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Admiral Sir William Penn

Admiral Sir William Penn

We know that Admiral Sir William Penn (1621-1670), (William Penn the Quaker’s father) was born in St Thomas’ Parish, Bristol but his date of birth is not recorded. It is known that he was baptised in St Thomas church on 23rd April, 1621. St Thomas church is close to the River Avon in Bristol and the district was the centre of much of the city’s maritime and industrial activity at that time. During the English Revolution (1640-49) Admiral Penn, when not at sea, lived with his family in London. in 1643 his home city of Bristol was attacked by Royalist forces led by that most brutal of commanders, Prince Rupert (the German nephew of Charles I). Rupert’s forces robbed, sacked and burned homes, turning out many from their houses.

St Thomas from James Millerd's Great Map of Bristol, 1673

St Thomas from James Millerd’s Great Map of Bristol, 1673

St Thomas Martyr parish was part of a suburb which was probably laid out in the 12th century. The church (also known as St. Thomas the Apostle), in St. Thomas Street was described as ‘an elegant building’ as early as 1200. The parish was full of rich clothiers who donated money to the church. Before the completion of St Mary Redcliffe, members of the influential Canyngyes family were buried in St Thomas.

The church was dedicated to Thomas Becket, who was martyred at Canterbury, Kent in 1170 and canonised in 1173. In 1538 Henry VIII ordered that Becket should no longer be considered a saint and references to “the martyr” were crossed out of the church records. Under the Tudor Reformation the St Thomas Parish became part of the Diocese of Bristol when that diocese was created in 1542.

In 1789 the church, except for its famous 14th century leaning tower, was demolished  and the present church was built. The nave was rebuilt 1791–93 by James Allen.

St Thomas 2St Thomas was granted independent parochial status on 16 October 1852.

Between 1878 and 1880 significant changes were carried out by William Venn Gough. Later, 1896-97, Gough remodelled the top of the tower with a spirelet, pinnacles, and pierced parapet.

St Thomas church survived the blitz of World War Two but the area around changed beyond recognition. Most of the surrounding area became covered by office blocks.

When the Reverend Marwood Paterson retired in the 1940s, no new vicar was appointed. The church, devoid of a local population, struggled on for several years. The parish was united with St Mary Redliffe in 1956 and the church was used as a centre for the propagation of Christianity among those engaged in industry in Bristol. This work was transferred to the Bristol Cathedral in 1977. The last service was held at Christmas 1982. It is now closed and in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

St Thomas 1Little now survives of the old parish buildings, once home to rich clothiers, glovers, glassmakers and wine importers whose trading activities supported the church.

One of the few remaining inns of the parish is the Seven Stars Tavern, right next to St Thomas’, where anti-slavery campaigner, Reverend Thomas Clarkson, gathered information on the slave trade. His evidence helped bring about the abolition of slavery in Britain and is commemorated by a community plaque by Mike Baker.