Popular ideas of burial practice are, like so much of our history, framed by the practices and records of the Victorians. A coach with plumed horses, grieving friends and relatives riding to the final, safe resting place in a large municipal, cemetery. But long before such order had been achieved, there was a long and often bitter struggle for the proper disposal of human remains, especially in Bristol whose inner city churchyards had become dangerously crowded by the mid 18th century. A letter printed in Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal on 14 January 1764 is worth quoting at length to show what was happening at the time.
“Enough, and more than enough, has been said by others concerning the Abuses committed in Cemeteries or Burial-Grounds: I do not propose to myself the invidious Task of pointing out Abuses, but the Means of remedying them to shew not what Church-Yards at present too generally are, but what they ought to be.
Church-Yards were set apart in the most early Times as Repositories for the Dead, the Ground itself consecrated, so separated from common Uses, devoted solely to that Purpose, not prostituted to any other. Here I need not mention the Care taken of the Patriarchs Bones and long before the Christian Aera the Shrines of Ancestors were held sacred, and even in the Times of Heathenism,
“To erect a Tomb and to inscribe the Stone,
was the general, prevailing Custom, to perpetuate the Memory of deceased Friend. And such a Veneration paid to the Dead, has an excellent food Effect on the Minds of the Living. In later Times, they carried it so far, as to degenerate into superstition; Vast Treasure was spent on pompous Monuments: Obits and Dirges were celebrated fro the Souls of the Departed; and it can be proved, that many Estates were settled to no other Use than for Prayers to be perpetually said for the Soul of those, buried in churches and church-yards, especially in that of which there have lately been such Disputes.
It must be acknowledged, that it is a Kind of Consolation for the Loss of a dear Friend to erect some Memorial of them, however small and inconsiderable – and I confess, I cannot approach the silent Tomb or Monument of such, without a Kind of religious Awe and Veneration:- And such a Disposition should be early cultivated and indulged, as it would be attended with the good Effect of impressing on the Mind the Instability of human Life, and the certain Transition there will be to another; the Exchange of the “soul’s dark Cottage” here for an “House eternally lasting and immortal – but I forget myself! I preach – I seldom visit a Country Place, but I presently repair to the Church-yard from my Inn,
To muse on the short Memorials of the Dead,
Where one reads a short history of the Inhabitants of the whole Place, viz., “that they lived and that they died” – Their Place, Family, Fortune, in this Life &C. – And if as the Poet sweetly sings,
Ev’n from the Tomb the Voice of Nature cries,
Ev’n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires:One cannot help dropping a pious Tear over the Grave of a Good Man, and paying such a small Tribute to his Memory, while wrapt into such a pleasing Reveree (sic) of Thought and Meditation:
Beneath yon lofty Elms, that Yew Trees shade,
Where heaves the Turf in many a mould’ring Heap,
Each in his narrow Cell for ever laid,
The good forefathers of the Parish sleep;
Yet ev’n those Bones from insult to protect,
Some frail Memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth Rhimes and shapeless Sculpture deck’t,
Implores the passing Tribute of a Sigh:
Their Names, their Years, spelt by the unletter’d Muse,
The Place of Fame and Elegy supply;
And many a holy Text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.
To deface, or to pay no Regard to the Preservation of such Memorials of the Dead, is very wrong and censurable – but which is the best Method of keeping church-yards in Order, and preserving them? It is doubtless the Business of the proper Officer of the church, to which they belong (unless such Office like many others be made Sine-Cure) – to keep the TURF neat, the stones and Monuments clean, not over-grown with Weeds and Nettles, nor suffered to be abused by rude Boys – to prevent Horses and other Animals from passing thro’ ‘em, much more from feeding there, for it is very unfit and unseemly the Repositories of human Remains should be ever made the Pastures or Dormitories of Beasts, which however is often the Case in the Country, for the whole Spot is often covered with the rankest Weeds; and if there be a few Morsels of Herbage uncovered by Weeds, some hungry half starved horse or Ass is turned in to eat it up and trample upon the Graves of the deceased – Care should be taken also not only that the Turf, in the whole Place be kept neat, and the Grass low, but also each fresh grave should be turfed – and as I have seen in the Country, twigged across to keep it on and secure it there; unless where a flat Stone be put down on the grave – and there the Grass or Weeds should not be suffered to grow and propagate to hide the Inscription – The BORDER-STONES of each Grave should be well fastened if loose; and the Tombs of Families extinct might be allowed to others, provided they keep them in Repair, not erasing the Names of the old Family, but rather cutting them afresh, and adding those of their own, as they bury – the Bones thrown up in digging Graves should be decently put aside together, and when the fresh Corps is laid in, should be buried again with it, not be kicking about as usual, and some left above Ground, not put into Skull Houses or the like, the Mother Earth being the proper Receptacle for human Relicks – The Inscriptions should be carefully preserved and held sacred.
