Bristol’s Exchange on Corn Street is the biggest and one of the earliest of her many Georgian buildings, with the famous John Wood of Bath as its architect. His account of the scheme was published in 1745 and of the 300 subscribers a surprising number were tradesmen on the project; also surprising was the number of people who bought multiple copies, including exchange committee member John Clements, Nehemiah Champion the mill owner, several of the local Elton dynasty, and the ornamental carver Thomas Paty who took 7 copies, as did several booksellers.
Wood’s account is detailed and colourful, but also self promoting so cannot be accepted as the complete story. To begin with, the site was chosen as being “ the most convenient and most proper piece of ground in the whole city” though no explanation for this was given. Being a city of merchants, the most obvious pointer to this choice was that the lease on the Guilders Inn, a huge old structure, was by then due for renewal.
Old maps show the site to have been right in the centre of the city’s commercial district, which makes it eligible enough, but it was also largely taken up with inns and alehouses which served those attending the open street markets on Corn and High Streets, so this rabbit warren was also a haunt for many of the less desirable sorts. As Bristol recovered from decades of economic stagnation, its citizens were beginning to demand better standards of living, and with it came higher expectations of public behaviour. The Exchange had long been demanded to remove trading from the filth and traffic of the street. But there was also a demand to remove the sort of people such as pickpockets who gave street trading such a bad name.
The carpenter Samuel Glascodine earned abut £26 for clearing away the old buildings from April to October 1740. To speed up the work, an enclosure was made to store the old rubble on St Nicholas’ Back, near the dung wharf, clearly another prime piece of real estate.
Then the long search for an architect began, starting with local carpenter and publisher of design books Will Halfpenny, who spent 5 months surveying the site and producing 16 large folio drawings. Despite his being asked to do this by the mayor, chamberlain and agent, when he attended a meeting there were questions asked as to who he had been commissioned by, so he wrote to the committee requesting payment or return of his drawings. A very shoddy way to treat a respected local tradesman. But he later got a sort of consolation prize in being commissioned to build the Coopers’ Hall (now part of the Theatre Royal) when that company was forced to relocate to King Street. Mr Omer, a mason and assistant to Wood of Bath was asked to make plans, as was Jacob de Wilstar, who did some surveying for the Bristol corporation and produced several maps and surveys.
In June 1740 an agreement was made with Ralph Allen to supply Bath, or freestone, for the facades; the bulk of the building was built with local rubble stone. In September, inquiries were made in London with Mr Dance to see if he would be interested and on what terms. He was Clerk of Works for the capital, and soon to be builder of their Corn Exchange and the Mansion House with its Egyptian Hall, His diary seems to have been too full for a reply.
In March 1740 William King of Oxford was consulted for the masonry work, but he wrote saying lack of specifications or model made this impossible. He claimed their design was bad and asked why they were not consulting experts such as Lord Pembroke, or Burlington or Jones or Gibbs. “You will be very sorry you had not asked better advice than you now have,” he warned ominously. Why did the committee set their sights so low? The 1740s is now recognised as a major slump in English building. After the rebuilding of London, an agricultural depression meant that there was little money for mansions. Surely Bristol could have had their pick of those who followed John James, Hawksmoore, yet there is no sign that – apart from Dance – they ever tried.
By December things were getting desperate. Ralph Allen – with no track record in architecture – was asked if he would take on the building, or recommend anyone else who could. George Tully, respected local carpenter and designer of houses and chapels in the city was approached, and Mr Dance was put off.
Again, his plans proved unsatisfactory, as only weeks later John Wood was asked to submit plans. It seems the committee were set upon Bath stone, yet in London this had yet to find favour. Even if they did want this soft stone, there was a plentiful supply in what is now Leigh Woods, just downstream from the city, some of which was high quality and later used for Brunel’s railway terminus.
Mr King complains of the choice of such a soft stone, claiming Portland was no more expensive, it resisted weathering much better, and that stone from nearby Kingsweston House was built from this hard stone, and was close enough to the Avon to be able to transport it cheaper and faster than from Bath. Again, the committee made questionable choices.
It cannot be overstated how important this project was to the city. Costing a massive £40,000 to build plus about £20,000 to purchase and demolish properties, it was a massive investment and must have carried immense prestige for those who worked on it. The project employed many of the local tradesmen as well as many from Bath and beyond. But it is of note that almost none of them were Bristol born, continuing the pattern such as the employment of Oxford’s George Townsend to build the Council House. Most of the locals were newcomers to the city, and lived just outside the city limits, mostly round College Green and towards the Hotwells where there was more space, less restrictions, lower taxes and they were closer to the docks and the new streets they were later to build.
