St Peter's Hospital, Peter Street, Bristol
St Peter's Hospital in Peter Street, where the Register Office occupied part of the ground floor. The building on the left is St Peter's Church, (c.1930)
This building was in Peter Street, between St Peter's Church and the Floating Harbour. It was destroyed by the blitz on 24 November 1940 and its history was as follows: 1402 - The original building was constructed by John Corne for the merchant Thomas Norton (an alchemist who lost a fortune trying to turn base metal into gold). It comprised of three bays with gables. 1580- Ownership passed to the Newton family. 1602 - Ownership passed to Robert Chalmers.
1607 - Ownership passed to Robert Aldworth, a wealthy merchant who introduced sugar refining to Bristol at these premises.
1612 - Aldworth had the premises extensively altered and transformed into a fine Tudor building, and it became known as the Sugar House. At this time the frontage was altered to the part of the building facing St Peter's Church, not the Floating Harbour. The fourth (lower and smaller) bay was added, this originally being a separate house. None of the bays were identical, but Aldworth unified them with decorative facades. Each floor cantilevered forward over the one below, supported by ugly corbels. The sills of the generous bay windows were supported by carved brackets. Bargeboards and fascias were carved elaborately and beside and above each gable window were decorative plaster arches.
1634 - Ownership passed from Aldworth to his nephew, Giles Elbridge (who continued the sugar refining business). 1696 - The government of the time intimated that a mint could be established in Bristol if a fitting building could be provided. The Corporation obtained possession of these premises for this purpose and it was a mint for about eighteen months. Many millions of shillings and sixpences were coined.
1698 -The mint closed and the building was purchased by the Bristol Board of Guardians for £800 and converted to a workhouse, called The Purgatory. During this period the adjoining property (two bays with gables) was purchased from William Perm and this was used as a hospital for the sick poor for over a century.
1823 - The premises were still owned by the Board of Guardians, but its usage became administrative, though it also had a small bakery. In 1832 the workhouse was no longer needed - a larger workhouse having opened at Stapleton - and by 1890 it was used purely for administration.
1900 - The Register Office occupied part of the ground floor, but the main part of the premises was still occupied by the Board of Guardians. Following formation of the Public Assistance Committee in 1930, the Board of Guardians no longer existed and the former occupied the building. In 1937 the Public Assistance Committee became the Social Welfare Committee.
The approach to the building from Peter Street, with its ornate carvings on the exterior walls and small (approx 8in x 4in) leaded windows, was along a stone-flagged path. On each side of the path were tombstones of prominent citizens who had been buried over a period of many years. The rear of the building, which had vehicle access via double gates at the top of Back of Bridge Street, abutted the Floating Harbour. The basement of the building (which was at ground level at the back, with a courtyard area overlooking the Floating Harbour) contained a store for the old records built up over a period of some fifty years (all destroyed on 24 November 1940).
On the ground floor was the Register Office (situated in the corner nearest the path from Peter Street), waiting rooms, Collector's Department, Records Department, committee rooms and staff kitchen and lounge. The first floor was the hub of the Social Welfare Committee's activities containing the main offices, Old Court Room, New Board Room, waiting room and Chairman's room. The top floor was the caretaker's living accommodation.
Weddings at the Register Office were popular for two particular reasons: on leaving the building the footpath took the bride and groom past the main entrance to St Peter's Church, so it appeared as though they had had a church wedding! Also, junior staff who worked for the Social Welfare Committee were frequently called upon to act as a witness to a wedding — mainly for those couples who wanted to keep it in the dark from family and friends — for a fee of 2s or 2s 6d, a considerable amount in the 1930s.
People from all over the world visited this historic building to see the ornate carvings, the Old Court Room being a particular showpiece with its gold leaf ceiling in square and quatrefoil compartments and the deep cornice with armorial shields supported by griffins. The room also had a huge fireplace with hand-carved surround and all the walls were oak panelled.
In the New Board Room (opened in 1901) the contrast was great - it was panelled in Austrian oak in Jacobean style, the frieze hand-carved with no two panels the same. The ceiling was coved, ribbed and panelled. The open fireplace had a dog grate, Norwegian green marble mantelpiece with Austrian oak mantel and over-mantel.
The waiting room (separating the Old Court Room and New Board Room) had a character of its own: one of the original rooms of the building, it had doors which did not hang true, a sloping floor and around the walls appeared some thirty plaques identifying dishonest 'civic' heads of the past (for example 'John of Bristol, an Alderman of the City, having been found guilty of defrauding the poor of the city was fined £5 for the benefit of the said poor').
In 1940 the Chairman of the Social Welfare Committee was Cllr S.C. Humphries, the Vice-Chairrnan Cllr G.G. Adams. The Superintendent Registrar at the Register Office was T.W.R. Ellis, his deputy J.G. Watson. The caretaker was Mr Hunt (whose monthly salary cheque was well-supplemented by tips from the many visitors to the building).
Sadly, the building was completely destroyed by the blitz of 24 November 1940 and was widely regarded as Bristol's greatest architectural loss of the war.