While doing research for my upcoming book on the Babbs of Somerset, England, I came across a peculiar census record from Bristol, England. Bristol is a large city of about 450K people. It lies just outside the North East boundary of Somerset and historically was part of the County of Gloucestershire. But these days has grown so large the city has become its own county.
As I was saying, this particular census record caught my attention. Normally, you will see family units at most residential addresses, but in this record there are 44 people all living at a single address, which was 56 Wine Street in Bristol. All the tenants were young single people in their 20s and early 30s who bore no relation to each other. I was curious if this was some form of prison or asylum so I started to dig for the name of the place. The establishment name wasn’t listed so I turned to the street view in Bing Maps. The address no longer exists, but the entire block has been replaced with a modern structure on one side and the other is now a park.
Not finding the answers in these pictures, I then did a regular web search for the address and immediately stumbled across some early pictures of the block and a story that I found quite compelling and I wanted to share that with you today.
The first thing that I discovered was that it was a place of business, not a prison. No, the irony was not lost on me. Walter Thomas Babb (born 1872 in Chew-Manga, Somerset, England) was listed amongst these 44 inhabitants. Most of them are listed as Drapers Assistants, but Walter was listed as the House Potter. I’m not exactly sure what that entailed but the record seems to reflect the hierarchy of the establishment and Walter is listed near the end between the Night Watchman and the domestic servants.
My web search unearthed a series of early photographs taken along the street prior to WWII. Thanks to a little site called Flickr and the work of Paul Townsend, these photos are once again available to the public. In this undated photo below taken at the corner of High Street looking down Wine Street you see first on the right an ornate building called the Dutch House. It was considered the most loved fragment of Old Bristol. Just behind that on the right is 56 Wine Street, which was occupied by Jones & Company which specialized in apparel and after that the Baker Baker & Company rounds out the end of the block occupying . This explains the need for all those Drapers Assistants. It is likely that Walter worked and lived in the upstairs above the storefront.
The Dutch House was a prominent building and featured in this postcard image circa 1908. Jones & Company is visible just to the left side of this image.
Now looking the other direction from the far end of the block we see Baker Baker & Co. in the left foreground. At about the point of the Light Post is Jones & Co. and you can just make out the Dutch house ticking out on the far left end of the block.
This advertisement shows that Baker Baker occupied 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54 & 55 Wine Street, placing it next door to Jones & Co at 56 Wine Street.
Arriving at 56 Wine Street we found Jones & Co which is shown best in these pictures. Jones & Co occupied 56-65 Wine Street.
It was on this bustling street, on 24 November 1940 that German War planes blitzed Bristol and destroyed this entire block of buildings amongst many other things. The remnants of the Dutch House are shown in the next picture and through the smoke you can see that the backside of the Dutch House is completely gone. Jones & Co and Baker, Baker were also extensively damaged and the entire block was demolished shortly afterwards. The site where the block stood has never been rebuilt and now lies under Castle Park. The congested corner at which the Dutch House stood has been widened using some of the land created by its destruction.
An article was published in the Illustrated Bristol News in 1960 detailing a short history of the company. The article has been faithfully transcribed by Paul Townsend on his Flickr site along with most of the photos you see here today. He has assembled a dazzling array of information & photos from the Wine Street area and is a font of information. The pictures themselves have passed into the Public Domain, but I used his research extensively in preparing this post and wanted to make sure he was properly credited for his dedication.
Article Published in the Illustrated Bristol News 1960.
It could be said that Jones and Co. Ltd., of St. James’ Barton, Bristol, was founded twice—once in 1843 and again in 1940 after the German blitz shattered the company’s fortunes and wiped the store from the face of Bristol. In one night, on November 24th, Jones’ store in Wine Street and High Street, City Centre, the culmination of almost 100 years’ trading and steady expansion, was razed to the ground together with stock worth thousands of pounds and valuable records which chronicled its progress.
Everything, in fact, was lost. All that was left were piles of twisted, smouldering ruins. But, typical of the spirit set by the founder in 1843, Thomas Jones, whose whiskers were as expansive as his business foresight, the company lost no time in making a fresh start to their business. It did so within three weeks. While the search went on for new premises soon to be found in Stapleton Road, a team of thirty-two buyers with thousands of pounds to spend on purchasing new stock went out to markets in London, Manchester and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, in Bristol, employees set about feeding the army of salvage workers. Only the day after the blitz the pavement outside Jones former restaurant in Mary-Le-Port Street was turned into a ‘cookhouse.’ Meals were cooked (very tastefully by all accounts) over a steel grate fired by rafters salvaged from the charret buildings. It is interesting to note that this novel ‘action station’ so impressed Miss Norma Bull, an Australian War Correspondent, that she was inspired to produce a water colour drawing of the scene.
