The Palace Hotel is a grand, beautiful pub – perhaps Bristol’s only true gin palace. It is also closed and invisible in the cityscape.
Anytime you walk from the city centre to the east via Old Market, you pass it. Or, rather, it towers over you.
At ground level, covered in graffiti and posters, you might not notice at all.
Glance up, though, and you’ll be struck by its scale, and it’s Parisian style – or maybe it’s Bruxellois? It’s certainly continental.
And too fancy, really, for a block of kebab shops and taxi offices. Yes, hold on: why is it there?
This neighborhood has changed a lot since the pub was built in 1869. Back then, before the Blitz and slum clearances, Old Market had breweries, sugar refineries and tanneries, along with street traders.
It was also home to old inns such as the notoriously haunted Lamb (long gone) and The Stag & Hounds, which is still there.
The driver for the construction of The Palace, a flamboyant new-style inn, was the coming of the railway.
It was originally built as The Railway Hotel, or Station Hotel, by someone called Thomas Morgan, as a speculative investment.
At least that’s the story that’s repeated most often, including in official documents.
Here’s what we’ve got in terms of evidence to back it up.
In the 1860s Bristol was in the grip of ‘railway mania’. There were several competing schemes (Bristol Historical Association, PDF) to extend the railway beyond Temple Meads Station into town and to the docks.
One 1862 proposal for the Bristol Central Railway suggested a line to run through Old Market connecting with the Midland Railway.
To some, this suggested the tantalising idea of a new station at Old Market.
On 4 January 1866 someone calling themselves ‘A Railway Man’ wrote to the Western Daily Press suggesting such a scheme. He also happened to feel, very strongly, that a good hotel was necessary to go with it:
lt has for many years been a matter of surprise that the directors of the three great railway companies who run their trains to Bristol have not, for the interests of their respective shareholders, supplied us with a Railway Hotel… Why don’t you build ‘The Midland Station and Hotel?’ You can calculate pretty well what you would take at the station, and I can give you idea the sum you would receive at the hotel. Say money sufficient to pay a high percentage on £50,000. Make your branch to Bath as soon as possible have your station and hotel somewhere in the Old Market Street, and you will carry nearly all the Bath and Bristol traffic over your line; and further, if your hotel-keeper provides good wines, best spirits, and fine old beer at reasonable prices, and good accommodation for travellers, you will have all passengers engaged trade stopping at your hotel.
We wonder if this was someone involved in the construction of The Palace Hotel trying to drum up enthusiasm, or attract investors?
In the summer of that year the Midland did indeed open a new station near Old Market. But it was a block back, not really very far from Temple Meads, and only for freight at first.
The CAMRA pub heritage website, which is usually a reliable source, even without footnotes, says building plans “were approved by the Council on 8 April 1869 for the developer, Thomas Morgan whose initials appear in carved roundels”.
In his Yale Pevsner architectural guide to Bristol Andrew Foyle says the architect was probably W.H. Hawtin, based on the draughtsmanship, and a known connection with Morgan. He also calls the building “absurdly high and pretentious”.
On 1 January 1870, the long-awaited passenger station opened on the same site as the goods yard. But it was far from the great terminus the speculators behind The Palace Hotel might have been gambling on.
In January 1870 the licence for a West Street (Old Market) premises called The Wine Vaults was transferred to John Sharp.
Sharp then advertised for a “youth” to help with bottling in the cellar at 1 West Street, so we’re pretty certain that’s the same building as The Palace.
CAMRA’s pub heritage website again:
“The building was probably complete in late 1870 and was leased by one John Sharp who was a wine, spirits and porter dealer in Christmas Street until 1870. By 1871 he had moved to West Street and this new, purpose-built building. You can still detect his name in the fascia outside.”
In 1872, the establishment then known as Sharp’s Wine Vaults was a hangout for people like a pair of pickpockets who, ironically, worked the Fishponds to St Philips railway line. (Bristol Times & Mirror, 26 January.)
By 1875, it was being referred to as The Palace Hotel and the upper floor, with dining rooms and sleeping quarters, was being sold off as a separate business. (Western Daily Press, 10 April.)
The sales pitch was sly:
“The situation is unexceptionably good; the premises only two minutes’ walk from the St. Philip’s Station the Midland Railway, whilst there is no private hotel in the vicinity.”
Oh yeah? Then why are you selling it?
We won’t do a blow-by-blow of the next hundred years but suffice to say that, despite its grand exterior, it became, after this, a fairly small pub in a big old shell.
You can get a good look at its ornate Victorian interior in the 1962 film Some People in which it looks anything but posh, or Parisian. Note the pickled eggs and cask Worthington.
One of our trustiest references is the 1975 booklet The Complete Guide to Bristol Pubs. Of The Palace its authors, Fred Pearce and David Wilson, say:
“It’s different, this pub. The public bar is a straight piece of Victoriana with gold pillars, lots of mirrors, a very high ceiling and original cast iron tables. To complete the picture the entire place is built on a slope and the floor itself slopes at a perilous angle – you have to take a good couple of mouthfuls out of your beer before you can put it down.”
After years of neglect it was saved, for the first time, by Thomas Brooman, a Bristolian and co-founder of WOMAD. He refurbished it completely and reinvented it as an alternative and world music venue.
It was by this time apparently known universally as The Gin Palace, despite the name over the door.
When he moved on in 2005 the pub closed and there were plans to turn it into an estate agent’s office. That didn’t happen and, instead, it became a gay bar, formally renamed The Gin Palace from 2008.
Perhaps this is why it wasn’t on the trail for Bristol beer types. Isn’t it a bit rude for straight people to turn up at a gay venue and sit in a corner drinking pints of bitter? (Genuine question. Advice welcome.)
It closed again in 2018, long before COVID reared its head, and has been a sad sight ever since.
A Victorian gin palace ten minutes from town, ten minutes from the first stops on the East Bristol Brewery Trail… It could be something. It could be Bristol’s answer to The Marble Arch.
The longer it’s closed, and left to rot, the less likely that is to happen.
But someone might be building a big metro station round the corner, we’ve heard – then who knows?
For tips on where to drink in Bristol today check out our Bristol pub guide, updated for 2023.