By these and a few other such Regulations made, filling our Churches with dead Bodies would be less in Request, and no one but would approve of the Churchyard as well, which would thus become a pleasant Spot, a WALK amusing, instructive and inviting to the seriously disposed, would rather grace than deform the Fronts of the House, that look into them;: In short, after all, the Whole is no more than a Duty we owe the Dead there deposited – VERAX”
This letter is clearly from a man of education and leisure, but was printed when the city’s graveyards were struggling to deal with the soaring numbers of people living and dying in the inner city, and pressure was mounting to ban the burials within the churches on health grounds. It seems to have been triggered by a scandal arising from alterations being made to the churchyard of St Mary Redcliffe. The previous year a licence had been applied for to take down the churchyard cross described as “a very beautiful and artistic worked preaching cross”.
Until the end of the 17th century, the life of the church centred round it. Its removal followed improvements to the church, when the massive Hogarth triptych was commissioned, the churchyard lowered, its paths re-layed and walls and steps repaired. All of which sounds like a worthwhile exercise. The problem arose from allegations that the churchwarden, responsible for the fabric of the church, was carrying away the earth to make bricks. Given the high content of organic matter, it would make more sense to have used the earth for fertiliser, but in December Felix Farley’s Journal responded with
An EPIGRAM on seeing Part of a Churchyard hall’d away to make Bricks
When Ovid wrote in Days of Yore
The Feasts of JOVE the Conjurer
Strange Things he told; how Flesh and Bones
Would at his Nod turn into Stones,
Though Conjurors are out of Fashion
In this and every Christian Nation,
Yet Cunning J*e can ape his tricks
And Flesh and Bones turn into Bricks
The following week’s paper replied:
Innocent J*e Reply to the Charge of Cunning
And Conjuring in the Brick-making Epigram
Avaunt, Ill-Nature, Malice, Spite
I act above Board, walk in White
Envy itself defy, to find
The least foul Speck, in my fair Mind
My Deeds, in Profit’s Scales are weigh’d;
And Bricks, are Bricks, however made
A week later, yet more argumentative poetry
I’ve let my ard, and sold my clay
And he, that likes to burn it, may
A Lease granted, and Possession taken
Come, buy my Bricks,
My Arts, my Tricks,
For since I sold my Clay,
Death’s fatal Summons
Chills my Bones
And I must soon obey.
I’ve prey’d on all,
Both Great and Small,
Never pity’d Mother’s Son;
I’ve pinch’d the Poor,
To swell my Store,
But those Days are gone.
I’ve fill’d my Purse,
Oh, what a Curse!
Who, for the Lease, did call!
Haste, quick, restore,
Feed, cloath the Poor,
For ‘tis the Devil, and all.
Even in today’s cynical, secular world when cremation is far more the norm, it is not hard to see what all the fuss was about – bricks are not just bricks if they are made of ones departed friends and relatives. And there is something distinctly unpleasant about an officer of the church making money out of his fellows in this way.
Most people still believed then – sometimes passionately – in the Day of Judgement and Resurrection, and it mattered that their bones were kept entire in anticipation of it. One element of capital punishment was that the criminal would be handed to the surgeons to be dissected, so denying him a chance to enter heaven for eternal life. In London there were sometimes riots at executions when relatives and friends tried to rescue the body.
Gravediggers were generally seen as the lowest of the low, but St Mary’s seems to be rather exceptional – rumoured this was written by Chatterton.
“Being old and having enjoyed my Place many a long Year, I have buried or rather dug the Graves fro one Half of our Parish, and could tell to an inch, where and how their Bodies lie, and are ranged under ground – and by this my Skill am always consulted by my Master, the Sexton, where such and such a Family are interred, and have never failed of giving great Satisfaction in the Discharge of my Office – But alas! I am like to be robbed, at once, of all my Knowledge, procured at the Expense of so man Years close Study and Application to Business: for you must know, my HEAD MASTER, a great Projector, has taken it into his Head to level the Church-yard, and by digging and throwing about his Clay there, and defacing the stones, makes such Confusion among the Dead, and will so puzzle me, if he goes on, that no Man living will be able to find where to lay them properly, and then he may dig the Graves himself, for I foresee, I shall get the ill-will of the Parish about it: For even the Poor love to bury with their Kindred; And all’s but right that they should. I should be glad therefore to know the Sense of the Public, whether any Body has a just Right, or needful Call to dig in the Churchyard, besides.
FULLFORD, the Gravedigger
P.S. As I intend dropping the Business o Grave-digger, now rendered so very troublesome, I propose renting my old Spot of Ground in the church-yard, when the Green Turf is all removed, and, for Decency’s Sake, will prevent the naked Appearance of it, by planting Potatoes, raising some fine Beds of Onions &c. as the Mould is fat and good – And I see no Reason why I may not get a profitable Job out of the church, as well as my GREAT MASTER – as I find that’s the Game nowadays – the Decency, Convenience of the like be the Pretence.”
