Joseph JAMES 1805-1875 of Weston-super-Mare

Joseph James 1805-1875
Joseph JAMES 1805-1875

Meet my ancestor, Joseph JAMES (1805-1875). He was a Carpenter and Builder, as his father had been before him, and also an Undertaker as was not uncommon in his time for a Carpenter. He was also the Superintendent of Knightstone Bath House during the early hey days of Weston-super-Mare in the mid-19th century, when it was a booming and fashionable resort and spa.

Joseph was born in 1805 in Brislington, Somerset to his parents Thomas and Mary JAMES. When he grew up, he worked for his family’s building business which was managed by his Father Thomas JAMES and his older brothers.

In 1828, Dr Edward Long Fox and his son, Francis Ker Fox, purchased Knightstone Island at Weston-super-Mare in order to develop the medicinal and therapeutic baths there and to provide a therapeutic treatment spa for mentally ill patients. Dr Fox was known for his establishment of a humane asylum at Brislington, and he had pioneered humane treatment for those with mental health difficulties.

In the employ of his father and brothers, Joseph JAMES moved to Weston-super-Mare to work for Dr Edward Long Fox doing the building works and developing the causeway to the island, and also building the main Bath House, the building from which still stands today.

In 1831 Joseph’s father Thomas JAMES, who had been the founder of a Congregational Church at Brislington, and who was the Patriarch of the JAMES family, died. He had been a man ‘universally beloved by all who knew him’ according to his grave stone. According to Dr Long Fox’s will and testament, Thomas JAMES had been a man who had been held in very high regard by him, and Joseph JAMES his son, went on to work loyally for Dr Fox in Weston.

In 1832 Joseph JAMES (aged 27) married Elizabeth FRY (aged 20), the daughter of local hotelier Richard FRY and Elizabeth FRY. Richard FRY had been instrumental in the development of Weston-super-Mare and had helped to establish it as a tourist destination when he had speculated and invested in the building of the first hotel there (now The Royal Hotel, Weston-super-Mare). In 1828, Richard FRY had become the owner of Myrtle Cottage, a property in South Parade, Weston-super-Mare, and he erected a building premises next to his house which became The Bath Hotel (later The Imperial). Since Joseph JAMES was a builder and Carpenter, it is not unlikely that he’d gone to work for Richard FRY on this development, and perhaps this was how he had come to meet and fall in love with his daughter Elizabeth.

In 1832, the couple married at a church in Bristol, and Elizabeth’s father Richard FRY was a witness on the register. The young couple then lived together with her parents in Myrtle Cottage, next door to The Bath Hotel.

In 1834, Joseph and his wife Elizabeth had their first child together, a daughter, Elizabeth JAMES, most likely named after Elizabeth’s mother.  Later, they had a son together, who they named Richard, most likely after Elizabeth’s father, and more children followed very rapidly (they ended up having 13 children in total!). They had a daughter, Mary, most likely named after Joseph’s mother Mary JAMES, and then a son, Thomas, most likely named after Joseph’s father, Thomas JAMES, and for some years, they all lived together, along with Richard Fry the younger, who was the son of Richard and Elizabeth Fry and Elizabeth JAMES’s younger brother, at Myrtle Cottage in South Parade.

This photograph from around 1855 shows Myrtle Cottage on the left, and The Bath Hotel, which Joseph JAMES most likely worked on for Richard FRY and hence met and fell for his daughter.

Joseph JAMES Moves to Knightstone Island

In around 1832, Joseph was offered a position to work for Dr Fox to manage his bathing establishment. So he became the Superintendent of the Bath House at Knightstone and he ran them for several years.

By 1835, Joseph was working for Dr Edward Long Fox and his son Dr Fox, as the Superintendent of the bath house on Knightstone Island and he moved along with his growing family to a house right on Knightstone Island next to the Bath House.

In 1835, Dr Edward Long Fox died. Joseph James was bequeathed the sum of £100 in his will and the following comment was included in his last will and testament.

“I give free of legacy duty to Joseph James, Carpenter, now acting as my servant and superintendant at the Baths at Knightstone GBP100 with interest from my death in consideration of his fidelity and of his services to me whilst in the employ of his father and brothers about the works at Knightstone and as a token of the high respect and affection I felt and retain for his late father.”  

