The Bristol Cable

In the 1960s the council demolished most of Totterdown, in a planning disaster still remembered by Bristolians today.

Words: Koel Mukherjee

In the early 1900s, the south Bristol suburb of Totterdown was a magnet for people from across the city. Shoppers flocked to the eccentric neighbourhood, where century-old businesses were crammed up and down the Wells and Bath Roads, alongside the homes of working class families who’d been there for generations.

That thriving mix of life and commerce no longer exists because the council knocked most of it to the ground, in what is arguably Bristol’s worst planning disaster.

Three lamps Junction 1968
Photo: Knowle and Totterdown Local History Society
Three lamps Junction 2017
Photo: Ed fielden

What the planners did

In the 1960s, the planners of Bristol City Council had big dreams of an outer circuit road, a highway around the centre ploughing through several inner-city suburbs, including vast swathes of Totterdown. The controversial scheme ultimately failed, but not before a painful mass eviction that still scars people and landscape today.

In the space of less than ten years, more than 550 homes and businesses, including historic pubs and shops, were demolished, with 2,000 people evicted. Homeowners were served with compulsory purchase orders, tenants were moved to other areas, and business owners had to start again somewhere else. In a deeply rooted community where everybody knew each other, relationships suffered as the neighbourhood fell apart.

The family of Marilyn Webb, now 80, was split up. She had recently bought a house on the same street as her mother and sister. After their street was knocked down her mother had to move to Brislington, her sister to Stockwood, and she and her newborn baby to a council house i n Bedminster.

“They took all three houses,” she recalls. “We used to see each other every day, but then we were completely pulled apart.”

Photos: Stephen Dowle

Brothers Paul and John Atwell, both now in their seventies and living in Keynsham and St George, have a similar story. Their father Reginald had planned for individual homes on his property, so his children could live nearby. “Family was very important to him,” reflects Paul. “He wanted us to stay close … we would have all been there together.”

Worse, the family home was also their parents’ pension, a large house with space for flats that would have produced rental income for their retirement. Their sons say the demolition left the couple “devastated”. It was tough for their father to restart his newspaper delivery business, and much of the money he got from the compulsory sale of the family home was eaten up by a sales tax. The couple had to move to Hanham, where they struggled financially.

The disruption might have been bearable, if not for the chaotic and bureaucratic rollout of the demolition programme. In her 2006 book, Totterdown Rising, Kate Pollard documents how the plans went ahead without proper oversight or approval, leading to indecision and stagnation.

In one instance, a mix-up led to the demolition of an entire row of homes that didn’t need to be torn down. And Marilyn Webb ended up having to pay for her own house to be destroyed, a “heartbreaking” experience which, even if it was only an isolated incident, shows the council’s haphazard approach.


Some disparaging comments in the local press at the time described the neighbourhood as a ‘slum’ that needed to be replaced – but those supporting the scheme were in the minority. The Atwells, while acknowledging small pockets of decline, remember the neighbourhood as still thriving, with most people as deeply attached to it as they were.

The demolition was gradual, so organised resistance was too. The uncertainty of the situation inevitably left people disempowered. “It just wore you down in the end,” John Atwell explains. “People were just despondent, they didn’t have the life in them they used to have.”

“In the war, Churchill said ‘Fight!’, and we did,” he reflects. “But you didn’t perceive the same threat with the council as you did with Hitler, because Hitler was the enemy, whereas Bristol City Council was not supposed to be.”

Nonetheless, there are stories of determined individual resistance. Elderly Totterdown resident Henry Bradbeer was the last person to move from the demolition area, defying the council to the end, and is still remembered with admiration today. Another was 74-year-old Jane Hopeson, featured in a 1969 Bristol Evening Post article as the ‘battling granny’, declaring ‘I’ll push them in the river sooner than move’.
By the early 1970s, local groups like the Totterdown Traders’ Association and the Totterdown Action Group (TAG) were formed. They were supported by city-wide opposition to the Outer Circuit Road and other planning projects from students, lawyers, environmentalists and engineers. But Graham Davey, who was there at the time, says the outsiders’ impact was marginal compared to the local campaigners like TAG and the residents at their public meetings.
The meeting that sticks out in Davey’s mind saw Tony Benn (then MP for Bristol South East) arriving to hear people’s concerns, but none of the councillors did. Frustrated Totterdown residents walked straight to City Hall to confront their absent local representative, F.E. Sprackling.

“He wrote a letter to the Evening Post protesting about this posse which had come up from Totterdown to get him,” says Davey. “But the approach had been made politely and courteously, from a meeting where he ought to have been present!”

“I’ll push them in the river sooner than move.”

