No visit to Bristol would be complete without following in the footsteps of the merchants, explorers, and privateers who helped make the city one of England’s foremost ports.
Times have changed of course, and these days you won’t need to worry about bumping into press-gangs, one-legged sailors, or having a Black Spot thrust into the palm of your hand, so grab your treasure map and follow me around the riverside streets of old Bristol where I’ll attempt to sort out fact from fiction about the places and characters that gave Bristol its seafaring reputation.
My post, From Brycgstowe to Bristol, explains why a river crossing was made at the point where the River Frome joined the Avon near Bristol Bridge, and if you stand on the bridge and look downstream, you’ll see Redcliffe Back on the left hand side of the river and Welsh Back on the right. These ‘Backs’ were at the heart of Bristol’s early maritime trade until the Frome was diverted, and they were literally the backs of merchants’ houses where goods could be loaded directly onto the ships.
As Bristol expanded outside of the city walls, it spread down towards the river crossing and onto the marshy ground next to it. The area between Welsh Back, and what is now St. Augustine’s Reach, became a hive of activity for all sorts of maritime business, and not all of it legitimate.
Welsh Back is the cobbled thoroughfare at the end of the bridge next to Baldwin Street: Its name comes from the trading links that Bristol had with Wales when flat-bottomed sailing barges called trows were used to transport timber, coal, and slate across the Severn and up the Avon. There are no trows here now, but at the bottom of King Street is the Llandoger Trow, one of Bristol’s most historic pubs.
Dating from 1664, the pub is named after Llandogo, a village that lies on the banks of the River Wye between Chepstow and Monmouth, and as you might have guessed, a place where trows were built. One of those people who regularly sailed his trow from Llandogo to Bristol was a Captain Hawkins, and on his retirement became the first landlord of the hostelry which he named the Llandoger Trow.
Legend has it that the pub was an inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and although the author wasn’t supposed to have visited Bristol until after the book had been published, you can’t fail to notice similarities with the dockside as it would have looked in the 18th century.
In the book, Bristol was the departure point for the Hispaniola, and although I would accept that it may well have been a coincidence that Jim Hawkins, the boy hero, had the same name as the first landlord of the Llandoger Trow, I’m not so convinced that Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS) didn’t take the idea of Ben Gunn, the castaway on Treasure Island, from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
It’s widely believed that Daniel Defoe met Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe, here in the Llandoger Trow. There’s certainly some credibility in this story because Alexander Selkirk was rescued by Woodes Rogers, a local privateer (or pirate to you and me) who lived in Queen Square just around the corner, and it was his ship that brought him back to Bristol.
As tempting as it might be to walk up King Street, I’d like to suggest that we return to Welsh Back. Directly in front of you is an old barge that is called the Apple Cider Boat. If you’re a landlubber and thinking about ‘Walking the Plank’ to try out one or two of the thirty odd ciders on board with names like ‘Tractor Fuel’, then you might prefer to take one of the benches on the quayside instead. That way you’ll know for sure whether it’s you or the boat that is swaying. They sell other drinks as well of course, including as you would expect rum, but I don’t think I need to remind anybody that mixing a tot of Captain Morgan’s with a pint of Old Bristolian at 8% is not really recommended.
On the corner of Little King Street, almost opposite, is a building which doesn’t have a long history as such, but one that you should take a good look at. There are no prizes for guessing that ‘The Granary’, as it’s called, was a grain store: It was built in the 19th century in what was known as the Bristol Byzantine style. There are still quite a number of these buildings dotted around the city centre, but to my mind this is one of the best. These days, this one hundred-foot 10 storey building has been converted into trendy apartments, but I fondly remember it as a jazz hangout run by Acker Bilk before it became a venue for some of the big names in rock such as Genesis, Yes, Iron Maiden and many others.
At the far end of Welsh Back on the corner of Queen Square and The Grove is a pub called the ‘Hole in the Wall’; It’s not an uncommon name for a pub, but it is unusual for what the hole in the wall at this pub was used for. The secret spy-hole allowed people to look out without being seen, a useful tool for not being apprehended by the customs men or press-gangs that operated in the area.
Places like this were ideal locations for coercing motley crews of drunken sailors into one that was fit to sail the seven seas for the navy or slave traders: The death rates for crews aboard the slave ships were high, and it wasn’t uncommon for ship owners to grease the palms of unscrupulous landlords who would get their customers drunk and into debt: Those that got caught in the web would, more often than not, prefer to take their chance at sea rather than be locked up in the debtors’ prison.
