Thomas Symons, Bristol’s Invisible Attorney

Since some of you have shown an interest in British history, here’s an extended piece that I’ve never found a use for. It shows that records do not always show how important some people are.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, manyl towns of England were improved by donations of local worthies; in the South West, Frome got its new streets built by the initiative of nonconformist Thomas Bunn and Taunton’s Benjamin Hammet became the driving force in their street improvements, investing large sums of his own money. Bristol had a long tradition of wealthy merchants leaving bounties to the poor, such as Whitson, Canynge, and Colston, but the last initiator of major works was when the Duke of Beaufort organised and paid for the Act of Parliament to make the Avon navigable from Bristol to Bath in the 1730s, largely to allow the famous Bath Stone to be exported from Ralph Allen’s quarries near Bath.

In the years preceding the rebuilding of Bristol Bridge in the 1760s there was a complete absence of a single person driving the project. As the years dragged on and the debt failed to be paid off, the initial trustees and commissioners died  and their places taken by more unremarkable local worthies. Accountants did their sums and were paid annually, their work closely scrutinised. Thomas Paty replaced James Bridges as Bridge Surveyor and was subsequently involved in laying out the various streets which were covered by the initial act, passing the post to his sons.

But there is a man who was a constant presence from the beginning to the end, but who has never been named or blamed for the events: the attorney Thomas Symons. Mark Giroard in his wonderful book ‘English towns’  explains the rise of provincial attorneys in the 18th century. They initially acted as property agents for wealthy landowners as well as managing their political interests. “With their many clients and contacts, were ideally suited to put people with money to lend in touch with those who needed to borrow it.” This seems to have been Symons role in many instances, filling the gap between the wealthy and bankers and other specialists who emerged later. Mr Symons was 18th century Bristol’s Mr Fixit.

In a local history pamphlet on Bristol attorneys he only rated a single passing mention, but it is hard to find a major scheme in the city in which he was not involved on some level. He claims to have arrived in the city about 1760, in a letter asking to be appointed Clerk to the Bridge Trustees. The ease with which he seems to have been appointed suggests he was already well known; in fact he may well have been involved in framing the act itself.
From his Corn Street office, in the commercial centre of the city, opposite John Wood’s Exchange, he occasionally advertised for investors in various schemes. But unlike many of the attorneys mentioned he seems to have operated below the public radar. His only mention in the papers was of his wedding to Miss Dobson sister of Rev Mr Dobson of Somerset in July 1759, possibly the previous month in St James Westminster. They baptised Thomas Hodgson on 18 December 1763 and Elizabeth on 19 August the following year in St Werburgh’s church.

In April 1762 he was elected to the vestry of this church, with Corporation solicitor John Lewis and attorney Nathanial Windey. Later that year and until 1764 he was elected waywarden, all of which suggests he was active in the local parish, but he was not present at any of these elections so is unlikely to have served in these positions. He contributed to the repair the tower in 1768 and paid poor rates there from September 1761 to 1768, presumably when he moved from Corn Street to his home on Stoney Hill.

In 1770 his home was advertised for sale. Some details give an inkling of his standard of living at the time. It was newly built, possibly by his sometime associate Thomas Paty, on Stony Hill, described as large, commodious… commanding a most delightful prospect of town and country not to be interrupted by any of the new buildings and within 10 minutes walk of the exchange. It was 40 foot wide, with 2 large kitchens, good cellars, 3 very good parlours, a handsome hall, 8 lodging rooms, all lofty, and plenty of water. No price was noted as it was for private sale, but this is a house of a man who is doing well.
His office was at several addresses in Corn St, in 1775 at no. 31 whilst he was living at Red Lodge Street. In the 1790s his business was in the Exchange buildings and/or All Saints Lane, but in the early 19th century had moved to 19 Small Street where he seems to have continued till his death.

He was never a member of the Corporation or the Merchant Venturers and there is no sign of him donating to charity or being involved in his local parish – whatever that was. This suggests he may have been a nonconformist or even a Quaker – his surname is common amongst the latter in North America, and the long time Corporation bankers were the Welsh Catholic family, the Vaughans. Possibly such outsiders, as were Jews in previous times, were seen as independent so a trusted pair of hands. But his brother or cousin in Bath, John, seems to have been the opposite of this, serving role of sheriff, justice of the peace and several terms as mayor as well as being a surgeon and property developer. Thomas may have been an even stranger beast in Georgian society : a man who enjoyed going home to his family after a long day at work.

He does seem to have put in the hours. With Alexander Edgar, he was one of the instigators in October 1764 of the Theatre Royal. He also seemed to be linked with John Lambert, the young fraudster poet Thomas Chatterton’s master and yet another attorney. Symons was on the executive committee and played a significant role in the negotiations. Whilst his involvement in such a project seems odd if he was a Quaker, but there were several other trustees who were.

