Sixteenth Century Bristol

By John Latimer

(Originally published under the title of

Transcriptions by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2013

Chapter III.

Population of Bristol in the sixteenth century - Police and sanitary arrangements of the city - Prevalence of mendicants - Use of hops in ale prohibited; thatch-roofing forbidden - Erection of houses by the Corporation on Bristol Bridge.

To modern readers the most interesting fact preserved in the State papers in relation to the local chantries is the numbering of the inhabitants of Bristol, which they luckily record. The Royal mandate to the Chantry Commissioners required the churchwardens not only to produce a detailed account of the yearly proceeds of each chantry estate, but also to return the number of inhabitants dwelling in each parish, and this census accordingly stands at the head of each parochial report. Whatever may have been the knavery of the Commissioners in underestimating, for the benefit of two of themselves, the value of the confiscated property, neither the visitors nor the local authorities had any inducement to misrepresent the actual population of a city. In a few parishes the numbering seems to have been made with scrupulous exactness. In others the round figures show that the churchwardens were content to offer an approximate estimate of “the houseling people” living within their respective boundaries; but it is unlikely that any of the returns were intentionally magnified or diminished, for no purpose could be served by falsification. The following are the figures:-


Parish of St. Werburgh160
"St. James520
"St. Thomas600
"St. Philip514
"St. John227
"St. Nicholas800
"St. Peter400
"Christ Church326
"St. Stephen461
"St. Mary Redcliff600
"All Saints180
"St. Ewen56
"St. Leonard120
"St. Michael252
"St. Mary-le-port180

As there were no chantries in St. Augustine-the-Less, which had been a dependency of the neighbouring abbey, a census of that parish does not appear. The number of inhabitants, however, must have been inconsiderable, for with the exception of a fringe of dwellings at and near St. Augustine's Back, College Green, Frog Lane, and Limekiln Road, the district was divided into grass land and garden ground. Thus the total population of the city apparently did not much exceed 6,000. Similar returns for the city of Gloucester show an aggregate population of 3,159.

One seeks in vain for definite information as to the police and sanitary arrangements that were in force at the date of the above census. In 1508 the Corporation passed an ordinance declaring that the mayor, two aldermen, and the forty “men” (common councillors) were entitled to


levy dues “on the goods of the townsmen, as well on rents as on merchandise”; but this power seems to have been exercised only on great emergencies, and, if the audit books may be trusted, local rates in the modern sense were unknown. The paving of the chief thoroughfares was compulsory on the owners of the frontages, each maintaining the surface of the street as far as the central gutter. The lighting of the streets at night was never dreamt of. Such scavenging as was thought indispensable was long undertaken by a single individual, who sought his remuneration from the goodwill of the householders; but in 1543 the Common Council resolved to pay this public servant 1s. 6d. per week, or 20s. per quarter, and as the luckless “raker” could not live on this stipend and continued his perquisitions, he was afterwards voted 12s. a year extra “because he shall take no toll”. In 1557 the Council increased his salary to £12 per annum, but relief from this charge was immediately secured by ordering a “collection” to be made from the citizens. It is not stated on what basis the money was levied, but the whole outlay was brought in, and the only corporate disbursement was twopence weekly for keeping the front of the Council House and Guildhall in decent order. Even a parsimonious trader could hardly have grumbled at having to contribute some small fraction of a penny towards raising 4s. 6d. a week. About the same date the civic body laid out 3s. 8d. for a lantern to hang at Froom Gate, and there is also mention of a lantern at the High Cross, but no payment occurs for candles, except occasionally on the Midsummer Watch night, when sixpence might be laid out for “tapers” at the Cross.