Like public buildings that followed, this project also involved an element of town planning – the Exchange was set back from the existing street line, of he major thoroughfare of Corn Street, so the area in front became known as ‘the Square’. It was the beginning of the opening up of the congested town centre. It also involved the demolition of a large part of the area, including a guildhall.
The Hoopers or Coopers Hall was built on a larger scale on King Street, which helped to kick start the movement of building out of the city. And as the extravagant ceremonies for laying the foundation stone and the opening show, it was an enormous focus for local pride.
The Corporation Minutes are also of interest in that they were largely taken up with building matters – leases of properties, boundary disputes, problems with drains and repairs to adjoining buildings. Yet few if any of those involved were actually trained in any branch of the building trade. On 5 February 1741 Mr Wood was asked to attend the site to give his opinion of the work; other gents who wished to do surveying were also invited to attend, suggesting how such skills were learnt by the city fathers as part of their civic responsibilities. The building committee met regularly, and often called on master tradesmen for advice. At this time there were also a growing number of publications on architecture and the building trades, which were probably consulted, as well as hinted at contracts in London, Bath and elsewhere.
After Wood had been paid off, a letter was sent to London for information on how to measure “Rustick” work, ie the large blocks on the front of the Exchange, akin to measuring straight distances across rock pools. They were constantly striving to get things right; they were clearly aware of the responsibility they were vested with, and of the financial and human costs if things went wrong. They were not without a sense of wry humour. When the well heeled residents of Small Street asked to use the newly built Exchange alley for their carriages on Sunday to reach St Nicholas’ church, the response was, “for several weighty reasons refused to comply. ”Weights of vehicles within the market could be controlled to protect the underlying cellars; those of churchgoers could not.
The design was Classical, partly because that was what Wood was known for, but the Roma style was very much in favour as being symbolic of civic virtue, fitting well with the early days of the century when England was flexing its muscles as a major power and promoter of democracy. The building was “designed to elevate thought and action – as well as to intimidate the incorrigible” It was also an assault on street hawking by traders forced to pay dues and abide by the rules.
But trade was always a conservative business. Wood mocked locals for rejecting a lofty enclosed space preferring a low building open to the elements. “thereby to give the Company the better Opportunity of enjoying the Benefit of the Heat and Sun.” But Wood seems to have missed the point that open markets were much more than mere sites of commerce. They were places of social exchange, of entertainments, which were much more suited to the open air. Open sides also allowed easier movement in and out of goods. And to simple country folk, even soaked to the skin and freezing in winter, open air meant sunlight and honesty; indoors meant darkness, seen to foster cheating and fraud. Over a century later markets in the North of England were still being built with sides open to the elements.
From March 1740 tradesmen began signing contracts. George Walker Nathaniel Daniel and William Foot jun were appointed rough masons. Captain ffoy became Clerk of Works for £5 per week. William Briggs was freestone mason. Carpenters were Daniel Millard the younger, Samuel Jones and Samuel Glascodine. The Exchange Committee minutes go into great detail of the contracts the various tradesmen signed, the free stone work including plan and rustick ashlar work, Corinthian columns, pilasters and entablatures, various windows and balustrades. But there is no record of an agreement with ornamental carver Thomas Paty or the Greenways who made the vases, and several others.
On 2 May 1741 wood finally signed an agreement to complete the Exchange at the rate of £5 per £100, but already the rough masons were being reprimanded for failing to do their work properly. Complaints followed about the freestone work of Mr Briggs who seems to have been consistently poor at his work.
A number of letters survive from ffoy to the chamberlain and committee going into exhaustive detail the problems with the work, almost all of which was blamed on the lack of information and guidance from Wood. He claimed the various workmen could design their own parts well enough, but with such a complex building, the overall plan needed to be clear to them. He talks of whole stretches of wall being pulled down because a flue had been omitted, or a wall having been made too thin to accommodate the structures within it, or a door or window wrongly placed.
His letters are well written and show real concern for the work and tradesmen he was supervising, and backed up by several others such as Millard and Glascodine. By December 1741 he was claiming “I have now the satisfaction to put a stop to this confused piece of work.” He calls it “a piece of work not workmanship.. carried on more by artifice than architecture.” You can hear the sound of him tearing his hair out.
Foy’s complaints became more specific. It seemed Wood was being deliberately secretive, and giving instructions to Biggs who was, like Ralph Allen, a fellow freemason. Biggs’ wages were often paid by Wood, then the cost passed on, a rather odd way of working. Stephen Collins, a respectable Bath mason and quarry owner, claimed he was asked to sign a document claiming the price of stone was much higher in Bath than he knew it to be, so here we have charges of Bath people fixing prices.
