Ebooks, Fiction, Non-Fiction 1000s of Free books and stories online to read now ~ Main Page




Here and There in Old Bristol by Alfred S. Gibbs



The streets of Bristol are, in a modern point of view, narrow and uninviting, yet if the visitor have a liking for the picturesque he will find much to interest him. There are plenty of streets crammed with old-time houses, thrusting out their upper stories beyond the lower, and with their many-gabled roofs seeming to heave and rock against the sky. If they lack anything in interest, it is that no local Scott has arisen to throw over them a glamour of romance which might make more tolerable the odors wherein they vie with the Canongate of sweet memory.


Nor is the throng which fills the Bristol streets wholly prosaic in its aspect, for the quaint garb of ancient charities holds its own against the modern tailor. Such troops of charity-children taking their solemn walks! Such long lines of boys in corduroy, such streams of girls in pug bonnets, stuff gowns and white aprons, as pour forth from the schools and almshouses to be found in every quarter of the city! The Colston boys are less frequently seen, because the school has been removed to one of the suburbs, yet now and then one of their odd figures meets the eye. They wear a muffin cap of blue cloth with a yellow band around it and a yellow ball on its apex; a blue cloth coat with a long plaited skirt; a leathern belt, corduroy knee-breeches and yellow worsted stockings. Just such, in outside garb, was Chatterton a century ago, and thus he is represented on his monument near Redcliff church.


You are perhaps gazing skyward at some lordly campanile when a sudden rush of feet and hum of voices comes around the corner, and the dark street is all aglow. These are the Red Maids, who walk the earth in scarlet gowns, set off by white aprons: they owe the bright hues of their existence to Alderman Whitson, who died in 1628, leaving funds to the mayor, burgesses and commonalty of the city of Bristol, "to the use and intent that they should therewith provide a fit and convenient dwelling-house for the abode of one grave, painful and modest woman of good life and conversation, and for forty poor women-children (whose parents, being freemen and burgesses of the said city, should be deceased or decayed); that they should therein admit the said woman and forty poor women-children, and cause them to be there kept and maintained, and also taught to read English and to sew and do some other laudable work toward their maintenance; ... and should cause every one of the said children to go and be apparelled in red cloth, and to give their attendance on the said woman, to attend and wait before the mayor and aldermen, their wives and others their associates, to hear sermons on the Sabbath and festival days, and other solemn meetings of the said mayor and aldermen and their wives," etc. etc. These maids are admitted between the ages of eight and ten, and at eighteen are placed at service.

Other aspects of Bristol are brought out in Pope's description of it in a letter to Mrs. Martha Blount. After describing his drive from Bath and his crossing the bridge into Bristol, he continues: "From thence you come to a key along the old wall, with houses on both sides, and in the middle of the street, as far as you can see, hundreds of ships, their masts as thick as they can stand by one another, which is the oddest and most surprising sight imaginable. This street is fuller of them than the Thames from London Bridge to Deptford, and at certain times only the water rises to carry them out; so that at other times a long street full of ships in the middle and houses on both sides looks like a dream." ... "The city of Bristol is very unpleasant, and no civilized company in it; only, the collector of the customs would have brought me acquainted with merchants of whom I hear no great character. The streets are as crowded as London, but the best image I can give you of it is, 'tis as if Wapping and Southwark were ten times as big, or all their people ran into London. Nothing is fine in it but the square, which is larger than Grosvenor Square, and well builded, with a very fine brass statue in the middle of King William on horseback; and the key, which is full of ships, and goes round half the square. The College Green is pretty and (like the square) set with trees. There is a cathedral, very neat, and nineteen parish churches."


