What happened to the minster in Bedminster?


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In my video on Bristol’s rivers, I explained that Bedminster was founded, perhaps even centuries before Bristol itself, on the shores of the River Malago. An early centre of Christian worship, it is thought that baptisms took place in the river, although looking at the current sorry state of this urban channel that’s a bit hard to imagine; the Old English for baptism, beydd, is speculated to be the source of the Bed in Bedminster.

What I didn’t explain in that video is the source of the minster in Bedminster.

I suppose on a linguistic level, I considered it unnecessary, assuming all my viewers would be British, and therefore familiar with the term minster. As a place name element, you can hardly be unfamiliar with it, given that national government sits in Westminster. Here in the West Country we also have Ilminster, Axminster, Exminster… and as a standalone word, York Minster is the second most important cathedral in the Church of England, and one of the country’s top tourist attractions, so I suppose I thought everybody knows it means something like ‘big and important church’.

Etymologically, minster comes from the same Latin source as the word monastery, and at first the two words were used interchangeably, but from the 10th century began to assume differing meanings. As this isn’t a religious channel I’m not going to get any more bogged down in the technicalities, but in short there are currently 31 churches officially designated as minsters by the Church of England - and none of them are in Bedminster.

Now, Bedminster is far from unique in having the name but no church with that title. St Mary’s in Ilminster, for example, is not officially a minster in 2022 - but it is a rather large and splendid church and quite obviously the source of the name. Bedminster, on the other hand, seems to lack any candidate for the title - it has lots of churches, as I’m montaging here, and don’t get me wrong, some of them are very nice - but none of them stand out as particularly big, old, or important.

You may be thinking that perhaps St Mary Redcliffe is the answer to this little riddle. It’s certainly bigger and more important than your average parish church, and while it’s not exactly in Bedminster, it is south of the river, so perhaps it counted as part of the Bedminster region in ecclesiastical terms? Well you’d be right about that last part, but St Mary Redcliffe was not the mother church of the parish, so is not the minster we are looking for. In fact, until 1852 it was officially a chapel-of-ease to our missing minster, which was the church of St John the Bapist.

St John’s, of course, doesn’t exist any more. I mean, let’s be honest, even if you didn’t already know this story before this video came up in your feed, you’d have figured it out from the thumbnail.

This is, or was, St John’s churchyard, where at first glance there is no trace left to see of the church. But if you look on Google Maps satellite mode, the outline of the church is relatively clear to see, and after the extremely hot and dry summer we had in 2022, I was pleasantly surprised to discover I could also easily see much of that outline from ground level. Here, for example, you can clearly see the square footprint of the tower. This long line running towards that bench is the southern wall of the main nave. And over here I was able to clearly see the series of right angles that formed the north transept. In this case it’s not just a difference in the grass, there's actually some rubble visible at the surface.

Its final demolition took place in 1967. I say ‘final’ demolition because half the job had been done on 24th November 1940, when it was struck by incendiary bombs from the Luftwaffe during World War 2.

As you can see from these photos, while the interior was completely gutted, the essential stone structure actually survived fairly well. So perhaps it would have been possible to restore it. I assumed this didn’t happen because falling church attendances meant restoring that capacity was unnecessary, and the expense couldn’t be justified, but from some very cursory research it seems the steepest decline in church attendances only kicked in at around this point, not prior to this point. Still, for whatever reason, the last incarnation of St John’s found itself demolished 112 years after its consecration in 1855.

That St John’s had been built as a new and improved version of a predecessor demolished in 1854, which had been built in 1663. I could only find one picture of the ‘old’ St John’s, i.e., the pre-1854 building. But ‘old’ is relative - that St John’s had been built as a replacement for the one burnt down in the Civil War in 1645, and that one had a foundation stone dated 1003, which had been re-incorporated into the 1663 edition.

Even the 1003 building may not have been the first St John’s church; in fact, considering Bedminster’s ancient origins, I might go as far as to say it probably wasn’t, although I couldn’t find any suggestion of either written or archaeological evidence for its earlier incarnations specifically.

So a St John’s of some sort probably stood for 1000 years, give or take, and I have to say the small park we are left with makes for a rather underwhelming memorial. The only clearly visible trace of that immense theological history is this churchyard cross, the base of which I think is Victorian, although I couldn’t 100% confirm.

Anyway, that’s all for this video. Apologies to the minority of viewers who amaze me by sitting through my 40 minute self-indulgences in their entirety, but the long vids are getting a bit exhausting to make and the average person only watches 7 or 8 minutes so I’m experimenting with some shorter, shallower videos.

Thanks as always to all the people whose work I built on to put this together. Special shout to the Know Your Place Bristol website for collating and geotagging so many historic photos. Thanks to you for watching, and if you enjoyed it, why not give it a like and subscribe, in case I make any more. Cheers.