18th Century Bristol

Many people immediately think of places such as Bath, Harrogate and Cheltenham when thinking about iconic eighteenth-century towns and cities, but Bristol still retains much of its Georgian era heritage. Following a trip to the city recently we thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the old buildings.

Bristol stands on the River Avon and is spanned by the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which opened in 1864, but was based on a design by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1753 as a means of crossing the Avon Gorge and the design was contributed to by the inventor, Sarah Guppy.

View of the Avon and Hotwells Showing the Foundations for Windsor Terrace by Thomas Leeso Rowbotham
View of the Avon and Hotwells Showing the Foundations for Windsor Terrace by Thomas Leeso Rowbotham; Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives.

Bristol was well-known as a centre for trade and was the second largest port until the mid-eighteenth century when Liverpool took over the position as it had more capacity. Bristol’s main trades were in sugar, coffee, tobacco and chocolate which were produced in the Caribbean by the slave trade.

One of the main streets in Bristol that has survived largely intact is that of Corn Street, which now accommodates banks, shops, restaurants and an indoor market, known as St Nicholas Market.

Corn Street, Bristol © Sarah Murden
Corn Street, Bristol © Sarah Murden

Within the market itself, there is an old pub, known as the Rummer, which has stood there since 1742 and is still open today.

The Rummer Hotel © Sarah Murden
The Rummer Hotel © Sarah Murden

The building had side structures with two storeys of shops and offices which were used by insurance dealers. One of these became the Corn Exchange and was formally opened on 18th October 1813.

The Exchange, Bristol © Sarah Murden
The Exchange, Bristol © Sarah Murden

From the Cheltenham Chronicle, 28 October 1813

On Monday last the new established Corn Market in the Exchange, Bristol was regularly opened. The boxes in which samples are exhibited upon the plan of Mark Lane, London, form a line on the south side. Considerable business was transacted; and no doubt great benefit will be derived from the establishment. The market days are Monday and Thursday. A very respectable party dined together at the Rummer Tavern, after business was over to celebrate the opening.

The Corn Exchange building which leads into the markets was built around 1740, by John Wood the Elder.  Outside the building are four pillars, known as ‘the nails’.

The Nails, Corn Street, Bristol © Sarah Murden
The Nails, Corn Street, Bristol © Sarah Murden

The oldest pillar is reputed to date back to the end of the Elizabethan era. The second oldest was given by Bristol merchant Robert Kitchen, who died in 1594. The other two are dated 1625 and 1631. On top of the pillars were ‘containers’ with slightly raised edges which were used by merchants, the money would be placed inside the container without risk of it falling out. It is said that the phrase ‘paying on the nail’ originates from the use of these (it’s a great story, but probably not true).

Also, on the front of the building, there is a clock, You can see from this photo that there are two ‘minute’ hands, one in red, the other black. The reason for this is that Bristol had its own time which was ten minutes slower than Greenwich Mean Time but, with the advent of the railways, it was necessary to have a standard time, i.e. GMT, but Bristol also retained its own local time.

The Corn Exchange clock, showing the 2nd minute hand, ten minutes behind GMT © Sarah Murden
The Corn Exchange clock, showing the 2nd, minute hand, ten minutes behind GMT © Sarah Murden

The Commercial Rooms

The Commercial Rooms, Bristol © Sarah Murden
The Commercial Rooms, Bristol © Sarah Murden

In November 1808 funds were raised to build an exclusive club for merchants to meet. The sum of £10,000 was raised within a 24-hour period, but it wasn’t until February 1810 that adverts began to appear in the newspapers for tradesmen to apply via sealed bids to carry out the work and the first stone was laid on 19th March 1810.  The portico is of the Grecian Ionic order, with the three statues above personifying the City, Commerce and Navigation. The first president of the Commercial Rooms was John Loudon McAdam, the inventor of Tarmac.

Fry’s Chocolate

Those like us who are lovers of chocolate will be pleased to know that Bristol was also renowned for its chocolate manufacture; way back in the late 1720s Joseph Fry senior invested in an apothecary, Walter Churchman who found the ideal way to produce chocolate and set up a factory, Castle Mills.

So confident of his new product was Walter, that he published the technical specifications for it in the London Evening Post in 1737.

Sadly ‘the great chocolate maker’s’ life was to end only 4 years later. The business was continued by his brother, Charles Churchman and in 1761 Joseph Fry and his partner John Vaughan acquired the patent for a water-powered machine which ultimately led to the establishment of the brand we know today as Fry’s chocolate.

Below is an advert from 1750 for his chocolate detailing how to eat it and its benefits.

Chocolate advert, 1750

Advert for Frys chocolate - Caledonian Mercury 11 May 1801
Advert for Fry’s chocolate – Caledonian Mercury 11 May 1801

Royal York Crescent, Clifton

The Royal Crescent, Bristol perched high above the city. © Sarah Murden
The Royal Crescent, Bristol perched high above the city. © Sarah Murden

The area of Clifton stands above the city and was where the affluent of Bristol live, to avoid the squalor of the city itself in the Georgian Era. The main street was the Royal York Crescent. A plan, known as ‘The Bristol Tontine’ was devised on 26th December 1782 by Mr James Lockier, a merchant, to build the Crescent, consisting of 46 houses. There would be 700 shares at £100 each, after the properties were built they were to be sold making the shareholders a substantial profit.

Their aspect was to be nearly due south with views of the Clifton Hill. Each house was to be 25 feet in front and 54 feet in depth. They would have drawing-room 27 feet by 23 feet, dining room 27 feet by 17 feet, with excellent lodging rooms, good offices and everything that can contribute to render them desirable dwellings for families of respectability and consequence, with a spacious terrace and shrubbery in front.

It was a fascinating city to visit and far too much to see to include everything in this post, but hopefully, it gives a flavour of the city. It was amazing to see places that would have been so familiar to our Georgian Heroine who lived there in the early 1800s, both in the city itself and also at Clifton.

Featured Image

View over the Avon. British School. Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives