Bristol and the slave trade

This week we tackled a more difficult subject for our walk in the past walk – the Bristol slave trade.

It is an uncomfortable but undeniable fact that much of Bristol’s prosperity came from the slave trade. Slavery is thousands of years old. The Romans brought slaves to Britain and Celtic tribes  traded slaves. However with the discovery of America  in 1492 new opportunities for the trade were created.

Europeans found the hot humid conditions of the south difficult to work in but loved crops like cotton, tobacco and sugar that could be grown there.  One solution was to take people from Africa who were used to a hot climate and transport them to America

A triangular trade was started. Manufactured goods and guns were traded along the coast of Africa for slaves who were taken to America and the West Indies and sold for goods like sugar and tobacco which were brought back to Europe.

The numbers involved are staggering. It has been estimated that about 13 million people may have left African ports as slaves. Portugal has the dubious honour of being the most important slave trading nation with Britain second.

Because of its position on the West coast of England Bristol became one of the major slave trading ports. It is estimated that Bristol ships may have transported up to half a million slaves. Conditions on board the slave ships were horrifying and mortality was high.

St Mary Redcliffe church
St. Mary Redcliffe Church

We started our walk at St. Mary Redcliffe the magnificent parish church close to Bristol Harbour. The church owes much of its elaborate decoration to gifts from Bristol merchants and its graveyard contains the tombs of many Bristol slave traders. They obviously were able to reconcile their Christian faith with slave trading.

The Georgian House museum

There is a campaign to open a slavery museum in Bristol but until it happens you can see the legacy of slavery in many of the buildings of the city.

We visited the Georgian House, number 7 Great George Street. This was owned by a slave trader called Mr. Pinney. It has been turned into a museum and is furnished to show the lavish lifestyle the Pinneys would have led. it is free to enter. Click here to find out more.


Guide in a posh Georgian dress
A guide dressed as Mrs. Pinney. (Georgian house museum)

As was fashionable at the time the family kept a black servant.

A picture of Mr Pinney with his slave.
An information board about Pero Jones

Another reminder of the slave trade in Bristol is the fact that many of the fashionable houses in Queen Square were owned by Slave traders.

Slave trader’s house in fashionable Queens square

You can also see the customs house where profits on cargoes from America would have been collected.

The Abolition of Slavery.

Towards the end of the 18th century there were growing demands for the end of slavery. In Bristol John Wesley   who had worked in Savannah in America preached against it and was banned from many local churches. Thomas Cottle published pamphlets against slavery.  Perhaps the most important figure in Bristol was Thomas Clarkson a journalist who visited pubs like the Seven Stars and listened to the testimony of sailors. His findings provided Wilberforce with much of the ammunition to fight for the abolition of slavery in Parliament.

Slave trading by British ships was banned in 1807 and in 1834 slave ownership was banned in British overseas territories. This bill was only passed after slave owners were offered large sums in compensation. They were able to invest much of the money in Bristol industry and property.

One of the most famous Bristol slave traders was Edward Colston. He gave away much of his fortune establishing schools and almshouses in the city.

The legacy today

Bristol is very uncomfortable with its past. There is a move to rename the Colston Hall which is one of the main concert Halls in the centre of the city and to remove the statue of Edward Colston from the centre. My own view is that we should acknowledge our past but not celebrate it.  I welcome a move to give prominence to other figures in the story. I chose the image at the top of the post as it is Pero’s bridge named for the slave Pero Jones.


As the organiser of our walking group did not want to profit from the slave trade himself, our fees went to support Papyrus a charity which was set up to help prevent suicide by young people. It is a sobering fact that suicide is the single biggest killer of people under 35 in the U.K.

If you want to find out more about the Bristol slave trade I recommend

This post will be added to a link party for blogging grandmothers. As always I love to read your comments.



Brunel and Bristol

People looking at the suspension bridge

Clifton suspension bridge which spans the river Avon has become the symbol of Bristol.   This post is about the bridge’s designer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Last Sunday our walk in the past walking group walked from Temple Meads railway station to Clifton Suspension bridge to see some of his legacy to the city.  Our route round the old docks and up into Clifton is very popular with visitors to Bristol. The river Avon is too tidal and shallow for large boats to come into the heart of Bristol  and the docks have been transformed into an area for pleasure craft with modern flats and restaurants.  You can stroll round the old floating harbour or catch a yellow ferry boat.  Some of the old warehouses have been transformed into art galleries or museums. I recommend M shed which is free to enter and has many interesting exhibits about the history of Bristol industry or the watershed which shows an eclectic  selection of films. Keeping with the theme of this post on a fine day Bristolians love to visit Brunel’s buttery next to the M shed and enjoy a sausage sandwich while overlooking the docks.

Brunel championed by Jeremy Clarkson was voted second after Winston Churchill in a BBC poll to find the greatest Briton  a few years ago. This is slightly ironic as he was half French and educated in France. Brunel was born in Portsmouth in 1806 but moved to London as a boy.   He was sent to Bristol to recuperate after having been badly injured while helping his father who was a civil engineer on a project to build a tunnel under the Thames in London. The Brunels misjudged the strength of the rock under the river bed and the tunnel flooded. Several workers were killed but fortunately  Isambard Brunel managed to find something to hang on to.

The Clifton suspension bridge

The story of the bridge  began in 1790 when William Vick left money in his will for a bridge across the Avon. People realised that this was not enough to construct a bridge and it was decided to leave it in a bank until compound interest meant it reached £10,000. While Isambard was in Bristol there was a competition to design  a bridge and he submitted several entries. Although he failed at first one of his designs was chosen. The bridge proved too costly and was not finished until after his death when they were able to obtain some second hand chains. We love it.

Temple Meads station

Taxis queue up outside Temple Meads station
The façade of Temple Meads station looks more like a castle

Not as many people know that Brunel also designed Temple Meads station. When he was 29 he was appointed chief engineer for the Great Western Railway which was to run between Bristol and London. Brunel was a true early Victorian and enjoyed playing with different styles of architecture. The station was very ostentatious and designed to look like a castle. If you arrive in Bristol by train take a good look at the façade.

Brunel had big dreams. he planed to build a railway line from Paddington Station in London to Bristol. Passengers could arrive at Temple Meads station and then stay at a hotel he had built before embarking on a voyage to America or Australia.  The hotel can still be seen but is now an office block and known as Brunel house.

The Great Britain

The Great Britain

Two enormous steam ships were built in Bristol docks the Great Britain and the Great Western. The SS Great Britain launched in 1843 by Prince Albert was the first Iron hulled steam ship to cross the Atlantic which she did in 14 days. She had sails as well as an engine in case of difficulty. After taking thousands of emigrants to America and Australia she was retired to the Falkland Isles where she was left to rust. In 1970 Sir Jack Hayward  paid for the rusty hulk to be returned to Bristol. She has been lovingly restored. The boat now forms part of a very interesting museum which I recommend visiting. You get a very good idea what life would have been like for early emigrants to America or Australia. Tickets also include a new exhibit Being Brunel. Visitors can often see a replica of the Mathew, the boat which took John Cabot to Newfoundland moored along side. Unlike the Great Britain which is in dry dock the Mathew still provides sailing trips for visitors. If you want to find out more about the Great Britain exhibition click here

Brunel was also involved with improvements to the port designing a dredger and a system for filtering silt from the river bed. The Great Britain was the biggest ship to ever be built in Bristol and the harbour gates had to be widened specially. When she was brought back on a barge many sceptics doubted that she would make it.

On Sunday we walked across the suspension bridge which is free to cross for pedestrians and we were able to look round the small visitor centre which is also free.

If you visit Bristol and want to avoid the steep hill up to Clifton you can catch a number 8 bus or use the red hop on hop off bus.

A question for locals do you know where “Bob” Brunel’s other Bridge is?

Thesign reads  Brunel's other bridge

This post will be added to a link party for blogging grandparents. I would love to hear your comments. Don’t be shy.

Coombe Down and the story of Bath Stone

Last week Steve the leader of our walk in the past  walking group asked us to meet at the Museum of Bath Stone. in Coombe Down to the east of Bath.  I have to admit my heart sank.  After all quarries are not the most exciting subject. When I was growing up much of Bath was covered in soot from coal fires and steam trains and I always thought that Bath stone made the buildings look dreary. However when Bath was in its heyday in the late 18th century the honey coloured stone must have gleamed in the sunshine. Nowadays planning officials still insist that all building in the centre of town is made from the local stone.

The Coombe Down museum of Bath Stone 

I arrived early and  was able to take the time to look round the small free museum.  Visitors were watching a short film about the Coombe Down stabilization project.   Bath Stone is an oolitic limestone that formed the bed of a shallow sea in the Jurassic period. Surface stone can be used for dry stone walls but building material is found at a depth of a few feet. It has probably been used for local buildings since Roman times as it can be easily worked.

Ralph Allen who built the nearby Prior Park was one of the early quarry owners in Coombe Down. He developed the idea of quarrying stone and then using the flat bed of the quarry to build cottages for his workers. This was fine and some of his early cottages were built by John Wood who also designed the Royal Crescent.  He built rails to send carts laden with stone down the hill now known as Ralph Allen Drive where they could be unloaded onto barges and the stone taken into the centre of Bath.

