The Corporation of Bristol has a long tradition of record keeping. At an early date it showed a praiseworthy recognition of the importance of caring for its archives by making this the subject of the first of the Ordinances of 1381. By this, all its records, papers and muniments were to be "in good keeping within the Guildhall or some other privy place under lock of which the Mayor and three of the commons had keys." From the Little Red Book begun in 1344, it would seem that even before 1381 the stewards or seneschals were appointed to keep the common treasure of the town, the charters, muniments, records and all other remembrances and things delivered to them, whilst the recorder and the common clerk had the keeping of most of the court rolls as well as other briefs, commissions and remembrances, and the Tolzey clerk kept those of the Tolzey. Despite the concern of the Council for the preservation of the town's records, many of the medieval records were lost, but fortunately many of the vanished originals were enrolled in the Little Red Book.
When in 1499, a royal charter was granted making revision of the town's constitution, a chamberlain was appointed whose duties included the keeping of all charters, evidences, bonds and muniments.
In the 16th century, the quantity of records greatly increased, largely owing to the acquisition by the Corporation of many estates and manors, resulting in the accumulation of many more property deeds and in increased administrative work. It is at this time that many of the principal series of records begin. Although there are many instructions to be found in the proceedings of the Common Council touching the ordering of the records, they seem to have been inadequate. The cause may be attributed in part to the lack of accommodation for the every-growing bulk of records and in part to the confusion arising from the somewhat ill-defined division of responsibility for their custody between the Chamberlain and the Town Clerk.
In the 14th century the records were kept in the Guildhall and it would appear that with certain exceptions there they remained until the 16th century. After the dissolution of the chantries, St George's Chapel adjoining the Guildhall was closed and the building was then used as a repository for the city archives. About the same time (1551) a new Council House or Tolzey was built in Corn Street where provision was made for keeping some of the archives, although it seems that most of the records remained in St George's Chapel. The Town Clerk must have kept the important administrative records in his custody.
In 1625, it was decided that one of the aldermen, certain members of the Council and "Mr.Town Clerke ... doe begin on Monday next, to meet att St George's Chapell, in the afternoone and doe remove all writinges and evidence which there remaine into the Armoury House, and thereupon doe give order to have sufficient Presses and boxes made in St George's Chapell for placing the evidences there againe, and that they be sorted and divided in competent boxes and chests apart ... and that they doe procure a parchment booke for the inrolling of all such Towne Evidences and other things as they shall think expedient and soe continue every Friday and Monday in the afternoones untill the business be finished". It is probable that the oldest records were not fully sorted and that others were removed to the Council House and the rest left stored away, for on the 9th April 1633, other aldermen and councillors with the Town Clerk were "appointed and desired to peruse the old records and writinges now remayning in St George's Chappell in the presses there, to take notice of them and sorte them into order, and to take a course to have them safely laid up in Chestes under locke and key and this is to be done at convenient times twixt this and Christmas next". In 1641, the Town Clerk and steward were again ordered to see that all records were brought into the Tolzey. Six years later a new order was issued that all records and books belonging either to the Mayor's or to the Tolzey court and all books concerning the city's revenues and lands shall be brought in and kept in the Tolzey of Bristol and not elsewhere "unless such as shal be from time to time laid up in the Guildhall Chappell and Closett thereto belonging."
From these instructions given by the Common Council it is clear that the Town Clerk was considered the responsible officer and yet the Chamberlain had the custody of a great number of records which he kept in the Guildhall or St. George's Chapel. In 1788, an attempt was made to settle the matter of custody of the city's archives. The Town Clerk was ordered "to take possession of all records, books, papers, manuscripts, etc. belonging to the Corporation, and deposit the same in safe and proper places and keep the keys thereof and that no Person whatsoever be allowed reference thereto but members of the Common Council and that an inventory be taken of the same with an index thereto as soon as conveniently may be". None of these contemporary inventories has survived. At the time (1788) further accommodation was provided when the Council House was enlarged, and again in 1827 when a new Council House was erected on the same site, in which large rooms under the roof were assigned to the storage of records, and in the years preceding the First World War when several modern strongrooms were built.
Following the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, the Finance committee (later the Estates and General Purposes committee) took among its functions the superintendence of the Corporation archives. An inventory of the muniments was begun in 1836 and through the following century there is growing evidence of a deeper interest in the city's archives as historical records. This was to lead to the setting up of the Archives Office in 1924.
Since that time the vast collection has been sorted, catalogued, evacuated during the war, moved to the new Council House on College Green and subsequently moved to its present home in 'B' Bond Warehouse.