Stephen Bourne gave a really fascinating insight into his career as a self-taught historian in last night’s talk. Stephen’s initial book Aunt Esther’s Story which came out thirty years ago was based on his link to the older women in his family whose stories of their experiences on the Home Front in Second World War London fascinated him when he “bunked off” school in the 1970’s. He co-wrote a book with his black aunt Esther. Esther was adopted into his warm working class family when she lost her parents. This book led him into a world of research and writing having left school with few qualifications. With funding available for community History Stephen has been a pioneer in piecing together the jigsaw pieces of British Black History. He wrote for the vast array of independent magazines available in the 1990’s including The Voice, Race Today and The Caribbean Times. Stephen struggled to get his books published without a literary agent and but once they were published, they sold! There was and is a real audience for Black British History and particularly for the voice of Black Britons telling their own stories. His books have included work on the Black Home Front in both wars, Black Servicemen as well as writing about Gay History. Black Poppies which first came out in 2014 was republished in 2019. Stephen’s books are on areas that today would form a PhD thesis but then he was pioneering Black History before such topics were being taught in universities. Stephen was refreshingly honest and open about the barriers facing him including lack of interest at the BBC and told a great story about the enthusiastic reception he got from 13 year old Liverpool school children and bus drivers. His latest project is working on a children’s version of Black Poppies to be used in his local London schools because of the lack of resources. While understanding why teachers taught American Black Civil Rights, he urged the need for more inclusivity of Black British History because this subject is essential for our children. Now recognized by the academic establishment with an Honorary Fellowship Stephen reminded so many of us that we learnt History first by listening to the stories of our families and for some of us by not finding ourselves in the version of History served up for us in our schools and universities.
Our first lecture of the new season. Wednesday 6th October.
Tim explored some of the fascinating journeys he took using the maps produced during the Festival of Britain year (1951). The aim was to see how Britain had changed over a seventy year period for his new book About Britain. His journey from Canterbury to Margate beginning on the Roman Stone Street was soon interrupted by the M20. He showed us the Airport Café that is all that remains of the airport which once hosted the Silver Airways Company where people drove their cars onto planes, replaced in the 1960’s by ferries. These changing transport technologies touched on Britain’s flirtation with the Hovercraft which disappeared in the 1970’s. The two themes he took were how our thinking had changed about land and about the past. How land had gone from being cleared in East Anglia to being reclaimed. How the 1950’s writers of these guidebooks especially WG Hoskins view of an upward trajectory of progress has been replaced by conservation and attempts to put back what had been “destroyed”. This included on his Welsh journey the eradication in the 1990’s of the Rhododendrons in Snowdonia and the bringing back of original plants and rewilding. The guidebooks had offered a very bucolic eternal view of the English landscape and seemed to go out of the way to ignore our Victorian industrial heritage (“dull” “boot and shoe” and “hosiery towns”). Since the 1970’s industrial archaeology had seen a point in preserving this part of the landscape. Our Victorian and even Twentieth century landscape was now being appreciated including the preservation of Preston Bus Station! Tim’s thought-provoking lecture finished with speculation on what his children might find if they undertook a similar journey in seventy years’ time. Question and Answers followed including what for Tim had been the most positive and saddest change he had found – A Viking ship replica in Kent and the neglected town of Burnley were the answers.
Book review by Rob Pritchard Bristol Historical Association. 14th September 2021
The book costs £12 and is available from independent bookshops, which will either stock it or order copies for you. Or you can order directly from the publisher Bristol Books via their website www.bristolbooks.org and they will post it to you. ISBN number: 9781909446298
Pills, Shocks and Jabs is a worthy sequel to Peter Cullimore’s book Saints, Crooks and Slavers. As one would expect from a journalist, the book is extremely well written. It is also superbly illustrated and is an ideal read for anyone interested in 18th century Bristol, the history of medicine or the fascinating story of Quakerism.
In the early eighteenth century there were about a thousand Quakers in Bristol which had a population of about 20,000. Given their number the Quakers seemed to have had a disproportionate influence on the life of the city. Until about 1700 they were persecuted and even imprisoned for their beliefs which included pacifism. Like all nonconformists (dissenters) they were excluded from politics, the civil service and the army and navy. Like many nonconformists the Quakers turned their energies towards business. Some of them had made money from Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade but by the middle of the century they had become passionate about abolition. This was after all the Age of Enlightenment. As philanthropists Bristol Quakers used their money to invest in good causes such as health care for the poor.
