The Church in the Marsh

Street sign: Chapel Street

Dead in my tracks, I look up from the street sign and along the deserted industrial estate back street: what chapel?

St Philips in Bristol is industrial and has been industrial for a long time. Marshland reclaimed for railways and factories, now turned over to great sheds in corrugated metal and red brick – car dealerships, waste recycling plants, garage door salesrooms and the like.

There’s not much evidence that people ever lived here which is why Chapel Street, which I’ve never noticed before, grabs my attention.

Then, almost opposite, I notice Victoria Terrace, too, where there is no terrace – only brambles, vans and vicious anti-climb fencing.

Chapel Street.

Chapel. Terrace. Here?

In 2021, there’s no need to wonder. I take my phone and call up a map from 1902. It turns out I’m standing at the centre of a crowded neighbourhood. Short Street, the main artery, has terraced houses wedged together on either side.

Victoria Terrace has houses on one side, opposite the gates of the Saw Mill.

York Street and Aberdeen Street, are gone, homes and gardens lost beneath workshop buildings and car parks.

And, sure enough, there’s a church. St Silas’s. It once fronted onto the Feeder Road and was hugged by its own terraced streets – St Silas Street and Arthur Street. You can see it here in an aerial photo from 1926, round-tailed and imposing.

St Silas Street is sort of, just barely, still there, as the main entrance to Auto Choice, a huge dealership in a space-age box. Arthur Street, cut in half, is its side passage, with garages and parked vans.

St Silas’s wasn’t around long – it didn’t even make a century. Built on a bog in 1868, it was already falling down by 1872, and had to be rebuilt on new foundations. In 1941, it was blitzed, and never reconstructed. What remained was knocked down in 1959.

Although it was that street sign, Chapel Street, that led me to St Silas’s, it turns out the reference was… what’s the opposite of a red herring?

Chapel Street was diverted when the trading estate was built and didn’t originally run as far as Short Street. Its chapel is a Methodist one which, astonishingly, perhaps, is still there, in body at least. One of a handful of reminders of when this was a place, not a space.

Haunted by St. James’s Square, the square that isn’t there

St. James’s Square – an entire piece of the Georgian city of Bristol that simply doesn’t exist in 2021 – intrigues me.

My current novel project is set in Bristol in the 1950s when much of the city centre had been destroyed or damaged in the Blitz and post-war rebuilding was just getting underway. I have my protagonist living in what remains of St. James’s Square which means I’ve had to try to get a feel for this stolen place.

It’s not only that the buildings have been demolished – the pattern of the streets has fundamentally changed, like the site of some atrocity everybody wants to forget. What is there now? A chain hotel forecourt and a dual carriageway, pointedly cutting across the old lines.

Making my way to work from Horfield to the city centre for several years, I walked over the grave of St James’s Square most mornings and often stopped to see if I could find any trace at all. 

Cumberland Street, behind St James’s Square.

Cumberland Street, which runs behind the brutalist slabs of the Hilton and Holiday Inn, is the last connection. Enter it from Brunswick Square, pass the surviving red-brick Georgian terrace and you’ll eventually reach a pedestrian footpath that goes under and through the hotel. It always feels to me as if, on the right day, at the right time, that footpath might lead to St James’s Square, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1925 story ‘He’. It’s never happened yet, unfortunately.

The passageway that ought to lead to the square but doesn’t.

The surviving Brunswick and Portland squares also offer hints of how their missing sibling might have felt. Laid out in a line, the three were constructed one after the other, St James’s Square being the first, with houses in place by 1716. Enclosed and private, clamshell hoods over every door, it perhaps felt more like a relic of the 17th century than its larger, grander siblings. But squint, catch the right angle, and there’s surely a family resemblance. Look into the corners, away from the garden and eccentrically designed church, and Portland Square in particular catches something of the feel of the photographs of St James’s Square I’ve seen.

Ruined buildings.
Portland Square – is this Blitz damage?

Yes, there are photographs. Old Bristol was particularly well-photographed compared to some cities and between Know Your Place, the Bristol Post archive and the comprehensive works of Reece Winstone, I’ve harvested quite a few images. Two of my favourites, though, are in Walter Ison’s book Georgian Buildings of Bristol, first published in 1952.

A Georgian square.
SOURCE: The Georgian Buildings of Bristol, Walter Ison, 1952.

