Christmas Steps - hospitals, almshouses and the accidental relevance of benevolence


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For the past few months I've put out a video every couple of weeks, which I have to say is much to my own amazement, and I can't imagine it will be sustained next year. But seeing as it's Christmas, I thought I would squeeze out just one more quick video, predictably choosing the obvious 'topical' topic - Christmas Steps.

The Christmas Steps is one of Bristol's most picturesque, olde-worlde type of streets (or alleyways, or whatever you want to categorise it as), tucked away in this little pocket of historic buildings that look even more the part with a dusting of snow on their rooftops.

You could almost imagine yourself back in medieval times, what with the half-timbered building overhanging the street corner; most of the other buildings are too late to be medieval, per se, being a motley jumble of 17th, 18th and 19th century construction, but they still evoke a Dickensian vibe, with the cobbles, the crooked cast-iron lamp-posts, the pigeon pecking at pizza...

Actually, the Steps as they appear today date back to 1669, as this inscription at the top of the Steps reports. There's been a thoroughfare here for much longer - it was recorded in 1480 as 'Stypstrete' but in the 1660s a local wealthy wine merchant called Jonathan Blackwell paid to have the street remodelled with flights of steps at the top and bottom. There's still a decidedly noticeable slope to the bit in between.

The new and improved street was renamed 'Queene Street', and appears as such on Millerd's 1673 map of Bristol, which I'll show with every excuse I get, because I love old maps.

A 1743 map shows it labelled as 'Queen Street or Stipe Street', suggesting the established, descriptive local name stuck around despite the generic, obsequious official one's imposition, which I can't say surprises me in the slightest. In fact, the power of local vernacular resulted in another name change, as you will already have realised by the fact this video is not entitled Queene Street, nor Steep Street, but Christmas Steps.

There are various theories where the name Christmas Steps comes from. One of the more historically obscure is that Jonathan Blackwell mentioned a Richard Christmas in his will, and some have suggested he lived or had a shop here. Another theory is that it comes from the Chapel of the Three Kings of Cologne at the top of the steps, built in 1504. The eponymous three kings of Cologne are more widely known today as the Three Wise Men of the nativity story, hence, Christmas. There's even a nativity scene in the stained glass overlooking the top of the steps.

However, it's generally held to be a more prosaic explanation: they became the Christmas Steps because at the bottom of them, you get to Christmas Street.

This of course only raises the question of why Christmas Street is so called. It is most likely a corruption of the previous name, 'Knyfsmythe Street', attested in 1350. Knife smith and Christmas don't sound much alike to me, but I think the k used to be pronounced, and k-nifesmith and Christ-mass aren't so very far apart. By 1532 city records refer to 'Christmas St. alias Knivesmith St'.

Back at the Christmas Steps, we find an eponymous pub, and I must say I really like their pub sign, injecting a very minimalist, modernist sort of take on 'steps' into this old world scene. The pub hasn't had this name for very long, though, in the grand scheme of things. Only a decade or two back this place was known as the Three Sugar Loaves.

I wondered if there was any interesting backstory to that so I did a bit of googling, and it turns out there used to be a sugar refining factory nearby which burnt down in 1859. Actually, this used to be a rather common pub name. Someone did a survey of mid-18th century alehouses and inns in Bristol, finding 850 different names, of which the single most popular was The Ship, with 37. After that came the Sugar Loaf with 30. And actually, if you added in the nine pubs called Three Sugar Loaves, you get even more Sugars than Ships, although that's a bit unfair because if you were likewise adding in variants the Ship and Stars or the Ship and Castle then the Ships would still win.

Anyway, it's obvious why a port city would have so many Ship inns, but it took me a moment to remember why sugar would have been such a big thing in Bristol, since there's no such industry to speak of here these days. It was a depressing realisation, since all the sugar unloaded in Bristol was the third arm of the triangular trade, with slaves heading from Africa to the Caribbean on Bristolian slave-ships to work in the slave-labour sugar plantations there.

About half way up the street is another indirect link with transatlantic slavery, this one being a little bit more cheerful, inasmuch as anything to do with slavery can be cheerful. As this sign at number 7 tells us, in the 1870s this was home to a chap called Carlos Trower, aka the African Blondin. The art gallery opposite has a large portrait of him in their window.

'The African Blondin' was probably a better nickname when the original Blondin was a household name; I suspect in 2022 a lot of people will need it mentioning that Blondin was a tightrope walker. Also, the African Blondin wasn't African, at least not by birth - his early life is a bit murky but he was seemingly born into slavery in the United States. Escaping at about age 10, he ended up in the UK where he took up his high wire trade.

He performed a series of gigs at the Colston Hall, which is just around the corner, and ironically famously named after a slave trader. A regular part of his act was to walk the tightrope in shackles, as an abolitionist protest. He sadly died from a neurological disease aged only 39.

The shops on Christmas Steps today tend toward the independent and interesting, with sectors like art, antiques, musical instruments and handcrafted jewellery represented. Back in the day, however, things were a little less upmarket.

Flanking the upper flights of Steps we find a series of niches on both sides. These, apparently, used to serve as flexible work-space for Victorian beggars, being occupied by women from the neighbouring Foster's Almshouses. This was built from 1861 onwards, designed by architects Foster & Wood, the same team behind Colston Hall and many other prominent Bristol buildings of the period.

It has been suggested, although not proven, that similar niches existed here even before Blackwell's overhaul, occupied by donation-seeking friars from St Bartholomew's Hospital. The hospital was at the bottom of the Steps, incorporating that half-timbered building I showed you at the start. Part of the complex dates back to the 12th century although I'll be honest, I'm not sure which part. For 'hospital', think more of a monastery than the current professional medical institution sense of the word, although it did nonetheless exist to aid the poor and sick.

As we've seen, it's nothing more than a funny linguistic coincidence that the Christmas Steps, accidentally sorta-named after a guy who preached a lot about helping the poor, runs between the medieval hospital and the Victorian almshouses; an institution at each end to help the poorest elements of society, built centuries apart. I'm not religious, and I don't want this channel to be overtly political, so I don't want to preach at anybody in any sense of the word, but I can't help noticing, a century and a half after the almshouses there are a lot of people unable to keep up with rent and heating bills this winter despite living in notionally one of the richest countries in the world. In the spirit of Christmas I politely invite people to reflect on whether this is the sort of society we should have, and if not, what steps they can take to improve matters. See what I did there?

Anyway, that's it for this video. Have a happy Christmas, unless of course you don't do Christmas, or are watching this at some random point in the future, in which case, y'know, just have a nice week. Sorry for the shoddy camerawork, that's what happens when I try and crank out a video in ten days. If you enjoyed it, then like, subscribe and all that jazz, and I'll be back next year with probably fewer but hopefully better videos. Cheers.