The Bristol Quakers were a tight knit community. Women played a leading role in Quaker society. Peter Cullimore’s book has an extremely interesting chapter on what he calls Quakerville which lay to the north of the old city around Stokes Croft. There is a very useful map which takes you around places such as Brunswick Square, King Square, Broad Street and of course Quaker Friars. The magnificent website Know Your Place will be very useful in this respect. I can recommend this walk to our readers. I always feel very sad about the loss of St James Square which was damaged in the Blitz and then destroyed by post war developers. By the end of the eighteenth century the affluent classes had moved up the hill to Clifton.
The Bristol Quakers spent a great deal of time together. Much of what we know about them comes from their diaries and letters. Peter describes Sarah Champion Fox (1742-1811) as the queen bee of the Quaker community. She kept an excellent diary for half a century and we have Madge Dresser to thank for editing this in 2003. The Quakers were not keen on portraits but there are some delightful illustrations by Dr Thomas Pole of life in the Quaker house at 14 St James Square.
The core of Peter’s book is the story of eighteenth century medicine. In an age before anaesthetics, antiseptics and the germ theory, medical practitioners struggled to help their patients. There were apothecaries, surgeons, physicians and druggists. Many were well meaning. Some were qualified. A few were effective. The Bristol Quakers such as Shurmer Bath, Dr John Till Adams, Ann Till Adams, Dr Abraham Ludlow and Dr Thomas Pole stand out for working hard to help patients both rich and poor. Their story is supported by non-Quakers such as Dr Edward Jenner and John Wesley.
For chocolate lovers there is a chapter on Fry’s chocolate which claimed to have medicinal qualities. Then there were the medical conmen. There is the cautionary tale of William Broderip who made a fortune oversubscribing pills and powders. The chapter on the use of electric shock treatments is quite shocking. Nevertheless, John Wesley and others advocated the use of electricity because it was seen as a multi-purpose remedy that had come from God, a kind of divine fire.
Many eighteenth century remedies may have had a placebo effect but the story of Jenner’s smallpox vaccination is very relevant in an age of vaccine passports. Dr Abraham Ludlow had already established an ‘inoculating house’ at Barton Hill.
Healthcare for the poor was virtually non existent but Quakers such as Dr Ludlow worked at the new Bristol Infirmary and helped set up the Bristol Dispensary (with Methodists). As well as providing free medical care the Dispensary used midwives to deliver about 1.000 babies. Some of the new generation of midwives were men. By the end of the century many women preferred man-midwives.
In my perambulations up Johnny Ball Lane, I had never realised that I was walking past the original Bristol Infirmary burial ground. The chapter on body snatchers shows how surgeons and students raided such burial grounds to obtain bodies for medical dissection. Even Quaker doctors played the role of resurrection men. The story of ‘Long Jack’ shows the risks they took.
The chapter on the Bristol Infirmary is poignant at a time when developers are keen to get their hands on Bristol’s older hospital buildings. Quaker medical men played a key role in the establishment of one of the first hospitals in England outside London. It may surprise readers to know that the surgeons and physicians were elected! The story of the election of a new surgeon at the city’s Merchant Tailor’s Hall in 1767 is hilarious. Political allegiances seemed to matter more than medical skills. Nevertheless, change was coming. By 1774 women had the right to vote in the Bristol Infirmary elections.
Many Quaker practitioners were pioneers in other fields. Dr Edward Long Fox petitioned parliament to abolish the slave trade in 1788, tended the wounded after the Bristol Bridge riot of 1793 and argued for a peace treaty with Revolutionary France in 1795. Not surprisingly he was not popular with more conservative forces in Bristol. His key work however was his construction of a revolutionary asylum at Brislington House in 1806. Peter’s book shows how ground breaking Dr Fox’s asylum was when compared with asylums such as the infamous Bedlam.
The book ends with the story of Dr Thomas Pole who had parallel careers as a travelling Quaker minister, surgeon, physician and obstetrician.
The Quakers were ‘movers and shakers’ in eighteenth century Bristol. They had a wide range of interests and played a vital role in the Age of Enlightenment.
I would like to finish this review with a family memory of Quaker ‘good works’. My grandparents worked for the Fry family at Failand House in the 1920s. My grandfather was Lady Fry’s chauffeur. One of his jobs was to drive her to Horfield Prison where she gave lantern slide talks to the prisoners. My grandfather’s job was to set up the projector and change the slides. Meanwhile back at Failand House Lady Fry’s daughter Agnes set up a small school where she gave my four aunts (who were all going to work in service) additional school lessons.
