Main Index

ST THOMAS THE MARTYR

CITY

BRISTOL

Crossing Bristol Bridge from the old city you enter the first suburb of the city, often referred to as the Temple area after Temple Church. St Thomas is closer to Bristol Bridge and west of what is now Victoria Street, whilst Temple church is to the east. Both were large medieval churches but St Thomas was rebuilt in the C18 except for the massive west tower. To the north is the massive office block of the Robertson Building, and to the west is its car park area, so rarely seen without a sea of vehicles, except on Good Friday when the picture above was taken. The church was first mentioned in the early C13, and was probably founded c1200. Until 1852 it was a chapel-of-ease to Bedminster Parish Church as was St Mary Redcliffe nearby.

Of the medieval church the tower survives. This stood at the north-west corner of the church, and is late C15, restored in 1896-97. The only depiction of the former church is found on James Millerd's Great Map of Bristol, 1673. He depicts a church five bays long without transepts. He also shows what appears to be a central tower, referred to as the lantern. The Churchwardens' accounts of 1620 state that "Paid Saml. Griffen glazier for newe glazinge the iii great windowes in the churche lanthorne beinge 374 foote of glasse at 4d per foote..... 6.4s8d." It is likely the depiction is accurate, as Millerd was an attender at services here and became churchwarden himself in 1676. This lantern seems to have been a local feature, as the churches of St Nicholas and St John-on-the-Wall are shown with these features on the 1673 map and that at St John's survives. Millerd shows however twin bell openings on each stage of the tower whereas today these are single.
The exterior has fine ashlar stonework to the chancel and the tower, the other walls are rendered with stone dressings. The tower sits most unhappily in juxta-position to the church, but it seems to have stood in this angle of the medieval church too. It is massive, has an open parapet with set-back pinnacles in three corners and a "Bristol spirelet" in the fourth. The parish rooms adjoin to the north of the tower (and were offered for sale at Easter 2002!) The new church has a narthex which connects the tower to the nave, and here are the only other remains of the medieval church, the west respond of the north arcade and springers for the vault of the northaisle and four sumptuous bosses. This aisle must have been a splendid sight.

The body of the church was found to be in poor repair and the Churchwardens' accounts show the decision to demolish it which was done 1789-90. James Allen designed the new church which held its first service on 21st December 1793. Outside there is little to distinguish it apart from the ashlar-faced east end which is treated as a giant blank Venetian window with Ionic pilasters with the (now) circular window placed in the top of the central "light" with a garland swag and pediment above. The original plan had a semi-circular window here, the alterations were done in 1879. The south-east (disused) porch also has a fine external pedimented doorway.

Inside the cool classical lines of the church enhance the dark-stained fittings, many of which seem designed for the church but were in fact previously in the medieval building. Yet it also has the feel of a Gothic church with clerestoried nave and aisles. The main ceiling is a panelled tunnel vault, and the chancel has a fine coffered ceiling. The west gallery is like a Doric portico and originally carried the organ. It dates from c1728. Above is a row of memorials and a large frame for a painting which was commissioned in 1827 (St Thomas before Our Lord by John King) to be added to the top of the reredos, moved here in the 1879 restoration and badly damaged in a fire towards the end of the C20 following redundancy. The box pews made for the old church in 1755. were cut down for in the 1878-9 restoration, the surplus oak used for wainscoting in the aisles; here the original mahogany capping is till in place on top of the pews.
The space above the gallery was created by the removal of the 1730 organ case to the east end of the north aisle. This too was destroyed by a fire in the late C20 and the present organ case I believe came from the church of St Werburgh. The reredos is splendid work of 1716 with Corinthian pilasters and columns. The original composition included The Lord's Prayer, The Ten Commandments and The Creed in the large panels. The paintings there now of The Prodigal Son, The Sermon on the Mount and The Good Samaritan are by Fritz von Kamptz (who was then living in Clifton) and put up in 1907. The altar rails are late C18 but the altar itself dates from 1879.
The three-decker pulpit stood in the centre of the nave, it was cut down into its present form in 1879. The lectern opposite has been made from the former Georgian font.
The replacement font stands in the south aisle and is particularly well-suited to the church, despite its 1879 date. In the south chapel the original communion table is preserved, together with a semi-circular rail that stood in front of the font-now-lectern.

The view below comes from the collection of Rev.D.Cawley with permission. It is an unusual view taken c1970 but shows the east end off to perfection. The ashlar stonework contrast sharply with the rendered side walls.

       

The church is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust and is usually open on Mondays 1100-1600. At othertimes a key is available nearby.

Back to Bristol churches Index

page created 9th June 2002