Many people believe that RLS got the idea of naming ‘The Spyglass’ inn where Long John Silver worked as a cook, from the Hole in the Wall, and if you remember, the old sea dog and his parrot were able to provide a crew for Squire Trelawney as well.
One of Long John’s crew was a man called Israel Hands. He was the one who took control of the Hispaniola when Mr Arrow, the First Mate, mysteriously disappeared overboard. Just in case you’ve already forgotten that Treasure Island was a fictional tale, I also have to tell you that there was also a real pirate that went by the same name, and just as in the book where he was Long John’s second in command, then in real life he was second in command to Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.
Blackbeard was probably the most infamous pirate of all time, and although once again, there’s no tangible proof to support the claim, it’s a commonly held belief that he was born in Bristol, probably on the opposite side of the river in Redcliffe. Blackbeard was definitely no fictional pirate: On the contrary, this giant of a man was a larger than life character who terrorised the Eastern Seaboard of America and the Caribbean during the early part of the 18th century. He was not only immensely strong; his appearance was pretty fearsome too: His nickname came from the enormous beard he sported that grew “up to his eyes” which he twisted into braids and then tucked behind his ears. Imagine, if you can, this powerful man bearing down on you in battle with an array of weapons that would make any normal person scarper: Daggers, Axes, and swords were all part of the armoury, but it didn’t end there. Apparently, he wore a belt across his chest that held several pistols so that he could fire more than one at a time – and here’s the best bit – the fuses that he lit the guns with were tucked underneath his hat making it look as though he was on fire.
Blackbeard had an insatiable appetite for rum and attacking merchant ships, and I suppose it was inevitable that he wouldn’t end his life slipping away quietly in a comfortable bed in New Providence or Bristol. His life, as you would expect, ended violently in North Carolina.
It would be easy to write a book about Blackbeard but I think it’s time to move on and take a look around Queen Square. Named after Queen Anne, this handsome looking square was constructed in the early part of the 18th century, with Rysbrack’s splendid statue of William III adding the final touch in 1736.
You could easily be forgiven for thinking that this gentrified oasis of calm was far removed from the exploits of the sort of business people like Blackbeard carried out, but you would be quite wrong, because this was where several trading merchants ran their unsavoury, but lucrative, businesses in the sugar and tobacco plantations of the Caribbean and Eastern seaboard of America.
As we’ve already seen, these merchants were quite happy to use unscrupulous methods to commandeer their crew, but what some people may not realise is that they also used similar methods to transport local people to work there. If you didn’t mind being a servant to an employer for several years, you could get a free passage to the New World, but when that didn’t work, they resorted to transporting prisoners instead, and it even went as far as kidnapping young children as well.
As we all know, it didn’t stop there, and an even more sinister trade was set up between Africa, Bristol, and the Caribbean. By 1775 there were seven African merchants based in the square, as well as a Caribbean and Virginian tobacco merchant. One resident, Christopher Claxton, was even an activist in campaigning against the abolition of slavery.
The Slave Trade may have made Bristol a wealthy city in financial terms but it has left a legacy that many people feel extremely uncomfortable with today. People like Edward Colston were heavily involved in the trade, and yet at the same time he was a great benefactor and philanthropist to the city: Even where I went to school in my younger years had connections to his generosity: It’s one of the reasons that the Colston Hall (Bristol’s premier music venue) still bears his name, and why a statue of him still stands in the city centre. Things could be about to change, but the Merchant Venturers and others don’t quite see it the same way.
Not all the Slave Traders were as benevolent as Edward Colston, and it’s not surprising that many of them escaped up to the leafy suburb of Clifton when they could afford to leave the unpleasant dockside behind. Those that were still here probably regretted it because in 1831 Queen Square witnessed one of the most violent scenes in English peacetime history. Ostensibly, it all began in October of that year with the rejection of the Second Reform Bill by the House of Lords, but as with most issues of discontent it was probably just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Whatever the reason, one of the strongest opponents of the bill – which would have given more people the vote – was local magistrate, Sir Charles Wetherell. He wasn’t given the warmest of welcomes when given the honour of opening up the new Bristol Assize Courts, and when protests outside got a bit out of hand he threatened those involved with imprisonment. It probably wasn’t the best judgement he’d ever made because before he knew it, he was running for his life across Queen Square, and just about making it to safety in the Mansion House where he managed to escape across the rooftops.