However later quarry owners decided to extract stone from underground tunnels and build the houses on top. In the 1980’s people living in the expensive houses with views over the Bath sky line found cracks starting to appear in their homes and they were unable to sell them. A survey was carried out and found that many of the pillars that were supporting the roof of the quarries were unsafe. Surveyors estimated that about 500 houses were at risk.

Eventually it was decided to fill the quarries with concrete at a cost of over £150 million . A colony of rare horseshoe bats were found to be living in one of the quarries and an extra six million pounds was provided to save their cave and now they are even provided with heating.  The concrete foam used would have covered a football pitch to a depth of ninety metres.

Walking through the woods
Our walking group. I am fifth from the left.

We  walked round Coombe Down and admired the houses that had been saved. Our group also  rambled through the fields and bluebell woods enjoying the bird song and spring flowers.

We were able to find the cottage where Harry Patch was born in in 1898. His father and grandfather were stone masons in Coombe Down and when he died in 2009 at the age of 111 he was the last fighting Tommy from world war one. We walked down to the nearby village of Monkton Coombe to find his grave in the churchyard.

The grave of Harry Patch with poppy wreath
The grave of Harry Patch in Monkton Combe churchyard.

William Smith and the first geological map.

One of the early quarry owners was a man named William Smith. He was a blacksmith’s son from Churchill in  Oxfordshire who had spent time surveying the route of the local canal and also helping the local coal mine owners find good places to sink mine shafts. He noticed that the rock was in different strata and that fossils appeared in different layers. His work took him all over England and he used the information he had obtained to produce the first geological map of England which is remarkably similar to a modern map.

A plaque marking the cottage where William Smith lived.
Memorial on William Smith’s cottage.

Unfortunately his quarry was not a success and he spent some time in prison for debt His life has been commemorated by Simon Winchester in his book  “the map that changed the world” and by a museum which he designed himself the rotunda in Scarborough.

This post will be added to a link party for blogging grandmother’s. This week I was lucky enough to be the subject of a meet the grandmother blogger so if you want to find out more about me click here.

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Two CADW sites to visit near Chepstow

After fifty years tolls have been removed from the Severn bridges which link England and Wales. As we can cross the river Severn for free we decided  to revisit a couple of our favourite places in Monmouth, Tintern Abbey and Caerleon Roman camp this Easter.  Both  are managed by CADW, the organisation which looks after historical sites in Wales. If you enjoy visiting historical sites it is a good idea to take out an annual membership which allows free entry to all the CADW sites.  For senior citizens like us it is £28.50 a year. Once in Wales both sites can be accessed easily from the M4 and are well signposted.

Carleon Roman Fort

Our first outing was to Caerleon.

A plan of the carleon barracks
Part of the remains of the barracks

Carleon which is just outside Newport was known as Isca by the Romans and is on the banks of the river Usk. Founded in A.D.  75 as the headquarters of the second Augustan legion. it was one of only three permanent legionary sites in Britain and unlike the other two in Chester and York it has not been built on. This means that archaeologists including  the BBC time team have been able to make significant finds.

At one time almost 5,000 Roman soldiers were quartered here. The Roman museum is shut for repairs until the Autumn but Caerleon is still worth visiting. As well as the most complete remains of barracks any where in Europe  we were able to see the amphitheatre where soldiers would have trained and gladiators fought. This is the best preserved Amphitheatre in Britain.

The Amphitheatre at Carleon
Part of the amphitheatre at Caerleon

For me the most impressive part of the site are the Roman baths. They were more like a modern sports centre with an indoor exercise hall and even changing rooms with underfloor heating. They also had hot and cold swimming pools. The remains are covered and have been enhanced with digital technology and impressive lighting.  Children can take part in interactive quizzes.

A holograph of a swimmer in the baths
Digital technology is used to give the impression of a swimmer in the Baths.

To find out more click here Cadw Carleon Roman Remains

The amphitheatre and barracks are free to visit but there is a small charge for the Baths. CADW put on special events throughout the year when we visited staff were blowing up duck balloons for an Easter hook a duck game in the Baths.

The Wye

The river flowing through woodland
The river Wye. England is on the left and Wales on the right.

Our second outing was a trip up the Wye valley to Tintern. The Wye river marks the border between Monmouth and Gloucestershire or to put it another way between England and Wales. The deep wooded valley is a favourite destination for tourists and the river itself is popular for canoes and Kayaks. There is also a long distance footpath for walkers.

The footpath through the woods
Part of the long distance footpath along the Wye.

TIntern Abbey

Our destination was Tintern: the site of a ruined Cistercian abbey. The Cistercians were a monastic order from France. The monks combined prayer with labour on the fields  and the order became very rich thanks to the wool trade. The abbey was built in the gothic style between 1361 and 1550. Like many monasteries in Britain it was dissolved by Henry VIIII  but the fact that so much of the stonework survives is a tribute to the skill of those early builders.