Thomas Jones, whose portrait hangs in the office of Mr. George Brymer, present chairman of the company and a former managing director, started his career in business in partnership with a colleague in Boston, Lincolnshire. In 1843, when he came to Bristol he opened the first ‘ Jones ‘ drapery store at 56 Wine Street. A character was Thomas Jones. It is said that he was sometimes in dispute with the Corporation and that he won a court action against them.
He chose to mark the occasion, rather cheekily but in keeping with his Welsh sense of humour, by creating a crest. This shows a Welsh pony driving the city councillors before it. But to return to Thomas Jones the businessman who saw in Bristol a great potential for trade ….. His pioneering methods of retailing soon attracted attention and was cause for some amusement in the city.
He introduced, for instance, eye-catching window displays such as exhibiting a Welsh pony (which in Mr. Brymer’s time were sold for as little as 30s.), and used bacon, cheese, beer and tobacco to share a window with silks and satins. As trade prospered, as it most certainly did, ‘ T.J.’ gradually acquired more shop frontages in Wine Street and High Street and the fact that the company could never acquire the central pivotal building, namely the famous old Dutch House, was a constant source of regret.
Jones grew up as it were in the Victorian era and in those days transport was generally tedious. This did not altogether bother Jones. They maintained their own stables in Broadmead on the site now occupied by Boots. Four horse vans and eight horses were kept there, and these were a familiar sight around the bustling, narrow streets. Many alterations were made to the Wine Street—High Street buildings, and it is a sad thought that the fourth major alteration there was only completed on the Saturday before the blitz.
At that time Jones had more than 750 employees. Quite obviously, not all could be retained. It is significant, therefore, that in the face of such adversity, the company policy was to retain its workers for as long as possible until they either found other employment or were taken back on the payroll. The company continued its search for more premises and within six months shops were also operating at Kingswood. Queens Road, Wells Road, Lawrence Hill, Broadmead, Mary-Le-Port Street and Merchant Street.
So, if you have come this far into the article, you may be asking yourself “What happened to Walter Thomas Babb. After all he is the reason I came across this incredible story. In 1891 he worked at the Jones & Company store. Up until now, little was known about Walter and our trees have only shown his birth in Chew-Manga, Somerset in 1872.
By 1901 he has moved in with His Aunt & Uncle George & Alice Lucker, a Cooksley Cousin and his younger brother Henry J. Babb. Walter & Henry’s mother is a Cooksley, so this helps to verify the connection. They are living in a Private House at 10 Alfred Street in Bristol about 1.5 miles south of the Wine Street Address, but still close enough that he might have worked there.
In 1911 we Find out that George’s last name is actually Tucker, but it still hasn’t yet been enough for me to connect the Aunt or Uncle directly to the line for a precise relationship connection. The have now moved to a new location at No. 5 Gratitude Road in Lower Easton, which is a neighborhood of Bristol about 2 miles to the East of the Wine Street location. He is now listed as a Worker for a Carriage company. He is still single at the age of 39.
We don’t know the name or location of the company from this record and it will be another 4 years before the 1921 Census is released to the public. But we do find a death index record for him in September 1928 at the age of 56. So, it seems that he didn’t live to see the havoc that was wreaked upon his town, which he came to as a young man and lived in until his dying day. It doesn’t appear that he ever married or had children. He had no owned property that we know of and his story would likely not have really been told, except for this chance encounter with a curious Census record.
It appears that the buildings listed in the 1901 and 1911 Census have also been replaced since Walter’s Day. Bristol was the target of heavy bombing by the Nazi Luftwaffe due to the presence of Bristol Harbour and the Bristol Aeroplane Company.
Between 24 November 1940 and 11 April 1941 there were six major bombing raids. In total Bristol received 548 air raid alerts and 77 air raids with:
- 919 tons of high-explosive bombs plus many thousands of incendiary bombs dropped in clusters
- 1299 people killed, 1303 seriously injured and 697 rescued from the debris of bombed buildings
- 89,080 buildings damaged including 81,830 houses completely destroyed and over 3,000 rendered unusable and later demolished.
The Lord Mayor, Alderman Thomas Underwood, later put it: “The City of Churches had in one night become the city of ruins.”
How long Walter worked for Jones & Company is impossible to know. The records were in the destroyed buildings and are lost. This is obviously an all too common scenario throughout Europe, but as an American, I’m unaccustomed to finding destruction on this scale and was taken aback by it. Even this tangential connection was hard to digest and I hope I have done it justice as I described it for you today.
I will continue my work on completing my book on the Somerset Babbs and hope to have it ready in the near future. Finding stories like this that take me down a rabbit hole really slow the work down, but in the long run will make it far more valuable and bring life and perspective into focus.
Daniel Greig Babb