Dr Edward Long Fox’s will – dated 24 March 1835 and proved 15 June 1835.


Joseph and his wife Elizabeth were living on Knightstone Island with their young children. Family legend has it that when Joseph was the Superintendent at the Baths, his wife Elizabeth had a small silver whistle which she would blow to alert the local residents when any boat came in from South Wales, partly so that a toll of sixpence could be taken, and partly because some of the boats were loaded with coal and the men could then “clean the beach” of any spilt coal!

1841 saw the railway arriving at Weston encouraging holiday traffic to and from the town and this led to a rapid increase in the resident population between 1841 and 1851. It rose from 2103 to 4034, having been only a little over 100 in 1801. So the baths at Knightstone and other local attractions must have become quite busy.

The electoral roll of 1846, shows that Joseph James now owns a freehold house at 6, Victoria Buildings. It also shows his brother, John JAMES as occupying number 2 Victoria Buildings at the cost of 50l. per annum. However, he also seems to have remained resident on Knightstone Island.


9th January 1847, Knightstone is advertsised in the Bristol Mercury.

1849 – A Sudden Death in the Family

On 14th February 1849, Joseph’s brother, John JAMES, died very suddenly while attending a building that the brothers had been working on together. He died in the street from a stroke.

Joseph’s brother John James died suddenly in February 1849 and it was reported in the Bristol Mirror on 14th March 1849

Joseph Buys Victoria Cottage

Later in that same year of 1849, the JAMES family left Knightstone and moved into a house on the main land which Joseph is believed to have originally built and which had become available due to the present owners defaulting on the mortgage. Joseph bought Victoria Cottage (now 7 Park Villas, Weston-super-Mare) for £320 when the owner, Arthur DAY, defaulted on his mortgage and he moved his family there. Family legend and some other accounts have it that Joseph had built into the design of the outer walls of the building, some original medieval stone features. These had been salvaged from the medieval parish church of St John’s, Weston, which had been kept by his father-in-law Richard FRY after it had been demolished in 1824.

Victoria Cottage pictured in 2020, when being advertised for sale. Sadly, almost all of the original interior features have been removed and destroyed.


In May 1857, he took on an apprentice named George DYER who would go on to become a carpenter and joiner and a well known figure in Weston. George DYER was born on 9th April 1843 at Emmanuel Cottage, Oxford Street to parents James (“a man of property” Buckets and Spades Nov 2006) and his wife Mary Anne nee BOOTH. George had been baptised in the parish church of St John on 14th May 1843 and later attended the National School.

At age 14 he was apprenticed to Joseph JAMES and joined the Carpenters and Joiners’ Union in 1873. He was later associated with another local builder, John HANDO. George participated “in the building of many landmarks such as the Congregational Church, Brean Down fort in 1866, the old Worle Brewery and Banwell Castle” and “recalled being present as a lad of 12 at the foundation stone laying ceremony in connection with Christ Church in 1855”.

Weston continued to prosper. In 1867 the completion of Birnbeck Pier brought families from South Wales by steamer to the town and gave visitors further space to walk and take the air. The town continued to grow with villas, estates and boulevards.

1875 Joseph’s Death

In May of 1875 Joseph James’ wife, Elizabeth died at the age of 62, and later that same year, in December, Joseph also died. They were both buried in Milton Road Cemetery in Weston-super-Mare.

Please Let Me Know You’ve Visited

If you have enjoyed reading this post, please leave me a comment below, even just something brief. Family history hunting can be fascinating, but often no one else is interested except the person doing the research, so it’s always really lovely to find out when someone is!

2 thoughts on “Joseph JAMES 1805-1875 of Weston-super-Mare”

  1. Hello, I am researching the Worle Brewery and I notice you refer to George participating in the building of the old Worle brewery.

    Do you mind sharing with me more details on this and where you got the information?

    Many thanks

    1. Hi David, Hmmm the honest answer is, I’m not sure I can remember. I did work my way through a pile of old books on Weston-super-Mare and I suspect it was from there. Apologies I don’t have the reference. The Family History Society of Weston might be able to help? Best wishes, Honey

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