Cry Freedom, Cry Seven Stars!

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This article was written for Pints West.

During Bristol’s Radical History Week (28th October to 5th November) at the appropriately named Spyglass restaurant, the Long John Silver Trust was twice invited to join in with the debates.

On the Wednesday evening, as a representative of the Trust, I spoke about the history of the Seven Stars, St Thomas Lane under the heading of the ‘Anti-Slavery Movement in Bristol’, and again on the Saturday afternoon for “Bristol and the Revolutionary Atlantic”.

It was due to my interest in Bristol’s pubs and breweries that I was able to join in on the Wednesday, where I was sandwiched between two really good speakers, Dave Cullum (who, to my amazement, didn’t need any notes) and Madge Dresser. Here I spoke about the international relevance of the Seven Stars, its history and its background.

I talked about the earliest references to the pub in the Record Office. Mentioning Sir John Hawkins, who, whilst buying what was to become the Georges Brewery, acquired it in 1697 (it must surely be one of the country’s earliest surviving tied houses). This new early date adds to the more commonly known history of the pub with its involvement in the anti-slavery movement.

When speaking about Thomas Clarkson’s ‘spying’ work at the Seven Stars, which he carried out for William Wilberforce, Peter Linebaugh — one of the Radical History Week’s star speakers — pointed out that in America, the Plough (which the Seven Stars represent) played a huge part in the freeing of slaves in the Southern States.

He then went on to say that the North Star (where the Big Dipper, as the Plough is called in America, points the way) is now known as the Freedom Star, and the ramifications of all this made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Bearing in mind that the Seven Stars is such a rare survivor; it has survived the Blitz, post and pre war planners, not to mention new roads (such as Victoria Street) and all of the brewery ‘re-organisations’, it is incredible that its still here.

Also doubly mind blowing, is the fact that at that time the pub could have had any one of 850 other names; my two favourites from the Temple district being the “Yellow Anchor” and the “Crabs Well Inn”. I also like the “Admiral Hawke” (it used to be found on the Quay) named after the man Long John Silver claimed to have once sailed under.

If you look in “Bristol Inns and Alehouses in the Mid-Eighteenth Century”, the most popular name was “The Ship”, of which there were 37 in Bristol. Other contenders from then include the “Double Headed Cat”, the “Bell and Coffee Pot” and the “Leg of Mutton and Cauliflower”. These however, just don”t seem to have the same ring to them, and the significance of the pub”s name can”t be overlooked.

Peter also mentioned the Slavery song “The Drinking Gourd” in connection with the Seven Stars and runaway slaves, and as no one else there present had heard of it, I left the meeting determined to try and find out more.

Our piece on the second Saturday was to be on Pirates and the Long John Silver Trust. Using a PowerPoint presentation, I was able to adapt it to fit in with the afternoon’s proceedings, as you’ll see below.

The first speaker was a young Dutchman by the name of Niklas Frykman, who did a fascinating talk on “The Mutiny on the Hermione”, and he was followed by a detailed life study of Herman Melville (“Moby Dick; Below Decks in the Pequod”) by Ruth Symister which was also top notch.

Then the star of the show, Peter Linebaugh, did his piece on “Terror and the Commons in the Era of the Revolutionary Atlantic”. To give people a measure of how significant he is, this was actually filmed by the BBC at the event. The talk was long and varied, revealing, passionate and very intellectual. It frightened the life out of me.

In his speech he made passing remarks about Robinson Crusoe and Woodes Rogers, cornerstones of my talk, and made me, in a mad panic, change the running order of what I was about to say. Earlier in the week I had been impressed by the story of “The Drinking Gourd”, and decided to start with that.

The “Drinking Gourd” is yet another North American name given to the Big Dipper, and it formed the basis of the aforementioned song. It’s a ‘pilot verse’ (or coded song) which means that, depending on your interpretation, it gives you directions. In former times it was a common device used by seamen in their sea shanties for centuries.

Our particular song though guided runaway slaves, at a particular time of the year, to freedom in the North of America and Canada. It guided people along rivers and trails, where it was difficult for hounds to follow, and across the Mason- Dixon Line.

This became known as the Underground Railroad or the Freedom Train.

A legendary character named Peg Leg Joe (he was a sailor turned carpenter who had lost part of his right leg) went amongst the slaves in the South, and taught them the song. In fact he’s the old man in the chorus. Amazingly, for the Trust, other songs of this ilk were about Long John and Old Riley who were also escapees.

The chorus of the song goes as follows:-

Follow the drinking gourd! Follow the drinking gourd.
The old man is a waiting for to carry you to freedom if you
Follow the drinking gourd.

he words “pivotal” and “epiphany” are perhaps overused a little these day’s, but surely not in the case of Bristol’s most important inn. Fifty years after Clarkson received help from a Bristol pub landlord named Thompson, the Seven Stars was in use again leading yet more people to Freedom.

I suggested that it was now more important than ever to mark next year’s Abolition 200 commemorations with a CAMRA Historic Pub plaque for the Seven Stars, with perhaps the Harry Brown Sea Shanty men doing the unveiling honours with a rousing chorus from The Drinking Gourd.

I followed this with Daniel Defoe, Woodes Rogers and all the other Bristol references that perhaps influenced Robert Louis Stevenson when he set his “world” novel here, Treasure Island. The audience seemed to appreciate the talk and we had a few laughs.

There then followed another vibrant question and answer session, where it was put forward that we could have Long John Silver as the “Colossus of Bristol” — striding across the Floating Harbour — with his one good leg on one bank, and the tip of his crutch on the other.

More ideas included having a cycle path named after Blackbeard, and a decent memorial to the Bristol Riots of 1831, possibly centred on the surviving entrance gate to the old “New Gaol” on Cumberland Road.

Dave from Clevedon (Union man and a great orator) asked that if a tiny place like Watchet, population 1,400, could have a sculpture to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, why couldn’t Bristol, population 400,000, have one for Treasure Island?

Sculpture talk must have been in the air, because I’d asked Madge Dresser on the Wednesday night what was happening with the eagerly awaited Bristol Monument to Slavery, but unfortunately she didn’t know.

Bristol Radical History Week was put on by a very small team of enthusiasts and cost just £1,400 to mount. What a bargain! I’m sure if it were anyone else it would have been at least £14,000. It was funded purely by the goodwill of the people.

The two main venues were the Spyglass in King Street and the Cube Microplex, and both places had Long John Silver Bottled beer available to keep the audience happy. In fact, the Cube is so pleased with the beer, that they’re thinking of keeping it on.

Many thanks to Roger, Ian and their dedicated team of helpers who put on such a great event, the Long John Silver Trust will forever be in your debt.

Mark Steads

The Long John Silver Trust
C/O The Beaufort Arms
High Street
Hawkesbury Upton
South Gloucestershire
United Kingdom

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