Corn Street, Bristol, BS1 1JG
Sir Robert Smirke
Bath stone exterior
City Council House
Public access is restricted to the reception area for the purchase of certificates and registering Births, Deaths, Marriages & Civil Partnerships. Please see the official website for opening hours.
The Old Council House was designed by perhaps the most successful architect of Regency times, Sir Robert Smirke who also designed St George’s, Brandon Hill. His other famous buildings include the British Museum and the Royal College of Physicians in London – The Old Council House’s main Corn Street frontage is very similar to the Physicians’ building. Smirke was a leader in the Greek Revival style, fashionable for public buildings in the 1820s, when this was built. The main frontage is a restrained version of the style, and the simple symmetry, and Bath stone, are very elegant. Giant, fluted Ionic columns either side of the recessed main entrance add a grand feel.
It is rather small compared to 19th century public buildings in cities such as Birmingham and Manchester – a sign that Bristol was starting to fall behind in terms of status and wealth. Inside, there is a magnificent staircase with brass features and rooms with stunning 19th century decoration. Smirke’s building replaced an older Council House (built in 1704). It remained as the city’s administrative centre until 1952, when the current Council House on College Green was completed and operations moved there. Today the Old Council House contains Bristol City Council’s Register Office for births, deaths and marriages.
The building stands in a prime position at the corner of Corn Street and Broad Street – at the heart of what was historically the city’s bustling banking quarter. A statue of Justice watches over proceedings above the main entrance. This was designed by Bristol-born sculptor Edward Hodges Baily (1788-1867),whose most famous work is the statue of Nelson atop the column in London’s Trafalgar Square. Baily’s figure of Justice was much-ridiculed because she holds a sword but no scales.
Interesting external features include an attractive band running below the first-floor windows decorated with leaves. Inside, the entrance hallway has a stunning staircase with brass-work balusters styled as Doric columns, and brass fretwork on the steps. Impressive first-floor chambers contain some striking late Victorian Grecian-style decoration and a beautiful Regency ceiling with a round lantern that lights the room from above.
In 1827–9 an extension with three windows was added to the left of the main frontage to house the Magistrates Court. It was designed by R.S. Pope and G. Dymock in a low-key style that would not compete with Smirke’s main frontage. In 1899 an extension was added at the back (which can only be seen from inside) to create a much larger council chamber.
Photography: ©Frances Gard