Foy also claimed Bristol tradesmen such as James Allen and John Gibb were being turned away from the works, and feared there would be no honest tradesmen left on site, including himself who had also been threatened by dismissal by Bath tradesmen.
By comparison, Wood was repeatedly asked by the committee to attend the site and to send instructions. One of his letters noted “I intended to be in Bristol today but as the Clouds seem to gather for rain must put off my journey till tomorrow.” He seems to have had better things to do at the time.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the presence of Captain Foy as Clerk of works, the following February Mr Wood was asked to employ a suitable person to carry the work forward.
David Lewis was appointed the following July; with wood so seldom in Bristol, he seems to have been acting in part as errand boy, on 1g per week. Supply of stone was also a problem, causing delays to the work, so some aldermen set off to Bath to investigate, to be sent by Allen to his shipper, who claimed Nathaniel Champion was taking water out of the Avon as he was trying to float the stone down river, but Champion claimed this was an excuse for his incompetence. A letter from Allen talks of stone taking a ridiculous 6 days to reach Bristol.
Given the rivalry Between Bristol and Bath, Wood could not help complaining “…the common Freemen of the CITY claiming a Right of trampling upon the Work, because the EXCHANGE was erecting at the Expence of the Chamber, will sufficiently answer for any Faults that may appear in the Performance of the Ornamental Part of the Building.” Was he being unfair to the locals who were clearly excited about the new building?
The matter of the Hoopers, or Coopers Hall dragged on for years. Initially it was thought the site was necessary for the Exchange, then was not, then the digging of the foundations made part of it collapse, and the company kept changing its mind as to whether it wished to sell, and on what terms. Like flighty debutantes they finally sold up and rebuilt their hall, which is now entrance to the Theatre Royal in King Street. This strangely echoes Wood’s original plan to use the old Coopers Hall as an entrance to the new Exchange.
There were also problems purchasing the Rummer pub, part of which was pulled down, but then they decided the whole had to go Mr Lewis was asked by wood to take a plan of the site, and several more were made. On 12 April “the competent masons produced a fresh Draft for the New intended Building of the Rummer.” John Wood’s final invoice involved payment for the Exchange and Rummer. His drawings for this survive in the Royal Academy, but by then he was hardly attending meetings or the site in Bristol. It seems on this building, once he had done the original plans, he put his name to the work of others, like Elvis Presley writing his own songs.
Thomas North and John Griffiths were appointed plasterers and tillers in September 1742, their work was to include Corinthian architraves and columns, but also “soffits of such architraves with double panels, moulds to be enrich’d and every panel to have a flower in the middle” as well as Guillochis, flowers and other ornaments, all of which sounds like the decoration of the interior of the main court.
But on 22 April 1745 the committee noted “Mr Patty has proposed to Mr Wood to carve festoons between the capitals of the pilasters round the inside of the Exchange in the best manner he can for the sum of £45” which the committee agreed. Only 4 days later, there were problems. Sundry workmen had been consulted, and an order made that “one festoon in the Exchange be finished and that no more be gegun until further orders.” Days later the committee “agreed with Thomas North and John Griffin plasterers to work all the festoons in stucco between the pilasters round the walls of the Exchange and also all the spandles that there shall be occasion for, for the sum of £40.”
But the stucco work does not seem to have been much better than Paty’s carvings, as on 10 June they “agreed to relinquish half of their bargain for performing the festoons in the Exchange. Mr Wood is desired to get proper workmen to do that part as soon as possible.” Wood’s description of the design mentions “Heads and Festoons, one Space in Stone, the rest in Stucco; and the 3 quarters of the World, Asia, Africa and America are slightly represented in the same Materials over the Doors.” all of which sounds like the design which now shines its brilliant colours above today’s indoor market.The matter is not mentioned again, nor is the missing quarter of the world, so it is unclear what was achieved at the time.
Thomas Paty was asked to prepare chimney pieces of white marble for the coffee house within the entrance to the exchange and the only part of the building to be so favoured. The proprietor, Mrs Barry was also allowed to purchase 2 looking glasses to not exceed 20g.
On 21 September 1743 the Exchange was ope3ned with a massive public celebration, grand procession, canons firing, bells ringing and debtors released from prison. A keeper was appointed, and the Chamberlain provided him with a grey gown with grey tassels, a red cape, gold lace hat, silver tipped cane and a handbell for warning when the exchange was closing. He was to keep order, keep ways and passages clear, and “take care to prevent all Hucksters, Shoe Cleaners and beggarly people from entering the exchange.” So from the outset, the Exchange was a world away from the free mingling of people in the open streets.
