This article was published in The Regional Historian, published by The Regional History Centre at the University of the West of England.
‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Hosannah!’, ‘Prince of Peace!’, ‘Fairest of Ten Thousand!’ shouted the mob of ranting women as they whipped their willow boughs through the air. They surrounded the serene figure of a silent man riding a hobbyhorse up Corn St. in Bristol City centre. Marching behind them, chanting ‘England’s Freedom! Soldier’s Rights!’, came a troop of New Model Army soldiers sporting musket, pike and drum. Saturday morning shopper’s jaws dropped as the procession headed towards the Corn Exchange.
Bristol Radical History Week had begun with a commemoration of James Nayler’s infamous ride into Bristol in October 1656. Radical preacher, democrat, religious leveller and probably the most powerful orator of the nascent Quaker movement, Nayler scandalously provoked the authorities with his so-called ‘horrid blasphemy’ 350 years ago. He was publicly tortured, ridiculed and then quietly written out of the history of the Quaker movement. What better figure to launch a week of events aimed at uncovering some of the hidden and misrepresented history of Bristol.
Market traders joined the ranting women in cheering Nayler’s speeches railing against slavery, corruption, enclosure, religious hierarchy and divine right. Later, scuffles developed at the Thistle Hotel on Broad St. (original site of the White Hart Inn) as he was arrested by soldiers and dragged to St. Peter’s Square on Castle Park to face a recreation of his trial by Parliament for blasphemy. Refusing to doff his cap to the prosecutor in Quaker tradition (Nayler would bow to no man, some said even to God himself!) he was cross-examined and then ‘tortured’ in front of a rowdy crowd including his raucous supporters held back by musket wielding soldiers. This was probably the first time that James Nayler has been properly commemorated since his historic ride into Bristol in 1656.
Bristol Radical History Week was initially conceived many months ago to commemorate both the 350th anniversary of Nayler’s ride into Bristol and the 175th anniversary of the ‘Queen’s Square’ riots sparked by the defeat of the Reform Act of 1831. It blossomed into thirty events over nine days in October and November of 2006, including public lectures and debates, a film festival, several gigs and an exhibition. The objective of the event was to engage academics, local historians and the general public in a process of examining some major historical events in the Bristol’s past. In addition we wanted to approach this history from ‘below’, to examine the actions of the crowd, dissenters and radicals as the ”subject’ of history. Finally we wanted to recognise that the history of Bristol is inexorably linked to that of the Atlantic and former British colonies through its seafaring and trading activities.
Bristol Radical History Week was based around five themes…
Religious Radicals involved two events at the Broadmead Baptist Church examining both James Nayler and the early Baptist heroine Dorothy Hazzard. A lively debate between Brian Perry a Quaker historian, Dr. Jonathan Barry (Exeter University) and Jonathan Harlow (UWE) centred on the power struggle in the Quaker leadership between Fox and Nayler and the suppression of the radical currents at the end of the 1650’s. In the second debate, Dorothy Hazzard was defended against charges of being ‘over-rated’ by Baptist historian Phil Dickinson and editor of the ‘Bristolian’ Ian Bone who spurred on members of the congregation to explain the radical roots of their church.
The main venue for the week was the Spy Glass boat on Welsh Back, which was perfectly positioned near Bristol Bridge for the lectures concerning Radical Bristol in the 1790’s. Author Mike Manson gave an excellent account of the 1793 Bristol Bridge Massacre including a written test for the audience! Steve Poole (UWE) covered the particular relationship of Bristol to the wider national politics post- French revolution and Steve Mills (WHU) explained the lives and radical action of the Kingswood Colliers. Mike Jay spoke about his excellent recent book dealing with the Despard conspiracy and gave us an insight into his next by outlining the activities of Coleridge and Beddoes in Bristol at the turn of the 18th century.
On the eve of the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade, Bristol Radical History Group wanted to look at the both effect that Caribbean slave revolts had upon the collapse of British slavery and specifically the abolition movements in Bristol. Edson Burton (UWE) looked into forms of everyday resistance of slaves and activist and writer and Caribbean historian Richard Hart gave a brilliant account of the ‘slaves who abolished slavery’.
The Spy Glass also hosted Madge Dresser (UWE) who looked in detail who the key abolitionists in Bristol were and charted the three chronological periods of the movement. Dave Cullum (ECCC) explained the role of sugar and tobacco (the key products in the slave trade) in the rise of industrial capitalism and Mark Steeds of the Long John Silver Trust charted the importance of the Seven Stars pub in the abolition movement.
The Insurrectionary Bristol theme covered three periods of history where Bristol was thrust to the forefront of national politics by events in the streets rather than in boardrooms or the Council House. Speakers at the Spy Glass questioned the understanding of the 1831 uprising as ‘chaos’ or the actions of a drunken mob. The targeted destruction of prisons, Queen’s Square, the Bishops Palace and the Mansion House clearly had a motive. The question was how to unravel an event where most of the participants would not be recording their ‘political philosophy’ for posterity.
In 1932 Bristol was at the head of the unemployed worker’s movement, which was eventually brutally suppressed in the city by the Police after demonstrators challenged them for control of the streets. Dave Backwith in his lecture outlined the links the movement had with the Soldiers organisations of 1919 and the anti-fascist movement later in the 1930’s.
In the most popular meeting of the week the St. Paul’s uprising of 1980 was examined in a lively debate at the Cube Cinema. A panel of eyewitnesses described what life was like for young people dealing with the Police in the early 1980’s, explained some of the misconceptions about the events in St. Pauls and pointed out that over the same weekend there were even more serious disturbances in Southmead according to the Police. These and many other riots were subsequently ignored or misrepresented by the media and historians alike.
The week was rounded off with a series of lectures on the Saturday entitled Bristol and the Revolutionary Atlantic. Nik Frykman of the University of Pittsburgh kicked it all off with a brilliant account of both the fleet mutinies in the 1790’s and then specifically the mutiny on the HMS Hermione, arguably the bloodiest in the history of the Royal Navy. On a similar seafaring note, Ruth Symister used the novel Moby Dick and the short story Benito Serrano to outline the experiential radicalism that infused Melville’s work.
As many of the week’s events had been inspired by the book ‘The Many Headed Hydra’, it was fitting that one of the co-authors Peter Linebaugh (University of Toledo, USA) had agreed to participate. After giving us an excellent foretaste of his latest book on the Magna Carta on the previous afternoon, Peter spoke about many of the themes that have opened up a new trans-national understanding of the Atlantic proletariat in the 17th — 19th centuries. Mark Steeds rounded the whole day off with a talk about Bristol’s pirate and seafaring past and got the best laughs of the week.
There was much more to Bristol Radical History Week that I could add but if you really want a flavour then go to www.brh.org.uk to see the photos, videos and audio recordings of the lectures. We are planning more events for 2007 so please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to find out about them.
Lastly I would like to thank all those who gave their time and energy to Bristol Radical History Week for free and the hundreds of people who attended the events and helped support this independent and non-profit event.