It is quite as curious to note what Pope omits as what he mentions. He is much taken with a commonplace square, and with the mingling of ships and houses (which is truly effective), but the modern traveller would find the chief beauty of the city in its Gothic architecture, to which Pope gives one line—"a cathedral, very neat, and nineteen parish churches." Let the visitor ascend any one of the hills which overhang Bristol, and a beautiful scene at once bursts upon his view: this is due to the pre-eminent beauty of the church-towers, the great stone lilies of the fifteenth century soaring above the dingy town; each,

For holy service built, with high disdain
Surveys this lower stage of earthly gain;

and a hard struggle they have to hold their own against the menacing chimney-stacks of manufacturing England. All the poetry and aspiration of the past seems contending, shoulder to shoulder, in thick air with the material interests of the present.

Strolling about through the grimy streets, one's eye is caught by the sign "Quakers' Friars," and following up the narrow court to seek the meaning of this odd combination of opposing ideas, one comes to the Friends' school, occupying the remnant of a former priory of Black Friars. It is a spot intimately associated with recollections of the early Friends. In 1690 the father of Judge Logan of Pennsylvania was master of this school. Adjoining the school is the Friends' meeting-house, built in 1669 on what was then an open space near the priory, where George Fox often preached; and within the walls of the meeting-house this Quaker father took upon himself the state of matrimony. A local bard is inspired to sing:

Many years ago, six hundred or so,
The Dominican monks had a praying and eating house
Just on the spot where a little square dot
On the Bristol map marks the old Quakers' meeting-house.
A different scene it was once, I ween:
No monk is now heard his prayers repeating;
And the singers and chaunters and black gallivanters
Had never a thought of "a silent meeting."


The streets near by, called Callowhill, Philadelphia and Penn streets, recall the residence here of William Penn in 1697, after his marriage with Hannah, daughter of Thomas Callowhill and granddaughter of Dennis Hollister, prominent merchants of Bristol. These streets are believed to have been laid out and named by Penn on land belonging to Hollister. Another Friend was Richard Champion, the inventor of Bristol china and the friend of Burke. Champion's manufactory was not commercially a success, but his ware is now highly prized, and some few remaining pieces of a tea-service, presented by Mr. and Mrs. Champion to Mrs. Burke at the time the latter's husband was returned member for Bristol, have brought thrice their weight in gold.

In Castle street, not far from Quakers' Friars, stands a profusely ornamented mansion, now St. Peter's Hospital. The eastern portion is of considerable antiquity: the western was rebuilt in 1608. In the fifteenth century the older portion was the residence of Thomas Norton, a famous alchemist, who, according to Fuller, "undid himself and all his friends who trusted him with money, living and dying very poor about the year 1477." Norton's ill-success was, however, in his own belief, the success of others. He declared that a merchant's wife of Bristol had stolen from him the elixir of life. "Some suspect her" (says Fuller) "to have been the wife of William Cannings, contemporary with Norton, who started up to so great and sudden wealth—the clearest evidence of their conjecture." The person here intended is no other than the great Bristol merchant William Canynge the younger, who was five times mayor and one of the rebuilders of Redcliff church. His ships, which crowded the quays of Bristol, were a more evident source of wealth than any cunningly devised elixir except in the eyes of a disappointed dreamer. The reflection that in this quaint old house was enacted a history like to that of Balthazar Claes lends to it a strange fascination.

The church of St. Mary Redcliff is, as ever, intimately associated with the name and genius of Chatterton: no saint in the calendar could have shed over it such an interest; and beautiful as it is, "the pride of Bristowe and the Westerne Land," how many visit it for its beauty alone? This is rather hard for the clericals: they are unwilling to forget that Chatterton was an impostor and a suicide; and to have their church surrounded by a halo from such a source! bah! They have done what they could by removing his monument from consecrated ground and depriving it of its inscription.

In an old chest left to moulder in a room over the north porch of this church Chatterton professed to find the Rowley manuscripts. In this room, "here, in the full but fragile enjoyment of his brief and illusory existence, he stored the treasure-house of his memory with the thoughts that, teeming over his pages, have enrolled his name among the great in the land of poetry and song. Happy here, ere his first joyous aspirations were repressed—ere the warm and genial emotions of his heart were checked—before time had dissipated his idle dreams, and neglect, contempt and distress had fastened on his mind, and hurried him onward to his untoward destiny."