Samuel Glascodine seems to have been the only contender to design the market behind the Exchange. The project was a definite step down from the grand Corn St edifice, but a good opportunity for a house carpenter to “throw away his apron” to take the first step up to become an architect, with all the prestige it entailed. He was paid 4g to go to London to view markets, and when he returned, he had visited Oxford also. Between December and April 1743 he produced a succession of plans and models which the committee considered and amended.
Many markets at the time were still gathered round the protection of a simple stone cross, or huddled beneath an opensided market hall, usually for eggs or butter sellers as survived in Cheddar. Others were held in open arcades beneath civic buildings such as town or guild halls, such as Durley and Amersham, with the formal meeting space over it. In Titchfield the lower level wa shared with the city lock up. Pevsner praises the late market/town hall of Hereford as “the most fantastic black and white building imaginable, three storeyed, with gables and the richest, most curious decoration.Yet even here, the market was very much a bolt on to the buildings’ other functions.
All the above markets acted as a focus for traders from the surrounding region, to be accommodated in a single hall. But Bristol’s trade was so extensive that it drw on traders from Gloucestershire, Somerset, and by water from Wales, so the design needed to include not only sites for different products, but from the different regions. To an extent, the plan was already set by Wood to include an arcade across the south range; according to Schmiechen & Carls, it was the first of its kind, in the regions, taking its lead fro fashionable shopping arcades of Paris, Glasgow and London. This became the Gloucestershire market.
The design was also unusual in featuring a single long room which could be divided into 7 small chambers separated by folding partitions. This arrangement still exists, and is perhaps unique. It was for use of, and compensation for losses for the Rummer, which Wood had originally planned to be attached to the Exchange.
The east arcade was built to the south of the High Street entrance, then largely enclosed within a public house. At right angles to these and fronting the Exchange alley from Nicholas Street to the Barber Surgeons Hall was the Somerset Market. On the site of what is now St Nicholas’ market was held a free market, with posts for tethering animals, so the open street market was corralled her rather than lost.
The market was built by John Gibbon and William Scrill, of freestone as the Exchange, but to be of “plain manner without a pediment” but still managed to acclaim to be “the most beautiful and commodious marketplace in England”
In order to straighten and extend All Saints Lane, several hoses were cut back or destroyed, their walls repaired or rebuilt. Cellars were dug, or remodelled an entrances to them altered, much of which needed to be negotiated with owners and tenants who had already endured the prolonged disruptions of building works.
On 14 December 1744 the Bellman announced the markets on High, and Broad and Streets, and the New Market leading to Tower lane were to be changed. Barrett talks of these markets being “a great obstruction of passengers and general inconvenience of the inhabitants”. By their removal “the city was also thereby made more airy pleasant and healthful.”
From 25 March they were to be held in Glascodine’s new markets for flesh and country produce. The butchers market at eh Shambles on the keyside just north of the bridge were not involved in the move; with grazing for animals in St Mary le Port churchyard, and little through traffic, they caused no such problems.
Shortly before the markets opened, notice was given to all provision sellers that anyone exposing meat or other provisions for sale “upon any part of the waste ground on High street or Broad street” shall be prosecuted. So the sellers were not given any choice as to whether they used the new market. This is also interesting use of the term waste in its ancient form – ie an area which has not been built upon. The bulk of the market design was for the butcher’s standings; they were a respected important and well regulated profession, and their stalls needed good drains, to be sheltered from the elements and so could pay well. They objected to the market being open on Wednesdays as well as the usual Saturdays. The country people seem to have been tolerated rather than welcomed; as strangers who paid less, they fitted in less well with the new trading area.
On the corner of Exchange Alley is the Old Post Office building, was built in 1745 and generally attributed to Glascodine, on the basis of his work on the market. Gome etc describes him as “an architect of uncertain capacities… He appears to have been given considerable responsibility for important buildings in the city surrounding Wood’s Exchange, but his part in these works cannot be fully determined.
In subsequent years, as the city expanded from the old centre, Thomas Paty and many others did well out of the building boom. Glascodine later became a wheelwright and apparently ran a mill, suggesting his heart never really lay in the building trade. In terms of the Post Office, a reasoned guess can be made on the basis of an entry from 14 March 1746 in the Exchange Committee Minutes. “Mr Frame and Mr Pine the present Post Masters produced a Plan for a Post Office which if approved, Mr Pine would become tenant of at £40 per year.”