Dr Evan Jones provided a fascinating tour of the streets and groves to the north of the medieval city. His research has provided a fresh perspective on life in medieval Bristol. Nineteen Bristol HA folk attended. The official title of the tour was ‘From Grope Cunt Lane to Fucking Grove: a sex tour of medieval Bristol’
Evan began by St John the Baptist in Nelson Street. In the Middle Ages this street was called Grope Cunt Lane. The area was close to the ships docked at the Quay/Key head and so the local prostitutes had plenty of customers. Evan explained how words such as cunt had a somewhat different meaning. Nevertheless, by the eighteenth century the city fathers were becoming embarrassed by such street names and were looking for more respectable names. Nelson was a patriotic name and could be accepted by most Bristolians.
We moved on to St Stephen’s and discussed recent research into marriages in the parish. From there we moved on to Host Street (next to Christmas Steps) which had originally been called Whore Street. Once again, the city fathers sought to make it more respectable. Whore Street was changed to Horse Street and eventually Host Street.
From there we progressed to Park Row and talked about the garden houses/allotments that enabled some richer Bristolians to rise above the stench of the city below.
By the University Wills building and then Priory Road, Evan talked about the groves (Hither Fockynggrove and Inner Fockynggrove) that sat on the northern boundary of the 1373 City & County of Bristol boundary. Evan provided a map indicating the position of the county boundary stones. At least one of these has been found.
The groves were areas where couples could walk and talk and engage in more intimate activities away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Evan explained medieval and early modern attitudes to sex. Most couples had very little privacy. Beds and bedrooms were often crowded. Hence the attraction of the groves on the boundary with Gloucestershire.
The tour provided an intriguing picture of how sexual language and attitudes have changed in the last six centuries. It also gave us a tantalizing view of a side of Bristol that is now so different.
The Unprofitable Servant [ISBN-10 : 1838210377 and ISBN-13 : 978-1838210373] – is set in Bristol and its environs during the reign of Mary Tudor. The basic theme of the story is that a little knowledge can be an extremely dangerous thing, particularly in the wrong hands.
Thanks to a great deal of media interest in the Tudors over the last few years everyone thinks that they know what happened during the reign of “Bloody” Mary. Protestants were hunted down like dogs and burnt at the stake during a reign of terror which lasted five years.
The story is much more interesting than that, however. Real people were in the grip of genuine concerns for their lives, their souls, their salvation, and over imaginings of what would happen to them in the afterlife. Some were so concerned that they took matters into their own hands, following false preachers, blind to anything else.
Balancing these concerns was an ingrained need to obey their social and cultural superiors, copying them and, in their most private spaces mocking them. It was in those places were these imperatives crossed where some of the best stories emerge.
The Unprofitable Servant (a novel based on real events) is set at the very start of the so-called “burning times” – when events in far off London were no more than horrific rumours. The former (and very first) bishop of the diocese of Bristol, Lord Paul Bushe, is recalled into the service of his church by the second and much less experienced bishop who fears the repercussions for the city and region if rumours of an emerging sectarian problem in the Kingswood Forest are true. Bushe reluctantly agrees to investigate, juggling official duties and personal objectives as he gets pulled back into a world and a life with which he thought himself finished. As the reputed leaders of this sect are known to him personally, does he really have a choice?
Along the way, Bushe reminisces about his times as a bishop (serving one of England’s most important cities), and his time as a servant of the great Henry VIII and the boy Edward VI, as an agent of Thomas Cromwell, recalling the princess he once knew and the queen she has now become.
The main protagonist is a woman, a potential new Anne Askew named Margaret Burgess. She is serious about her faith but unaware of the impact she is having on her husband John, his work, and their livelihood, as well as of the little prophecy group they host in the wool yards and dying houses of their little corner of England. Bushe must find them, confront them, and save their souls before their antics bring down a rain of a royal hellfire which will burn everything in its path.
We finished our 2020-21 season with an excellent illustrated talk by local historian and author Eugene Byrne. As a journalist Eugene has been able to observe at close hand the many schemes put forward by developers in Bristol over the last few decades. As an historian he can offer a longer term perspective of the many structures planned but not built over the last 250 years. He began of course with William Bridges’ 1793 design for a bridge over the Avon Gorge. It would have been breath taking. Eat your heart out Bath with your Pulteney Bridge!
