Monday, 14 April 2014

A day out in Bristol!

You'll know by now that one of my favourite frugal ways of hoodwinking my children into thinking they're getting an action-packed, quality, fun day out is to drag them on a walk and feed them a picnic. If you plan it cleverly so there is something interesting to see along the way, then there's a chance that they might genuinely find it more exciting than sitting at home watching nonsense on Youtube.

Earlier in the year, Daughter was studying the slave trade in history. The film 12 Years a Slave had just been released, so slavery was, quite rightly, big news. 

The time was ripe for another Everyday Life on a Shoestring trip to Bristol. 

In the summer, Bristol was home to multitudes of Gromits, and we went hunting for them. This time we covered much of the same ground, but looked at Bristol through different eyes.

We found a Bristol Slavery Trail at the Victoria County History website and printed it out to take with us. The kids weren't fooled - they knew this was an educational trip, but were prepared to go along with it as long as I absolutely promised to try and look 'normal', not to wave the map around, and not to sound like a tour guide. I didn't take too much notice. This is too huge a part of Bristol's history to be hushed up. And Bristol is the birth city of both my children so they need to know about it. I might have pointed that out to them. More than once.

I won't come over all 'tour guide' and bore you with the entire trail but there are a few photos below.

To put the trail in context, Bristol was an important port and for much of the 1700s was second in size and importance to London. Much of the city's wealth depended on the slave trade and also the goods produced by slaves on plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean.

Queen Square, popular with rich merchants and slave traders.
Home to the first American consulate in the UK.

King Street
In King Street, we found out that archaeologists have found manillas (traditional African brass bangles moulded into a bracelet or C shape that were then used in the slave trade. A slave's price would sometimes be expressed in manillas) in the houses and gardens here.

The pubs in King Street were also places where crews would be recruited for slaving voyages. The Theatre Royal, also located here, was sponsored by wealthy families involved in the slave trade and earliest performances at the theatre included plays about slavery.

Corn Street, where many merchants did business and
where one of the first banks outside of London was sited.

The Wills Memorial Building, donated
to the University of Bristol in 1903,
paid for by profits from the tobacco trade.

Pero's Bridge, named after a black man
brought to Bristol as the slave and servant of a
Bristol plantation owner.

What did we learn? 

  • That many of Bristol's most attractive and most impressive buildings were connected to the slave trade in some way - often owned by wealthy merchants or ship owners.
  • There had been Quaker ship owners but by the 1760s the Quakers campaigned against the trade.
  • St Mary Redcliffe Church was enlarged and enhanced by its 'wealthy' congregation (and we know where that wealth came from).
  • Press gangs would round up drunks or those that could not run away to force them into a sailor's life.
  • Life at sea was dangerous -  a quarter of all crews were expected to die - and this was one argument put forward to end slavery.
  • There was a large sugar refining industry in Bristol but it was hazardous - 11 refineries burnt down between 1670 and 1859.
  • Is it right that Bristol's concert hall, a school and almshouses are named after Edward Colston, who was a successful local man and supporter of local charities, but who made his money through the slave trade?
The subject material means that this was an interesting rather than a 'fun' day out. We thought we knew Bristol well, but it made us look at familiar buildings in a different way. The children found it hard to understand why it took so long for the slave trade to be abolished. And although the slave trade story from this era of history ended, in other ways the story, sadly, continues. What about human trafficking in the modern world and child slavery in connection with some of the luxury products that we enjoy today? 

Many thanks to the Victoria County History website and the University of London for the facts included in this blog post!


  1. I lived in Bristol n the 1970's it's lovely to see pics of places I remember.

    1. We love Bristol (apart from the slave trade connections). There's been loads of development even since we lived there in the late nineties/early noughties, so I'm sure you'd see familiar places but lots of change if you went back.

  2. Beautiful pictures, I particularly like the Corn street buildings x

  3. Holy Moly! I would never have imagined that England was so thoroughly entrenched in the slave trade. I tend to think of that horrific historical period as a uniquely American crime, but you've certainly opened my eyes. Guess there's plenty of guilt to go around!

    1. Over here, in school these days everyone learns about the 'triangle' - ships set off from England laden with goods which were sold in Africa and slaves bought. The slaves were taken to America and sold. The ships were then loaded with commodoties such as rum, sugar etc and returned to England. So yes, we share the shame.

  4. Very interesting post. Did other ports have slave trafficking, or was it centered mostly through Bristol?

    1. No I think other ports such as Liverpool and London were involved.