Mendicants becoming increasingly troublesome, a new official, styled the master of the beggars, was appointed in 1532, and provided with a yearly coat and the modest


salary of 3s. 4d. per quarter, subsequently raised to 5s., from which one must infer that he was employed rather for occasional show than for daily use. Mendicity, indeed, was not merely tolerated before the invention of poor rates, but actually patronised by the Corporation. The following items occur in the audit book under March, 1571:-

“Paid for graving a mould of the town's arms to cast in tin for 40 badges, to set upon 20 poor people to go into Somerset to seek relief, 2s.; 7 lbs. tin to cast them, 4s. 8d.; casting and making holes whereby they might be sewed upon their backs and breasts, 2s. 6d.; thread, 1d.”

Finally, the provisions for the suppression of crime and for the preservation of good order were ludicrously feeble. The Corporation maintained a staff of four sergeants, remunerated by fees. But these officers, when not in attendance upon the magistrates, as they were expected to be daily, were largely employed in the legal business arising out of civil actions in the Mayor's and Sheriffs' Courts, and naturally shirked all duties that offered no prospect of remuneration. Parish constables, again, were selected yearly - one half at the Midsummer Watch, and the others on St. Peter's Day - from the able-bodied residents of each ward; but they rarely undertook active service except when specially summoned to quell disturbances, and casual brawls were left to settle themselves. When a malefactor was not caught in the act, or left no traces of his identity, he had evidently little to fear in the shape of detection and retribution. One or two corporate ordinances presumably intended to promote the health and safety of the public may be briefly noted.

There is a current legend that the hop plant came into


England with the Reformation. But it was used by Bristol brewers in the reign of Henry VII., to the discontent of the Common Council, who issued an edict in 1505, forbidding hops to be put into ale except in the months of June, July, and August, on pain of a penalty of 40s. And apparently to detect infringements of this order, an “ale Conner” was appointed in 1519, who was ordered to go boldly into every brewer's premises, to taste his ale, and if it was found unwholesome, to forbid its sale. A few years later this officer was deemed so useful that two “conners” were appointed, with a joint yearly salary of £1 6s. 8d.

It was not until 1574 that an ordinance was enacted forbidding the use of thatch for roofing houses and other buildings in the city.

Soon after the Corporation had obtained the Royal grant of the chapel on Bristol Bridge, it undertook a work of some importance - the construction of two houses on the same thoroughfare of a character far surpassing the customary style of tradesmen's dwellings, which rarely exceeded two stories in height. The project seems to have been instigated by the receipt of a legacy of £100, bequeathed for public purposes by one Thomas Hart, and by the payment of one-half of a similar bequest of £40 left by Thomas Silk. Moved by a somewhat cool appeal for further assistance to carry out the design. Alderman Thomas White, of London, a member of a Bristol family remarkable for its liberal benefactions to the city, generously presented another £100. With these funds in hand, the Common Council, in 1548, gave orders for beginning the work, which was executed by workmen paid weekly by the Chamberlain. As the houses were to be chiefly of wood, a carpenter was brought down from London as superintendent, and was paid one shilling per day, the local


workmen receiving eightpence, and the labourers fivepence per head. The first order for timber brought in seventeen large trees, and many more were required subsequently. The chimneys and fireplaces were of brick, which appears to have been imported, and was costly, two parcels costing £38. The bricklayer was paid one shilling per day. Some old glass was made available, and 258 feet of new glass cost the high price of sixpence per foot. Two of the Friaries were pillaged for some ornamental stonework. Probably owing to the workmen being left much to their own devices, the building operations extended over eighty-six weeks, and the total expenditure was no less than £495 13s. 9d., an extraordinary sum for that period. The houses were let for £6 13s. 4d. each in 1551, in which year the Corporation, which had just rebuilt the Tolzey in Corn Street as a Council House, set about the erection of a block of warehouses in the “Old Jewry”, the locality inhabited by the Bristol Jews previous to their expulsion from England in 1290, and now represented by part of the buildings standing between Bell Lane and Quay Street. The outlay on this undertaking was £470. The cost of the new Tolzey or Council House cannot be ascertained.

OCR/transcript by Rosemary Lockie in October 2013.

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