Many of Bristol’s schemes have a habit of coming back to haunt us. The Severn Barrage was first planned in1849 but has re-emerged in 1920, 1933, 1943, 1967, 1773, 1981 and 2007. Eugene looked at the various plans for Bristol Docks, new road schemes and numerous ideas for Bristol Harbourside including the 1997 Harbourside Centre, 1999 Little Venice and the ill fated 2003 plan for the Bristol Arena. Of particular interest were the post war plans for Bristol that began in the middle of the Blitz in 1941 with the visionary City Architect John Nelson Meredith. There were many rival plans but the City Council’s 1945 plan included a bid for the compulsory purchase of 771 acres of land. In the end post war austerity limited the Council to four and a half acres. Nevertheless, we still got Broadmead, Castle Park (eventually) and many new road schemes. In the 1940s Bristol planners believed cars were the solution but by the 1970s Bristol was lamenting the loss of its tram system. From 1979 there have been a succession of plans for trams and supertrams starting with the Avon Metro. Today the Mayor is once again promising an underground. Eugene looked at recent ideas for the Castle Park/High Street site and alluded to the ongoing arguments about football stadiums.
A pattern emerged. During periods of prosperity engineers, planners and developers have big ideas but along comes a recession and the schemes are kicked into the long grass. In the debate that followed Eugene’s talk the audience offered conspiracy theories and pointed out structures that should never have been built. There was some agreement that a return to an Avon/Greater Bristol authority would solve some of Bristol’s planning problems.
Eugene’s book Unbuilt Bristol’ is available in all good bookshops. It should be compulsory reading for our Mayor, developers and planners.
Last night’s talk by three gifted and committed local History teachers about teachers’ response to last summer’s events was an inspirational event in an exceptional year for the Bristol Branch of the HA. Richard Kennett of Redland Green School put the project into context by discussing the emotions and reactions last summer’s toppling of Colston’s Statue and the Black Lives Matter Movement had aroused for the teachers of Bristol. They re-examined their teaching of this episode in Black British History and especially Bristol’s own History. Sally Thorne Head of Humanities at Colston’s Girls School (soon to be renamed Montpelier High) explained the problems with a victim narrative of Black History that too often centred on the mechanics and the macabre elements rather than putting Black people at the centre of the story. The problems with using source material that related to US History rather than the Caribbean were well established together with the unsuitability of using empathy and the silences or gaps that existed in much of the teaching of this topic before 2020. Kate Smee Head of Humanities at Fairfield High School picked up the presentation by examining how this project established
A wider narrative including three continents with named locations not just generalisations
Put enslaved people at the forefront of the story and gave them agency
Put the focus on impact not just mechanics
Kate discussed in particular how teachers could also learn from their students about the experiences they had had of racism. She drew thought provoking parallels with the teaching of the Holocaust. Richard then explained how the book these teachers had written with support from the Museum, the City of Bristol and the University was produced in a very different way from the typical materials produced by publishers. It had been peer reviewed by academics with specialist knowledge every step of the way, with particular mention of one of our speaker’s this year Dr Richard Stone. It had also been peer reviewed by Black teachers and local History teachers of different political outlooks. There was a really enthusiastic and lively discussion by the audience after the talk. It was clear many could not wait to read this textbook and use it with their students. The book is being published this summer and Richard, Kate and Sally are giving a talk about the project at this summer’s National HA Conference. Today Rob received lots of feedback from members who are no longer teachers who were just as excited by the talk.
Dr Lewis of Bristol University is a specialist in twentieth century global and transnational history particularly in South and South East Asia. She gave a very relevant and topical talk about the historical roots of protest in Myanmar which she traced back to the late nineteenth century and British Colonialism. She used little seen photographs of Rangoon University and its students to describe the culture of the 1920’s-1940’s and some of those students who became leaders of the Nationalist movement including Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San who was Myanmar’s first democratic leader and founder of the Burmese Army. The lively atmosphere at Rangoon University in the interwar period with its mixture of female and male students was fascinating. The talk linked these nationalist protests by students to the much more recent events in which Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a national icon. It also stressed the part played by thousands of ordinary people (many in education) in these protests and what they had suffered as a result.
The audience of thirty asked many questions at the end of the talk on a topic we all felt was highly relevant not only because of the protests in Myanmar but also because of the role of the young in protests in our own country.