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  • Writer's pictureGVHeritage Group

Guess the link between Arnos Vale & Bristol Gas Light Company

Did you know that the first person buried at Arnos Vale was Mary Breillat, wife of the man who had brought gas street-lighting to Bristol?  John Breillat is also buried at Arnos Vale.

When Mary Breillat died, aged 68, on July 23, 1839 after 44 years of marriage, she had the honour of being buried in the very first grave of a newly-opened Amos Vale cemetery. The land on the steeply-sloping hillside between the Wells and Bath roads was originally destined to be the site of Bristol Zoo. But the zoological society finally decided to open its menagerie near the Clifton Downs instead and the land was released to become a garden cemetery.

Mary was bom Mary Holbrook in 1769 and a silhouette portrait of her in a bonnet still survives. And so does her striking memorial, a 12ft·high obelisk. Mary was one of about eight people buried in the cemetery during its first year but she has a greater claim to fame than most. For it was her husband, son and grandson who revolutionised Bristol’s gas industry; John Breillat, whom she’ married at St Nicholas Church in 1795, and who is buried alongside her, was a calender and silk-dyer who developed an interest in gas lighting. Bristol’s limited street lighting at that time was by oil but most of the city remained dark after sunset.

Breillat had been demonstrating the advantages of gas lighting as early as 1811 and in 1815 was invited to set up the ‘BristoI Gas Light Company'. The first gas “factory" was set up in Temple Back and residents were surveyed to see if they would use gas lighting. The largest gas-holder in the country, nicknamed Aladdin, was built. But gas was slow to catch on, largely because of opposition from those who thought whale-oil gave a better light. The businessmen at the Commercial Rooms made some inquiries, but backed out when they discovered they would still need candles as well as gas, and there were doubts about the competence of the fitters.

John, joined by his son Ebenezer, experimented with a new coke / coal blend to make gas more economic. Their breakthrough came in 1821 when the city planned a “general illumination" to mark the Coronation of George lV and gas was chosen to light some offices in Queen Square. But as coal gas began to put oil gas out of the running, Breillats prospects improved. Ebenezer, who had left under a cloud, was offered a new post. Meanwhile, John helped give,Wells and Dursley their first gas lighting and advised Bath on setting up a gas company, in 1844, John’s hours were reduced while Ebenezer‘s salary increased. Three years later, John resigned on the grounds of experiencing “so great a decay of ability both mental and physical that l cannot think of entering on another winter”. He died in 1856 but the Breillat family continued their involvement with schemes all over the West Country, lighting up the darkness wherever they went.


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