This church is one of the finest examples of the Perpendicular Gothic: it has been carefully restored, the work extending over thirty years. The most interesting monuments are those of William Canynge the younger, the great Bristol merchant, who lies buried here with his wife, his almoner, his brewer, his cook and other servants—a goodly family party: the cook is indicated by a knife and skimmer rudely cut upon a flat stone. There are two effigies of Canynge—one in his robes as mayor, the other in priest's robes; for in his latter years, after the death of his wife, he took orders, and died in 1474 dean of Westbury.


The memorial of Admiral Sir William Penn, father of the founder of Pennsylvania, is a conspicuous object in the nave—a mural tablet decorated with his helmet, cuirass, gauntlets, sword, and tattered banners taken from the Dutch. Near it—a singular object in a church—is the rib of a whale which is believed to date from the year 1497, there being an entry in the town records of that year: "Pd. for settynge upp ye bone of ye bigge fyshe," etc.; and as Sebastian Cabot had then just discovered Newfoundland, it may have been one of the trophies of his voyage. But it long had a very different history: its origin being forgotten, there grew up a legend that it was the rib of a dun cow of gigantic build who gave milk to the whole parish of Redcliff, and whose slaughter, by Guy, earl of Warwick, threw all the milkmaids out of employment. It was in Redcliff church that both Southey and Coleridge were married.


The cathedral, "very neat," as Pope expresses it, would be a great treasure in New York, but in England, where Gothic structures so abound, it is far surpassed by several in its vicinity. It has suffered much from iconoclasts, both those who destroy and those who restore. The completion of the nave is now being rapidly pushed forward, and will be followed by that of the towers—good evidence that the Gothic revival in England has not yet spent its force. In its present condition the general effect of the building is disappointing, although there are many admirable details. The chapter-house and the archway below the church are fine relics of its Norman period. In the choir is the tomb of Bishop Butler, author of the Analogy, for twelve years bishop of this diocese. There is also a tablet to his memory, erected in 1834, with an inscription by Southey. Among the monuments one finds two names which shine, it may be said, by reflected light—that of Mrs. Draper, Sterne's "Eliza," and Lady Hesketh, Cowper's devoted friend and cousin. A bust of Southey finds a place here as a tribute of respect in his native town; and the name of Sydney Smith comes to mind, who was a prebendary of this cathedral.

The city of Bristol, although essentially a manufacturing and commercial centre, is not deficient in names which have enjoyed a widespread literary reputation. All through the first half of the present century Bristol was associated with the colossal fame of Hannah More, but the idol is long since forgotten, and now, a little more than forty years after her death, many might ask, Who was Hannah More? She was the daughter of the schoolmaster at Stapleton, near Bristol, and was born on the 2d of February, 1745. She was one of five daughters, who by the education received from their father were enabled to set up in Bristol a boarding-school for young ladies which had the luck to become fashionable. Hannah's literary reputation began at the age of seventeen with a pastoral drama, the Search after Happiness, written for, and performed by, the young ladies of the boarding-school. On this slender basis she visited London, was so fortunate as to attract the attention of Garrick, and was by him introduced into his brilliant circle. She must have been at that time both witty and pretty, for Mrs. Montagu and the Reynoldses were delighted with her, Dr. Johnson gave her pet names, and Horace Walpole called her Saint Hannah. Her next great success was her tragedy of Percy, in which Garrick sustained the principal character, and in which Mrs. Siddons afterward appeared. Later on, Mrs. More published some Sacred Dramas, but after the death of Garrick she abandoned dramatic writing, her views leading her to take up what was called, in her day, "strict behavior," of which she now became the apostle. On her literary profits she retired to Cowslip Green, near Bristol, and later on to Barley Wood, where she was joined by her sisters, who were enabled to retire on the handsome profits of their school. But neither "strict behavior" nor anything else could weaken Hannah's hold on her day and generation: her Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World went off like hot cakes, and her Thoughts on the Manners of the Great were scrambled for by both great and small—seven large editions in a few months, the second in a week, the third in four hours! How many people now-a-days have read Cœlebs, of which twelve editions were printed in the first year, and in all thirty thousand copies of disposed of in America alone? Corinne appeared when Lucilla, the heroine of Cœlebs, was at the height of her popularity, and much animated comparison was instituted between Corinne and the rival she has long survived.


