The Ghosts of Redcliff

In his book Bristol As It Was: 1879-1874 (1), Reece Winstone gathered together nine photographs under the title A Walk Along Redcliff Street. He dated the images to 1875 and identified each view, but was unable to ascertain the photographer.

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery owns seven of the series, all matte albumen paper prints taken from glass plate negatives. By careful examination of what they show, it’s possible to reconstruct the route the photographer took on his walk and where he stopped on the way to take pictures.

Images in the series

There are two reasons why this story is called The Ghosts Of Redcliff. Firstly, the photographs in A Walk Along Redcliff Street show buildings that would eventually be demolished, businesses that would become extinct and long dead people. They offer a glimpse of the past, a few hours in the life of a single city street. When compared with other historical sources, such as trade directories, newspapers, street maps and genealogical information, it’s possible to uncover more and bring those buildings, businesses and people back to life. Secondly, the appearance of a photographer anywhere in the 1870s was a novelty. People would have stopped to watch and inadvertently had their photograph taken, but not all of them staying still long enough to appear fully-formed (2). The moving of limbs and heads and the walking away of figures during long exposure times resulted in ghostly blurs and shadows commonly seen in old photographs. In this series these ghosts are particularly evident.

Historically, Redcliff Street was the primary thoroughfare from Bristol to Somerset, and its earliest trades were linked to weaving cloth and dyeing. In the seventeenth century these had expanded to include sugar, soap and vinegar production. By the nineteenth century huge numbers of workshops, offices, warehouses and dwellings had been built along both sides of Redcliff Street to facilitate a bewildering range of new trades, services and industries. The number and quality of these buildings, and the infrastructure they relied upon, soon became inadequate. Redcliff Street fell into squalor, so much so that by 1874 the area was described as “a disgrace to the city” (3). Shortly after these photographs were taken, the character of the street would change once more. Between 1875 and 1877 Redcliff Street was altered to facilitate the laying of the lines for, initially, horse-drawn, and later electric trams. A road that was just ten feet across in places was widened to twenty feet, resulting in the loss of any building in the way.

Redcliff Street is now unrecognisable from A Walk Along Redcliff Street. Now, just three pre-twentieth buildings remain. These are located in a small group at the southern end of Redcliff Street near to Portwall Lane (including no. 60, the grade II listed Ringer’s Tobacco Factory). However, sections of old walls and arches can be seen built into new buildings, evidence of earlier brick- and stonework for those who search. And the area is still changing. A large development known as Redcliff Quarter is currently under construction and will provide apartments, offices, cafes, restaurants and a hotel. When complete its new buildings will occupy almost half of the east side of Redcliff Street, and cover the land between Redcliff and St Thomas Streets.

The original numbering of the buildings on Redcliff Street commenced at the corner of Redcliff and Victoria Streets, near to Bristol Bridge, and ran from 1 to 80 along the east side, then from 81 to 146 back along the west side. The unknown photographer started at 146 Redcliff Street and, for the majority of the photographs, set up his camera on the west side of the street, pointed it roughly southwards and captured mostly the east side of the street.

(1) 1879-1874 is an example of Reece Winstone’s idiosyncratic titling of his books. (2) If the photographer was using a gelatin dry glass plate negative process, invented 1871 and still in its infancy in 1875, then he would be carrying a bulky wooden box camera, cumbersome tripod and glass plate carrying case. If he was using the more established wet collodion glass plate process, then his equipment would have included all of the above, and also a mobile darkroom – this could be as elaborate as a small van on wheels, hand-pulled or horse-driven, or a large portmanteau case on its own stand containing bottles of chemical solutions and trays (wet collodion glass plates required immediate developing after they had been exposed in the camera). Exposure times for both negative processes varied from about five seconds to a few minutes, depending on available light. (3) The Annals of Bristol, John Latimer, 1887, page 480