Handel Cossham: The Thornbury boy who became a mining magnate

February 01 2021
Handel Cossham: The Thornbury boy who became a mining magnate

HIS name can be found on roads, a hall and even a hospital – but how much do you know about Handel Cossham? Historian David Blackmore, of the Mangotsfield Residents Association, looks back at his life. Part 1 looks at how Cossham became one of the area's most important industrialists, owning a company mining nearly 1,000 tons of coal a day from collieries in Bristol and Gloucestershire.

HANDEL Shepherd Cossham was born on March 31 1824 in Thornbury High Street, the son of the town's carpenter and joiner, Jesse Cossham, and his wife, Sarah.

It was often said that Handel – named after the composer it is said his father greatly admired – was born in the same house as his father, grandfather and great grandfather. Previously known as Miss Saisey's Cottage, it now carries a plaque proclaiming it as the birthplace of this "non-conformist Preacher, Industrialist, Geologist, Politician, Educationalist and Public Benefactor".

After moving to Ryeford, near Stroud, when he was a year old, he returned to Thornbury in 1830, attending the local Dame school and Sunday school, building his passions for education and preaching that we will explore in part 2.

Documents drawn up when he later donated a hall (which now bears his name) to the people of Thornbury stated that he left the town in 1845, "to fight the battle of life", moving first to live near a colliery in Yate, where he worked as a clerk, and gained knowledge of mining and geology.

Although he studied mining working “almost night and day”, he found time to preach at the colliery.

In January 1848 Cossham married Elizabeth Wethered, his employer's daughter, going into partnership with her father and brothers. They set up business at Parkfield – between Pucklechurch and what is now Lyde Green – and Shortwood in 1851.

Over the coming decades, as coal fuelled the industrial revolution, the business prospered.

In 1863 Speedwell and Deep Pit at St George were acquired by the partnership and in 1864 the Kingswood Colliery followed. They also took out a lease on Brandy Bottom, near their Parkfield mine, in 1871, sinking the New Pit shaft and building its horizontal engine house.

The shaft at Brandy Bottom colliery had been first sunk in 1837, with much of the work done by young children, whose small size enabled them to get along the narrow passages, where they would pull heavy tubs of coal along using chains.

Coal hauled up at Brandy Bottom was loaded on to wagons, initially on the Dramway, a horse and gravity railway that delivered it to barges on the river Avon for use in Bristol and other cities.

Cossham connected Brandy Bottom underground to his nearby Parkfield Colliery and at some time renamed the complex as ‘Parkfield South': as a long-standing member of the Temperance Association, the name Brandy Bottom had to go.

In 1864 Cossham purchased the bulk of the 210-acre Hill House Estate, in Staple Hill. It was broken up and auctioned ten years later, divided into some 60 building lots and auctioned off.

In 1879 his in-laws decided to sell up, and Cossham snapped up nearly all of their shares, forming a limited liability company, the Kingswood & Parkfield Colliery Company Ltd, which came under his control along with Charles S Wills, of the tobacco family.

He was soon a wealthy man, having also bought the mineral rights of the St George area of Bristol in 1875. The company now controlled almost 3,000 acres of freehold minerals, yielding a daily output of nearly 1,000 tons of coal and employing over 1,500 workers.

Unusually for a mine owner, Cossham was concerned for the welfare of his workers and introduced many safety measures, such as stone or brick-lined shafts, before legislation made them compulsory.

He was held in high esteem by his colliery workers, building a rank of local pennant stone cottages for them in what is now Cossham Street, Mangotsfield, and the 'Parkfield Rank' in Pucklechurch.

After Cossham's death in 1890 his mining interests were held in trust for his wife, who died in 1896.

His coal interests in the area were acquired in an auction in 1900 by the Bedminster, Easton, Kingswood and Parkfield Collieries Ltd, which had been specifically formed for this purpose.

But the company was soon struggling, with all of the region's mines on the decline after the opening of the Severn Tunnel in 1886, and consequent availability of cheaper coal from South Wales, making them uncompetitive.

By the First World War Brandy Bottom had closed and the other pits were being operated by a receiver, before being bought by Somerset Collieries and renamed the East Bristol Collieries Ltd.

The Parkfield Colliery was almost exhausted and closed in 1936, by which time just 80 men worked there. The site was auctioned the following year, including the manager's house, buildings and around 20 acres of land.

In part 2: Cossham the preacher, educationalist, politician and benefactor

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