The building was designed to accommodate the Registers and the Index which were all prescribed by two Acts of Parliament that were passed in 1836. These were “The Act for Marriages in England” and “The Births and Deaths Registration Act.” The Register Office was intended to accommodate these registers for 500 years. It had to be both fireproof and burglar proof. This is why the original design decreed that the doors were lined with iron plate, the windows cast iron with sheet iron shutters and the ceiling fireproofed. The plan made it clear not only that the office was intended to be occupied by the Registrar himself during office hours but that the building was to be used for “contracting marriages.” As can be seen below the reality fell far short of expectations!
We have evidence that the Register Office may have been used as a sort of Employment Exchange in the early days. A newspaper article of 19th September 1857 refers to the Mop Fair which was the traditional hiring fair for Thornbury’s agricultural and domestic workers. This was rather looked down upon by the local gentry and farmers. The newspaper article itself says that the Mop “tends to injure the morals of those whom it was originally intended to benefit-viz: the farm servants.” It suggests that the Mop Fair should be discontinued because “a register-office having been established in the town for the convenience of the masters and servants who have been in the habit of hiring at mop a more respectable and certain way of obtaining their desires is presented to them, open to access at any time. It is to be hoped that the masters will not attend at the Thornbury or Sodbury Mops but seek their servants from the Register Office.”
A Register Office, presumably this one, does indeed seem to have been used to advertise and fill vacancies of the sort that would have been supplied by the Mop Fairs. Coincidently perhaps, the only advertisements we have found so far in the Bristol Mercury were for staff wanted by a Mrs Ford. In 1863 the Bristol Mercury carried an advertisement for a good dairymaid. Applicants were told to apply to Mrs Ford at Thornbury Registry Office. In 1866 Mrs Ford was also seeking a housekeeper. We have not yet established who “Mrs Ford” was ( and it is not an uncommon name) but that was the name of the matron of the Workhouse, which was run by the Board of Guardians who were also responsible for the Register Office.
The original plan for the Register Office specifically said that the heating and ventilation of the Office was based on the use of a “flat iron stove which is to extend under the lobby.” This was to be accessed by stairs to the left of the lobby door. The report made by Davies and Company as late as 1961 refers to “a heating apparatus which provides some central heating.” However it would appear that one of the economies made by the Board of Guardians was to cease to light the stove. The consequences were inevitable in a building lined with metal and made to withstand fire.
On 11th June 1900 the Bristol Mercury printed a report of the affairs of the Board of Guardians which said that the Register-General Inspector had visited the Register Office in the High Street. He had apparently expressed himself as dissatisfied with the damp state of the building and correspondence had ensued which showed that the Register General thought the Office should be moved to a more suitable place where marriage rights could be performed.
The Guardians responded to this criticism with uncharacteristic haste. By the 25th of June the building was visited by some of the Guardians for the purpose of considering the suitability of the building for storage of the registry. When they met to discuss the situation, one member, Rev Vernon, suggested that the records be removed on account of the dampness of the building. Thomas King thought it absurd to do away with the Register Office and suggested that a woman be employed to light a fire there and to keep it aired and that no other action would be necessary. This received some support, but J.C. James thought the Register Office should be retained for marriages, even if the registers be removed. J. J. Harle objected on the grounds of the expense to the maintenance of the building and moved an amendment that an arrangement be made for keeping the registers at the clerk’s office. This proposal was adopted and so presumably the registers that the Register Office was designed and built to hold had to be removed because the building could not be heated and ventilated in the way that the architect intended.
More than twenty years later in December 1922 a newspaper article said that the committee that had been set up to consider how the Register Office could be used “could offer no suggestions” when it reported to the Board of Governors. One member of the Board of the Governors suggested that it should be sold, which was the first time of many that we have read that suggestion. In view of the lack of agreement the chairman decided the decision could be postponed!
On 16th June 1923 the Gazette reported on the protests from prominent residents of Thornbury to the plan to erect a public convenience at the Registry Office. The matter was discussed by the Committee of the Board of Guardians who had responsibility for the building. Mr G B Symes thought it was most unlikely that the building would be used in this way as the Committee had not decided anything. Mr Reece thought wherever the convenience was placed it should be near the “bus station.” Mr Cullimore was keen to point out that the cost of the convenience should be born by the Sanitary District. The Committee agreed to discuss the sale of the Register Office at the next meeting.
On 17th November 1923 the Board of Guardians again discussed the problem of what to do with the Register Office. The Ministry of Health wrote to say that they were prepared to authorise the letting of the building. The council seemed to feel that whatever it decided the Minister of Health would circumvent the decision. It was decided to advertise it for let and the applicant could state the rent, terms of lease and any alterations he wanted to make and the Minister of Health could decide. Having agreed not to make the decision themselves, the Board of Guardians decided to advertise the building to let.
Postponing the decision became the theme for some time to come. We have not been able to trace how the building was actually used during the next thirty years but we do know that it was still owned by what became Thornbury District Council and we have been told that amongst other things the firemen from the neighbouring fire station used it to keep their uniforms and as a a place to relax whilst on call. We also know of at least one lady who slept there during the war whilst on Fire Duty.
In 1954 an article in a Society of Thornbury Folk Bulletin Stafford Morse refers to the Register Office as the Food Office. We know that during the War Years the Food Office was at Oriel House and that this office issued ration books. It also issued shops with certificates allowing them to supply certain goods. We do not know whether this office was either transferred or extended to the Register Office. We do know that by the late 1950’s it was used as the Housing Office.