Davey believes the council saw Totterdown residents as apolitical and easily manipulated, never expecting resistance from defiant grandparents, let alone community organisers. The Bristol Evening Post also endorsed the anti-demolition campaign, keeping stories of resistance in the news and letting the locals write in to share their experiences and opinions.

The end

As the 1970s continued there were new politicians, new financial realities, and continuing indecision about the road plan. The demolished area sat blighted for years. Both local historian William Evans and Paul Atwell describe it as a “bomb site”, with those left unable to sell their homes. There continued to be public anger and demands for the council to do something with the land. The council was soon under pressure from homeless charity Shelter to use the wasted area for accommodation as, even then, Bristol had a long waiting list for social housing.

In 1974 the new local authority of Avon took over some planning responsibilities from Bristol City Council. Eventually it became clear that the road was not going to happen – all that hurt and hardship had been for nothing. “Such a waste,” John Atwell laments. “Such an absolute waste of resources, of human life, of a community. Families who’d lived there generations.”

Both John Atwell and his father avoided driving through the area for years, so as not to be reminded of what they had lost. “I just felt so hurt,” says John. “I just couldn’t face it.” William Evans’ Totterdown in-laws eventually moved out of Bristol altogether.

Totterdown’s story didn’t end there, of course. Eventually building resumed, businesses came back, and the neighbourhood was revived. That said, there are still older people in the area who remember the demolitions of half a century ago and mourn close-knit, working-class Totterdown as it was.

It’s fitting that the neighbourhood revival is about both moving forward, and remembering. Part of the derelict land, known as Zone A, was gifted to the community as an acknowledgment of what was done to them. The active local residents’ association TRESA (Totterdown Residents Environmental & Social Action) has put down a mural there, honouring the families uprooted by the road scheme, and hoping the memory of the struggle still has a place in this resurgent community.


    Report a comment
    Comments are moderated according to our Comment Policy

  • Mr. Regan Toomer says:

    Great article thank you! There is however more to tell. I was in the 1970’s TAG Totterdown Action Group which had dwindled to only three of us: Miss Porch (chair), myself and one other chap. At that time there was a second Avon County road scheme formulated for the demolished area, much smaller but involving a proposed flyover to take incoming traffic from Temple Meads to Bath Road via a right lane onto a flyover crossing the Wells Road! It was approved for a government grant. TAG retaliated by submitting a planning application for a “community centre” to be be built on that junction where the Three Lamps finger post had stood, even though we had only a few pounds in our bank account. Eventually our application was refused, but by then enough time had elapsed for Avon to lose the grant funding, so the flyover scheme was axed. I remember being overjoyed to see the news in the Evening Post and I still hope it’s archived somewhere! As for the finger post which had been long ago removed, I spotted it lying like scrap in the council’s yard in Dovercourt Road. I made enquiries which indicated that it was to be sold to America, so I made a big fuss. That seems to have paid off, as it was later reinstated to its original position on the junction, right where the flyover would have been. It is of course still there now, and I love to see it and I love that others can see it again too. It’s the original Three Lamps, and beyond it there are people again living in Totterdown, in newer houses built on land where the flyover would have been.

  • Marie Pare says:

    I lived in Wells Road just up from the Three Lamps. We had a 5 bedrooms house. My parents had 3 children there, myself and 2 brothers lived there from birth. I was born in1954. I feel even now very connected to totterdown, even though I now live in Derbyshire.
    I can remember all the shops and people who lived around us. It was a wonderful place to live, we had everything in walking distance. Shops, cafe’s, everything you could want.
    What happened there was dreadful, someone should have been held responsible for, my and everyone else’s dreadful life change. I will never get over what happened to me and mine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related content

Residents slam 'serious flaw' in planning process in campaign to save threatened trees

Crucial questions remain unanswered in the ongoing fight to protect M32 Maples, including who owns the trees.

The contested future of St Philip's Marsh

A forgotten part of central Bristol is about to transform – but in whose interests?

People block developers profiting from Bristol's housing crisis

Campaign against the Chocolate Factory development in Greenbank kicks back into action as developers begin work – minus any affordable housing.

Iconic Bristol Bearpit billboard removed

The battle to reshape the Bearpit took a new turn today as the council removed Bristol’s only non-corporate billboard.

Baling out the housing crisis

Could straw and timber houses on street corners be the future of urban development?

The Bearpit: contested hub of struggles for Bristol

Bristol’s infamous Bearpit has undergone an image change in recent years – but rising homelessness means it’s now a site of conflict between wealthier incomers and some of the city’s most vulnerable people.

Join our newsletter

Get the essential stories you won’t find anywhere else

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter to get our weekly round-up direct to your inbox every Saturday

Join our newsletter

Get the essential stories you won’t find anywhere else

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter to get our weekly round-up direct to your inbox every Saturday