Behind an un-prepossessing lean-to, now housing a bin store, at 97 Redcliff Street is a surviving fragment of medieval arcade belonging to a wealthy merchant’s house. Most passers-by could be forgiven for not noticing this rare survival of medieval walling in the City, heavily disguised as it is. Moreover, they could easily miss another section of wall to the rear of the same plot, where further medieval fabric, albeit much altered, can be seen from Redcliff Backs. These walls are believed to belong to the great house of the Canynges family, who dominated the political and economic life of Bristol in the 14th and 15th century, and were major benefactors of St Mary Redcliffe church. The younger William Canynges (1402-1474) was mayor of Bristol five times, and is reputed to have entertained the first Yorkist king, Edward IV, at his great house in 1461.
The house stood until 1937, when much of it was demolished, and various antiquarian records record the former ornateness of it in some detail, including photographs and drawings. The hall was richly decorated, and had a stunning carved four-bay, arch-braced roof springing from corbels shaped in the form of angels. Drawings of 19th-century date show a gallery along the south side of the hall, and an altar and religious scenes painted on the walls, suggesting use as a chapel. Set further back from the street, a possible parlour room had a fine late 15th or 16th-century pavement, which was removed in 1913, and displayed in the British Museum. A long through-passage connected the rooms of the house, and courtyards, possibly separated by ranges comprising kitchens, extended back (west) from Redcliff Street. At the extreme western end of the plot, near to the 15th-century riverfront, was reputed to be Canynge’s Tower, described by William Worcestre in around 1480 as a ‘very beautiful building’ with four bay-windows, and measuring 18.3m x 13.7m (60ft x 48ft). This may well be the structure still visible from Redcliff Backs.
Remarkably, not only do we have the survival of parts of this building above ground, but also archaeological evidence for what preceded it, in the form of excavations undertaken between 1983-85 by archaeologists of the City Museum and Art Gallery. One of a number of hugely important archaeological excavations along the riverward side of Redcliff Street in the 1980s, this revealed a succession of earlier river frontage structures sealed several metres beneath Nos 95-97. These included wicker fences, harbourside buildings and stone slipways of 12th to 13th-century date close to the existing Redcliff Street frontage, and evidence for extensive land-reclamation from the former river channel.
Later medieval docks and quaysides extended towards Canynge’s Tower and the line of the 15th-century waterfront, which runs approximately along the modern-day line Redcliff Backs. In all, some 50m of land was reclaimed from the river between about 1200 and 1450. Timbers, and well-preserved organic remains from these excavations have enormous potential to tell us about diet, industry, economy and trade from the suburb in the medieval period, and it is hoped the publication of the Archaeological Assessment will give new impetus to the publication of the group of Redcliff Street waterfront sites excavated in the 1980s.
References: Bristol Know Your Place website; Jones, R. H. 1986 ‘Excavations In Redcliff 1983-5: Survey and Excavation at 95-97 Redcliff Street, Bristol, an Interim Report’. Published by City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
The brick cones once synonymous with the glass industry that thrived in Bristol from the late 17th century have now all but disappeared. In fact, this example from Prewett Street, near St Mary Redcliffe Church, represents the only remnant of the historic industry that survives above ground, and yet extraordinarily is the site which we know least about. Now a restaurant, attached to a hotel, by 1812 it was used as part of H and T Proctor's fertilizer factory. However, its origins, ownership, and what types of glass were made here are not known. The cone structure itself, which first appears on a map of 1780, was reduced to the tops of the annealing arches in its conversion to a restaurant in the 1960s - the form which you can see it in now.
Numerous factors brought the glass industry to Bristol in the 17th century, including the ready availability of coal to fire the furnaces, raw materials such as sand, limestone, red lead and kelp either locally sourced or imported (the latter already coming in from Ireland for soap making), and the strong established trade links from the port. Trade in glass bottles and window glass was established before the end of the 17th century with New England, Virginia, Portugal, Spain and northern Europe. The importation of sugar, on which Bristol came to depend, led to a growth in liquor distilling and this, together with existing trades in wine and locally produced beers and ciders, provided ready markets for glass bottle manufacturers. The deepening and widening of the River Avon to make it navigable to Bath by 1727 also stimulated further interest in glass making in Bristol, enabling the manufacturers to supply bottles, drinking vessels and window glass safely to ready markets in Bath. By the 1720s there were at least twelve glasshouses in the City, and before the end of the century at least sixteen had been established. However, the impact of wars with France and America, and the eventual declaration of independence by the latter, saw the Bristol glass industry contract to about a quarter of its previous size by the end of the century, and the consolidation of much of it by Jacob Wilcox Ricketts, who brought together a number of the Bristol glasshouses and continued manufacturing glass into the 19th century. In this context, the reasons for the demise of the Prewett Street site for glassmaking by 1812 seem clear, and make its survival all the more remarkable. However, its origins and history remain, for now, shrouded in mystery.
References: Bristol Know Your Place website; Witt, Weeden & Schwind 1984: Bristol Glass. Published by Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
Simon Cox is Director of Bristol & Bath Heritage Consultancy Ltd, and has been an archaeology and heritage specialist for over 27 years