As the mob got larger, things got uglier, and for three days the rioters looted and burnt out many of the buildings around the square including the Mansion House and Bishop’s Palace: Even Isambard Kingdom Brunel was sworn in as a special constable as the riot spread. The mayor, Charles Pinney, decided to ask for military assistance which came in the form of a troop of the 3rd Dragoon Guards and a squadron of the 14th Light Dragoons under the command of a Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Brereton.
Whether Brereton was sympathetic to the mob or just incompetent I wouldn’t know, but his indecisive action led the rioters to continue with their protests to such an extent that he had no choice but to charge into the crowd. The official death toll was four rioters killed and 86 injured, but from the accounts I’ve read, that was an extremely conservative estimate. The total death toll after the riots were brought to an end has been put as high as 500.
Brereton was later court-martialled for leniency but before the trial came to a conclusion, he shot himself. In the resulting trials of around a hundred rioters, thirty-four were sentenced to transportation and thirty-one given the death sentence, but in the end, only four were hanged. It would probably have been many more had there not been an outcry of public sympathy – and possibly more importantly – the fear that trouble could escalate around the country into an uprising that could mirror the French Revolution. Presumably, Sir Charles Wetherell continued to live his life of luxury somewhere else.
The implications of the Queen Square riots have never been fully recognised; it was played down at the time, and there’s very little recognition of it now. It seems, just as the slave trade got brushed under the carpet, so have the riots of 1831. This was a pivotal moment in the fight for the democratic vote for ordinary people, and over the next few years the First Reform Act was passed and the Rotten Boroughs were abolished. The riots may not have changed things dramatically, as the vote was still only in the hands of the upper middle classes – but it was a start.
Leaving the square in the far north-west corner (diagonally opposite from where we came in) brings us into King Street at the opposite end of the street to the Llandoger Trow.
Over on the left-hand side are the Merchant Venturers Almshouses. From as early as the 13th century, the Merchant Venturers were deeply involved with Bristol’s maritime trade. As we’ve seen, some of this trade was dubious to say the least, but the society is still going strong today – now in the form of a charitable organisation, but some people think that their charity begins at home as they are still an influential group of people amongst the city’s elite.
These Almshouses were built around 1696 for old sailors who had finished with their life at sea. Originally the accommodation was set in a quadrangle with a Merchants’ Hall, but bomb damage in the Second World War has left just three sides standing. Incidentally, this is the starting point for the Treasure Island Trail – a self-guided walk which is part the European Cultural Route.
To my mind, King Street, which was named after Charles II, is the most interesting street in this part of Bristol. It has an eclectic mix of buildings that somehow manage to live together in harmony. For example, the building next door to the Almshouses was originally Bristol’s public library where people like Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Humphrey Davey swotted up. It’s not quite such a cultural place to visit nowadays as it’s a Chinese restaurant!
I’m not going to go through all the interesting features of this cobbled street because it’s better to explore it yourselves in a way, but there a couple of places I should mention. Firstly, the Bristol Old Vic is based in the Theatre Royal which was built between 1764 and 1766, making it “the oldest continually operating theatre in the English-speaking world”. Obviously, we’re not talking about a medical building here, but this highly regarded theatre company has nurtured an array of well-known actors through its acting school.
The final port of call, so to speak, inevitably has to be another pub, but this one has nothing to do with a pirate, queen, or a king, but a duke – the duke in this case being Duke Ellington.
The Old Duke has been here since about 1775 and was probably named after the Duke of Cumberland at the time, but Bristol’s long standing love of Jazz has turned it into a mecca for enthusiasts: In fact, I would call it a veritable institution: There’s live music every night of the week with a great friendly atmosphere – and it’s all free. Somewhere to visit even if you don’t like jazz in my opinion.
The Old Duke is located opposite the Llandoger Trow and so we’re almost back to where we started. This may have been one of my longer blogs but the walk itself isn’t very long, and how much time it takes will depend on how many pubs you visit as much as anything: As I write this, all the pubs are closed due to Covid19, and the Llandoger Trow was put up for sale before the virus kicked in, but hopefully these iconic places will survive this latest episode in their history: From pirates, slaves, riots, and even bombs, these streets have seen it all, and now we can add a pandemic to the list.
I hope you’ve enjoyed wandering around this part of old Bristol with me trying to separate fact from fiction, but it’s time to put that drink down now and get on with something useful. Thanks again for following, and don’t be like Billy Bones – stay safe.
A month after writing this post the statue of Edward Colston was unceremoniously dumped in the harbour after being torn down by a gathering of 10,000 people protesting at the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd.