A manor with many owners
Gerry Brooke looks at the history of the small village of Siston
THE small village of Siston, in olden days spelt Syston, is a haven of peace just seven miles east of the bustling city of Bristol. Anciently included in the so-called Hundred of Pucklechurch, it once formed part of the extensive Kingswood Forest. In the Domesday book, compiled for King William some 20 years after the Battle of Hastings, it states that, "Anne held Syston . . . in the reign of Edward the Confessor" but it was soon to pass from Saxon into Norman hands, ending up belonging to the powerful Lords of Dursley, the Berkeley family.
The village church, dedicated to St Anne, is very ancient, and is in fact one of the oldest in the Kingswood area. Some historians think that it may even stand on the site of a Celtic temple dating back to Roman times. Its leaded font goes back to the time of King Rufus (1056-1100) and the Tympanum in the south porch - which depicts the Tree of Life - is also of Norman work. The tower is of the 13 or 14 century.
At one time there were three churches in the vicinity of Siston, which seems to have been important in the spiritual life of the area. This may have had something to do with the nearby Saxon palace at Pucklechurch. This was a hunting lodge where the 26-year-old King Edmund, who had already had one close shave with death while hunting when his horse nearly jumped from the top of the cliffs into Cheddar Gorge - was murdered in the spring of 945 AD. Leof, the assassin, was apparently taking his revenge on Edmund after being exiled from the kingdom for theft.
Siston is also known for its Tudor Court, which was originally built, or rebuilt, by Sir Gilbert Dennis's (or Denys) family. It was erected at a time when fortress-type houses were no longer required for the personal safety of the occupants and building for comfort and convenience - rather than defence - was becoming the norm.
Archers' arrow slits from former times were giving way to windows, allowing light to flood into what had been just gloomy passengers and ill-lit rooms for previous generations.
Nevertheless, some of the walls are over a metre (three feet) thick. Gilbert, who died in 1422 and was buried in the church, inherited the manor through marriage but it stayed in the hands of his descendants for generations.
The Dennis family were a distinguished lot producing, it's said, more high sheriffs than any other family in the county. They married into the well-known Poyntz family of Iron Acton, and the Poyntz crest is still to be found on an old mantel-piece in the hall. Writing about the house in 1930, the historian W J Robinson, called it "among the most imposing and best preserved 16 century residences in the County of Gloucester".
Local legend tells of a visit by King Henry VIII, who came in disguise to visit one of his many mistresses, but this isn't verified. He is also supposed to have watched a jousting tournament from the turret room. There is a story about a visit by Queen Anne of Denmark, the wife of James I, to the house.
What we do know for sure is that the Dennis family sold it early in the 17 century to a Henry Billinger who, in 1637, sold it to the Earl of Middlesex. Oliver Cromwell, who was in the vicinity for the Battle of Lansdown in 1642, is supposed to have lodged at the house but foolishly left his boots behind. That there were some riding boots, as well as some bullet holes in the church door made by his soldiers, still there in the 1920s is not in dispute.
His boots were auctioned off, as the genuine article, for 13 guineas in 1931, together with other house contents, to join the many other pairs of Cromwell's boots scattered throughout the country! In 1650, just after the end of the bloody Civil War, the Court was sold to a Patrick Carey, who then sold it on to the Trotman family. The house was then to stay in the hands of the Trotmans for many generations.
Samuel Trotman, who was the owner in Stuart times, was a wealthy cloth merchant and MP for Bath. He planted many beech trees around the court, and put in the ha-ha, or ditch, which separates the garden from the rest of the estate. This is still a feature of the gardens to this day. There is a stone monument to Fiennes Trotman, who died in 1835, in the nave of the church. This monument bears a shield, which has the family arms on it.
In late Victorian times the manor belonged to the Newton Dickenson family, who were related to the Trotmans. There is a window in the church which commemorates the life of Frederick, one of the family and a JP, who died in 1885. It was the Dickenson family who put in the court's wonderful oak staircase.
The Rawlins family, who also get a mention in the church, were the last family to own the property as an entirety. Squire Rawlins, as he was known, was still rich enough to have a whole host of servants and gardeners working on the estate. His lovingly cared-for gardens have now been divided up amongst the various families living at the court.
Along with its neighbour, Dyrham Park, Siston Court was taken over at the beginning of the last war (1939) by the Anglo-American Relief Fund. It was used as a home for mothers and babies evacuated to safety from the London blitzes, and who were then cared for by nursery nurses. It was during this time that one of the court's treasures, a Tudor fireplace, was taken away to Ethiopia, of all places. That was because it caught the eye of the then Emperor Haile Selassie, who was at that time living in exile in Bath because his country had been invaded by the Italians. He shipped it back to Addis Ababa to adorn his palace - a little piece of old England in old Africa.
After the war the court was split up into six individual homes, with an acre of garden each, and by 1965 was housing 11 families, if you include those living in the lodges. So, if you're interested in living in, as well as with, history, the impressive North Wing of this historic Grade One listed house, which includes a turret-cum-bell tower, is up for sale for £460,000. For this you get three bedrooms, walled gardens, cellar, attic area and double garage. It's got everything, except, as far as I know, a ghost.