The first opposition which Hannah More encountered arose from her efforts to improve the condition of the poor in her neighborhood by education and the formation of benefit societies. The impulse to this movement came from Mr. Wilberforce, who, being on a visit at Barley Wood, was taken on an excursion to Cheddar Cliffs, then, as now, one of the "sights" of the vicinity. Mr. Wilberforce, while admiring the scenery, chanced to fall into conversation with one of the inhabitants, and learned, to his dismay, that the whole beautiful region was sunk in ignorance and vice. This discovery was discussed in full conclave on their return to Barley Wood, and Mrs. More undertook to have a school opened in Cheddar. The school proved a success, and by the aid of the subscriptions which her name brought from far and near she eventually extended the system over nine of the neighboring parishes, sunk in the barbarism of English village-life of that day, of which Cowper's village of Olney was an example. But this work did not go on as smoothly as the sale of Cœlebs: it at once aroused opposition from the large class who do not like to see old ruts abandoned, and was branded as Methodism—an epithet that was then freely used as an extinguisher for anything novel, and was a "bugaboo" of whose terrors we can have in this day little conception. Hannah was accused of endeavoring to spread toleration, and a favorite charge against her was that she had partaken of "bread and wine in a meeting-house." In vain her sister Martha explained that she sinned in good company, for many "High-Church people did the same, and one gentleman and lady with ten thousand pounds a year, who have always the Church prayers performed morning and evening in their family." Although the bishop excused her, it was determined that Hannah was to be crushed by a review; but all was of no more avail than in the case of Miss Martineau, which has been recently recalled by her autobiography. Hannah survived it all, and stuck through thick and thin to her triumphant schools and her "strict behavior." A less harmful shaft was hurled by a Bristol wit on an occasion when her clothes took fire and she was saved by the stout quality of her gown:

Vulcan to scorch thy gown in vain essays:
Apollo strives in vain to fire thy lays.
Hannah! the cause is visible enough:
Stuff is thy raiment, and thy writings—stuff.


A curious incident in Hannah More's life was her encounter with Ann Yearsley, the Bristol Milkwoman, of whom some account is given in Southey's Essay upon the Uneducated Poets. A gossiping writer briefly states the case as follows: "This poor woman, as is well known, sold milk, and, from going to water it each morning at the Pierian font, caught at length the poetic fervor. Mrs. Hannah More, whom she served with cream, was struck by the superior merit of her verses, and became her patroness. Mrs. More's name was enough to sell worse poetry, or even worse milk, than Ann Yearsley's. Milton had no such friend, and could not get twenty pounds for Paradise; but Ann Yearsley's book brought her some three hundred guineas. Hannah More, as she was the artificer, wanted also to become the manager, of the milkwoman's little fortune; but the milkwoman thought she was competent to take care of it herself, and wanted to bind her boys out to trades. The lady-patroness was offended at the independence of the protégée, who had been taken from under the milk-pails; Ann Yearsley dared to differ from her benefactor, and was denounced as an ungrateful woman; all Mrs. More's idolaters declared against her, and the whole religious world opened on her in full cry." Lactilla (for so the Mores and Montagus called her) loudly remonstrated: she accused Hannah of being envious of her talents, and announced a new edition of her poems freed from Mrs. More's corruptions. She carried her point, but, deprived of Mrs. More's favor, she quickly sank back into misfortune and obscurity.


The parents of Lord Macaulay were intimate friends of Mrs. More, and in her later years Hannah watched with tender interest the brilliant promise of that extraordinary youth. Young Macaulay was a not infrequent visitor at Barley Wood, and Mrs. More at one time devised her library to him, but afterward withdrew the bequest, owing to her doubts of the "strictness" of Macaulay's views. Poor Macaulay! He failed to win the esteem of two great female writers: the one feared he had no "religion;" the other declared he had no "heart."