Also removed was a conduit head and housing, and a building nesting against the south west corner of the church. Originally the Chapel of the Holy Ghost, post Reformation this became Queen Elizabeth’s Free Grammar School. The school moved to the church’s lady chapel. In April during demolition, a thick-walled freestone coffin containing a full skeleton w found with carving on the lid of a man in prayer.
The following year the reason for all these improvements becomes clear – void ground in the churchyard was laid out for some fine new houses, one including a Great Room with fine plasterwork ceiling of Colston’s Arms, for meetings of the vestry. It was initially rented to the Sexton on condition the room was available when required for meetings and dinners.
All this suggests the parish was well supplied with burial space, so it comes as a great surprise to find the churchwardens in 1780 looking for ‘a proper piece of ground to be converted to a churchyard, the present being much too small for the use of the parish, part thereof being wanted for the use of a way lately made for the accommodation of houses on Colston Parade. The new road had a locked gate at either end, so this was a very early gated community. The rent from the houses generated an important source of income for a church which was, like all the others in the area, falling into decay. But there is something distinctly unpleasant about this forcing parishioners to be buried elsewhere in order to accommodate wealthy carriages.
In 1790 as the Sunday School Movement to educate and control unruly children on Sundays was struggling to find support in Bristol, St Mary’s had its share of problems. Churchwardens were to ‘employ a constable to keep the churchyard free of boys and idle persons on Sunday.’ He was to be supplied with a hat, great coat and staff and was paid 2/6 per day.
Totally unconnected, but worthy of note: “it is agreed that the Ringers be discontinued ringing at this church until they have made a Public Apology for their ill behaviour to the duke of York upon his last visit to the city’ 29 March 1796. Sounds like the constable should have been on patrol inside the church as well.
As the American chanteuse and social historian Cher so aptly noted in her musical discourse “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”, people who travel tend to be distrusted by those who don’t. Musicians, acrobats, magicians, travelling players, were all seen as criminals until recent times.
But it was not just the players who were shunned; they attracted the wrong sort as their audience. In 1597 London’s mayor and aldermen objected to several playhouses on the grounds that “They give opportunity to the refuse sort of evil disposed and ungodly people that are within and about this city to assemble themselves… They are the ordinary places for vagrant persons, masterless men, thieves, horse-stealers, whoremongers, cozeners, coney-catchers, contrivers of treason and other idle and dangerous persons to meet together.”
Elizabethan England had draconian laws for vagrants, so players needed protection of nobles in order to survive. But the civil war closed theatres in 1642. When the country had had its fill of whitewashing walls, breaking church windows and defacing statues, theatres reopened with the Restoration of 1660. Plays were generally performed as part of major annual events, such as fairs and assizes, which attracted criminals and pickpockets so the reputation of players was always low. In time a provincial circuit began to develop. From 1704 Bristol developed some non-fair venues, the first being John Power’s Company that year. But as the theatre recovered, so did the Puritan opposition to it increase, so for each of his 3 years, each at a different venue, he suffered attacks.
In 1727 Thomas Cox claimed of the city “It is very populous, but the People give up themselves to trade so entirely, that nothing of the Politeness and Gaiety of Bath is to be seen here.” That is because Bristol was very much a working city; the aristocrats were to be found, if anywhere, at the nearby Hotwell Spa, so the first permanent theatre in the region was at Jacobs Wells, midway between the two. It was opened by John Hippisley, the original Peachum in ‘the Beggar’s Opera’ and its programming and resources were equal to London, though the venue was described as a barn or hut.
But theatres were still banned from towns and cities, so the Licensing Act of 1737 attempted to sort out the problem of theatre troupes who were no longer supported by wealthy benefactors. It gave local authorities the power to close theatres, but where companies were well established, this proved unpopular, so was rarely invoked. It was possible to get round the law by advertising programmes which included music or claimed to be educational or morally uplifting, rather than mere entertainments.
London tended to set standards and fashions, so Bristol looked there for an appropriate design. As Summerson states: “The Theatres of Georgian London defy all attempts at chronological grouping. The same theatre would have to make several appearances, [within this book] each time with a different architect, and perhaps for no more significant reason than that its predecessor had just been burnt down. Moreover, theatre-design is a rather special branch of architecture, and the main points about the subject can best be made in a comparative review. As no Georgian theatre interiors survive in London, the interest of he subject is somewhat limited
At the beginning of the 18th century, Wren’s Drury Lane stood much as he had left it. Its ample apron stage projected into an auditorium decorated on either side with giant Corinthian pilasters. At the back were three curved tiers of seats, supported on small Doric columns, in this respect slightly resembling the famous late 18th century Theatre Royal at Bristol.”
