Ashton Gatehouse

One gateway, two worlds


toggle sub-menu

The Women

The Women of Ashton Court, their Strengths and Vulnerabilities

Here we take a look at the part played in the development of the house and estate by some of the less well known Smyth women associated with the historic Ashton Court. The female side of the family is particularly important as the male line died out completely three times and the women continued the line / held the fort until another knight came galloping in.

The information included is largely from three or four secondary sources reviewing the many letters and documents that make up the Smyth archive. Check out the family tree, drawn up in 1980 which can help with all the Florences, Johns and Hughs and John Hughs. Some dates have changed as more information becomes available.

The legal limits to living, loving and land ownership:

Wives and children were usually able to live in Ashton Court either as part of the Smyth family or their servants but women had no legal rights to their own children should they want to move away. They only had rights to property once they became widows and even then remarriage was recommended. It cannot be assumed that the children recorded represent all the children born at Ashton Court as infant mortality was high.

Daughters could not normally inherit the estate if there were any male heirs; they were married off and went to live elsewhere.  The wives of Smyth men were expected to manage the household and produce heirs. They often brought a good business sense or political acumen from their own family and considerable dowry wealth. This included influence, trading links, ships, land, property and money. Anything they owned or inherited became the property of their husband.

The Tudor Merchants

Alice John was the daughter and heir to a Bristol merchant Lewis John. She married Matthew Smyth, a hooper (for making barrels), who came to Bristol from Aylburton in the Forest of Dean around 1500. Smyth soon prospered as a merchant himself and began to lay the foundations of the family fortune.

After Matthew Smyth's death in 1526, Alice took control of the business which continued to trade profitably with Europe. She purchased wool and yarn then exported manufactured cloth to France and Spain. She also imported wine, oil, iron, woad and alum.

Alice Smyth’s son John was apprenticed to a wealthy Biscay merchant from Bridgewater. John eventually inherited his business, his ship and married his widow Joan White.  He became a very successful business man, merchant (with a highly organised system of tax evasion), sheriff and twice mayor of Bristol during the reign of King Henry VIII.  

He was favoured by the king and made enough connections and money to buy the manor of Ashton Court in 1545 (although he and Joan retained their Bristol family home in Small St). It is unlikely that John had much time for family life. What is known is that their two boys, born in 1530 and 1533, were in trouble from their early teens.

The Elizabethan Court and the Importance of Land

Joan’s elder son Hugh and his wife Maud, heiress to a Somerset landowner John Byccomb, lived at Ashton Court. It is likely she had an unhappy marriage as he remained a violent man, kept bad company and mistreated his servants.  Although holding public office as a ‘justice of the peace’ he so enraged his Ashton Court neighbours with forgery, theft, fights and even possibly a murder, he was brought before Queen Elizabeth’s Star Chamber. He died without heirs as far as we know. Maud outlived him by seven years.

Jane Tewther, daughter of Thomas Tewther of Ludlow became Joan’s other daughter-in-law and appears to have had a better time. She apparently brought a fortune and was connected by birth to the Tudor and Spanish courts. She probably moved into Ashton Court with her husband Mathew on the death of his fifty year old brother Hugh. Mathew died only three years later in 1583.  

Mathew had reformed to become a highly respected lawyer and seemed content to leave some management of the estate to Jane.

The Gothic building we see today at the main west entrance is different to how it would have looked when the Smyth women lived here during the Elizabethan era.

When Jane first moved into the house her father-in-law John Smyth had already added the west facing gables and an entrance porch. She almost certainly added to the house and gardens which would have had orchards and tree-lined avenues.

Within a year Jane was writing to Mathew about the purchase of cattle from fairs in Wales for fattening in the park.  She stayed on until her death eleven years later.

We are told she ran the estate with energy and efficiency including purchase of land to the south including three quarters of the estate of Ashton Philips now Lower Court Farm, long Ashton. She greatly extended the estate on behalf of her son who succeeded her aged nineteen but perhaps she also did it for herself?

The Stuart Kings and the Rise of Civil Unrest

 Enter Elizabeth Gorges, goddaughter to Queen Elizabeth, and descended from a family of Swedish nobility and an Elizabethan courtier. Her marriage to Jane’s son Hugh a year after the Queen’s death brought him great wealth, influence and high office. They had six daughters and one son, Thomas Smyth, who was sent to St John's College Oxford at the age of thirteen. In the early 17th century Hugh significantly added to the purchase of local Manors begun by his mother and was knighted by James I.

