How the Downs came to be

It was 1861 that really framed the Downs into the space we all know and love today.

It was then that an Act of Parliament, instigated by the two landowners of Durdham Down and Clifton Down, namely the City Council of Bristol, and the Society of Merchant Venturers, ensured that the Downs were preserved from any development for “free and uninterrupted use” for the recreation of the people of Bristol.

The Society of Merchant Venturers had bought land from the ‘Manor of Clifton’ some 200 years earlier, giving them rights over 230 acres of common land at Clifton Down, bordering the Avon Gorge. For many centuries the tenants or commoners of the two medieval manors of Clifton and neighbouring Henbury had the right to graze their animals here. But by the mid-nineteenth century grazing was declining. The city was expanding and development and house building increasing, both supported by the use of the Downs for mining and quarrying. But so too, the people’s recreational use for sport and leisure of the Downs became ever more important.

In 1856 the Society of Merchant Venturers promised “to maintain the free and uninterrupted use of the Downs”. The following year Bristol City Council acquired commoners’ rights to graze animals on Durdham Down and in 1858 turned out sheep stamped CB. It was not only keeping alive the medieval rights of pasturage but making further invasive development around the fringes of the Downs more difficult.

Then, with the Society of Merchant Venturers and the City of Bristol working together, the Downs, as we know it, was born. In equal partnership, the Society and the City promoted The Clifton and Durdham Downs (Bristol) Act, 1861, preserving the Downs for us all “for ever hereafter open and unenclosed”. The Act also enabled the City of Bristol to purchase the 212 acres of Durdham Down from the owners of the Manor of Henbury. The Act set up the method of management that continues today: The Downs Committee, made up equally of Councillors and members of the Society of Merchant Venturers under the chairmanship of the city’s Lord Mayor.

The Downs Act of 1861 brought the Downs Committee into being, to become the guardians of this amazing space, with the Council taking on responsibility for its upkeep and maintenance. At the end of 1861 the first meeting of the Downs Committee took place – as it still does today, comprising the Mayor (now Lord Mayor) in the chair; six representatives from the Council, six from the Society of Merchant Venturers, and its current Master.

Robert Westlake, Chair of the Friends of the Downs and Avon Gorge organisation, says, “It was indeed quite visionary of both the City and the Society of Merchant Venturers to work together on establishing The Downs Act of 1861 and making it work for 160 years together. We’ve a lot to be thankful for that the landowners weren’t swayed by developers in the 19th century eager to build houses or quarry for stone. If that had happened, that part of Bristol would indeed have a totally different outlook today.”

And what a history the Downs has had. From sheep grazing, quarrying and even highwaymen, to sport, shows and events, throughout its history the Downs have been there for the people of Bristol to call their own.

Did you know?
• The Downs were as active in the 1800s as they are today.
• Durdham Down was the original home of Gloucester Cricket Club .
• In 1887, 30,000 people celebrated Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee on the Downs.
• In 1875, new tram services meant more people from across the city were able to reach the Downs.
• In 1878, the Royal Agricultural Show was held there .
• There are two scheduled ancient monuments on the Downs. One is the Roman Road on Durdham Down, the other is the Clifton Down Camp – an Iron Age Fort with overlying medieval field system.
• 1861 really shaped the Downs as we know it today with the establishment of The Downs Act.
• Durdham Down to the north and east, 212 acres, is owned by Bristol City Council.
• Clifton Down, to the south, is 230 acres of land owned by the Society of Merchant Venturers. Combined, this makes up what we know today as the Downs.
• The Downs plateau runs roughly three km along the northeast/southwest axis and approximately one km at its widest point. On the western boundary is the Avon Gorge. Ladies Mile forms a spine down the centre of the site.