Jacobs Wells theatre was outside the city, so never under threat, but by the 1760s was increasingly excluding patrons due to lack of space, and often printed apologies in the papers to this effect. The theatre flourished, playgoing was increasingly accepted along with many other public entertainments, and as the city of Bristol continued to expand, and become more affluent, there were increasing calls for a larger, more convenient theatre, especially from the residents of Queen Square. The scheme began when a group was formed to purchase a house on King St with a garden to the rear, and ground behind the adjoining Coopers’ Hall.
The proprietors set off to London to survey and measure playhouses there. They engaged the services of ‘a very ingenious carpenter’, of Mr Saunders and here they show their hands as true Bristol merchants : “They have collected such Prints as they flatter themselves will be a means of Saving some hundreds in Building the intended house.” Despite this apparent copying of existing buildings, and the city’s notorious conservativism, Bristol’s theatre appears to have been unusual, if not unique at the time. Sumerson again: “Vanbrugh’s Haymarket had a dome supported on a Corinthian order and was acoustically deplorable. It was much altered, then finally burnt in 1789 when it was rebuilt by a Polish architect, Novosielsky, whose auditorium introduced the horse-shoe shape.
Novosielsky’s theatre was probably the first in England to take advantage of the originality displayed in the grand Theatre at Bordeuax, a classic of theatre design completed in 1780. London theatres before that date – for instance, Adam’s exquisite recasting of Drury Lane for Garrick in 1775 – were mostly rectangular. Bristol (1764-66) is supposed to have been the first English theatre to copy the normal French semicircular end. The Haymarket opera house went a step further in borrowing the horseshoe from Bordeaux. the horse-shoe remained the standard shape for large London theatres; it lent itself to the introduction of a circular or domed ceiling, with 2 spandrils at the proscenium end, and could be considerably elongated without losing the obvious advantages of the shape.
The Bath Chronicle of 13 Sep 1764 announced “We hear a new Theatre is intended to be erected in Baldwin-street and that the Leases are now preparing.” This was followed by Felix Farley’s Journal of 24 November 1764, which reported “The Workmen are now employ’d in order to lay the Foundation of the New Theatre, in King-Street, which would have been done before this time, had not a Mistake been made in the Calculation, whereby the House would have been built 8 feet larger in the Clear, than the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. A Model of that House has been sent for, and the Proprietors seem determined that the Work shall be carried on with great Spirit.”
So, the clever cost-cutting proprietors weren’t so clever at all.
The architect – or rather clerk of works – on this project was one of the Paty family, but which one depends on who you read. Ison and Pevsner claimed it was James, but Kathleen Barker, using the Theatre Royal’s Proprietors’ Minute and Account Books claims it was Thomas, “probably the best-known local architect of the time.”
On 30 November 1764 Felix Farley announced the foundation stone had been laid the day before, and the theatre should be open for the summer season. In April 1765 the work was inspected by David Garrick, the most famous actor of his day, and declared it to be the most complete theatre in Europe. This shows how much Bristol had changed in a few decades, that there was now sufficient money to promote this scheme and belief that such a cultural venue was viable. It was built by Thomas Paty, Gilbert Davis house carpenter, William Foote mason and the interior painted by Michael Edkins whose CV was almost as varied as that of the Paty family.
The building was 120 foot by 50 foot, its outer walls of thick rubble stone, so they were aware of the risks of fire in a crowded, candle-lit space full of smokers. Most of the interior was of wood, but what survives now is a mixture of the original design and several poorly documented alterations. Edkins original account was for pea green painting with ornamental work in silver and white, a colour scheme which has now been restored. The scenery was painted by John Freke of Drury Lane.
The cost was intended to be covered by the issue of £2000 worth of shares but by spring 1767 about £3,500 had already been paid out which by 1769 had reached £5,000. It opened on 30 May 1766 with a benefit for the Infirmary. It included a doggerel prologue and epilogue by David Garrick who had been impressed by his visit to the site a month earlier. The company was similar to that which had played Jacobs Wells the previous summer, but the theatre still faced opposition, so to avoid the rogues and vagabonds act, they billed “A Concert of Music and a Specimen of Rhetoric.” Opposition continued, especially from Quakers, though some of the founders were members of the society of Friends.
On 21 June Felix Farley gleefully declared:
“Newgate enlarge”… Yes, Quick extend its walls;
a large Play-house loudly for it calls.”
Despite the delays and over run in cost, the Theatre was built too fast for some, as the other Thomas Paty project at the time, St Nicholas’ church, was struggling to be completed, but this was a complete new build rather than complicated rebuild. Felix Farley again “what a melancholy Prospect it must offer to every considerate Mind, to observe with what Facility Buildings of this Kind are erected, and at the same Time the difficulty with which those set apart for religious Services are carried on.” This reference to the delays in rebuilding St Nicholas church ignores the problems that had beset this project, and its link with the bridge (see relevant article) but also the fact that merchants were probably paying more than the struggling church could afford, so the work was done faster.
