The History of 17-31 Parkstreet

Freemasons’ Hall on Park Street Bristol is a Grade II* listed building with the biography of the building being an interesting one.

Construction work started in 1820 and since that time the building has evolved and has seen enormous changes. During its existence, the building has served several purposes. 

In the early part of its history, it was The Philosophical Institution for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art. Later becoming Bristol’s first public Museum and even the one time accommodation office for the City Analyst Mr Stoddard. 

Since 1871 it has been the permanent home for Bristol Freemasons. 

The early history of the building was strongly influenced by two of the most influential scientific men of this period namely Dr Thomas Beddoes and Sir Humphry Davy.
Dr. Beddoes was a surgeon-apothecary who founded The Pneumatic Institution in Dowry Square, Bristol. It was established to research the medicinal effect of newly found gases as a means of treatment. The inhalation of different gases he called pneumatic medicine.  Between 1792 and 1798 Beddoes had published many case histories principally concerning the inhalation of oxygen and hydrogen.
In 1798 Beddoes was made aware of a young apprentice surgeon-apothecary in Penzance, who demonstrated an aptitude for research in the same scientific field.

In this way Beddoes introduced to Bristol probably the greatest and most brilliant of the scientific men who have made this City their home. The Scientist’s name was Humphrey Davy, the inventor of the Davy Safety Lamp, and the discoverer that Nitrous Oxide Gas could be used as an anaesthetic. 

The important realisation that Nitrous Oxide (laughing gas) could be used as an anaesthetic relieved so many dental patients from the pain and suffering of tooth extraction. 

Davy was appointed as the Superintendent of the Pneumatic Institution. Humphry Davy headed the Institution's laboratory, examining the effects of various gases including carbon monoxide which he tested on himself with near fatal consequences.

Both Beddoes and Davy were determined to improve general scientific knowledge and with this in mind suggested that a Philosophical Society and Institution would be of enormous value to the City of Bristol. This idea was widely approved by their contemporaries of the time and the formation of a Philosophical Society and Institute was started. Such was his growing reputation that Davy soon moved to London to continue his research but the fact that the Bristol Philosophical Institution was favoured by him helped considerably to its success. 

The entire cost of the building, in excess of £14,000, was chiefly raised by subscriptions and in I820 building operations began. The highly talented architect and Brother Mason Prof. Charles Robert Cockerell, R.A. designed the building in the Grecian style and as a research institute and Museum. Cockerell was one of the leading members of his profession at the time, whose fame was known throughout many parts of Europe. 

The Foundation Stone of this building was laid on the 29th day of February 1820, in the second month of the Reign of George the Fourth, by the Right Worshipful William Fripp Lord Mayor of Bristol. The stone was laid in the presence of the Aldermen and Council plus other principal Inhabitants of the City of Bristol.

It was opened for use about the beginning of 1823, and was intended as a Museum, and for exhibitions of Art, as well as for lectures on Science and other intellectual subjects.  

A most distinguished son of Bristol is the celebrated Sculptor Edward Hodges Baily, R.A., F.R.S. Baily is a world renowned Sculptor most noted for his statue of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. 

He was born in Bristol in 1788 and wished to do something for his native City and consequently undertook the carving of the beautiful Portland Stone allegorical Frieze which is placed above the front entrance of the building. 

The subject represents:--

“The Arts and Sciences and Literature being introduced by Apollo and Minerva to the City of Bristol; who, seated on the Avon, receives them under her maternal protection and dispenses to their encouragement and rewards, whilst Plenty unveils herself to Peace, since under their happy influence those explanations of the human intellect flourish and improve.”

Within the building was placed his beautiful statue of Eve at the fountain which is now on display at the Bristol Museum and Art gallery. 

From 1823 to 1870 it was one of the principal public buildings in Bristol, used for scientific and literary lectures, and exhibitions of objects and experiments of all kinds.

The whole of the upper floor was devoted to the exhibition of fossils, geological specimens, and natural history objects. The Bristol Museum has always been remarkable for its collection of fossil remains; some of the most important specimens in existence were originally housed in this building. The collection was contributed to by many of our leading geologists of the day.

Prominent amongst the objects exhibited in the rooms upstairs were the skeletons of a bottle-nosed whale that was stranded somewhere along the River Severn, an elephant and a skeleton of the giant Irish elk, now extinct. This was all displayed in what is now Lodge Room no: 1; all these specimens are now in the Bristol Museum. 

There were many Scientific, technical and popular lectures given at the premises at frequent intervals. Many of the exhibits, chiefly biological and geological, were of great value and in some cases unique. Several well-known citizens and scientists took a great interest in the work of the Museum and many gave lectures there and conducted scientific classes.

During the later part of the 19th Century, a new free entry Museum was opened at Queens Road in Bristol and consequently, over the years, the popularity of the Park Street Museum waned. The attendances at the various lectures and entertainments at this building gradually dwindled. Sadly, it meant the demise of the building as a viable Museum. 

In 1870 it was agreed that the Institution should be amalgamated with the Bristol Library and Museum and removed to the new premises in Queens Road. 

In August 1870 W.B. William Augustus Frederick Powell made an offer of £5,500 for the purchase of the premises. This offer was declined as the Trustees of the Philosophical Institute were unanimously of opinion that, as they represented so large a body of Shareholders, they were bound to proceed to a public sale. 

It is reported at the time that the auction was attended by The Deputy Provincial Grand Master, The Provincial Grand Registrar and The Grand superintendent of Works and the premises was bought for £5960. 

For the next year, the building underwent extensive reconstruction and the building was dedicated to the purposes of the Craft by the Earl of Limerick, P.G.M., on February 2nd, 1872. The dedication took place in front of 400 Brethren. Lord Limerick was quoted to have said,”

“It is though the Hall itself had been so planned, that no better or more suitable structure could well be erected for Masonic purposes.”

During the second period of the building’s history, namely since 1872 up to the present time, it has been fully occupied with the requirements of Freemasonry. It has been the centre of those activities in the City and Bristol is unique as being the only Province where all Lodges meet in the same Building. 

The History of 17-31 Parkstreet Key Dates