It is unlikely that life was easy for Elizabeth who when writing to her son of her life at Ashton Court said:  ‘God increase my patience to endure it still’. Hugh is said to have been interested in horse breeding and London fashions but was also a difficult, melancholy man, mean with his money, reluctant to receive visitors and preoccupied with his own health. His concerns about his health may have been derived from the fact that his father died when he was only eight, and like his father and uncle he also died around fifty years. Elizabeth remarried and outlived Hugh by thirty-one years.

Elizabeth’s seventeen year old son Thomas married fifteen year old Florence Poulett of Hinton St George in 1626. A year later he inherited the house and became MP for Bridgewater shortly before King Charles dismissed parliament.

Thomas and Florence soon set about an eight-year programme of extensive works to the house and gardens no doubt with much input from the in-laws.

 The hillside behind the house was cut into formal terraces of sweet chestnut. The bowling greens were probably at the bottom of the slope near the house, the sheltered, walled, flower gardens south west of the house built or greatly enhanced at this time, with orchards to the south.

They added new estate walls, gatehouse gates and a fashionable south facade spanning between the west front and the central Tudor gatehouse. The irregular window spacing of the facade is thought to follow those of an older 15th or 16t century building behind.

The grand south facade was completed in 1632/3, described as being in the style of Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House at Whitehall built for Charles I. It was also similar to the new facade of Hinton House, Florence’s childhood home. Although not finished when she left for Ashton court, it no doubt influenced their decision making. 

Florence must have been very pleased looking out onto the entrance courtyard as it was then, with views across to the manor of Bedminster purchased a few years earlier by her father in Law; however life did not stay quiet for long.

The Pouletts and the Smyths were both Royalist and in 1642, when king and Parliament were at war, Thomas left to fight. Florence wrote asking him not to abandon her and the children but without success. He died the same year of small pox.  She was left with two girls, ten year old Hugh and was pregnant with Thomas.

Three years later Florence would have looked out from her house to see the retreating Prince Rupert burn down the ancient Saxon church and the whole prosperous Manor of Bedminster which took another 200 years to recover.

Although initially she must have managed business herself, by 1647, two years before the king was executed, she married an Irish knight sympathetic to the Roundheads (and thus unpopular with her family).  Eventually she went to Brockley Court to begin the Smyth-Pigott family, living another thirty four years after the death of Thomas.

Cromwell and the Age of the Puritans

Florence’s twenty-two year-old son Hugh remained loyal to the Royalist cause, marrying seventeen year-old Ann Ashburnham in 1654. She was daughter to John Ashburnham, Groom to the Bedchamber of King Charles I and II and powerful in the royal court. Although Hugh kept a low profile while the monarchy was abolished, he was away from home a lot. Ann was busy with six children and ill health; however, despite their different political views, letters show she was also in contact with her mother-in-law Florence, who clearly still felt some ownership of the estate.

Writing to Hugh about a storm (probably 1658) which has 'made sutch a distrucktion in my park and spoiled my walks' she instructs him to repair the park pales, clear out the fallen timber from the woods........And buy young trees to’ 'set in the walks whatever it cost'.

The Restoration of Monarchy and the ‘Glorious Revolution’

On the restoration of Charles II Ann wrote to Hugh saying his mother had not approved of the wine drinking celebrations in the streets of Bristol so Ann had sent her mother-in-law a ‘barril of sider’. Hugh took up public service like his forbears and was made a baronet in 1663 by the new King but he also died young at forty seven years. Ann went on to marry a soldier and agent of Hugh’s who then spent some time in prison. She outlived him too, dying at eighty-one.

Ann’s eldest son John did not marry till he was thirty-three. His new wife Elizabeth was twenty-three and had the first of eight children the following year. She was one of several heirs to the Astrey family fortune and inherited Henbury Great House which was later occupied by her unmarried daughter Ann. Elizabeth was actively involved with works around the house and gardens. In one letter to Hugh about the decorated wall top (still surviving) by the south entrance court she wrote:

‘The mason had been sick and the garden wall had only been started the day before.’

The stone from the quarry was not good enough....‘to put upon your garden walls for they will scale and break to fiitters presently and he believes those flatt stones will come cheaper from Nailsey  ‘’

She was said to be a lively, good-natured soul but stuck at home.  John was away a lot, had a fear of the smallpox that had killed many before him and struggled to socialise even when home. Elizabeth was thirty-nine when she had her last child and died at forty-six. Untypically for this family she was outlived by John who spent the next eleven years grieving his loss. His anxious and anti-social nature prompted his daughters to describe Ashton Court as a nunnery. 