The theatre obtained a licence in 1773 which allowed it to become the Theatre Royal, but even at this late date was opposition to it. A petition against it with 405 signatures was sent to London for the MPs to present, but the application arrived several days earlier, putting local MPs in the difficult position of having to support 2 opposing groups.
The first lease was to actor/manager Wiliam Powell, a patentee of Covent Garden and regarded by some as a successor to Garrick. But he died 3 July 1769, aged only 33. He fell ill with pneumonia, and lingered for several days in his house adjoining the theatre. Straw was strewn on the cobblestones outside to dampen noise . A benefit was held for his family on 14 July, which overflowed the theatre. His monument in the Cathedral is one of its largest and finest, which shows how important he and the theatre had become to the city.
In 1779 John Palmer, manger of the Bath Theatre took on a 20 year lease in which he undertook to make significant improvements, including a 2nd tier of boxes in the dress circle and the addition of a tea house, possibly to avoid drunkenness. It was reopened October 1779 but under the management of Dimond & Kesbury. The two theatres were run as repertory companies, with the same actors playing different roles, rather than the previous star dominated programmes. They were run back to back, which involved constant commutes between the two venues of staff, costumes and scenery in huge wide wheeled coaches.
John Palmer also travelled widely in search of talent, especially to London, so was painfully aware of the dire state of road travel, of its unreliability and the dangers of attack from highwaymen. This inspired him to present a submission to the government in 1783 proposing the establishment of armed high speed coaches which adhered to regular timetables, so he was responsible for establishing the Royal Mail. Mail at that time took 30-40 hours from Bristol to London; his improvements reduced this to 16. His scheme was later copied by Wells Fargo in the United States and Cobb & Co in Australia.
There was no proper frontage to King St, alleged by many to counter religious opposition, but it may reflect the difficulty in obtaining such a large plot, with street frontages being far more in demand and more expensive. Most people still lived above their businesses, and the plot for the theatre was fronted by 2 houses, which were to accommodate the theatre manager, so a careful watch could be kept on the premises to protect against theft and in particular, fire.
These were demolished in 1904. The earliest known picture of the King St frontage is from abut 1805, which shows the adaptations to allow access to the theatre, including a portico.
A surprising amount of the original interior survives, despite the many refits and alterations. The sunken pit survives as stalls, the original boxes had entrances which can still be seen at the back of the horseshoe stalls. The auditorium is still semicircular rather than the elipse that was the norm at the time. Towards the end of the 18th century the gallery was added and the decorated ceiling raised to accommodate it. Pevsner describes it as “internally a delight to the eye and in addition a most valuable document of English theatrical history.”
A proper entrance to King St was not provided until the 1972 conversion by Peter Moro which involved the gutting the adjoining Coopers’ – or Hoopers’ – Hall. Which was built on King St by William Halfpenny when the previous one was demolished for the Exchange. It had a guild hall on the 1st floor ands storage on the ground and basement, but guilds were in decline, so the Hoopers’ hall was rented out for entertainments, auctions, and lectures. In November 1772 an attempt was made by a group of comedians to stage a winter season here – advertised initially as musical events, but gradually noting the inclusion of plays, much to the aggravation of existing illegal venues.
In January the vagrants and vagabonds act was invoked, and 4 of the principal performers fined a massive £50 each. The following winter they returned, but they were unable to attend their own benefits, and though promising to reopen after Christmas, they never did. The benefits did happen, and produced possibly one of the strangest performances ever, with an Eskimo chief and his wife playing the leads in Macbeth.
The Theatre Royal went into decline as wealthy patrons emigrated from the city centre, which was accellerated by the 1831 riots. The area around King Street filled with warehouses; and the Princes’ Theatre on Park Row became the popular venue. King Street was eventually closed and the coopers’ Hall used as a warehouse. The theatre was used by the Arts Council and the DSO during the war, who recognised its historic and cultural value. When they moved down the road to number 6, their architect became interested in its conservation.
The corporation, in a rare moment of enlightenment, declared King Street as a Museum Street, advertised as such on GWR posters. Soon after, a campaign was started to save the theatre, and now in 2008 after years of neglect, it is again in need of rescue.
The story of the theatre’s endlessly see –sawing fortunes, is linked with the state of the area in which it exists, but today faces more competition for entertainment money than ever with soaring maintenance costs. The cozeners and coney-catchers are nowhere to be seen, though the masterless men are still in evidence. Most of the pulpits from which condemnation once rained down on the theatre are now empty, either bombed by the Luftwaffe or struggling to survive.
But the importance of Bristol’s theatre is immense. Whilst the theatres it was based on have long since burnt down, only here can we come close to the real sense of what 18th century theatre must have been like, thankfully without the smells, noise, and smoke and fire risks. Today, the theatre architecture of Georgian London is irrecoverable except through prints and drawings. ..the enchantment of the older theatres is completely lost. And what is, perhaps, worse is that no theatre architect of the present time has given us an auditorium which rises above the meanest mediocrity [Sumerson p 242] With so much of Georgian Bristol lost, in a city known for its passion for money making and disinterest in the arts, it is more than miraculous that this most frivolous structure is the one to survive.
