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Celebrating local and community history month

by <object object at 0x7fa9ec990580> last modified 14/05/2024 10:06 AM

Old Market Bristol

May is Local History month, so to celebrate we’ve been looking back at our heritage project, Vice and Virtue, that documented the rich history of Old Market in East Bristol, where The Trinity Centre calls home.

Early History

Old Market is an ancient marketplace which once stood outside the walls of the Old City and served as a main thoroughfare for goods arriving from London into Bristol.

The area contains some of Bristol’s oldest buildings, with over 60 listed buildings including the Methodist Central Hall, The Palace Hotel, and – of course – Holy Trinity Church, aka The Trinity Centre.

Following the demolition of Bristol Castle in 1656, the area was redeveloped and stone from the castle is said to have been used to repave Old Market Street, with many of the original 17th century building frontages remaining to this day.

Old Market Street was a thriving centre for trade in meat and vegetables, as well as being home to an assortment of small industries specialising in the production of farming utensils, as well as several brewers, maltsters, and public houses.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution radically transformed Old Market, with major new businesses attracting workers from across the South West. New opportunities for employment led to East Bristol’s rapid urbanisation during this period. By 1881, the population of St Phillips rose from approximately 8,000 in 1801 to 50,000.

Religion was seen as a major civilising force that followed rapid urbanisation, and as such, many churches were built in these expanding urban areas. One such church was Holy Trinity Church, now The Trinity Centre, which was built between 1829 and 1832 by Thomas Rickman and Henry Hutchinson, two architects from Birmingham and seated 1,500 people.

The new railway added to the hustle and bustle of Old Market. Traffic increased significantly when an electric tramway was introduced in 1876. Unsurprisingly, the street market struggled to coexist with the tram network, and the market ceased to operate during the 19th century, which signalled the start of rapid change in the area.

The Golden Years, 1900-1939

Old Market Street, with its transport links, entertainment centres and range of shops, was an important and vibrant part of Bristol. The first 30 years of the 20th century were marked by a series of bold new development, including The King’s Cinema, The Methodist Central Hall and The Empire Theatre, catering to a new appetite for culture and the arts. While the traditional street market from which Old Market gets its name had faded out during this period, in its place came a range of new stores and retail businesses.

Old Market was part of the ‘golden mile’ of streets that stretched from Lawrence Hill to the City Centre, with a diverse offering of shops attracting visitors from far and wide.

Decline and Rejuvenation

Bristol breathed a sigh of relief after the Second World War, in which the city’s Historic City Centre was decimated during the Bristol Blitz, with Castle and Vine Street being flattened by bombings. However, across the city, including in Old Market, life did not return to normal immediately, with essential food items subject to rationing until 1954.

After the Second World War, Old Market had become increasingly isolated and sidelined. Now Castle Street was no more, Old Market stood on the other side of a bomb site which many Bristolians feared to cross. The electric trams ceased operation in 1941, and by the 1950s, St Philips Station was closed to passengers, further isolating the area.

The bombing of Bristol’s historic centre led to new approaches to housing, in particular high-rise flats of the 1950s, which dramatically changed the face of St Jude’s and Old Market. Old Market also had to compete with the newly built Broadmead shopping centre. The development of the ring road and roundabout as part of the 1966 Development Plan further isolated Old Market from the rest of Central Bristol. Within a dozen years, the ‘high street’ atmosphere of Old Market had all but disappeared, with a dramatic decrease in footfall in the area.

However, the idea that Old Market went into terminal decline after the Ring Road masks a more complex picture. Old Market’s isolation opened a space in which new cultures and subcultures emerged. Since then, Old Market has becoming a bustling centre of nightlife and culture, becoming a home for Bristol’s LGBTQ+ community, alongside a new and diverse offering of restaurants, bars and clubs. With one of the fastest growing populations in Bristol, Old Market’s future seems to be one defined by its eclectic mix of cultures and lifestyles.

Click here to explore Trinity's archives to find out more about the history of The Trinity Centre and Old Market.

This news item is based on information gathered as part of Trinity's Vice and Virtue project.

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