can see a plan which formed part of an 1886 lease of the land (from the Friends of Troopers Hill website here) to the west of Stone and Tinson, together with mining rights under the hill, to the Bristol Fireclay Company (we have also linked to a copy below). The lease itself is difficult to read but the wording was kindly typed for the Friends of Troopers Hill by Margaret Watson from a copy given to them by the Council's property office, who have also gave them permission to reproduce it. You can download a copy of the typed document here. In the lease the land is stated to have been formerly occupied by Mrs Elizabeth Braine and Ann Randall followed by Messrs Johnston Andrews & Company and then the Crown Clay Company. The plan shows the duct to the chimney, the cottages and the engine house as areas that shouldn't be undermined. The fireclay mines extended right under the hill and continued in use until they were abandoned in 1908. Two seams of clay were mined the five feet thick Dibb Clay and the deeper six feet thick Buff Clay. Two mine entrances were within the works area, while a third was in a quarry on the south-west side of the hill. Fireclay is often found below coal seems and it is possible that some of the works were opening up old coal mines.

The opening of The Feeder in 1809 changed the River Avon (which had been a tidal river up to this point and therefore inaccessible at low tide) opening the area to the east of Bristol to heavy industry.  The east side of Bristol was the traditional side of the city for a ‘smelly’ works, as the prevailing wind is from the southwest.

Crew's Hole, the Clovelly of Bristol In Victorian times, Crew's Hole was compared to the north Devon village of Clovelly, as both were steep, with ranks of cottages that tumble down lanes and narrow roads to the waterfront. In contrast with this idyllic scene was the intense concentration of industry making it the Avonmouth of its day. Employment attracted workers, and short terraces of dwellings were built amongst the scattering of earlier cottages. A relatively secluded and independent community grew, its distinct character reflecting the area's setting development and history. Big changes for the small village of Crew’s Hole were to come about with tar distillation.

John Bethell John Bethell was born in Bristol in 1804.  He was a Solicitor in London from 1825-54 and was also a prolific inventor. In 1835 he patented a complete system of diving apparatus! However, he is best remembered for his patent AD 1838, BP 7731, which employed among other things coal tar thinned with 'deadoil', or creosote oil as it is known today, to preserve timber. Isambard Kingdom Brunel heard about Bethell’s patent and as he was then building miles of railway lines for the Great Western Railway and needed a good preservative for his wooden sleepers he jumped at the opportunity. With the financial support of Roberts and Daines, Iron Masters in St Philips, and the lease & technical expertise of Bethell, he set up a Tar Works at Crew’s Hole in 1843. In the early days, under the name Roberts & Daines, the principal product was creosote, the raw material was coal-tar, the residue from gas production.

Brunel chose one of his employees, William Butler, who had been working on the construction of the Bristol & Exeter railway line to take charge of the works.

William Butler William Butler was not only in charge of the Crew’s Hole works but also the upper Parting Gloucester Works, up until his retirement in 1889. He was interested in local Government and was influential in the attempt to establish representative Government in St George. He became the Chairman of the Local Government Board from it starting in 1874 and was re-elected annually to the office for 14 years until 1889.

He presented a Fountain and Horse Trough to the Parish of St George in 1890 to commemorate his achievement.  Butler also became the Chairman of the Highway Board and was elected a Guardian, became a member of the Gloucester County Council and was a Gloucestershire County Magistrate. 

Butler was clearly one of the magic circle of leading Bristol businessmen well known to the Bristol commercial solicitor John Stanley. When Stanley instructed his office junior George White to assemble a consortium to take over and run Bristol Council's failed tramline in 1875, Butler was an obvious choice as the first chairman of the Bristol Tramway Company, a position he held until his death on 6th October 1900. It is said that William Butler chose the site of the family grave at Avon View Cemetery so that he could continue to watch over his works. He was laid to rest there at 3pm on 10th October and at that time all Bristol’s trams and the company’s carriages came to a halt for 1 minute as a sign of respect. Today, this view is of a housing estate but his name lives on in the area with a block of flats in Summerhill Road called ‘Butler House’ and a road on the housing estate off Blackswarth Road called ‘Butlers Close’.

The 1st of 2 great fires! The crude tar was purchased from the local Gas Works and also transported in horse drawn narrow boats from as far away as Reading (until motorised barges took over). Bath was the last Gas works to send crude tar in barges, while Stapleton Road Gas works supplied it by rail tankers to Silverthorne Lane and then up river by barge to the Crew’s Hole works. Road transport did not play the major part until after the opening of the Severn Road Bridge in 1966, from that time large specially designed road tankers delivered Coke Oven tars from South Wales direct to Crew’s Hole and so the barges were then redundant.

By 1863 (following a great fire that nearly destroyed the works) Roberts and Daines sold their interest to William Butler (perhaps because the risk of fire was too high for them), who traded under the name of Wm Butler & Co (Bristol) Limited.  Roberts and Daines would later lease Butler part of their Silverthorne Lane premises for expansion.

