Handel Cossham: Preacher, educationalist and politician

March 04 2021
Handel Cossham: Preacher, educationalist and politician

LAST month historian and David Blackmore looked at the early life and industrial success of Handel Cossham, who owned mines which now lie disused under the area, and land on which thousands of our homes are now built. But how did his name end up on roads, a hall and even a hospital? This month, David looks at his public life and legacy.


AS Handel Cossham grew up in Thornbury, he listened to some of the most celebrated nonconformist speakers and ministers.


At 16 Cossham himself became a teacher in the Thornbury Congregationalist Chapel's Sunday school. By 18, he was addressing temperance meetings, and became a school teacher and a lay preacher.


It was only the start of a lifetime of service, which would see him continue to preach, found schools and eventually lead to him becoming an MP – and a benefactor for the public good after his death.


The 1858 Primitive Methodist magazine gives an account of the opening of Mangotsfield Primitive Methodist chapel, which had operated from a single room since 1836.


Cossham became very interested in the church, and his drive and enthusiasm bought new life into its activities. A revival in January 1857, with 60-70 new members, made more room essential and the foundation stone of a new chapel was laid by Cossham, then living at Shortwood Lodge. It was built by local preacher Mr Lambert and opened that November.


A Sunday school was added and it eventually became Cossham Street Methodist Church.


Education was of huge importance to Cossham, and he helped set up the British School (to provide Christian but non-sectarian education) near the colliery in Thornbury in 1850, before establishing an infants school at Pucklechurch, and British Schools at Mangotsfield, Staple Hill and Gillingstool, Thornbury, which was built in 1862.


He also started schools for his colliers' children in Yate and Parkfield, between Pucklechurch and Lyde Green.


Cossham was involved in the temperance movement to curtail alcohol consumption from the age of 13 and it was a fundamental part of his lifelong beliefs.


In his later life it was reported that Cossham said of his 1,500 employees that "if total abstinence prevailed, wages would be raised 25 per cent without strikes or agitation, and with injury to no one".


When he bought the old Wesleyan Chapel in Thornbury for £150 in 1888 and donated it to a group of trustees for use as a public hall – later to be named Cossham Hall – he stated that “liquors and tobacco shall not be sold or supplied”. The hall was to be used for “philanthropic, religious, moral, political, educational, musical and general purposes”.


In the 1860’s Cossham entered politics, becoming a Bristol city councillor for the St Paul’s ward, where he defeated the Conservative candidate by a large majority, and he then turned his ambition towards Parliament, standing unsuccessfully at Nottingham in 1866, Dewsbury in 1868 and Chippenham in 1874.


From 1882 to 1885 he was mayor of Bath and, in November 1885, became the first Liberal MP for the newly-created East Bristol constituency.


The November 28 edition of the Western Daily Press recorded the celebrations on a dark and wet night on Troopers Hill, saying: "A large crowd of three or four thousand persons assembled, and the utmost enthusiasm prevailed. Numerous tar barrels were placed together and ignited, and the bonfire might have been seen from the greater part of Bristol."

During his time in Parliament Cossham contributed to 272 debates and it was in London that he died of a heart attack on April 23 1890, either at the National Liberal Club in Whitehall or in the House of Commons, according to conflicting reports.


At the time of his death his home was Holly Lodge, in Holly Lodge Road, St George, where he had served on the local and school boards.


On the day of Cossham's funeral an estimated 50,000 people were present at the St George Cemetery – now Avonview – or lined the route.


Cossham's memorial in Avonview Cemetery, Bristol

Cossham was a staunch advocate for a local park, with St George Park eventually being laid out after his death, on 38 acres of land at Fire Engine Farm in 1894.


Having no children, in his will he directed his trustees to build and endow a hospital near Kingswood Hill for the treatment and relief of the sick and injured. The hospital cost £30,000 to build and furnish, with a further £90,000 invested in an endowment to maintain 50 beds.


Cossham Hospital eventually opened in 1907 at the top of Lodge Hill, on the border of Fishponds and Kingswood.


Cossham dedicated it to the working people of East Bristol and South Gloucestershire, "that I may hereafter be remembered by the sick and suffering as a friend who, in death, as well as in life, felt it his duty to try to lessen human suffering and increase human happiness".


*Elements of this article were produced with the help of Thornbury Roots website, www.thornburyroots.co.uk