In 1908 Colonel William Verner Ellis (*) had long been retired from the British Indian Army and an adventurous & distinguished career playing “The Great Game”. His restless nature found him one grey winter’s day, at a loose end & tired from being cooped up, walking across Durdham Down in Bristol. Nearing Black Rock Gully, he saw gangs of men digging with pickaxes & shovels. Despite the bitter wind & penetrating drizzle, he was driven by curiosity to investigate. Colonel Ellis learnt that they were unemployed men, engaged by the Bristol Distress Committee to extend the road running round the Downs. Many of them were ill clad & looked half-starved yet they were expected to undertake hours of back breaking labour in all weathers. The Colonel who’d always interested himself in the welfare of the men under his command, and inured to the extremes of poverty from his Indian days, was shocked to see such suffering & neglect virtually on his doorstep. He therefore resolved to take action.
Within a few weeks, Colonel Ellis, with the support of suitably shamed influential friends & neighbours, was able to open a fully equipped soup kitchen for the workmen. Simple meals were offered for the charge of one penny (1d), and in cases of great need, medical aid & clothing were also provided. The men could also purchase tea, sugar & meat at cost price to take home. Feeding several hundred people three times a day was no small matter, but apparently many capable “lady helpers” were on hand, brought in by Mrs Thomasina George. As Christmas approached, Colonel Ellis & Mrs George decided to join forces. She (the wife of wealthy brewer W. E.George) wished to donate the main ingredients of a Christmas Dinner, so that each man could provide a decent meal for his family. The Colonel & Thomasina agreed that something should also be done for the children & the gift of an orange seemed the very thing. It was an expensive fruit & therefore a rare treat for a child.
With customary efficiency the Colonel organised the distribution of food to the men. At 1pm on Christmas Eve, Mrs George & her friends joined him at the soup kitchen. Inquiries were made to each man as to the number of his dependents & the gifts were dispensed according to their needs. As one newspaper at the time put it “perhaps as many as 1,200 children were made glad”. It was well after dusk when all distributions were complete & Colonel Ellis was the last to leave the kitchen. Before closing up, he found one last orange. He stood for a moment, enjoying its rich sharp fragrance that summoned memories of other Christmases long past. Contentedly, the Colonel then set off for home, the orange tucked snugly into his overcoat pocket, the air tingling with frost & stars bright in the clear sky.
(*) Colonel William Verner Ellis (1843-1915). His old home “Eversley” (now flats) stands in Goodeve Road, Stoke Bishop.
The picture relating to Ashton Gate Brewery is included for no particular reason, except as a Top Tip for Puffins. If you’re going to marry the comely daughter of a Brewer, be sure that it’s a successful Brewery. Georges may have closed their brewing business in 1995, but their inner city site was sold for gazillions & is now a mixed development of shops & flats. The AGB jug is the only reminder/asset that LaDJM has of her family’s business…….
© DJM 2020
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