Elizabeth’s eldest son John was married twice to ‘commoners’ who perhaps brought no large fortunes to the family firm. We know his wife Ann Pym died eight years before his own early death at forty-two. Because they left no heirs the Smyth male line died out for the first time. John liked to party and gamble and spent unwisely, possibly in reaction to his father. He left many debts particularly to Jarrit Smyth his friend and family solicitor


Georgian period and the 18th century ‘Enlightenment’

The widowed Florence was one of John’s surviving three sisters to inherit the near bankrupt estate. Perhaps it was more than a business decision but her marriage to Jarrit Smith the family solicitor saved the estate and the family inheritance. He changed his name to Smyth and managed to re-consolidate the estate with his business acumen, albeit via the slave trade, the associated brass industry and the development of the Ashton and Bedminster coal industry.

Not much happened to the house and gardens in the 18th century  but in 1737 Florence wrote to Jarrit saying the steps were finished and ‘very handsome' and the court was being laid.

Only two of Florence’s six children survived childhood. She was said to have poor health, relying frequently on her three sisters but she was forty-two when she had her last child, nine years after her first son John Hugh Smyth. His marriage to the fifteen year old Puklechurch heiress Elizabeth Woolnough brought another great fortune to the estate, this time from the sugar plantations of Jamaica. She produced no heirs and was very different to him: she was eccentric, strong willed, liked to gamble and hunt and lived to a ripe old age of eighty-three. 

John Hugh and Elizabeth were in their forties when they inherited the estate and she may have played a part in seeking Humphrey Repton’s advice on updating it but John Hugh died suddenly the same year in 1802 and Elizabeth went to live at Clift House on a bend in the river, now the site of a garden centre. She later opened the new Coronation Road.

Her sister-in-law, the heiress Jane Whitchurch of Stapleton, married Thomas Smyth at twenty-eight, produced, three consecutive heirs to Ashton Court and her granddaughter Emily was a fourth heiress.

By contrast Margaret Wilson was daughter to the Bishop of Bristol and already forty one when she was married off to Jane’s eldest son Hugh, the declared heir to earnest John Hugh Smyth. It must have been an uncomfortable life for Margaret. He was sixteen years younger, independent, extravagant, an avid huntsman and in love with Elizabeth Howell, the daughter of the Loughor harbour master and companion to his mother. 

The 19th Century Romantics

Margaret had no children and after her death Hugh married his first love Elizabeth with whom he already had a son. Because he died before legitimising his birth, Hugh’s brother John Smyth III inherited the estate in 1824. (In the tradition of family inheritance Hugh’s son did well and married a Smyth-Piggot heiress).

John remained undistracted by any family life and for the second time the male line died out. Florence Upton, the elder sister to Hugh and John inherited the estate at eighty and held on until she was eighty three in 1853 when her seventeen year old grandson Greville Upton succeeded her.

Greville was the son of cousins. He lived at Ashton Court with his mother and sisters, but did not marry or produce heirs (officially) until his cousin Emily was widowed in 1884. Greville and Emily were both great grandchildren of Jane Whitchurch and Thomas Smyth. It seems they were close throughout Emily’s first marriage and she inspired some of the works at Ashton Court. After Greville’s death Emily went on to be lady of the manor for thirteen years as again there were no eligible male heirs.

Much less is known until recent oral histories of what the working women did on the estate although it may be in the records awaiting discovery. We know from studies elsewhere that most would have lived there and played a full and vital role in the dairies, the brewery, the kitchens, the house in general and perhaps significantly as the wet nurse but that’s another story.

Although the Smyth women were by no means saints and were happy to exploit their position; in the latter years of Smyth ownership, they were responsible for charity works and donating public parks. Twelve years after the death of Emily Smyth’s daughter Esme in 1946 the estate went to the people of Bristol by way of compulsory purchase order.


The Smyths of Ashton Court. Anton Bantock. Pub malago society. 1980

Images of England, Ashton Court, Anton Bantock. Tempus publishing. 2004

Ashton Court Study of the Development of the Designed Landscape. Landuse Consultants for Bristol City. 1992

Southville People and Places. Fiducia Press 2004

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, The Smyths of Ashton Court, to 1680, by J H Bettey

See Wikipedia for image of 1 Florence and Thomas and 2 Emily.

File:Thomas and Florence Smyth 1627.jpg