Handel Shepherd Cossham was born on 31st March 1824, the son of Jesse Cossham and his wife, Sarah (nee Shepherd). It was often said that Handel was born in the same house that his father, grandfather and great grandfather had been born. However we have no evidence to prove or disprove this assertion. He was apparently called Handel because his father Jesse was a great admirer of the composer. When he was about 12 months old his parents moved to Ryeford near Stroud, where he was baptised by the Rev John Burder at the Old Meeting House Independent Chapel at Stroud on 23rd October 1825. The family did not return to Thornbury until 1830 when Handel’s grandfather Richard died.
Handel attended what he described as a local Dame School for the first two years of his schooling and also attended the Sunday School. He was fortunate enough to hear some of the most celebrated Nonconformist speakers and ministers, including Rowland Hill. When he was 16 he in turn became a teacher in the Sunday School of the Thornbury Congregationalist Chapel. He also seems to have become a preacher and by 1844 he had preached at Crossways Chapel, Thornbury.
He left Thornbury and moved to live near a colliery in Yate where he had taken up employment as a clerk. This was described by the indenture of 20th December 1888 in which he presented a hall to the people of Thornbury in rather more dramatic terms. The indenture says that he “lived in the town until the year one thousand eight hundred and forty five in which year he attained the age of twenty-one years and went out from the said town to fight the battle of life.” Although he studied mining working “almost night and day” he found time to preach at the colliery there.
In 1848 he married Elizabeth Wethered of Little Marlow and went into partnership with her father and brothers. They set up business at Parkfield and then Kingswood.
Although Handel seems not to have a great deal of academic education himself, education was of huge importance to him. He was able to help set up the British School in 1850 near the colliery. He later established an infants school at Pucklechurch and British Schools at Mangotsfield and Staple Hill. British Schools were set up throughout the country by supporters of the Non-Conformist religions to provide education conducted on Christian and non-sectarian principles as opposed to that provided at the National Schools set up by the Church of England.
Thornbury also had a British School in the 1830’s located in Bath Road. Based on the assumption that Handel’s father, Jesse, owned the Bath Road property in the 1840’s, we had guessed that the Cosshams may have been associated with the setting up of this school in Thornbury. However we have found no confirmation of this and no reference was made claiming any credit for the family when Handel later became involved in the opening a new British School in 1862.
We do not know what happened to this early British School but Handel had a new British School built in 1862 at the cost of £700 on a different site nearby. This later became Gillingstool Primary School. The trustees of this British School in Thornbury included Joseph Wethered, Roden House, Arley Hill, coal owner and Jesse Cossham, builder of Thornbury. These were Handel’s brother in law and his father.
Handel’s business was extremely successful. The Gazette newspaper says that his four collieries at Pucklechurch and St George had a daily output of between 700 and 1000 tons of steam and house coal and that he employed 1,500 people, enabling him to say he was the largest employer in the West of England.
He was involved in the Temperance Movement from the age of 13. This was a fundamental part of his belief throughout his life. We have quotation from his later life that ” Mr Handel Cossham, the employer of 1,500 workpeople, has recently asserted that if total abstinence prevailed wages would be raised 25 per cent without strikes or agitation, and with injury to no one.”
Although his religious convictions always dominated his life and every aspect of it, politics also seems to have been vital to him, presumably as a means of putting into practice his beliefs. In the 1860’s he was a Bristol City Councillor for the St Paul’s Ward. From 1882 to 1885 he was Mayor of Bath. The list of MPs in the House of Commons shows that on 25th November 1885 he became MP for East Bristol.
Handel Cossham was held in high esteem by his colliery workers. In the 1890’s miners were preparing to strike and most coal mine owners were completely opposed to any concessions. Cossham urged compromise and negotiated a settlement separately from his fellow owners that increased the miners’ pay and that they accepted.
In 1888 Handel bought the old Wesleyan Chapel in Thornbury for £150 and he gifted it to the a group of trustees for use of a public hall. In 1890 he was in process of gifting the Town another property, the one known as Miss Saise’s Cottage, whilst ensuring Esther Saise’s life interest in the property. This would have provided the opportunity to expand the Hall and provide an alternative access to it directly from the High Street. However Handel died before the conveyance could be completed. As pressure mounted on the Parish Council (who had taken over the management of The Cossham Hall from the trustees) to expand the Hall, they attempted to find ways of achieving this. They finally agreed to purchase a sufficient area of the garden of the cottage to allow the new buildings to be erected, thus protecting Esther’s life interest in the cottage. Click here to read about the Cossham Hall
He died on 23rd April 1890 in the National Liberal Club in London. On the day of his funeral it was estimated that 50,000 people were present at the cemetery or lined the route.
In his will, having no children, Handel Cossham left his estate in trust, so that after the death of his wife, a hospital could be built for the working people of East Bristol and South Gloucestershire, who were largely miner’s families. This became the Cossham Memorial Hospital built between 1905 and 1907. Click on the thumbnail on the right for a larger image of the hospital. For further details about the life and work of Handel Cossham we recommend that you read the work of Alan Chambers ‘Cossham Hospital a Future as Great as its Past’ or the website of the Cossham Hospital Area Community.