There is some debate about exactly when Butler starting working at Crew’s Hole as his daughter Sarah was born on 21 September 1843 and christened on 21 October 1843 at Creech St Michael Parish Church near Taunton which might suggest that this arrival in Bristol was somewhat later.

The firm then diversified into the production of all kinds of oil-based chemicals, ranging from the relatively primitive (lamp black) to the highly sophisticated (ingredients for plastics). In 1878 Butler purchased the Crown Preserved Coal Company of Cardiff, making his chemicals company a substantial enterprise.

The internal combustion engine, a 2nd fire and 1 exclusive number plate With the invention of the internal combustion engine and the horseless carriage, the tar industry started separating motor benzole from the light distillate as a fuel. The Crew's Hole works was at the forefront of this development as a benzole distillation plant had been purchased from Germany and installed in 1890. The stills were originally coal fired, which was quite a fire hazard! The Motor Benzole was stored on the other side of the road in the hillside Quarry Compound at Crew’s Hole and due to spillages this site was contaminated with Benzole. No doubt this ready supply of fuel had a direct influence on the introduction by Bristol Tramways of motorbuses, lorries and taxis in the years immediately following Butler's death.

A second fire broke out in 1897 and was described as one of the greatest spectacles ever seen as the burning oil which spread across the river could be seen for miles around. It had to be left to burn itself out and claimed the life of one worker.

The combined heavy industry that had built up on the banks of the River Avon and the Feeder Canal by 1895 were so intense that in the 33rd Alkali Inspector’s Report they commented on the close proximity of three chemical works in the area – Conham Chemical Company, an Alkali works’ Wm Butler’s Tar Works and Stone and Tinson’s Muriate of Ammonia works: The report says:

‘In considering the question of vapours and smoke in this particular locality, we must not forget that there are at least 20 different chimneys at the various works. The coal burnt at the alkali work, the tar work, the muriate of ammonia work and the brick and tile work, together with the fires in the houses, would itself constitute a considerable volume of smoke.
It is unfortunate that traces of ammoniacal vapours escape from the muriate of ammonia work as well as from the tar work. It is still more unfavourable that the alkali work is situated between them, for when the ammoniacal vapours meet the muriatic acid gas (Hydrochloric acid) in the air a white cloud is at once created and on a wet day this is very visible.’

When the Conham Chemical Works closed in 1904 and Stone and Timson’s in 1924, both sites were bought by and incorporated into the Butler Works.

Although Butler himself died in October 1900, his company went on to form a subsidiary under the name of The British Refined Motor Spirit Company in 1903. When the 1904 Motor Act came into force, Butlers’ registered the first motor car in Bristol. Its number was ‘AE1’, which now belongs to the Lord Mayor of Bristol.  In 2011 there was a move afoot by Bill Wren ‘to sell it to raise funds for vital public services during this "age of austerity"’ – we’re not sure how far that went! No doubt this ready supply of fuel had a direct influence on the introduction by Bristol Tramways of motorbuses, lorries and taxis in the years immediately following Butler's death.

The process of distillation Up until 1898 at Crew's Hole all tar was distilled by the batch process in pot stills. The iron pot was set in a brick furnace with a swan neck and a worm condenser. The distillate was divided by collecting it in a number of receivers. The residue was pitch. This was discharged before repeating the cycle. In 1898, Butlers set up a Lennard's patent continuous pipe still, only the second one in this country. The Lennard process was patented in 1891 and the first still was erected in 1893 at the Greenwich Works of Messrs Forbes, Abbott and Lennard, later taken over by the South Metropolitan Gas Co. This was on the Greenwich Peninsula, well known to all as the site of the 'Dome'!

The Wilton Tar Still was erected at Crew's Hole in 1951, again based on a continuous pipe furnace, it was the main distillation unit until 1973, when British Steel Corporation, Chemicals Division, replaced the furnace with a continuously wound upshot Beverley heater.

2 World Wars

William Butler & Co (Bristol) remained a very important company during both world wars as their products were much in demand for the war effort.  During the 1960s the replacement of the old town gas, by both gas produced from petroleum and North Sea gas, led to the demise of coal based gasworks and resulted in a large reduction in the availability of crude tar and in 1962 its tar distilling interests were sold out to the gas boards.

In 1970 the works (by then know as the Bristol & West Tar Distillers Ltd) were taken over by the British Steel Corporation, Chemicals Division.  The works continued at Crew’s Hole but distilled only Coal Tar from BSC Coke Ovens in South Wales. Under BSC’s management the tar distillation plant at become one of the most modern in Europe, allowing products including creosote, road tar and smokeless fuel to be produced non-stop around the clock (by only 2 men on a 3-shift rota).  This continued until 1981 when the works closed, lying derelict until the site was redeveloped for housing (Quayside Village) in 1989.

The works were later relocated at Avonmouth, producing disinfectants, antiseptics and preservatives. It is now a subsidiary of an American company, Tenneco Organics.

During nearly 140 years of operation at Crews Hole the Tar Works gradually took over all the land between Troopers Hill and the River.


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