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First, Fit Your Organ – Rebuilding All Saints Church

April 19, 2012

All Saints in Central was a tiny city parish, but a very old and wealthy one, now known, if at all, for being the final resting place of the much maligned Edward Colston. A trawl through the enormous disintegrating tome of their Vestry Minutes of the early 18th century shows they seem to have been the first parish to wake from the slumbers of centuries of neglect and begin to show some interest in the fabric of their church.

In 1711 the churchwardens decided they disliked the low Norman tower, but a dispute over what to replace it with dragged on till 1717 which cost some £800 for which Colston gave £250. Latimer was not impressed with this, or its present 19th century incarnation, as “the new tower happily became ruinous in less than a century and was replaced by the existing anomaly.”

On 16 August 1738 Thomas Swabrick of Warwick was paid the first instalment of the agreed £240 to build an new organ in the west end of the church. It was to be “a handsome large organ, as large as the church will allow of Dutch Oak handsomely worked and wrought”. On 28 April 1740 the vestry agreed for a gallery, designed by Mr Halfpenny, probably the most experienced builder and only professional architect in the city, to be erected to support the new intended organ.

By 28 May both the gallery and organ were erected but it seems there was surprise in the gentlemen that the church was as a result made very dark. So they consulted with various workmen and decided to “open a light in the middle isle and that a proper octagon be erected thereon,..” ie a skylight. The lighting had already been compromised by the erection of the Gibbs designed Rysbrack monument to Colston obstructing the east wall of the south isle.

The lack of light was exacerbated by the building from 1741 of the Exchange, which towered over the area, and which caused considerable disruption to the parish. The Corporation demolished their Almshouse, so they had to build another, some distance away in St John St. Where most parishes made do with 2 waywardens to keep roads in repair, they appointed 8 and there were frequent mentions of encroachment by the Corporation and their builders, which is understandable given how large was its new neighbour. In 1743 a survey was ordered to check if the Corporation or their workmen had encroached on the parish lands.

In 1750 the vestry decided to paint the new octagonal window, usually necessary to prevent water leaks, but it seems it still hadn’t been done by 1752 when the decision was repeated. The door to All Saints Lane, which separated the church from the Exchange was ordered to be replaced and topped with spikes in September 1750, they were clearly suffering from a change in the neighbourhood. They were also still having troubles with light as they ordered the new vestry door to be moved as it was obstructing light. At the same time they ordered new seats, pews and pulpit as all had become ruinous.

Most ancient churches in Bristol had markets to help pay for their maintenance. They built an open collonade running alongside the main wall, known as a Tolzey where fees were paid and disputes settled. When the Exchange and Markets were built in the 1740s most of these became redundant, with all the trading moved to the single location. But this meant a sizeable loss of income to the various parishes, and in addition, All Saints, being adjacent to the markets, had to endure all the interruption and inconvenience of such a noisy, messy neighbour during the building work and beyond. All Saints church was also unusual in having a house intruding on the fabric of the church, and was rented out as a coffee house to the first of several generations of Samuel Worrals, Town clerks..

It is not clear what was meant by the complaint of 1752 of ‘bulgeing of passages ‘ of the Tolzey was, or how it could cause stone pillars to be ‘shook and removed from the upright’ but the vestry decided to pull them down and move them to allow the road to be widened to accommodate the increasing traffic in the city’s commercial centre.

In June 1771 Mr Paty was ordered to erect a scaffold to survey the dome prior to his repairing it. He was also commissioned to take an accurate survey of the parish lands and to frame the result. Paty was then a City Surveyor, and in all the changes going on in the city at the time, it seems he may have been generating work for himself. After obtaining a quote for tilers to repair the main part of the roof, Thomas Paty was ordered to supervise the repair ‘Dome and other such parts of the Tower’ The following month, coping around the outside of the church was ordered to be repaired. In September a carpenter was called upon to repair the north aisle, by strapping or bolting new beams onto old ones, and the new roof to be covered with best tiles. Sounds like the definition of a faded aristocrat – a person who wears a fur coat over rags. But when the north aisle beams were examined, the ends towards the street were found to be decayed so a new roof was ordered, once again by Paty.

