Redcliffe Shot Tower: a world-first in industrial history, demolished for a 60s road-widening scheme


Wikipedia - et al

Know Your Place Bristol

Redcliffe Caves - the shot tower

Local Heroes: William Watts

Work in Bristol 1883

St Cuthbert's mines listing

Shot tower listing

Pre-demolition survey

Photo credits

Photos from 'Know Your Place', linked above

Errata, clarifications and additions

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In my last video I looked at how 1960s planners were awfully keen to drive urban motorways through Bristol city centre, potentially destroying swathes of the historic fabric of the docks, houses, pubs and so on. The scheme in question in that video never really materialised, thankfully, but other 1960s road schemes did come to fruition, and they came at a cost.

One example is here on Redcliffe Hill, where this utterly charmless stretch of dual carriageway required the sacrifice of a genuine world-first piece of industrial history.

Somewhere in front of the pub on the right is the location where William Watts, an 18th century Bristolian plumber, used to live, and in 1782 he was granted a patent for the production of lead shot with a shot tower.

If you’re not sure what I mean by shot, then Wikipedia helpfully explains: “The shot is primarily used for projectiles in shotguns, and also for ballast, radiation shielding, and “ - this is the part I find slightly less helpful and more hilarious - “other applications in which small lead balls are useful.”

This invention may not sound as glamorous or world-changing as inventing, say, the steam engine or railway locomotive, but make no mistake, this was a big deal in its own way. William Watts’ superior quality shot made him huge amounts of money, gained him the Freedom of the City of Bristol and introductions to the King, supposedly a personal fan of his product. As one poet put it…

Mr. Watts very soon a patent got,
So that only himself could make Patent Shot,
And King George and his son declared they’d not
Shoot with anything else - and they ordered a lot.
(The Regent swore that the smallest spot
In a bird’s eye he’d surely dot :
And every sportsman, both sober and sot,
From the peer in his hall to the hind in his cot,
Vowed that they cared not a single jot,
When the game was strong and the chase was hot,
For anything else than the Patent Shot.

Well... splendid.

Anyway, let's go back to the point when the invention was originally, well, invented. Legend reports that the inspiration for this process came in a dream. Unfortunately, legend agrees on very little else. In some versions, William had the dream. In others, his wife. In some versions, it was an immediate eureka moment. In others, the dream recurred two or three times before he took it seriously. I’m personally more inclined to side with the source which said, paraphrasing, that this dream story sounds like a load of old nonsense, the dude was a plumber, obviously he was gonna have some ideas about working with lead.

Dream or otherwise, he reportedly had the idea that molten lead, poured through a sort of sieve or colander and then allowed to drop from a great height, would form into spheres as it fell, and if dropped into cold water, it would solidify in this nice, near-perfect spherical shape. He allegedly tested his theory by climbing the spire of St Mary Redcliffe, and upon finding that it worked, and set about turning his own house into the world’s first shot tower.

Well, actually, if the story about climbing the church is true, I suppose that would be the world’s first shot tower. Could we say first ‘purpose-built’ shot tower perhaps? Even that is a bit debatable since his house, which dated from circa 1680-1700, a merchant’s house which was said to be one of the oldest brick structures in all of Bristol.

The bigger the drop, the larger shot you could make, so Watts extended in both directions - adding the tower seen here but also digging a shaft deep into the rock below to create an overall drop of about 90 feet, or 27 metres. This was tall enough for him to make 2mm diameter shot.

One interesting bit of trivia is that pure lead does not, in fact, separate into a stream of spherical droplets. Most production of lead shot requires the addition of small amounts of arsenic which increases the surface tension and thus encourages droplet formation. Watts, presumably, simply got very lucky, in that his source of lead was the nearby Mendip Hills, where lead naturally contained the appropriate levels of arsenic. One of his sources was St Cuthbert’s Mines, which had been worked since Roman times, and which by slightly amazing coincidence I visited five years ago, way before I ever heard of William Watts, which gives me an excuse to include this photo.

Although the shot production was making stacks of money, Watts decided to cash in, and sold his business for £10,000. I read one source which simply said he moved into property development in Clifton, and knowing Clifton as an extremely affluent area where the houses sell for squillions of pounds, I thought, oh good for him. He not only managed to get himself rich, he leveraged that into getting seriously wealthy.

Then I read a slightly more detailed source, and, unfortunately I could hardly have been more wrong. By 1794 he was bankrupt. He had invested in constructing Windsor Terrace, which is this resplendent Georgian terrace near the suspension bridge. Houses there currently change hands for a couple of millions of pounds apiece so it undoubtedly made one or two property speculators hugely rich over the centuries, but alas, not Watts. With its challenging cliff-side location, the construction of the retaining wall alone was reportedly enough to exhaust Watts’ fortune.

No happy ending for William Watts then, and unfortunately no happy ending for his shot tower either, as you will already have deduced from its absence in my present-day footage. However, it did enjoy an extremely long period of successful operation. It changed hands several times, in 1868 coming into the possession of the Sheldon Bush & Patent Shot Company.

If you’re interested in how it operated in the Victorian era, there’s an 1883 document called “Work in Bristol” which goes into some detail, but to be honest, besides describing the walls as “crusted over with a foul greenish deposit” it’s pretty dry.