Stone columns inside Tintern Abbey
The interior of the abbey. The figures give some idea of the scale of the building.

The site is now cared for by CADW who organise a programme of activities. When we visited a handler was giving a falconry display.

A falconer with a long white beard holding a kestrel.
A falconer with a kestrel.

Tintern itself is a small village with several gift shops and restaurants.

To find out more. click here Tintern Abbey

There is a small charge for entry. We parked at the nearby Anchor inn and were able to claim the cost of parking against the cost of an ice cream.

The New Room Bristol and John Wesley

Did you know Charles and John Wesley built the very first Methodist chapel here in Bristol?

A lot of people visit Broadmead, the shopping district in the middle of Bristol without realising that the chapel exists.   But you can discover it  opposite the Galleries shopping centre by Marks and Spencers .

The chapel is painted white and decorated with simple candlesticks.
The simple plain Newroom chapel.

The chapel is now a grade 1 listed building.  It  is very simply furnished and was built with no  windows on the ground floor to protect it from mobs.    The upstairs where Charles and John  Wesley often stayed has been turned into an interesting museum with the help of a lottery grant.  According to trip advisor is the 6th favourite visitor attraction in Bristol. Some of the rooms are furnished in the style of the period and others contain displays about the life of the Wesleys and the early history of Methodism.  Activities for children including a wardrobe of 17th century dressing up clothes.  Children are even invited to take selfies  in the rooms.

I recommend the quiet tearoom if you want a peaceful place to chat or relax in the centre of Bristol. They sell home made cakes and light lunches. When I visited recently with our German group we enjoyed a slice of Earl Grey tea loaf with our excellent coffee.

John Wesley

John Wesley was the son of an Anglican clergyman.  He was born in 1703 near Lincoln. As a  five year old boy he was lucky to escape a house fire by being rescued from an upstairs window. He went to Oxford gained an M.A. and was ordained as an Anglican. After working as a curate  he travelled to Savannah in Georgia where he worked for a couple of years before returning to England. In America he experienced slavery at first hand and became a lifelong opponent of the system. Later he rescued two escaped slave boys and brought them to Bristol where he sent them to a school he had founded and helped finance some of the early antislavery literature.

On his return to England another clergyman George Whitefield invited him to come to Bristol. Bristol at that was growing rich on  the profits from the slave trade.  However there was a large divide between rich and poor. Wesley was working  in Broadmead the heart of the sprawling overcrowded old city while the rich people were moving west to suburbs like Clifton and Hotwells.

Wesley was  concerned about  the poverty he saw around him and worked to establish schools and dispensaries for medicines. He distributed food and clothing to the poor.  He also preached in the local prison. His views were unpopular with many of the established clergy who often refused him permission to use their churches. He was able to raise enough funds to build the New Room as a place for ordinary people to worship.

Preaching to the coalminers.

Kingswood to the east of Bristol near where I grew up was in the 18th century  a poor coal mining district.  None of the local vicars would let him preach in their churches so he preached out in the open attracting a large crowd. When I was a girl I could see a green beacon from my bedroom window which marked the spot of one of his early sermons.  Although I am not a Methodist he became one of my local heroes.

He was later joined by his younger brother Charles also an ordained minister and together they rode thousands of miles on horseback preaching in small villages. They preached in cottages, chapels and even fields.

John Wesley was described as “below medium height, well proportioned, strong with a bright eye , a clear complexion and a saintly intellectual face.

A statue of John Wesley on horseback.
This statue of John Wesley with his bible in hand is in the courtyard outside the Newroom.

The Wesley family were gifted musicians. Both brothers wrote hundreds of hymns.

John Wesley seated at a piano. Stained glass window.
John and Charles Wesley were very musical.

John Wesley was also a skilled organiser and administrator and was able to lay the foundations of Methodism. He died aged 87 in 1791.

Visiting the New Room

The chapel and café are free to visit but there is a small charge to see the museum. Entry to the museum includes a free audio guide.  It is open from Monday to Friday from 10.30 to 4.00 p.m. with last entry to the museum at 3.30 p.m. The museum has a lift and there are toilets including a disabled toilet and baby changing facilities on the first floor. The nearest carpark is in the Galleries shopping centre and it is a short walk from the main bus station. The newroom has a very informative website. Click here to visit. If you are unable to visit in person the website even has a 360 degree tour. A service is held in the chapel every Friday afternoon.

This stained glass window shows John Wesley preaching outdoors #newroom
John Wesley preaching in the open. New Stained Glass window.