Frenchay Post Office

By Brian Vowles

Winterbourne Family History Online...        

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The Post Office, Frenchay Hill, circa 1900, when Kate Vowles was Postmistress.

The 1851 census for Frenchay records that the Post Office and grocers shop, which stood at the top of Frenchay Hill, was run by a single lady, Hannah Vowles.

   Hannah, who had been born in Dundry in 1804, was one of nine children born to John and Mary Vowles. In his book, “The Bristol Mail”, R.C.Tombs states that she had spent her early life in the West Indies before moving back to England to look after her aging mother. There seems little evidence for this but certainly in 1851 her mother, Mary, then aged 80 and whose husband John had died in 1843, was living with her, as was her nine year old niece Sophia. Sophia (born 1842) was the daughter of Hannah’s elder brother William Vowles (born Dundry 1799), who had married Charlotte Weston from Barrow Gurney (born 1813), and who had gone to live in Filton where they had five children; William, Kate, Joseph, Sophia and Virtue. After William Vowles Snr died in 1847, at the early age of 48, Charlotte continued to work as a farm labourer at Filton, accompanied by her bachelor brother Henry Weston, until her death in 1880.

   Sophia Vowles only lasted another four years, dying at the age of 13 on 27th May 1855, and within a year, needing assistance in the Post Office and with an elderly mother to care for, Hannah then took in Sophia’s sister Kate Vowles (born 1839). Hannah’s mother died in 1860 aged 90 and was buried in St. John’s Churchyard on 14th October 1860 but the aunt and niece were to carry on running the Post Office together for another thirty seven years until 1897 when Hannah died and was laid to rest in the nearby churchyard on 6th July. She was 93.

   At this point the Post Office was relocated to a cottage on the opposite side of the road with Kate Vowles becoming the new sub postmistress...


See additional information in an extract from the Frenchay Parish Magazine in 1920, below..


Left - The ‘Old’ Post Office, Frenchay Hill.                    Right - The ‘New’ Post Office, Frenchay Hill.

Meanwhile, by 1871, Kate’s younger sister Virtue (born 1845) had gone into service to work as a housemaid to a surgeon, Dr Edwin Day at Hambrook Court, and it was there she met a blacksmith from Hambrook called Harrison Sharpe. The couple were married in 1875 and at first they set up home at Filton, but he seems to have found work hard to come by and by 1891 they had also moved into Frenchay Hill. Like her aunt before her, Kate had remained single, so by 1901 Virtue and Harrison had moved into the Post Office as well.

   The hours of the Post Office were long and required more than one person to do them. In 1870 the Kelly’s directory tells us that in Hannah’s time letters arrived from Bristol at 8.00am and 5.40pm and were dispatched at 9.15am and 4.35. Money orders could only be obtained at Hambrook, which was two miles away. However by Kate’s time the post arrived at 6.30am, 2.17pm and for callers only at 5.50pm. Sadly there was only one delivery on Sunday at 6.30am! Letters for Bristol were dispatched at 9.30am, 4.30pm and 7.40pm. By then postal orders (which were an important method of money transfer before the days of universal bank accounts) could be issued at Frenchay but not cashed there. This could only be done at Hambrook, where that marvel of the age, the telegraph, could be also be used. A similar state of affairs still held sway in 1906, but by 1914 money orders could both be issued and cashed and one could now make use of the telegraph at Frenchay. It was also in 1914 that Harrison Sharpe died, to be followed in 1922 by Kate Vowles, aged 82, and Virtue, who was buried in the same grave as her husband in 1924.

   Harrison and Virtue Sharpe had brought with them to Frenchay their four children, who had all been born in Filton...

   1. William Sharpe (born 1875) became a blacksmith like his father and a long serving member of the Frenchay Cricket Club, as did his son William Henry Roy Sharpe.

   2. Kate Sharpe (born 1880), their eldest daughter, married a Frederick Woodman in St. John’s Church in 1915

   3. Aubrey Sharpe (born 1882) married a Florence Flook in 1910 and moved to Fishponds.

   4. Mabel Sharpe (born 1887) had, like her brothers and sister, attended Frenchay National School, and upon reaching the school leaving age of 14 in 1901 was selected to become a pupil teacher. She helped out at the school whilst attending the Pupil Teacher Centre in Bristol part time; rising to three days a week by 1904. She qualified in January 1906 after having given a lesson in front of an HMI Mr Page. However, she only taught at the school on a couple of occasions, in 1911 and 1912, as she had become involved in the running of the Post Office.

   After her father’s death, Mabel married, in 1915, a local stonemason called Frederick Higgins and they took over the Post Office after Kate Vowles’ death in 1922.

   The Post Office remained in their hands until it was taken over by their third child, Barbara Higgins (born 1920) Frederick died in 1961 aged 77, and Mabel in 1968, aged 87. They were both buried in St. John’s Churchyard.