In July 1764 following a public meeting regarding the risk of fire on the crowded quays, when the tide was out, he was put in charge of an attempt to raise £30,000 to build a floating dock in Canon’s Marsh. Shares of £100 could be purchased at his office. An engraved plan could also be obtained from him. Barrett p 87 talks of this scheme being proposed by “some enterprising, scheming genius” but as usual fails to name names. By 1767 an alternative, less expensive plan was suggested by Britton to build a dam across the Avon at Redcliffe, but this was objected to on the basis it would remove the source of fresh water for local industries such as breweries. In the Merchant Venturers archive records show Symons paid for surveys of the keys and went to considerable personal effort an expense on the scheme which eventually failed.

But in 1787 when the quays were again overcrowded the scheme was revived and Symons was eventually paid for the work he had done, his surveys and plans put to use. So Symons emerges from this as one of the city’s unsung improvers. And unlike many, then and now, he was prepared to invest his own money for the public good.

He was also a political agent. In the much disputed election of 1774 when the country was alarmed at the impending war with the North American colonies, Bristol was even more argumentative than usual. The long standing MP and benefactor Lord Clare bowed out of the fray leaving the Whigs to put forward the Anglo American merchant Henry Cruger and the activist and writer Edmund Burke, one of the most mismatched partnerships ever. It was Symons who went to London to thrash out a peace deal and achieve at least a semblance of harmony which resulted in victory for both, so he must have been a skilled diplomat. In 1777 he was agent for George Berkeley, so this may have been a key to his omnipresence in the city.

He was also one of the instigators of an improvement in the mail service between Bristol and the capital in 1785, probably because he seems to have had so much business in the capital, as probably did his many clients . In 1773 he advertised as the Bristol agent for the General Annuities Office, London, offering annual payments on freehold estates. He offered up to 11% interest with government security. A petition to Pitt was available for signing at his office, and letters from him on the matter were published in Felix Farley including the bizarre claim that post to Bristol was being sent to Ireland! His name also appears on an indenture for Thomas King of Bath, the sculptor who married Thomas Paty’s daughter, so further links between both Bristol and Bath and the Bristol building fraternity.

In the aftermath of the Bridge Riot in 1793 there was plenty of mud flying, accusations of fraud and mismanagement, but Symons name scarcely rated a mention. If there had been any misbehaviour, he must have been involved if not initiated it. Yet surely, with the massive turnover of trustees and commissioners over he years, especially later as disillusion at the tolls was growing and resolutions sought, why was Symons never held up for blame? The city was never short of what today would be litigious pamphlets, and the newspapers often gleefully reported the failings of the great and god. But they never mentioned the Bridge Clerk. He had probably sorted out too many peoples’ dirty laundry for anyone to risk attacking him.

His reliability is also suggested by his role as commissioner for bankruptcy on several high profile cases, including that of William Reeves of Arnos Manor in fraudster George Joseph Pedley. He may have been the author of the pamphlet condemning Pedley’s behaviour. As clerk to the Bridge Trustees he drew up contracts for purchasing and selling properties, and he seems to have an extensive private business as conveyancer, especially on large pubs and inns, but also was an agent for the sale and lease of many large properties in the city and surrounding countryside. .

Though Bristol and Bath are nearest neighbours, the cities could at times seem to be in separate universes: the chaotic, working class Bristol versus the well planned aristocratic spa town. Thomas Symons’s brother John was a surgeon in Bath who also dabbled in property speculation, and for a time leased the markets there. In the 1790s he was chamberlain and alderman and Justice of the Peace, lessee of both the hot and cross baths, and in 1795 and 1803 was mayor. One of the Symons, probably John, built a second reservoir in Bath, to supply the city with water from under Beacon Hill. He was a founder of the Bath and West Agricultural Society, wrote a book on vapour bathing and a member of the Bath Philosophical Society which also included Herschel and Dr Priestley with an interest in electrical experiments.

About this time England produced a number of fine navigators. Bligh was famous and widely written about, attention constantly being drawn to him as he antagonised so many colleagues. By comparison, it is hard to find anything written about Captain James Cook, a similarly talented navigator, but who quietly got on with his work, so little reason ever arose to write about him. The evidence suggests that Symons may well have been a similarly hard working, diligent skilled professional, a safe pair of hands.

He died as he had lived – quietly and unobtrusively. The only obituary was in the Gazette and Public Adverstiser “7 July 1825. July 3 at his residence in Park Row, Thomas Symons Esq in the 90th year of his age.” He was buried, as were many of the Paty family and others who built the city, in the church of St Augustine the Less, now beneath  the Royal Hotel on College Green.



4 thoughts on “Thomas Symons, Bristol’s Invisible Attorney

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s