This Mr Pine may have been the same who engraved Wood’s plans. A Mr Henry Pine had been Bristol’s Post Master when the first office was built in 1700 in All Saints Lane, though no record can be found of where it was or what it looked like when it was demolished for the Exchange. The fact that these post masters could give a clear costing of the rent suggests they had done the design and costings for the building. Mr Glascodine was “to produce a plan agreeable to directions now given with estimates of charges.” On 23 April the plan for the post office was approved, with fonts of freestone.
Mr Glascodine and Mr Millard, carpenters who had worked on the exchange, signed contracts for the house. Millard is alleged to have been the mason which seems unusual. At no point was any payment made to them for plans. All of which suggests the overall design, especially the facade, was by the post masters whilst the tradesmen costed the details. Several months later, Mr
Thomas Pine is on record as lessee and tenant of the house, at £40 per year. The Post Office remained there for 118 years, expanding backwards down the alleyway as the postal service expanded till forced to build new premises in Small Street, now the Crown Courts.
The Post Office is balanced on the other side of the Exchange by 56 Corn Street, attributed to Thomas Paty and Sons of 1782. Its upper floors intrude into the fabric of All Saints church, echoing the earlier, mediaeval structure. This replaced a building of 1740 for Samuel Worral, first of a dynasty of Town Clerks, who ran the Stamp Office above a coffee house. He had employed Paty for his 2 houses opposite Goldney House in Clifton and whose land was laid out by Thomas to form College Green.
The final entry in the book on the Exchange Committee is very badly written and dates from 20 April 1766, after a 15 year gap. “The Committee having had several advisory meetings and agreed to erect 5 market stalls in the market near the Post Office agreeable to a Plan Elevation and Instructions drawn by Mr Thomas Patty – the said committee this day agreed with Thomas Kilby and others to have the same executed for the sumo of £325 and contract is signed accordingly.
Three hundred pounds for 5 stalls is more than today’s market manager would pay, so these must have been substantial, especially as a mason was involved. In 1776 Thomas Paty built an entire house for the Welsh market on Welsh back for only £340. But the timing is interesting. Thomas was then working as surveyor on Bristol Bridge, a remit which covered the opening up of streets leading to it. One of the approaches was along the river, and Butchers Row, or Shambles, then being demolished for the laying out of Bridge Street. Barrett mentions the existence of the King’s Cellars, describing the site as being full of ruinous old buildings. But they were still commanding good rents and people were unwilling to desert them.
So this new market building must have been butchers stalls with drains and shelter, the final step in clearing up the street markets. It is not clear where this was sited, though a small house is marked on maps of 1782 and 1793 with 3 archways, adjoining the north of the West India Coffee House, the former Barber Surgeon’s Hal in Exchange Alley.. Dr Leech’s survey of 2001 claims this to be the work of R S Pope, as they match his work on the market of 1848, and the earlier plan shows 3 equally spaced openings, unlike the 2 arched openings and side opening which can be seen today.
Despite the problems with Wood and application of his plans, the Exchange seems to have been built with incredible speed, despite the inevitable problems such a large building inevitably incurred. Records of subsequent public buildings, especially of Bristol bridge, always managed to get bogged down in decisions referred to committees who were then to report back, arguments and vested interests.
From the outset of the building, a Mr Hook was a very important and visible presence, buying up buildings at his own expense, to be reimbursed by the committee, and often involved in the tortuous negotiations and deal making with the various owners and tenants. In February 1746 he wrote tot eh Mayor claiming to have been “the original Projector for the Exchange and Market” and that he had offered to construct the entire project at his own expense. This is an extraordinary offer to have been made by a single individual, an offer one would have thought too good to refuse. Yet the Bristol Corporation preferred to embark on the time, expense and effort themselves. The city was becoming wealthy from overseas and local trade; there seems no reason why they could not afford such a grand new building to celebrate this.
The city of Bristol took great pride in its long history of independence, and its broad franchise. Elections often became famously drawn out, expensive affairs: in early 19th century Northern towns this was held up as evidence against broadening their electoral franchises. The festivities which were held both for the laying of the foundation stone and the opening of the Exchange show the amount of civic pride the city felt for their clean new commercial centre. The notion that a single man might own the whole thing must have been repugnant to them.
But Hook clearly played an important role in advancing the whole project. Like a group of friends milling about trying to decide which pub to go to, it only takes one person to make a decision and the rest of them go along. Democracy can be a wonderful thing, but sometimes it saves a lot of time and effort if one person just goes ahead and makes a decision. So when the same Mr Hook offered to take on the whole debt of the Exchange, to pay it off in its entirety in 6 months in exchange for a 99 year annuity, the response was predictable. They referred it to a committee.