The Goldney family first came to live on the property in 1694, when Thomas Goldney II rented it, buying it later on in 1705. At the time the manor of Clifton belonged largely to the Society of Merchant Venturers. During the 1720s he rebuilt the house and added to the garden features, but most of what we see today was the work of his son Thomas Goldney III and the later owners in the nineteenth century, the Fry family.
The first Thomas Goldney was an active Quaker and a successful grocer born in 1620, living in the city on High Street, near Bristol Bridge. His son, Thomas Goldney II, carried on the family business, but being a less strict Quaker than his father also developed some new interests. He was a partner in the Warmley brass works outside Bristol, and went on to develop ironworks in partnership with Abraham Darby in Coalbrookdale, Ironbridge – commonly thought to be a key part of the British industrial revolution (it was here that a new technique for smelting was developed, which used coke instead of charcoal). Goldney also invested in shipping, and in 1708 he was one of the main backers of the epic voyages of two ships, the Duke and the Duchess, led by Captain Woodes Rogers. Purportedly to establish ‘trade with the South Seas,’ these were basically privateering expeditions, involving the capture of Spanish ships, such as the legendary Manila galleon, and raids on South American ports. The ships’ rescue of Alexander Selkirk, the real-life original of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, from Juan Fernandez Island, was another legendary event, thereby associating Goldney Hall with one of the defining icons of modern Western culture.
More infamously, whilst the prime intention of the Woodes Rodgers expedition may not have been slave-trading as such, some of the vessels they encountered and raided would have been slavers, the human cargo of which would have been taken over and profitably disposed of. It is also likely that some of the copper (cooking pots) and iron wares (guns) from the works co-owned by the Goldneys would have been streamed into the first leg of the infamous ‘triangular trade’ for sale in Africa. Profits realised from the voyages were ploughed back into the family house and property, and used to expand the industrial interests at Coalbrookdale works. Arguably then, even if somewhat indirectly, the Goldneys were involved in establishing British industrialization partly out of the gains of the slave trade. Being part of the prominent Quaker network at the centre of the gathering campaign for Abolition, the Goldney family was also associated to some extent with its end.
Goldney II redeveloped the main Clifton house extensively in the 1720s. When he died in 1731 his son Thomas Goldney III succeeded him, maintaining connections with the iron works, but like his father before him, also pursuing his own interests. He owned shares in three small ships and in mining ventures, and set up one of the first partnership banks in Bristol. The iron works continued to be a very profitable venture however, especially as the declaration of war with Spain in 1739 provided him with more openings to develop the gun trade
When Thomas Goldney III died in 1768, the house passed to his older sister Hannah Ball and then to his only surviving brother Gabriel Goldney, who seems to have made no changes in the garden, maintaining it with care. After his death in 1786 the last member of the Goldney family, Ann, inherited the estate. According to an oral tradition the miniature on the inside of the Grotto door is a portrait of Ann. The house then passed into the property of cousins from Chippenham, who partially rebuilt the Rotunda. It was eventually bought by Lewis Fry in 1864. Alfred Waterhouse was engaged to carry out extensive architectural alterations on the house, including the addition of a plastered ceiling in the Mahogany Parlour, the replacement of the carved oak staircase and the construction of the central tower. Lewis Fry worked in the interests of the University and was one of the chief petitioners in 1909 that it should be granted a charter. After his death in 1921 Goldney House was considered as a hall of residence, but this was rejected by the University Hall Committee, and George Wills helped to provide an alternative by funding the construction of a hall in Stoke Bishop. He also bought Goldney House, which remained a private home. The house underwent major redecoration and repair. In 1956 the property was sold to the University and it became an annexe to Clifton Hill House providing accommodation for 29 female students and a tutor. Today’s student accommodation was built in the grounds in 1969.
P.K. Stembridge, Goldney: A House and a Family, (Bristol, 1991)
P.K. Stembridge, Thomas Goldney’s Garden: The Creation of an Eighteenth century Garden, (Bristol, 1996)
R.J.G. Savage, Natural History of the Goldney Garden Grotto, Clifton, Bristol, (Bristol, 1989)