Glassfields, Bristol

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The Cirencester team has recently concluded an excavation undertaken in advance of development at Glassfields, Bristol. This site is located just to the east of the historic core of Bristol, close to the River Avon and Temple Meads railway station. It takes its name from its close proximity to a former Glassworks, located on the southern side of Avon Street (formerly Cheese Lane).

Excavating the domestic and industrial buildings
Excavating the domestic and industrial buildings

The excavations revealed a wide range of structures relating to both domestic and industrial occupation from the latter half of the 17th century through to the present day. These included cellars, wells, cess pits and walls relating to the Bristol Distillery, a producer of whisky up until the 1940s. Some very well preserved kilns, used for producing clay tobacco pipes in the 19th century, were also uncovered.

The heavily disturbed remains of an unusual circular structure
The heavily disturbed remains of an unusual circular structure

Prior to the 17th century, the site was open pasture land on the edge of the Avon. Before the development of this area a large amount of the underlying floodplain clay had been extracted via large pits, most likely to supply the brick kilns that were in operation nearby in the 17th century. These pits were then infilled with both domestic and industrial waste and the ground level raised to provide a dry area for occupation. Terraced domestic buildings were constructed fronting onto both Bread Street (now Old Bread Street) and Cheese Lane. In addition to the domestic dwellings an unusual stone circular structure was built within a larger, stone-founded, building with a slightly curved southern end and mortar floors. The original function of this building is unknown as unfortunately most of the stone was robbed at a later date, and subsequent buildings built across it. All that remains is a small triangular segment of stonework and the rubble filled circular shadow of the original structure, along with the parts of the mortar floor and outer walls of the building. One possibility is that the circular stone structure was the base for a large vat or ‘pug mill’ used for mixing clay and water to make the clay suitable for brick or pottery manufacture, or for mixing mortar. Within the vat would have been a pair of wheels or blades connected to a shaft that may have been turned by a horse or labourers walking on the mortar floors surrounding the perimeter of the circular structure.

Towards the middle part of the 17th century a warehouse was built over this structure, and this long narrow new building extended between Bread Street and Cheese Lane. It was acquired by The Bristol Distillery Company in 1782 and was used to store full whisky barrels prior to delivery. A large number of short, sturdy ‘sleeper walls’, used to support the floors can be clearly seen, especially to the west of this structure. Contemporary reports suggest that the whisky produced by the company was both ‘bland and tasteless’ and also ‘highly suspect’. Some of the immature whisky blends – which still contained some toxic elements – were ‘boosted with meths and creosote’ to give it the smoky taste of Scotch! The distillery building was destroyed in December 1940 during an enemy bombing raid. After this the entire site was cleared and for the latter part of the 20th century was used for commercial activity.

To the north of Bread Street three kilns were uncovered. Two of these formed a pair, brick-built and set within a semi-cellared room, behind a cobbled courtyard leading from Bread Street. The discovery of clay tobacco-pipe bowls with the stamp ‘JW’, coupled with documentary evidence, prove that these kilns were constructed by James Winchester at some time after 1837, and were operational until 1866. The kilns were used to fire clay tobacco pipes, popular at that time.

A third, smaller, stone-built kiln was also recorded close by. This kiln was set between two earlier property boundary walls and may also have been used for clay pipe manufacture – possibly James Winchester’s first kiln at the property in the 1830s.