The Paty Family of Bristol


Bristol’s Georgian architecture has always been in the shadow of the grand designs of the Wood family of Bath, who wer more developers than architects. Despite all the vandalism by the council over the years, Bristol still has more 18th century buildings than Bath, and they are generally better made, as they were mostly built for the builders themselves and people they knew, rather than as speculation for seasonal tourists. Bristol’s architecture lacks the grand vistas and uniformity that makes Bath so much a honey pot for tourists, but its wide range of styles is what makes it suitable for a working city and as such a far more interesting place to live and work in.

For a family that seem to have been all pervasive in the Georgian city, there is a curious, at times infuriating silence hanging about the Paty family who were the most prolific and long lived of the many local builders. Nobody knows where they came from. Attributions of work to them is often unclear, especially after Thomas’s sons John and William joined him in business. Wren’s claim that if you seek a memorial, look around you probably applies to many in  the construction trade. Early in the century a long, rambling poem waxed lyrical about Thomas’ building skills:

“PALLADIO’s stile in PATTY’s plans appears:

Himself a master with the first to stand

For CLIFTON owes her beauties to his hand.”

But by the end of the century another anonymous poet derided the family for their incompetence:

“a thing which Bristol dubs and architect

but nature ne’er inspired that stupid frame,

which dullness label’d P*tty, for his name.”

Though there seems to be no documentary evidence for the latter poem’s claims. The same poem goes into – at times excessive detail – of various people involved, yet doesn’t give a Christian name to any of the Patys, as if they were some faceless blob.

Thomas, his sons and his brother James were all active in their local parish of St Augustines. When Thomas’ wife died in …., Felix Farley published a touching eulogy to her. Though he survived her by decades, he never remarried. The family contributed to charities, they signed petitions. When Thomas died he left a reasonable sum to his children and his youngest son was affluent enough to retire to Shirehampton before an early death. Whilst modern writers still deride them for their lack of talent, they did not, like most  other builders, go bankrupt with the Napoleonic collapse of 1792 which left vast tracts of Bristol half built, like the plague had passed through. Their business was taken on by Foster and Wood, in various forms this survived into the 20th century, again, quite an achievement.

Dr William Barrett’s “History and Antiquities of Bristol” was once considered the bible of the city’s past, though his unquestioning acceptance of Chatterton rather undermined this. Thomas subscribed to its publishing and a letter from Barrett to Smythe regarding a damaged monument in St Werburgh’s church notes that Barrett had given part of it to Thomas for possible repairing, so the two were known to each other. Yet no Paty is ever mentioned in the massive volume, the sole mention of an architect was Mr Wood “a learned and ingenious architect” . It seems the Patys had not risen to the exalted heights of the Woods father and son, that they remained mere tradesmen.

William Dyer had an incredibly busy and varied life, running several businesses, attending sermons – sometimes several in a day – and travelling widely. He was a man fascinated by inventions and new ideas and his diary notes many contacts in Bristol and elsewhere. Yet though late in life he lived in a Paty built house on a Paty street, Berkeley Crescent, he made no note of them. Not until the very last entry which rather poignantly notes the death of Thomas’ youngest son, William.

The Rev John Evans was another contemporary antiquarian, and being a cleric was much concerned with the state of local churches. Yet he makes no mention of the Patys, but unlike Barrett he does name check several local builders such as Will Halfpenny early in the century and later Daniel Hague and James Allen. His silence is even more strange when his list of advisors is considered. It includes the carver Henry Wood who took over the Paty business, and is rumoured to have been an inferior craftsman who claimed their work as his own.

Felix Farley seems to have been a reliable, if not effusive reporter of their work. At least he seems to get their details right, which is better than he did when he recorded the death of Thomas Goldney, Quaker merchant, a week early. Thomas’ son William  was the city surveyor who had married into the wealthy Hicks family, but the Corporation minutes make no mention of his death. Several months later there is a record that a new surveyor had been appointed. Only the sharp eyed would have noticed whose shoes Thomas Pope was stepping into.

But for real silence, it can be provided by the perpetual scribbler John Wesley. When he planned his first meeting house, his diary noted the purchase of the land, the laying of a foundation stone, then silence till he noted his first sermon there.

The Patys ran an incredibly diverse building business, based in Bristol but also throughout South Gloucestershire, Wales and Somerset. THey, and their rival James Allen, seem to have been primarily carvers who moved into building.  This seems an odd combination, but it allowed them to keep working in the winter when it was too cold to do outdoor construction. Their monumental carvings can be found as far away as Bury St Edmonds and the West Indies, so indicate the wide ranging nature of Bristol trade at the time. The sitings of their monuments also provide a clue to architecture, as they often built nearby manor houses. Records of their work is often fragmentary sometimes ambiguous but hunting out the scattered pieces gives an indication of how the family business survived so long. Their business was continued as Foster and Wood well into the 20th century.

For all Thomas Paty’s alleged lack of originality, he was a great survivor in an age which is largely ignored by historians. He not only witnessed, but played a major part in the transformation of the medieval city full of wooden houses clustered round the high cross to the modern city with wide paved streets and sprawling suburbs. He saw the England of agriculture being dragged into the modern industrial age, and the influx of wealth from the transatlantic colonies, then the collapse following the war with North America. As we live though the decline of this age, his story becomes more important than ever.

The silence is partly the nature of their age. With the exceptions of such high flyers as Burlington and Vanbrugh, architecture was still part of the building trade. Things had changed little from Inigo Jones time when “the present day conception of an architect’s artistic responsibility for a building simply did not exist to provide a row of houses with a proper Italian character might very well be merely a note of verbal instructions to a mason or bricklayer together with the loan of an Italian engraving or two and the drawing of a “plat-form” or draft”

More details can be found in two books of mine on kindle:
‘Buidings & Builders of Georgian Bristol 1735-54’
‘Buidings & Builders of Georgian Bristol 1760-87’
‘Civil Engineering & Civic apathy: Bristol’s Georgian Bridge’
others can be found on kindle by searching for ‘Barb Drummond’
or visit my homepage,

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