Forgotten tales

stories of my family

The Butlers of Summerhill House, Bristol

In 1881 my great grandmother Mabel Butler was 5 years old and an orphan. Her father Ephraim Butler appears to have died in 1879 when Mabel was only 3, and what happened to her mother is uncertain. Mabel was born in South Africa, but I have no idea of the circumstances.

However, from the census of 1881 I do know that at the age of 5 she lived in Bristol with her “cousin” William Butler, who was an industrialist of 30 years of age. William was married to Esther, and they had three children, Mary (10), William (5) and Joseph (3). So Mabel was contemporary with her cousin’s children (cousins once removed) – William the third was the same age as her – and their address, according to the census, was Summerhill House, St George, Gloucestershire. William and his wife may well have “adopted” Mabel. Mabel’s cousin William was the son of her father’s brother, who was also named William Butler. Cousin William became a man of some standing in Bristol society. Here is some more information I found about him on a genealogy site on the internet:

In the late 19th century, William Henry BUTLER was J.P. for the county of Gloucester. He lived at Summer Hill House, St. George, Bristol. William Henry BUTLER was born in the parish of St. George and educated at Redland. He was the senior acting partner in the firm of William Butler and Co., chemical manufacturers of Bristol and Gloucester. For many years he was chairman of the St. George School Board and for 14 years he was Overseer of St. George. He represented St. George Ward on the Bristol City Council. and was President of St. George Cricket and Football Clubs. William Henry BUTLER was a Nonconformist who took a great interest in Sunday School work. For 27 years he was the Secretary of the Sunday School in connection with Zion Free Methodist Chapel, Kingswood. (Information gleaned from ‘Bristol in 1898: Contemporary Biographies’)

Summerhill House does not seem to exist today, at least I can find no mention of it when searching on google. However, there is a Summerhill Road in the suburb of St George, Bristol, and at the start of Summerhill Road there is a Victorian water fountain which was given to the parish by William Butler, presumably senior, in 1890.

The Butler (junior) family home seems to have been fairly well off, upper middle class I suppose. According to the 1881 census, the children had a 19 year old governess called Florence Withers, a 22 year old cook called Mary Jefferies and a 16 year old housemaid, called Angelina Gallaway. William’s brother, Joseph Butler, also lived in the house, and not surprisingly was also involved in the family company, which was called William Butler and Co, Tar, Rosin and Oil Distillers. Here is a little about the company, posted on the internet by Josephine Jeremiah and taken from her book, ‘The Bristol Avon: A Pictorial History’ (2005):

In times past, Crews Hole was well known for the riverside works operated by William Butler & Co., Tar, Rosin and Oil Distillers. The firm was founded by William Butler in 1843. Besides the large manufactory at Crews Hole, it had another works at Upper Parting, Gloucester. In the 1890s, the company employed a small fleet, comprising six lighters and a steam tug at Bristol and three lighters at Gloucester. Using this water transport, they could ship goods from their works at Crews Hole and deliver them either to the railway yards in Bristol or alongside coasting vessels or ships bound for foreign ports, which were in the docks. Return cargoes were raw materials for distillation and freights of turpentine and rosin, which were imported in great quantities by the firm. At this time, four trows were also owned by the company. These were used to carry the firm’s products to ports in South Wales. A coasting steamer, the Clifton Grove, delivered tar and creosote to other ports in the country and on the continent.

Another post to the same discussion thread notes:

William BUTLERS Tar Works was started at the request of Isambard Kingdom BRUNEL to produce Creasote to protect the hundreds of thousands of Sleapers he was useing to build his Great Western Railway. They also made Naptha to burn in the railways flares and lamps.

The uses of tar changed with the years, as another site notes:

During the First World War, Butler’s made an important contribution to the war effort, since they were able to produce Benzole and toluene for explosives; they set up the first plant in the country to produce it, and in the process distilled 22 million tons of tar during the war. In the Twenties and Thirties came two more significant derivatives of tar: pyridine, which became a chemical for the drug trade for the making of M and B tablets, and the development of the earliest form of plastic, Bakelite, from tar acids. When the Second World War came, Butler’s were again supplying the war effort, with pitch for surfacing aerodromes, creosote for high octane aeroplane fuel, toluene for TNT, and naphthalene for plastics.

Mabel, then, appears to have entered this family at some stage after her father died, and lived with them for some time, though how long I do not know. The 1881 census gives us a glimpse into one day of her childhood, but whether that is representative of many years or not is hard to know. By the time of the 1891 census 15 year old Mabel was living with her sister. Suffice to say that my great grandmother seems to have been born into better circumstances than those of her later life. She was a child of Victorian England, though she was born in South Africa. Her father was apparently wealthy and he was related to the Butlers of St George, Bristol, who owned a Tar Works which was productive for over a century. I wonder if Mabel had any contact with her wealthier relatives later in her life?


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2 thoughts on “The Butlers of Summerhill House, Bristol

  1. Carolyn Wood on said:

    Esther (Hester) Elizabeth Butler, nee Haining was my paternal first cousin x3 removed and was married to William Henry Butler.

    • The Butlers of Bristol were a huge clan and there must be hundreds of descendants. My great grandmother Mabel Butler was adopted by your ancestor, Esther. I think I have since found out that the reason Mabel did not get to stay with the Butlers was that Esther did not like her and insisted as soon as it was possible, that she go to her sister. Mabel’s life was not one of wealth or privilege. She married a very poor man many years later, a man who I suspect was damaged by the Great War, and died when he was in his fifties, leaving her a widow. What is more, all her children except one migrated to Australia, and her last days were spent with her one remaining son in relative poverty in the dark days of WW2. After the war she and her son had planned to move to Australia to join the rest of the family, but sadly she got breast cancer and died fairly suddenly, so that when Fred migrated he went alone.

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