   Barbara continued to run the Post Office until 1985 when a very nasty incident took place. As she had little faith in her obsolete safe, she was in the habit of carrying the day’s takings over the road to the ‘Old Post Office’, where her elderly neighbour, a Mr Jenkins, would look after it. One evening some villains, who had become aware of this ritual, broke in and bound the elderly couple before making off with the cash. Both of them were traumatised by their frightening experience, Mr Jenkins dying soon afterwards and Barbara Higgins could no longer carry on with the Post Office. As a result it closed down, never to re-open, after being in the same family for more than a hundred years!

   Hannah Vowles’ elder brother James (born 1801) had married Unity Wilcox from Filton, and the couple set up home in the village. One of their daughters, Elizabeth but more commonly known as Betsey (born 1836), married a blacksmith  James Baber (born 1838) from Frenchay. Although he worked as a spade moulder in the iron works, his circumstances were such that the family qualified for gifts of bread and flannel from parish charities between 1872 and 1893. However, by 1891, the sixth child from their family of eight, Henry James Baber, was learning the trade of baking in a bakery at Staple Hill, and by 1902 he had set up his own bakery on Frenchay Hill, close to the Post Office where his cousin William Sharpe was living. Henry married Ethel Newman in that year but in 1906 she died. In 1909 he married again to the owner of the Glenbrook Store, a widow Lilian Wedmore, whose husband had died two years previously. Henry who was known as “ a great sport who loved a game of cards” was also a stalwart of the Frenchay Cricket Club. Like William Sharpe, he captained the second XI and claimed to have played at the age of 14 with WG Grace. He died in 1945.

Henry James' sister, Lilian Baber, married Louis Maggs



The above biography was researched by Brian Vowles, who also kindly sent the photographs for publication on this WebSite.

Thank you Brian.






From this well researched biography, a good family tree can be drawn...


John Vowles


= Mary


3 of 9 children...


William Vowles


= Charlotte Weston

Farm Labourer


5 children...


Hannah Vowles


Post Mistress from

pre1851 to 1897


James Vowles


= Unity Wilcox


one of their daughters...

1. William Vowles

2. Kate Vowles


Post Mistress from

c1856 to 1922


3. Joseph Vowles

4. Sophia Vowles


5. Virtue Vowles



= Harrison Sharpe



4 children...


Elizabeth Vowles


= James Baber




of 8 children...


1. William Sharpe



= ___




2. Kate Sharpe


= Fred Woodman


3. Aubrey Sharpe


= Florence Flook


4. Mabel Sharpe


Post Mistress from 1922 to c1961

= Fred Higgins


of 3 children...


6. Henry Baber



=1 Ethel Newman


=2 Lilian Wedmore


  Wm Hy Roy Sharp    

3. Barbara Higgins


Post Mistress from

c1961 to 1985


Addendum - Brian Vowles found this extract while browsing through the Parish Magazines on this web site... [Thanks, Brian]

"Frenchay Parish Magazine, March/ April 1920.

Aunt to Niece.      In 1850, the middle of last century, Hannah Vowles returned from service in the West Indies to support her aged mother, Mary Vowles, born in 1770. Of a Dundry family, Mary, of whom there is a good oil painting in the post office parlour, came to this village from Filton. She lived in the cottage by Mr Mauler's gate, now occupied by Mr Smith.

Hannah Vowles was Post-mistress of Frenchay for 47 years, from 1850 to 1897, when she died, aged 95. Till 1877 the Post Office was in the house opposite its present site (Mr J Tiley's).

At first Hannah had her little niece Sophie, to help her. Every morning and evening, in all weathers, the child had to wait "under the Chestnuts," opposite Woodfield, to get the bag from the mail-cart as it passed. She developed consumption and died, aged 13, in 1855. After that Mr Philip Tuckett insisted on the mail bag being delivered at the Post Office.

Sophie was succeeded by her sister Kate, our present "Miss Vowles." She became Sub-post-mistress on her aunt Hannah's death in 1897, an office which, at the age of 80, owing to invasion of years, difficulty in hearing, and now the breakage of her left wrist, she resigned on 14th January, 1920. Until she gave up the duty of Postwoman in 1915, after 60 years service, a pretty old-world scene was that of "His Majesty's Female," with bonnet, bag, and stick, crossing the Common on her delivery rounds, generally escorted by divers dogs from different houses at which she had already called, for she greatly loved, and was greatly loved by, dogs.

All Frenchay will join in wishing that Miss Vowles's closing years may be peaceful, calm, and bright with heavenly light. She is succeeded by her niece, Mrs Higgins, who has helped her in the Office from childhood; should she resign before 1955 she will spoil the family average."