In July 1959 the Housing Office department was due to move to Stokefield House which was then the main Council Offices. At this time the Council was considering using the Register Office for the children’s section of the library. Meanwhile the Housing Department still seemed to have staff in the Register Office, despite it being considered most unsuitable.
By the 1st August 1961 Thornbury District Council seems to have been forced to consider the future of the buildings it was using. A report from Davies and Son of Queen Square in Bristol accepted that Oriel House in Castle Street had some potential to be sold at a profit but was dismissive of the Old Register Office, or “Housing Office” as it was then called. “The building adjoins the Fire Station, has a small frontage to High Street and a relatively small over-all site area. We understand that it lies in the shopping zone, though it is on the less attractive side of the street and would not itself be adaptable for retail trade. On a long term basis it is probable that the building should be demolished and the site developed by modern shop premises. It began life as a religious building of some kind, probably in the very early part of the 19th Century, though it has to the writer’s knowledge now been used as offices for something over 30 years.” We cannot explain why the surveyors believed that the Register Office was a religious building, although we found that it was later used for a time as a Sunday School.
By October 1961 Thornbury District Council had ceased to use the building as a Housing Office and had vacated the premises. The company of Howes Luce, Williams and Panes was asked to auction it. It seems that either the auction did not take place or that no one wanted to buy it.
In January 1962 the County Planning Officer agreed that the building could after all be used for office purposes. We are not sure what kind of purposes the building was first put to after this decision was made. However in June 1962 Thornbury Baptist Church wrote appealing to the Thornbury Rural District Council not to renew the tenancy as it was being used for gaming purposes. It then seems to have been used as an Estate Agent’s office.
On October 27th 1966 Maynard and Kinsley, insurance and mortgage brokers of Warwick House in St Mary Street, asked if they could rent the Old Register Office. It seems that they had heard Major Bowen of Kimberley-Bowen Estates was likely to vacate that premises. However Thornbury District Council turned the offer down because they were hoping that Gloucestershire County Council would agree to use the building as a Register Office again. The offers from John’s Furnishers of Castle Street and the auctioneers and estate agents, Messrs H.E F. Morris and Company of Oriel House Castle Street were also turned down for the same reason.
This is interesting because at the very same time that these companies were showing an interest in trading from the Old Registry Office the Engineers and Surveyors Department of Thornbury District Council was expressing doubt as to the usefulness of the building. A letter dated 28th October 1966 suggests that as it has no “local government purpose” it could be used to provide “public toilets at the rear of the premises together with telephone kiosks etc.”
On 21st November 1966 the Clerk of the District Council wrote to the Clerk of the Gloucestershire County Council saying that the present occupants of the Old Register Office had given notice and wanted to vacate the premises from 31st March 1967. Gloucestershire County Council declined the opportunity of using the old Register Office and decided to leave the Registrar of Births at number 1 High Street until it could be accommodated in Thornbury’s proposed new Health Clinic.
The indecision seems to have continued for quite some time. On 24th February 1967 Charles Frost, the Council’s Engineer and Surveyor wrote to the Clerk of the Council suggesting that “the entry to the rear land would be greatly improved if this building could be removed or perhaps developed or relocated so as to preserve the facade.” Mr Frost thought it would be a controversial move but that the High Street would benefit from an arched feature between the Dress shop (now the Indian restaurant) and the Methodist Chapel “perhaps incorporating one or two flats over separate pedestrian and vehicular entrances.” This of course was at a time when there was no road next to the Register Office as there is now.
We have some information about the various uses to which the Register Office was put during its later years.
On the 29th August 1967 the Society of Thornbury Folk wrote to Thornbury District Council confirming that the Society would be pleased to accept the terms for using the Old Register Office for a display from15th to 28th October during the Thornbury Festival. The display must have been a success as on 31st October 1967 Thornbury District Council wrote to Miss Wicks at the Cedars expressing an interest in her suggestion that the Register Office might be used as a local museum and explaining that the problem was “that the planners and other technical people involved seem not yet to be able to decide with the Ministry whether the building is to come down.”
It seems that the building was reprieved from demolition but still remained virtually unused. It was briefly used for a Sunday School. A letter of 1st November 1967 makes note that the Society for Thornbury Folk had reported that the heater did not work and perhaps it should be repaired as it had been agreed that the Methodist Sunday School children could use it. This arrangement is confirmed by an earlier letter dated July 26th 1967 from the Methodist Church. The following year, on the 20th November 1968 the Clerk of the Council wrote to the Sunday School Superintendent of Thornbury Methodist Church (Mr P. J. Johnson) to the effect that the Register Office (or Georgian House as it was known by this time) was no longer available to be used as the premises for the Sunday School because the premises had now been leased.
The documents held at Gloucester Records Office include a copy of an agreement between Thornbury Rural District Council and the Royal Insurance Company dated 1968. The plan drawn up to accompany the agreement is of interest in that at the time there were still no Castle Court flats or car parks so there was no road between what is now the Indian Restaurant and the Register Office (now a fish and chip shop).
The next occupier of the building was a local Independent Insurance Adviser called Len Smith. After he vacated the building, it was left vacant for several years. We have been told that it was acquired by Mr Parkhill in 2007. The first request for planning permission that we have seen to convert it into a fish and chip shop was made in 2008. In 2010 it was opened as “Parkie’s Chippy” a fish and chip shop.