As the Misses More began to get on in the seventies, one after the other died, and Barley Wood (or Mauritania, as wags called it) grew desolate. Then occurred the last great event of Hannah's life—her flight from Barley Wood. It suddenly transpired that for three years her eight servants had been in full enjoyment of high life below stairs It was discovered that they had given large orders to tradesmen in her name; they had intercepted sums of money intended for charity, and when the whole household was supposed to be at rest they were supping on presents of game sent to Mrs. More; they had secretly harbored in the house one of their relatives who had lost her place for disreputable conduct: in short, Mrs. Jellaby's household would have been a paradise in comparison with this one. What did Hannah do? She left for ever the home of her life: she ran away! A house was secretly taken at Clifton, and after she had fled the servants received a quarter's wages in advance with immediate dismissal. It must be said for Mrs. More that during her sisters' lifetime she had had nothing to do with the housekeeping; further, she was in very ill health, and had not been down stairs for seven years; but, with all the palliations that may be offered, is it not startling to find that this woman's influence had pervaded the civilized world with the exception of that little corner of it which was to be found under her own roof? This incident, together with the quarrel with Lactilla, suggests that Mrs. More did not exert personally a very strong influence. In regard to her servants she relied upon the deathbed harangue with which Mrs. Martha had consigned her to their care, and her confidence was kept up by the texts of Scripture which they each night carefully repeated to her before retiring to eat her game.

In the heyday of Hannah More's popularity there were living in Bristol or its vicinity three young men who were to bring in the new literary epoch by which Hannah has been forgotten—Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth. Both Southey and Coleridge were introduced to Mrs. More by Cottle. Southey was invited to pass a day at Cowslip Green: he pleased equally all five of the sisters, and Hannah pronounced him "one of the most elegant and intellectual young men they had seen." In 1814, Cottle conferred a like favor on Coleridge: they went down to Barley Wood, where for the space of two hours Coleridge delighted the five-leaved clover with his brilliant talk, but, unluckily, a titled visitor coming in, the poor philosopher was left to finish his soliloquy alone.

Southey was born in Bristol, at No. 9 Wine street, now the sign of the Golden Key. His father, a draper, carried on his business under the sign of a hare: although all his life a shopkeeper, he had been brought up in the country, and was passionately fond of country sports. He related of his first experience of city life in London that, happening to look out at the shop-door just as a porter was passing with a hare in his hands, it brought the country so vividly before him that he burst into tears, and the impression was so lasting that years after, when opening a shop in Bristol, he took the hare for a sign, having it painted on a pane in the window on each side of the door and printed on the shop-bills. Of Robert Southey's recollections of Bristol there is his own very charming account in the first volume of his Life by his son.

We return to Pope's letter to Mrs. Martha Blount for his description of Clifton: "Passing still along by the river, you come to a rocky way on one side, overlooking green hills on the other: on that rocky way rise several white houses, and over them red rocks; and as you go farther more rocks above rocks, mixed with green bushes, and of different colored stone. This, at a mile's end, terminates in the house of the Hot Well, whereabouts lie several pretty lodging-houses, open to the river with walks of trees. When you have seen the hills seem to shut upon you and to stop any farther way, you go into the house, and looking out at the back door, a vast rock of an hundred feet high, of red, white, green, blue and yellowish marbles, all blotched and variegated, strikes you quite in the face; and, turning on the left, there opens the river at a vast depth below, winding in and out, and accompanied on both sides with a continued range of rocks up to the clouds, of an hundred colors, one behind another, and so to the end of the prospect, quite to the sea. But the sea nor the Severn you do not see: the rocks and river fill the eye, and terminate the view much like the broken scenes behind one another in a play-house.