I found more quotably entertaining material in the 1968 report by John Mosse, an architect sent to survey the tower before its demolition that same year. He described it as a privilege to see the falling molten lead, but noted dryly that “the workman seemed to be in attendance, rather than in control of the process”. As for the building, he declared “there is little doubt that [it] had reached the end of its useful life”; the tower was 13 inches leaning from true vertical, walls were made of lath and plaster, floors bent and deflected as he walked around. He compares the fact that it still worked to produce lead shot at all to the proverbial aerodynamicist confounded by the fact a bumblebee can, in fact, fly.

But it was still working. So the ultimate cause for its demolition was not physical decay or economic obsolescence, although those were surely not too far away. What finished it off was a road-widening scheme. Redcliff Hill was to be widened from the two lanes seen here, to the two lanes in each direction that we see today. This was deemed sufficiently necessary to justify demolishing what was already then a listed building, i.e., supposedly protected for its historical significance.

Not just the shot tower, either, but this whole street of old buildings, and the architecture of the replacement buildings doesn’t exactly inspire any positivity about the change. Even as someone who is often perversely fond of the jarring concrete lumps from the 60s that everybody else tends to hate, I can’t find much to celebrate in this Mercure Hotel. Fans of traditional architecture will hate the lack of ornamentation, the repetitive concrete blockiness and so on, but it falls well short of the “so ugly, stark, brutal or overbearing that it has a dystopian appeal” category. From a certain angle I can just barely see a tiny hint of crisp geometric appeal, but it’s ultimately very mediocre.

And closest to the actual location of the old shot tower, this flat roofed pub. I’ll steer well clear of the social jibes associated with flat roofed pubs, but from a purely architectural perspective, this bunker aesthetic - it’s not exactly good looking, is it?

Was the wider road worth it? Of course, it’s easy to play Captain Hindsight, but from today’s perspective it’s hard to see the widening as particularly useful or necessary. Redcliff Hill is only 300m in length, and of all the roads it connects to, only Redcliff Way is a dual carriageway or bigger-than-two-lane affair. There is very little to be gained by having traffic queuing along single lane city streets, then getting a dual-lane speed boost for 300m before returning to single-file queueing. In fact, the extra lane these days is a bus lane, so the cars don’t even really get that capacity boost at all.

As for the bus lane, well, I suppose if I want to encourage public transport then I should be celebrating its existence, but I can’t help noticing the historic photos of the shot tower show overhead lines for a tram, and it’s hard to see that going from a tram corridor to a bus lane is anything other than a retrograde step.

Of course, it’s very unfair to condemn the Redcliff Way widening as useless because of its short length, and that it doesn't connect to equivalent roads these days. In the past, a dual carriageway cut across Queen Square to The Centre, before sanity prevailed in 1992 and the square was restored to something like its original Georgian layout. I'll hopefully do another video on this in future.

Subsequently, Redcliffe Bridge was bus-gated.

To the south, the original intention was for a dual-carriageway link all the way from Redcliff Way to the A38 Bridgwater Road - a Bedminster bypass. In the end, Bedminster saw quite a lot of demolition in preparation for the new road, and we were blessed with Dalby Avenue as a sort of half-arsed East Street bypass, but the full dual carriageway didn’t materialise.

It’s probably for the best, because today in Bristol, and elsewhere, we are very often in the process of unbuilding all of these 60s road projects. I mentioned how Queen Square’s dual carriageway has already been unbuilt, and even as I wrote this script, the council released press releases for new plans to replace this roundabout with a smaller signalised junction.

It is suggested that remodelling the roads here can deliver various benefits beyond the road layout changes themselves: the landscape setting of St Mary Redcliffe can be enhanced, and building homes on the reclaimed land can help chip away at the housing shortage, although to be honest I can’t quite see how those two goals will be compatible.

Of course, there’s no bringing the demolished shot tower back. But surprisingly, that was not the end of Bristol’s shot production story. I say surprisingly, because you might expect that by this time the entire notion of a shot production facility in a British city centre was pretty obsolete. Surely by now economies of scale and so forth made the whole idea a bit ludicrous, as lead shot could be produced far more cheaply by some ginormous facility in some industrial park, probably in some other country. But apparently not. Sheldon Bush took their £25,000 compensation and matched it with the same investment of their own, to spend £50,000 to build a new shot tower only about 700m away.

This is where my plans for this video rather fell apart, because by impeccable timing, just as I decide a video on Bristol’s shot towers, plural, might be interesting, a load of scaffolding went up around the new one, for some refurbishment programme. No worries, I thought, I’m sure I can just dig through some old photos and find something. But no, somehow I’ve gone all these years living here without taking a single useful illustrative snap of the shot tower. Wikimedia does allow me to offer up this view, sufficient to give you the general idea that the 1969 tower was built in a very 1969 style.

But I think I’ll wait for the current refurbishment to complete and the scaffolding to come down before I look at the Cheese Lane Shot Tower properly. Either as a dedicated mini-video or perhaps as part of a survey of Bristol brutalism.

So, that’s all for this video. As always, I hope you enjoyed it, thanks for watching, and thanks to all the people whose work I have built upon in making it. In particular, Bristol council’s ‘Know your place’ website furnished me with most of the photos of the Redcliffe Shot Tower. While that site has tons of cool old stuff on it, it’s not very clear at labelling the copyright status, licensing terms or who should be attributed for any particular image. Previously I have tried to be very scrupulous about only using images that I am explicitly allowed to use by Creative Commons or Public Domain; in this case I took my chances a bit; since this is a non-commercial, educational video, it feels like Fair Use to me.

Anyway, if you liked the video, why not give it a like, and subscribe, in case I make any more.