St Michael’s Hill, Bristol, BS2 8DY
Built between 1691 and 1696. Restored in 1861. Complex refurbished between 1986-8 with common room created in undercroft.
Limestone stonework with clay pantile roof.
Lead rainwater goods.
Metal casements to windows.
Pennant stone front boundary wall with limestone gate piers, iron railings and gates.
Almshouses with a chapel at the centre of east wing for the use of residents
Closed to the public. Access to the exterior at all reasonable times to view the building from St. Michael’s Hill.
Colston’s Almshouses and Chapel were constructed between 1691 and 1696. They were built and endowed by Bristol merchant Edward Colston, at least partly with proceeds from his involvement in the slave trade. These houses provided accommodation with financial support for twelve poor men and twelve poor women who had lived in Bristol and attended the Church of England. In return residents had to attend twice-daily prayer-reading in the chapel. The symmetrical building layout is on three sides of a quadrangle around a courtyard and is practical, homely and attractive. It is ideal for separating out male and female living quarters either side of the chapel – a shared facility right in the centre of the third side.
The two-storey height, hipped (sloping) roofs, and individual front doors with little gabled (triangular) canopies lend a cottagey feel. The windows feature stone cross shapes (mullions and transoms), a fashion which died out as sliding sashes took over around 1700. Fancier, Baroque touches add elegance to the chapel frontage. They include a pediment (triangular structure) which is segmental and broken (semicircular and not meeting in the middle) over the entrance and a little domed bell-enclosure on the roof-ridge above. Inside, the chapel is panelled with ships’ timbers and has been preserved with few alterations since the 1690s. The complex was handed over to Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers in 1696. Today they still run this as supported housing for the elderly.
This complex shows how quadrangles give a secluded, communal feel – which is why they are often still used for housing for the elderly. A wall forms the fourth side of the quadrangle. It contains an imposing entrance gate with piers either side, topped with stone spheres. Some ground-floor windows have segmented (semicircular) pediments, while others have gabled (triangular) pediments. Extensive refurbishment has been done to adapt the houses to modern needs.
The Baroque chapel frontage features oval windows either side of a plaque (with an inscription to Edward Colston), which has its own little ‘broken’ pediment. Above, a prominent, steep pediment/gable contains a large clock. The proportions of this frontage look rather squashed. This suggests that the designer was not familiar with Baroque styles – new to Bristol at the time. The chapel contains attractive, stained glass windows.
Colston’s foundation provided his residents with a pension, initially of three shillings a week, plus twenty-four sacks of coal and ten shillings for soap and candles a year. He also built three tenements further down St Michael’s Hill whose rents helped to pay for the almshouses’ upkeep. In 1697 Colston further endowed the almshouses with the income from his rents for mills, tithes, land and churches in Northumberland.
Photography: ©Frances Gard