For the work to June 1773 Thomas got paid twice. With Hague the mason, he shared £36 for the stonework repaired on the tower and dome – Paty probably did the fine freestone work, Hague the rough work. Paty was also paid £6/6/0 for surveying and supervising the roof repair.

By now it must have been clear that the church was in need of more than piecemeal repairs. On 17 July 1781 a letter was written by Daniel Hague and Robert Gay masons, William Edmonds and John Hopkins carpenters:

“We whose names are hereunder set having at the request of the churchwardens of All Saints viewed and carefully Examined the North and West side walls of All Saints church against the Present New Buildings… and Judge the said walls to be in a ruinous condition and should be immediately taken down to the top of the Present Old Columns standing in the church which support the Organ Loft.

And also having viewed and examin’d the freestone Front of All Saints church against Corn Street from the tower to the New Buildings.. and judge the said Freestone front should be taken down within one foot of the top of the windows and rebuilt in order to repair the roof.”

The fact that no less than 4 experienced builders were consulted underlies the seriousness of the building’s decay. Thomas Paty and several others were also asked their opinion, whereas his opinion alone was usually sufficient. But still the vestry would not allow a rebuild, merely “such repairs and rebuildings as are absolutely needful” so adopted Paty’s plan to add iron bars to help stabilise the roof.

The accounts agreed on 19 September 1783 seem to tell a rather different story. Thomas Paty is given £117 16s which is what he was paid for surveying and building the entire church (minus tower) of St Michael on the Mount only a few years earlier. I can only assume that there was far more work involved here than the records seem to convey. Comparing drawings of the church with and without the Tolzey attached (ie pre and post- repairs) the old nave seems more ornate and it seems the modern version has buttresses added. The two versions of the tower seem similar thought the latter seems plainer. But the ground floor, the old entrance with pillars on either side seems to have been replaced by a rather rustic looking windows. So, given the age of the building, it seems that Paty’s bill was for a rebuild of the tower, and to replace the roof of the nave. The situation is further complicated by the old house which partly encroached on the church having been pulled down during this time, as was the Tolzey itself.

This is where Paty’s role gets really complicated, and what would now be considered a conflict of interest be noted. The vestry had had problems with the Corporation paying compensation when the Exchange was built, and the parish still had a number of waywardens on their books, so the need to keep passages clear of builders work was still present. There is an undated agreement between the Corporation and the vestry, which must predate 1782 when Thomas build 56 & 58 Corn Street. The agreement grants the parish £40 plus a lease on the Exchange Tavern on condition that the vestry took down the Tolzey to create a paved footway which would be kept free of buildings unless the present buildings were extended. The plan for this was surveyed and drawn up by Thomas Paty.

Next, the Corporation ordered the London Coffee House, (one of those above mentioned) to be pulled down and rebuilt ‘with like materials and with an Elevation and front similar to the Post Office, after giving 5 foot 6 inches of ground to widen the street… to be measured and reckoned from the line or place where three freestone pillars lately stood before he cistern… and that such Elevation the fronts shall never afterward be alter’d.”

On 17 December 1783 the vestry decided to pass the responsibility. The owner of the corner house was ordered to pave the 2 foot by 18 foot piece of now empty land before his house, and to pay the vestry for the privilege of paving it and keeping it paved in perpetuity ‘so that his heirs could use it as they think proper’. There’s not a lot you can do with a long narrow strip of paved public street, but it seems the Corporation found a neat way of getting the long redundant Tolzey taken down and the ground it stood on used to widen the increasingly busy Corn Street. All Saints parish seem to have made a bit of money on the deal, as did Paty of course, who worked on both sides.

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