Horfield Police station Sommerville Road Bishopston DEc 4th 2012 - Copy

Local historian, David Cemlyn has been researching the history of this unusual and historic building on the corner of North and Sommerville Roads. Its future survival may well be at risk. David's interesting account follows:

A recent application was made to Historic England for this site, including the former superintendent’s adjacent house in North Road, to be protected by a grade 2 listing. This unfortunately failed, on the grounds that it was not under immediate threat of demolition nor considered to be of national importance. The buildings have always been in public ownership. The fate of the building is now in the hands of Bristol City Council who may give the area in which the site is located a conservation status which could mean the front façade being retained. If not, then the buildings will be valued and sold to the highest bidder. Theoretically, the Council could put some conditions on the sale or the planning agreement. However the Council are under considerable pressure to sell whatever they can to try and mitigate the massive cuts by central government in their funding to local authorities. BCC may decide to avoid taking any action that would reduce the selling price.

On the building’s Bath stone elevation front there is the date of 1903. However the first mention of the site in the Bristol street directories is 1910. During the research for the English Heritage application, no records were found to indicate when the building first became operational.

In the late 19th century, police were located in at least two local addresses, one being in the houses between Berkeley and Egerton Roads. Another was in one of the houses demolished to build the Bristol North Swimming Pool.

The fire engine, horse drawn and run by volunteers had previously been situated in a Council owned yard where the newly constructed library now stands.

There had been rapid expansion of housing and later retail premises in the area throughout the last quarter of the 19th century and with it grew the need for appropriate premises for the police and fire services. The former orchard and plants nursery on the corner of Sommerville and North Road was seen as an ideal location.

No plans or construction details have been found but it is reasonably straight forward to describe the site as it is still about 80% intact. Number 8 was the police station that had a set of offices and almost certainly a canteen on the first floor. There was access  upstairs from the front door in Sommerville road which appears to be the original and also to the ground floor on the right which consisted of two rooms, the larger having a way out through substantial sized doors into the rear yard, presumably from where prisoners could be transported to court or prison. Originally this would have been by means of horse draw wagon.

Another door in this room led to the cells.  A further door leads to a small room which could have been the public face of the station. A double door on Sommerville Road, which now provides access to the temporary toilets, may have originally been the public entrance, where a door on the left leads into this rear room.  

Another theory is that the rear entrance and room was where the prisoners were brought in and interviewed and/or charged and then led to the cells. The rear entrance is part of a long corridor that runs the depth of the site and gives access to the cells which rather suggests it may not have been a public access. However this leaves it uncertain as to where the public entrance was. Further work is needed to establish actually how the station worked.

The current temporary women’s lavatory appears to have been constructed from a cell and a toilet used either by prisoners or staff.  The men’s temporary toilet has been made from one of the original cells.

The conclusion is that there were 5 cells with a toilet at each end. Two cells and one of the toilets have now been knocked together. When builders were making the temporary toilets they discovered that the walls between the cells and the outer wall were lined with metal sheets, presumably to stop prisoners from tunnelling out. One of the metal gates to the cells is still in situ. Many of the original spy holes into the cells remain.  It is a very gloomy and depressing place with little natural light and in the early days was unlit by either gas or electricity. In winter it must have been very cold as there are no signs of any heating.

In the cellar which would have been built to store coal there is an inspection chamber for the stream that runs down Sommerville Road and under the old police station before joining the Horfield brook somewhere under Bolton Road. It then flows into a culvert down the rear of the houses in North Road. In very wet times the water spills out into the cellar and there is a pump and the remains of a much earlier type that keeps the water level down.

The superintendent’s house in North Road was sold by the council in the 1950s. No ownership is declared on the land registry but it is believed it is owned by a charity. There is no information as to its interior condition although the exterior remains untouched.

There is an inside door from number 8 into the fire station (number 10) and this leads into a large space that housed the fire engine. The large original double doors onto the corner of North Road and Sommerville Road were intended as the exit for the fire engine. The large rear access from North Road leads to into a small yard and another set of doors into the main fire engine room but these have been removed and the door way reduced in size. It is presumed that in the early days the fire engine was driven with horses attached into the rear yard and the engine was either detached and pushed into the engine room or the horses driven through, detached from the engine and then taken back round to the stables in the rear yard. The stables have been gutted and the floor raised but the old lantern ventilation can still be seen on the roof. Across the yard the pit is still there into which horse manure was shovelled.  The only other rooms are a small storage or tack room and an outside toilet.

It is probable that the fire station became obsolete soon after completion. Horse drawn fire engines manned by volunteers were not capable of providing the protection that large houses and commercial premises required in the 20th century. Bristol acquired its first motorised engine in 1914 and no doubt many more followed. The Sommerville station would not have been big enough or suitably equipped for the new fire engines.

What has yet to be determined is what happened to the fire station. Did the police take over and use the facilities as a mounted police section? Perhaps it just became a store room. Much more work is needed to try and trace the detailed history of the site.

There is a story that a prisoner hung himself in one of the cells and his ghost haunts the building. To date there is no evidence of the death, and the ghost only seems to be seen or felt late on Saturday nights.

David Cemlyn