College Green is where traditional and modern Bristol often collide. It can be an oasis of calm one minute, and anything but the next, and the reason for this paradox is that although it belongs to Bristol Cathedral, it is managed by Bristol City Council whose offices overlook the Green.
Originally, the area was the enclosed graveyard of St. Augustine’s Abbey, but after it became a casualty of Henry VIII’s Dissolution, the abbey became a collegiate church and the area occupied by the graveyard became the College Green. In 1542 the church became Bristol Cathedral, but the area has been known as College Green ever since.
On a lovely summer’s day, it’s an ideal place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city centre, and students often take full advantage of it to sprawl out during their never-ending lunch break while they plan their next protest march. To be fair though, we only have to look across the moat of the council offices to see where they get their inspiration from, but more about that in a moment because I want to put the area into context first.
The Green is triangular in shape, and the apex is where the original main road from the mouth of the Avon met the road that led up to Clifton: In today’s Bristol, it’s where Deanery Road meets Park Street. At the top of the Green, the arc of the triangle is occupied by the council offices which were opened in 1956 after relocating from the original Council House in Corn Street.
Deanery Road is occupied by the Cathedral, and buildings such as the Royal Hotel and Central Library add to the traditional feel of this side of the Green, especially as the road is now closed to traffic except for access to the hotel.
The architecture on the Park Street side of the Green is not so classical as Deanery Road, but there is one building that is only a hundred years younger than St. Augustine’s Abbey – St. Mark’s Church. Originally built by Maurice de Gaunt, a grandson of Robert Fitzharding (the Abbey’s founder), it came into the hands of the mayor and Corporation of Bristol in 1722. Today it is more commonly known as the Lord Mayor’s Chapel and one of only two churches in England that are owned and still used for worship by a city corporation. The other is St. Lawrence Jewry in the City of London.
Just like London, Bristol has two mayors: The Lord Mayor is regarded as the city’s first citizen and elected by fellow councillors to carry out civic and ceremonial duties. It’s an office that has been around since 1216 (although known as just Mayor until 1898). After a referendum in 2012, the city also has a mayor that is directly elected by the citizens of Bristol. It’s worth knowing the difference because I’m about to discuss some of the issues that have cropped up since this new office was created.
On 15th November 2012 the people of Bristol elected independent candidate, George Ferguson as the first mayor to represent their views Presumably, his self-proclaimed “establishment rebel” credentials attracted the voters, but they may have wondered if they’d made the right choice when on his first day in office, he changed the name of the council offices from the ‘Council House’ to ‘City Hall’ – a name that Bristolians have never accepted: They still refer to it is the Counts Louse, whatever George wanted it called.
The mayor’s objectives seemed to curry favour with environmentalists and organizations like Extinction rebellion more than they did for workers trying to get across town during rush hour, and he was instrumental in helping the city win the bid for European Green Capital in 2015.
His influence in environmental affairs was still evident after he left office, when in 2020 he organised a demonstration on College Green where 30,000 people turned up in pouring rain to hear Greta Thunberg give a speech about how the planet was being burnt to a cinder. After the event was over the environmentalists marched through the city streets waving their ‘Save the Planet’ banners, leaving behind a quagmire that festival goers at Glastonbury would have been proud of, but at least it was peaceful.
His alternative ideas didn’t quite resonate with the majority of Bristolians who seemed to be quite happy to have a mayor who wanted to buck the system – but not in the way that George wanted to buck it – and at the first opportunity he was kicked out of office.
One thing he could have done, but didn’t, was address the thorny question of what to do about the statue of slave trader Edward Colston. Until he became mayor, George was a member of the Merchant Venturers Association, an organisation responsible for erecting the statue in the first place. Many people, myself included, thought that the time for the statue to be removed was long overdue, and George Ferguson was in a good position to do it – but he never did.
Snapping at his heels in the first election was the winner of the second – a Labour candidate by the name of Marvin Rees. Marvin in many ways is the complete opposite of George Ferguson. Whereas George was a middle-class idealist, Marvin was born to mixed race parents and grew up in more humble surroundings. Needless to say, his agenda was very different to his predecessor’s, and nobody should have been surprised at his lukewarm reaction to the toppling of Colston’s statue in 2020. It may have pleased some people, but to many Bristolians, erasing the city’s history in this way didn’t go down too well. He may have been a slave trader, but he was also a major philanthropist to the citizens of Bristol providing schools and facilities for the old and sick.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of a mob unceremoniously dumping the statue of Edward Colston in the harbour are, it raises two fundamental questions. Firstly, has it improved race relations within the city? And secondly, what do you do when another mob does something similar that you don’t approve of, and it wasn’t long before ‘Marvellous Marv’ was to find out. In March of this year, a ‘Kill the Bill’ demonstration on College Green started off peacefully enough, but as protestors marched down to the police headquarters at Bridewell the situation started to turn ugly. At the dumping of Colston into the harbour the police were ordered not to intervene, but for three days and nights at Bridewell they had no choice but to stand and fight.
On a lighter note, next to the Counts Louse in Deanery Road is a statue of Rajah Rammohun Roy that has thankfully been left to stand without attracting any unwanted attention. In 2004 this Bengal reformer was ranked at No.10 in a list of greatest Bengalis of all time, and the more I read about him, the more I can see why. I won’t go into his life story here (even if I could) but suffice it to say that he successfully campaigned against child marriage and Sati, which was the practice of burning widows.
The “Father of the Bengal Renaissance” as he is called by historians, was born in Radhangar (near Calcutta) in 1772, and it was at a time when the British ruled in India. His campaigns brought him to England, and in 1883 he was invited to the city by Lant Carpenter, the Unitarian minister of Lewin’s Mead Chapel, but on 27th September he suddenly died of meningitis. He was buried at the place where he passed away in Stapleton Grove, but ten years later was given a more fitting burial in a mausoleum at Arnos Vale Cemetery. Every year on the Sunday nearest to the day of his death, the Indian High Commission joins the Lord Mayor in a commemoration service at one of the cemetery’s most prestigious tombs.
While I’m on the subject of statues, there’s one of Queen Victoria at the apex of the green near the Royal Hotel, but she hasn’t been so lucky as the Rajah. She was erected here in 1888 to replace the replica Bristol Cross, but true to the spirit of anti-establishment Bristolian culture, in 2016, local feminist and street artist Vaj, thought that it was a good idea to give the Queen a pair of legs and pubic hair. The authorities for once didn’t quite see it the same way and removed the additional embellishment within 24 hours.
Vaj was an admirer of fellow Bristolian artist Banksy, and where College Green meets the bottom of Park Street is one of his famous creations. Well Hung Lover may be a bit past its sell-by date now, but when it was painted in 2006 it caused quite a stir. At a time when the council was trying to crack down on graffiti, Banksy stencilled the image onto the wall of a sexual health clinic, and the message is self-explanatory.
For once, the council, after wanting to get rid of it, reacted to public pressure and initiated a poll, in which 97% of the replies came out in favour of keeping it. The mural then became the first legal piece of street art in the UK. Of course, it had to be attacked by a paintball vandal to keep the anti-establishment culture of Bristol going. The establishment itself tried to clean it up a bit, but it was defaced again in 2018. It seems that Banksy, whether he likes it or not, has now become part of the Bristol Establishment – whatever that is.