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What happened to The Gin Palace? A dive into Bristol’s queer history and venues

Looking back on Bristol’s LGBTQIA history one might wonder what happened to iconic venues such as The Gin Palace, and what queer friendly venues can you visit in Bristol today? Hopefully this article will give you some answers

By Matilda Sunnercrantz Carter, Third Year, Music

Bristol’s Old Market has been known as Bristol’s Gay Village for almost thirty years. The Gin Palace (Palace Hotel) located in St. Nicks Market in Bristol city centre closed its doors on the 17th of March 2018. Being part of Bristol's Gay Village, the bar holds great significance to Bristol’s LGBTQ+ community.

The beautiful Victorian building was first built 1869 but didn’t become The Gin Palace we know it as today until 2008, when the owners of other gay 'Bristol Bear Bar' across the road from The Palace became the new owners and reopened it. It is also important to note that the bar is known as the only bespoke Bear Bar in the UK, hence bears being members of a subculture in the gay community.

If you’d like to see the bar’s gorgeous interior, you could take a look at Clive Donner’s 1962 Bristol-made film Some People featuring Kenneth More. With its patterned panels, statues and large columns, the interior of The Gin Palace was far from subtle. With the building being built on a slanted road (no surprise in hilly Bristol), the floor inside the building also slanted, which would definitely have given you an interesting time after a few drinks.

However, the Victorian building was built for a different purpose than being a bar. In 1862 there was a suggestion that the Bristol Central Railway would run from Temple Meads into the centre of Bristol in order to connect to the Midland Railway. The Palace hotel was supposed to serve as a lodge or waiting room for guests passing through Bristol on the railway, however the railway was never built to run through St Nicks Market. This explains the Gin Palace’s fancy interior. The building would instead serve as a popular pub, changing owners throughout the years.

Bristol’s LGBTQ+ history

If you live or have lived in Bristol, you will most likely have spent a few drunk nights out- or at least heard of- venues like OMG and Queenshilling. There have been a series of iconic venues however, holding great significance to the LGBTQIA community in Bristol, especially around The Old Market. According to Bristol247, the city has had an active LGBTQ+ community since the 70s. With a gay women’s magazine, multiple voluntary LGBTQ+ organizations as well as a festival that would evolve into Pride in Bristol, the city has been active when it came to queer rights for decades.

However, it wasn’t always easy to gather a big crowd to march in the Bristol Pride parade throughout the 80s and 90s as members of the community often were afraid of being arrested or facing homophobic attacks. On Bristol historian's website OutStories, a timeline of Bristol’s queer history gives us a rundown on a bunch of venues that have held great significance to the LGBTQ+ community throughout south-west.

Around the 20's-30's, Radnor Hotel on St Nicholas Street becomes recognized as the first Gay pub in Bristol. Between 1960-65 there’s a massive increase in openly queer venues in Bristol. Three coffee bars around Park Street and The Triangle start to host a predominantly queer audience after pub hours. Around this time, the back bar at The Ship Inn also becomes known as a gay bar. In the autumn of 1970, Moulin Rouge in Clifton becomes Bristol’s first gay club.

The venue would host drag events attracting up to five hundred guests. In the five following years there’s a second wave of queer venues opening across the city. The Ship and Oasis Club open in Park Row and Lower Park Row. The Elephant opens on St Nicholas Street, as well as Club 49 on the Christmas Steps. Unfortunately, a lot of these venues have closed today, but this doesn’t mean you can't have a hell of a night out in queer friendly venues in the area.

LGBTQ+ Venus in Bristol today

Today Frogmore Street, just off Park Street is one of the most buzzing places for a queer-friendly night out. You have the iconic OMG Club, as well as the OMG Bar just opposite. The club has a sexy atmosphere; with a pole as well as podiums to get that music video feel when you’re having a boogie.

With your favourite pop anthems playing all night you're bound to have a good time. If you are a student, the club also hosts student nights where, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll be dragged on stage (no pun intended) by an iconic drag queen to compete for amazing prizes.

Just a few doors down from OMG, you will find Queenshilling. And let me tell you, this place has some GREAT karaoke nights if that’s your vibe. If you are looking for LGBTQ+ venues in Old Market you could visit Old Market Tavern, Old Castle Green as well as the iconic BBB “Bristol Bear Bar”. There are other venues that host regular queer friendly events that are worth looking into such as the Phoenix by Cabot Circus, Old Market Assembly, Lost Horizon and The Jam Jar. In The Old City I can recommend you visit Irish Pub Seamus O’Donnells. Despite being a small venue, you are in for a good time.

Only a couple streets away you also have Blame Gloria which hosts frequent drag nights paired with some incredibly flashy interior. If you’re looking for something a little spicy in Bristol however, your best bet is Dare To Club located in the industrial quarter of Old Market. The venue hosts a broad spectrum of events including BDSM, LGBTQ+, Trans and Gay Only nights. With that said I hope this has given you some new exciting venues to visit as well as some knowledge on the LGBTQ+ history of Bristol.