“A verdant walk and cooling zephyr bless
Th’ enchanting region of they sweet recess
The owner’s mansion on a gentle rise
Appears a palace to the admiring eyes”
This is how Somerset poet Thorne described Redland Court when newly completed in July 1735. It was built by London grocer John Cossins and his Bristol born wife for their retirement, and included mahogany doors, perhaps some of the earliest in the country. They soon began building a chapel to serve them and their neighbours in what was then miles from the nearest parish church at Westbury on Trym.
Many authors have been confused as to the architect, with John Wood attributing it to John Strahan, who often worked in Bath. His church at Babington [rd reid] another privately built rural chapel, is similar in style. After building the manor he was probably designing the church but he died, so the plans were drawn up and bills show the work was carried out by William Halfpenny.
Baroque was very short lived style in England, and is very rare in the West Country. Redland’s dome and setting is reminiscent of the pretty church at Wooley just north of Bath, designed by Wood. The style was popular in the early decades of the century, with many such examples in south London, but this was before the west began to attend to their churches, by which time Gothic was in fashion. Antiquarian and vicar Dr H J Wilkins described Redland as a miniature St Pauls where the Cossins were married and in whose shadow they spent much of their lives, but it is far less ornate, owing more to the spare lines of Burlington than the rich ornamentation of Wren. T he building cost a mere £850.
The foundation stone was laid on 1 July 1740 and Divine Service first held on 5 October 1743. Parish records show how isolated it was by the huge number of children baptised from November 1755, many of whom were described as ‘foreigners’, ie from outside the area. Bristol was a major destination for people either forced out of their homes by changes in agriculture or in search of better wages; the surrounding parishes had also seen large influxes of people at this time. After the mass baptisms, there was a lesser wave of women having ‘churchings’ ie services of thanksgiving for surviving giving birth.
Georgian Bristol always seemed to have a poet to record events, some of which is a useful aid to research, even if it can be toe-curlingly bad. It was inevitable that a fine new church on the outskirts of the city would inspire some rhyme. This is from an anonymous lady:
”the pious off’ring soars above the skies
So neat a fabrick – so well design’d
Makes all admire the worthy donor’s mind
Beauty and holiness so bright appear
God doubtless will vouchsafe t’ inhabit here”
Typical of the age, and of great irritation to modern researchers, the patron was worthy of mention but the architect was not. John Cossins was a man of great wealth, and like the local merchant prince Colston, he had been a governor of Christchurch Hospital in London and in his will left money to St Bartholomew’s, Bedlam and the Bristol Infirmary. But he seemed to avoid any involvement in parish government, preferring his role of lord of the manor that he spared no expense on building the church, and arranged money for its upkeep, an ongoing project for many years. What he was less thorough about was the legal side of the affair.
An Act of parliament was to be taken out to turn it into a parish church, ie to put it into the care of the Church of England. But it was not consecrated till 1790 having been closed from 1781 whilst the mater was debated. This again raises the question of how Christian were the Cossins, as they and several generations of their neighbours were not buried in consecrated ground.
Ison claims the chapel was built by Richard Williams house carpenter excluding the furnishings and interior finishing. The interiors were the work of Thomas Paty, his contributions extending over many years, so he must have impressed the Cousins. He furnished the chapel with ‘ornament’ and what he did is worth close inspection.
There is very little that can be actually called Christian in his designs. It feels more like a drawing room than a place of worship. But it was so well done that nobody seems to have noticed the complete absence of a cross, which has only recently been corrected. The chapel is based on the design of a pagan temple, and it is unusual in not having been named after a saint.
On the rear of the building are a pair of Moor’s heads of unknown significance. The painting of the eye of Osiris had lead some to suggest Cossins was a practicing mason, which might explain his strange choices. But it might just as easily have been the attitude of the wealthy at the time, as noted some years later by the traveller Hon John Byng that religion was useful to control the masses but of little relevance to the educated classes.
The cherub heads on the wall panelling are interesting in that they actually look like children, with large foreheads, and have an individuality that suggests some if not all were drawn from life. This style of showing cherubs with wings beneath them was how souls were depicted in heaven; the essence of angel nature suited the Georgian revulsion at dealing with messy bodily functions. But it is rare for them to so dominate a church.
The wood carving in the chancel is also by Thomas, a thoroughly secular piece of work, shows still life of birds, grapes, wheat, leaves and flowers. It is claimed by many to be the equal of the master carver Grinling Gibbons who was chief ornamental carver on St Pauls and other post fire London churches, so his work must have been known to the Cossins. Pevsner, not usually a fan of the Patys, notes it “need not be afraid of comparison with the best in London churches” But Gibbons had died several decades earlier, so this was by then a very old fashioned style.
