I reckon I’m justified in saying Bristol is fairly renowned for stomping to its own beat, so this seemed like a pretty apt introductory Bristory post.
Let’s set the scene. You are sauntering along the top of Corn Street, maybe you’re heading to eat some falafel and browse the stands in St Nick’s market, maybe you have spent your weekly wages sipping cocktails at the Rummer and are now heading to tipple your way down Small Street..….…whatever.
Next time you are mooching outside the Corn Exchange (the building which houses the entrance to St. Nick’s market with the Nails outside) have a little glance upwards to the scarlet and white clock that is ticking away the time over your head.
What you may or may not have noticed is that this clock has twominute hands, the one in red marking GMT while staunchly eleven minutes behind the black hand denotes local Bristol Time.
But what is the reason for this clock and its quirk? Let’s for a second go back to 1822 when this clock was first proudly hung up on the tympanum of the Exchange as the main public timepiece:
It is busy, really busy. Despite the fact that by the nineteenth century Bristol is struggling to hold claim to her crown of Britain’s second city, losing ground to the likes of Liverpool and Glasgow, it is still holding its own.
The new Floating Harbour is full of ships unloading hogsheads of sugar, molasses, rum, bales of cotton and an obscene amount of tobacco from the Americas, rolling off barrels of Spanish wine from Europe, leather and wool from Ireland and a whole forest worth of logwood from Scandinavia as well as a whole host of other items, from the terribly mundane to the wildly exotic.
This trade is stimulating and feeding the rapacious appetite of its industrial bedfellows which surrounded the harbour and were entrenched in the city: the sticky smell of sugar refineries and rum distilleries, the fug of cigarette manufacturers, the heat of the glass makers and the coating of sawdust and oil from the shipbuilders.
With this tremendous atmosphere encasing the city you can imagine the vigour in which the city’s merchants, traders and officials conduct their businesses (take just a pinch of modern day Wall Street and you get the gist). The focal point of these endeavours is at the top of Corn Street in the immediate vicinity of the Council House (now the Bristol Registry Office). Gentlemen and merchants congregating in and around the Exchange and the new Commercial Rooms, exchanging salacious gossip in the coffee houses and taverns and cutting deals over the Nails.
Now we would simply take our phones out of our pockets, or check our wrists to see how late we are running. But we forget how significant role public clocks played back in the 1820s when a relatively small number of people had a watch nestled in their waistcoat pockets. We forget how functional and symbolic the clock above the Exchange was, presiding over and unifying the merchants and citizens of Bristol, setting them into the same rhythm.
So, winding back to that second minute hand. Looking back at 1822 there was no standard time in the British Isles, with each city having its own local time reckoned by the sun.1 Considering this was a time when it took around 15 hours to get two London on a horse drawn stage coach, for Bristol this was not much as issue. That was until 1841 when Bristol’s adopted son Isambard Kingdom Brunel finished Temple Meads station and the 1st scheduled GWR trains began to run between the capital and its Bristol Terminus. The train was running on ‘Railway Time’ which was based on GMT, which meant for Bristolians if you were getting that 10am train you actually needed to be on it at 9.49am.
The railways revolutionised travel and transport of trade goods and eventually caused the whole Britain to adopt a standardised time.2For Bristol, as a port and industrial centre the railways were a life line and provided an artery for its trade (although ironically the growth of the rail network also contributed to Bristol’s demise as an industrial nuclei).
However Bristolians were reluctant to change their time keeping habits (never!) to be in line with the capital so a compromised was reached and Bristol Corporation arranged for a second hand to be added to show both Bristol and GMT, as it still does to this day.3
So next time I’m running late, you know what my excuse is.
For you fact fans:
- Bristol is 2° left of the Greenwich Meridian, meaning the sun reaches its midday peak 11 minutes later in Bristol than in Greenwich.
- Britain adopted GMT as a standard time in 1880, whilst British Summer Time was only instigated in 1916, after a campaign by British builder William Willet.
- Bristol adopted GMT in 1852.
Fells. Maurice, Bristol History You Can See, (Tempus: Stroud 2006)