For many Clevedonians it is where they were brought into the world. And although The Knoll maternity hospital no longer echoes with the cries of newborns, it is still a much loved building nestled below Christchurch on Chapel Hill in the seaside town.
The Knoll was a maternity hospital between 1950 and 1976. Many of those born there still live in the town. Well known Clevedon resident and local historian Jane Lilly, now 67, was among them.
“I was born there myself one January, with a blizzard howling outside and me howling in the room above the porch,” she said. “By that point my parents had waited 13 years for a baby then I turned up.
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“My dad brought my mum a bunch of daffodils when he came to visit us in the hospital. He also found a bunch of miniature tulips and gave them to me.”
In those days, new mothers stayed at The Knoll for at least a week after the birth. But they weren’t guaranteed a spot in the birthing room it seems. There was one birthing room above the porch.
However if that was in use, those needing to give birth had to do so in the bathroom on a board over the bath. One person born there reminisced: “I was born there Feb 1968, had to be born on the bath as someone else was giving birth using the bed. Always wondered who that was.”
The only time that Jane returned to The Knoll was for a summer fair being held there when it was run as a home for adults with special needs. “I went to the fair and was surprised to see how many people were there,” she said.
“Everyone wanted to get inside and see where they were born. But no one was allowed in the property and the fair was held in the garden.”
The last baby was born at The Knoll on September 21, 1976. Some mums gave birth to all their children there. New mums were given instructions on leaving on how to look after their baby.
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Jane Cotter, who was born at The Knoll, said: “I still have the instructions given to my mother regarding feeding me. “As a former midwife myself, they make me cringe, but I survived.”
Many believed The Knoll started life as the vicarage for Christ Church, but that wasn’t the case. The property was built in 1855 for the Reverend George Law Harkness, curate of Christ Church.
George Law Harkness came from a long line of reverend gentlemen. His father was Vicar of East Brent when he was born, and his mother was a daughter of Bishop Law, the Bishop of Bath and Wells.
The Bishop lived in Banwell in the house known as The Caves, surrounded by a wonderful fantasy landscape of his own making. The caves are ancient bone caves, and the Bishop thoroughly relished adding follies to his landscaped garden – summer houses and a tower among them.
When Revd. Harkness first moved to Clevedon, he bought a house built by Sir Arthur Elton on the coast in Elton Road. Sir Arthur called it in his diaries the Elizabethan house, and named it Fairfield.
Sadly, like most of the houses in that part of Elton Road, it was demolished in the 1960s, with the only survivor of the group of houses now the Little Harp. Harkness lived at Fairfield while he had The Knoll built, having bought his plot in August 1855.
He put Fairfield up for sale a few weeks afterwards. There were in Fairfield a mere eleven rooms, compared with fourteen at The Knoll. He named his new home after the landmark near his birthplace, Brent Knoll.
The Rev Harkness stayed for the next three years and then in 1860 his aunt, Mrs Margaret Clarke, the widow of a surgeon, lived there with George’s brother James until he was appointed Vicar of Winscombe and embarked on a restoration of the church there. Mrs Clarke died in 1873 and in September the house was advertised for sale in the Western Daily Press.
The advert made it sound very appealing. ‘Clevedon – The Knoll – near Christ Church – to be sold:
“This very attractive detached residence, with terrace walk and well-planted ground of an acre in extent, commanding extensive prospects. The house has a south aspect, and comprises hall, dining and drawing-room, with bay windows, library, 9 bedrooms etc. Housekeeper’s room, butler’s pantry, kitchens and very convenient domestic offices. The stable and coachhouse are complete.”
The buyer was Richard Woodward who moved here with his wife Julia and daughter Julia Lucy from Bath. He had retired from the Bengal Civil Service, and was living on the income from land he owned.
He lived to enjoy the house for almost two years, dying of heart disease in 1875. His widow remained at the house with their daughter. In 1892, Mrs Woodward died, leaving the house to her daughter Julia Lucy.
Her uncle, Vincent Stuckey Lean was living with her and died that year, leaving over £400,000. His mother was a daughter of the Stuckey family of Langport, who owned Stuckey’s Bank.
He bequeathed £50,000 of this to the Central Library in Bristol for the erection of new buildings, which were completed in 1906 to designs by Charles Holden of H Percy Adams. He left many other charitable bequests.
When Miss Woodward died in 1910, like her father, from heart disease, she left some £32,000. Her will left numerous charitable bequests, among them a villa in Shurdington along with her horses, dogs, carriages and the contents of her stable to her coachman, William Austin, ‘in recognition of his faithful service to her dear mother and herself’.
The house stayed in the family as the next occupant was Miss Woodward’s nephew, George Woodward Willock, the son of her sister Caroline. For much of his ownership, he was away, as a professional soldier in the Royal Inniskillings, and his wife Lucy Minna Willock lived at the house with their three children.
Mrs Willock died in 1926, after which her husband kept the house until his own death in Bath ten years later. The house was occupied next by a widow who had previously been living in Jesmond Road, Mrs Catherine Lina Fair.
She and her late husband, Thomas Conroy Fair, had both been born in Argentina, as had their two older children, James Conroy Fair and Helen Mary Conroy Fair, aged nine and seven. Her younger son, George Patrick Fair, aged four, had been born in Sussex.
Sadly, during the Great War, both sons were killed, James serving in the Coldstream Guards, and George in the Somerset Light Infantry. They were buried at St Andrew’s Church in Clevedon.
When Catherine herself died in December 1947, she left her entire estate of over £100,000 to her daughter Helen. Catherine must have had money of her own, as when her husband died in 1897, he only left £881.
Helen had married Major Stanley Bickham Sweet-Escott, who she divorced in 1932. It is understood that when she inherited The Knoll in 1947, she put the house up for sale.
Three years later in 1950, the house opened as a maternity hospital. Advertisements were in the local press for staff between September and December 1950. After the maternity hospital closed in 1976, The Knoll became a home for young people with learning difficulties for some years.
In 2009 plans were submitted to return it to a private home, which it remains today. Mrs Lilly said: “So many people who live in Clevedon were born there.
“My cousin Sheila was born there on the same day as my brother Mark on April 10, 1956. It only closed in 1976 and there are so many people who have memories of the place. So many people were disappointed that it closed.
“Having been born in the town in themselves they wanted their children to have that chance as well. The fact that so many people born in Clevedon have remained in Clevedon means so many have a special place in their hearts for The Knoll.”
*With thanks to Jane Lilly for her research
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