In October 1755 the tiny ornate font was delivered. “It was designed and made by Mr Thomas Pty of Bristol who is generally esteemed one of the best carvers in England either in wood or stone by whom all the rest of the ornaments in the chapel was designed and carved.” So Paty’s reputation was high from the moment he arrived in the area. In June 1757 Paty delivered an “eagle on a pedestal for supporting a common prayerbook” This is now the base of the communion table.
In 1759 Paty showed his diversity when “All the carved work of the chapel was thoroughly cleaned and repaired under the direction of Mr Thomas Paty.” Later that year the picture over the communion table was cleaned by local painter John Simmons with whom Paty often worked. There is no record of who erected the gallery, but in 1759 the seats in the gallery were erected, indicating the popularity of the church. In March 1761 “The eagle over the font in the chapel” by Thomas was delivered.
But later that year near disaster struck. Lightning strikes are today a rare event, but local papers often reported people and animals being killed or flung great distances by the force, church spires being shattered to pieces, lead and other metals melting from the heat. In June the chapel was greatly damaged and Thomas Paty, this time acting with Robert Comfort the mason, and a carpenter and plumber were called on to repair the damage. The lead alone cost £18/15 and the woodwork was strengthened.
As well as being rich, Cossins was man or culture; his and his wife’s portraits were painted by John Vanderbank who also painted the copy of the embalming of Christ by Annibale Caracci which hangs above the communion table.
John Cossins died on 19 April 1759 aged 77; Martha followed him on 11 February 1762. Their busts, wearing French style informal clothes were carved in 1734 by Dutchman Michael Rysbrack one of the finest sculptors of his age.
The busts were kept in Redland Court for their remaining years. This is a rare instance of memorial sculpture being put on domestic display, or perhaps the other way round. Thomas Paty carved the memorial tablet which was erected over the door of the vestry several weeks later.
The Cossinses also provided revenue for the chapel. On 4 march 1758 “a close of ground called Old Orchard was this day measured and planned out by Mr James Bridges of Bristol Architect for building two houses with offices etc as a further augmentation of the income of the chapel.”
The agreement included the names of the 2 carpenters and as with Paty at Redland Court, this may have been Mr Bridges’ first commission in the city, before designing several churches, the bridge and Arnos Manor estate, reminding us of the role Cossins played as patrons of the arts in the city. Ison claimed this to have been Redland Hill House, one of which survives as the Steiner School. But a paper by Evans disputes this. Redland Hill House was built in 1767/8, long after Bridges had left the city. The houses were on Redland Pde which were tented out for a substantial £40 per annum for many years but demolished in the late 19th century to the north of Parsonage, at 157 Redland Rd
Most grand houses with adjoining church were built as a base for future generations of the family. But since the Cossins had no children, the chapel is something else entirely. It is the sole memorial the Cossins left in the hope of being remembered by future generations., harking back to the medieval chantries where money was left for prayers to be said for the departed, often in a purpose built chapel. The choice of The Embalming of Christ seems a thoroughly mournful choice to hang in such a well lit, fashionable church, and the numerous depictions of souls further adds to the impression of this being a chapel of mourning. When it opened there were no statues, no stained glass, the walls plain whitewash Not so much a church, a grand family mausoleum.
In 1746 Christ Church “the said parish was a populous place and the ancient churchyard so very small and full of Corpses that there was not room for he inhabitants to bring in their dead. So was consecrated a new churchyard in Duck Lane.”
In June that year Thomas Paty submitted an invoice for building a pair of freestone piers costing £6/3/0 for the new graveyard, which must have been for the gates to protect from bodysnatchers. This was Paty’s first work for Christ Church; in fact it may be the first he did in the city.
But this yard soon filled, so the old churchyard was reopened, with the earth and graves piling up even higher. The mason William Daniel asked for a report on “whether it is possible to lower the same or not” and on his advice, the Bishop granted a licence to remove earth, mold and of course bodies and stones to the Duck Lane yard, an action described as a “laudable an undertaking”, though there was no suggestion as to how space could be decently found there either.
An invoice from Richard Rogers in 1764 was for “taking up the boans out of the skull house and putting into the Vault” for which he charged 4 shillings.
Contracts were issued the following year to “dig and carry away the earth” Submissions from contractors suggest they were barely literate.
There is another invoice which is a gem in its own right, and which helps to explain how the amazing Mr Viner sorted out the conundrum of what to do with the contents of the churchyard.
The note is titled, “To Diging a Hole in St Philips Church Yard to Bury the Bones and Leveling the Dirt.” On 5 November, 3 men were given 9/2d each for 5 days digging, so it must have been quite a hole. Then 12 men spent 2 nights taking the bones and burying them, so it seems lessons were learnt from the outcry against public exhumations at St Mary Redcliffe and probably in this parish also. Thirteen loads of bones were hauled away, the 6 loads of coffin boards. Four new baskets were bought to carry the bones in, the more removals.