"Upon the top of those high rocks by the Hot Well, which I have described to you, there runs on one side a large down of fine turf for about three miles. It looks too frightful to approach the brink and look down upon the river; but in many parts of this down the valleys descend gently, and you see all along the windings of the stream and the opening of the rocks, which turns close in upon you from space to space for several miles in toward the sea. There is first, near Bristol, a little village upon this down called Clifton, where are very pretty lodging-houses, overlooking all the woody hills, and steep cliffs and very green valleys within half a mile of the Wells, where in the summer it must be delicious walking and riding, for the plain extends, one way, many miles: particularly, there is a tower that stands close at the edge of the highest rock, and sees the stream turn quite round it; and all the banks, one way, are wooded in a gentle slope for near a mile high, quite green; the other bank all inaccessible rock, of an hundred colors and odd shapes, some hundred feet perpendicular."


The reputation of the Hot Well, whose waters Pope was sent to drink, has utterly collapsed. The Hot Well house was long ago removed to admit a widening of the river, and the well itself is now inaccessible. There is no spa, once of great reputation, that has sunk into such complete oblivion as the Clifton Hot Well: this may be due, in part, to the exaggerated estimate that was formed of the virtue of the water, and to the blamable practice which prevailed of sending patients here at their last gasp as a forlorn hope. Of too many it might be said as in these lines from the epitaph on his wife by the poet Mason in Bristol cathedral:

To Bristol's fount I bore with trembling care
Her faded form: she bowed to taste the wave,
And died.

The little village of Clifton has now become a handsome suburb, where reside the wealthy successors of the merchant-venturers of Bristol. It is continuous with Bristol, and where the one begins or the other ends is not evident except to the parish authorities. The downs are what they were in Pope's time, with the exception of what is now their most striking feature—the suspension bridge across the chasm. As early as 1753, Mr. Vick, an alderman of Bristol, bequeathed one thousand pounds, to be kept at interest until they should reach ten thousand, when the amount was to be expended upon a stone bridge across the Avon. Nearly eighty years after, in 1830, the fund had reached eight thousand pounds, and it was determined to form a company to push forward the project: a plan for a suspension bridge by Mr. Brunel was accepted at an estimated cost of fifty-seven thousand pounds, and subscriptions were vigorously solicited. On the 27th of August, 1836, the foundation-stone was laid in the presence of the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, then holding its sixth annual meeting in Bristol. The work went on slowly for seven years, at the end of which it was abandoned for want of funds, forty-five thousand pounds having been expended, including the legacy of eight thousand. For nearly twenty years the towers and abutments stood, unsightly objects in a lovely scene, until in 1860 the Hungerford suspension bridge in London was taken down, and it was found that its chains might be made use of to carry out the uncompleted plan at Clifton. A new company was formed with a capital of thirty-five thousand pounds, in ten-pound shares, and at length, in December, 1864, the bridge was thrown open to the public. Its span is seven hundred and two feet; height from low water, two hundred and eighty-seven feet. An inscription on one of the piers thus epitomizes its story: "Suspensa vix via fit."

There are many reflections which may be called up by a glance over the brink of the chasm at Clifton. Down this muddy ditch dropped the little Matthew, with the Cabots in command, bound for the discovery of America; borne on the surface of this liquid mud, the Great Western (built at Bristol) found its way to the sea and demonstrated the practicability of steam traffic with America; and if you ask why Bristol now has so little share in that traffic, although reasons as plenty as blackberries will be showered upon you, perhaps you will find as convincing a reason as any in the sight of this narrow and tortuous channel. Now, at last, docks are being built at the mouth of the Avon, and one adapted to the largest vessels was opened on the 24th of February, 1877. The prospects of present success cannot be brilliant in the prevalent depression of the Atlantic trade, yet, to have heard the wild talk in February, one would have thought that the dock had only to open its mouth (or gate) to have the great plums of trade at once fall into it. The company is too wise to expect to catch birds simply by hanging out a cage: every one waits to see what bait they will offer. It is claimed that the passage from New York to Avonmouth may be made in a day less than to the Mersey, and mails and passengers forwarded thence to London in three hours. May we soon have the pleasure of welcoming American friends on Avonmouth Dock!

Alfred S. Gibbs.