The problems with the overflowing graveyard also tells us much of the state of those living in the inner city at the time. The medieval graveyard had for centuries been sufficient for the parish population. But from the 1750s we see the graveyard filling every 20 years, indicating not just a massive increase in population, but also of deaths in the parish. One observer noted how the poor living in the Pithay up against the wall of the churchyard lived within feet of their decaying relatives and drank water from nearby wells which must have been contaminated by the dead. As well as mourning the recently departed, they lived in constant fear of them.
At the start of the 18th century Clifton was far from the affluent suburb as we know it; the area was still largely rural, a notorious haunt for footpads, with a parish church allegedly built in the time of Henry II.
With the opening up of the Hotwells, boarding houses sprang up along the river and some also crept up onto the heights of Clifton. But it was the wealthy merchants of the 1740s who were the main presence there. Thomas Goldney designed his house and garden, and Isaac Ware planned Paul Fisher’s Clifton Hill House, both now university halls of residence. Being to the west of the city, the area had the healthiest air, not just from the height above the city, but as the prevailing winds tend to be from the west. In the 1750s it was alleged that the area was still so underpopulated it was impossible to get a card game organised between the neighbours.
But as with every other parish at the time there was little money or knowledge of church building and repairs. It was then described as “a rustic West of England Chapel, with narrow windows and low sloping roof”[jas-bio p 38] No written documents survive prior to 1723 when the north aisle was erected, to which Edward Colston contributed £50. The only sculptured ornament in the church were the arms of Elizabeth I
The Hotwells was serviced by the small outpost of St Augustine the Less, Dowry Chapel, so there was need for more accommodation, but most of he demand came from visitors who were unlikely to subscribe to the church.
In autumn 1767 work began on the church. Farley reports a year later that Clifton church had been rebuilt, its capacity doubled, but the Red Book of Bristol states only the south aisle was rebuilt, agreeing about the expanded seating. Early 19th century drawings seem to show a very old fashioned looking church with a large box-like extension, which seems as big as the rest of the nave, and gothic porch attached, which seems to fit with the south aisle, and that the building cost £419, a fraction of the cost of anew church. But they had trouble raising even this, having to resort to selling pews, up to 15 people at 25 guineas each to Goldney, Elton, and Hobhouse. Given that several of these were Quakers, it is unclear whether they made any use of this.
It is not surprising that no mention was ever made of the designer or builder, and this structure was lost by the mid 19th century replacement, though it was facing the green.
In 1787 B Hill published a map of Clifton and the Hotwells which shows the area still comprised 2 settlements separated by the empty space of the steep hill, the connections between them being via footpaths. But it was here more than anywhere else in the city that the dominance of the Paty family can most strikingly be noticed. In 1768 Jones published his poem ‘Clifton’ in 2 painfully rambling and largely Clifton-free cantos and is one of the few sightings of Thomas Paty in print. Whilst it is unclear exactly what buildings he describes, he is correct in noting the man’s dominance in the area.
“These domes discretion decks, and fancy cheers
PALLADIO’S Stile in PATTY’S Plans appears:
Himself a master with the first to stand
For Clifton owes her beauties to his hand.”
Thomas Paty was mason and ornamental carver on the immensely influential but now largely overlooked Clifton Hill House, an impressive classical pile that raised standards in the early part of he century. He also helped out with Goldney with tiling in his grotto. Beside Clifton Church are 2 houses now 1(prospect House) and the much altered 2 Clifton Hill. They were built for the first of a dynasty of Town clerks called Samuel Worral, who lived in the first and rented out the other. Further along in what is now Clifton Village was a grand trio of palatial townhouses, Boyce’s Buildings, now reduced to a pair, built by Thomas as speculative housing for visitors to the Hotwells, rumoured to have been in anticipation of the king’s visitation which never happened.
Further along what is now Regent St , on the left is Rodney Place which may have been by Thomas Paty, then on the corner of a footpath leading to what is now the Suspension Bridge, is a right angled building, Beaufort Buildings, which may also have been by him. Near Christ Church is Manilla Road, a reminder of the grand Manilla Hall, built by unknown hand but possibly Paty again, for General Sir William Draper. He may have been responsible for early tree plantings on The Downs. He was locally born, and a highly successful commander in a number of now largely forgotten wars in the late 18th century including India and the taking of Manilla from the Spanish.
He built an obelisk on the forecourt of his mansion, and a mausoleum to the various battles he fought. When the mansion was eventually sold to a French Catholic Sisterhood, they wanted them removed; they were rescued and placed on Clifton Down, possibly this country’s first ever war memorial.
This blog is a series of essays on Bristol’s Georgian architecture. Much of the information cannot be found anywhere else.
Even if you have no idea where Bristol England is, or any interest in 18th century architecture, you may find it interesting to see how things happened back then.