Other pictures online capture St James’s Square in its later years, approaching its doom. As happened in many British cities, Georgian houses built for gentlefolk became workshops, warehouses and institutional buildings. There was a large YMCA hall, for example. From the 1920s onward, Ison says, “its disintegration was rapid”:

During the late war more than half the total of houses, including the forest and least spoiled, was destroyed, and only the mutilated and disfigured ranges on the north and east sides remain… The surviving north row consists of two double-houses, Nos 6 and 7, and two single houses, Nos 8 and 9… These fronts have been suffered greatly in appearance by the partial removal of the crowning cornice, and by the brickwork having been rendered and generally defaced by painted signs.

This is the St James’s Square in which parts of my novel are set – a square that is no longer square, facing demolition. Portland Square, again, helps catch a little of how that might have felt, with half of the west side of the square still occupied by miraculously extant tottering ruins.

A little further away, across Stokes Croft and up the hill towards Kingsdown, there is also King Square – formerly genteel houses, sign-covered commercial properties and discarded strong cider cans piled around the wastebins.

St James’s Square, the square that isn’t there, disappeared for good in the 1960s, making way for new roads and a roundabout suitable for mid-20th century traffic. As local historian Eugene Byrne has written, “As you wait at the traffic lights where Bond Street joins the St James Barton roundabout, you are on the spot where the YMCA Hall used to be.”

I hope that reading my book will bring the Square back from the dead, even if I’ve taken some artistic licence to create a single surviving townhouse in that post-war period where my lead character lives, surrounded by dusty Georgian furniture and faded paintings, soon to be displaced.

Bristol gets police dogs, 1957

Bristol City Constabulary got its first police dogs in 1957 – a pair of Alsatian puppies named Kylow and Kudos. Why did it take so long?

These days, we’re all used to seeing those white DOG SECTION vans parked up, and to seeing footage of specialist dogs being handled by police officers. Some are trained to find drugs, others to detect the most minute traces of long-buried bodies.

In the 1950s, however, they were still quite new to policing in Britain and not all forces had their own dogs. There’s a pretty comprehensive history of their slow arrival here, starting in the 1850s, accelerating in the 1920s, and gaining serious commitment from the late 1940s onward.

That article argues that it was the expense of training and keeping dogs that led to the slow uptake; but I also think there must have been something about them that was seen as fundamentally un-British. Snarling Alsatians pulling at their leashes… This was the stuff of Colditz and the Gestapo, at odds with the myth of the bobby on the beat.

Headlines from the 1950s increasingly often refer to ‘police dogs’ being mobilised in manhunts in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Devon and elsewhere. Somerset Constabulary’s police dog, Brenda, was acquired in 1956 and she and her handler, PC Ray Fear, became minor celebrities. POLICE, PLUS BRENDA, MAKE QUICK ARRESTS read one headline in 1958.

Bristol, despite being a big, bustling city with a bit of a crime problem, was late to the party. It only acquired Kylos and Kudos after they were obliged to borrow dogs from Dorset Constabulary in the hunt for two missing children.

What became of Kylow and Kudos, I’m not sure. Were they effective? Did they have long careers? You might think that there would be something in the newspaper archives but, no, unlike Brenda, they didn’t attract ongoing coverage.

One last thing I would really like to know is where those names came from and why no journalist at the time thought to ask that question.

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting aspects of the research I undertook for my work-in-progress, a dark crime novel set in 1950s Bristol.

River of Orchids: the M32 in Bristol

M32 sign.

A version of this piece appeared in The Modernist magazine for spring 2019 which had the theme of ‘Infrastructure’. You can buy a copy here.

Throughout the 20th century, Bristol’s civic leaders bet everything on roads.

First, they ran a dual carriageway through Georgian Queen Square in the 1930s, bending it around an equine statue of William III.

Then in the 1960s, “it was decided to provide for UNLIMITED CAR ACCESS to the City Centre”, as Dorothy Brown explains in her 1975 booklet Bristol and How it Grew. Planning was dominated by road engineers who were allowed to create out-of-scale 6-lane throughways, enormous roundabouts and motorway-standard curves, right in the middle of the city.”

In 1967 they installed a flyover near Temple Meads, simultaneously dominating and pathetic, resembling a rollercoaster as much as a road.

Plans for a grand Outer Ring Road, with a projected completion date of 1975, were abandoned, but parts did appear – stuttering into existence at the Cumberland Basin and Hotwells, and at Lawrence Hill roundabout.

Everywhere pedestrians were shoved into underpasses, herded along streets in the sky, or forced to wait at at anxiety-inducing crossing points.

The M32 was part of this unfettered road-building strategy and one of few parts that was completed, and that remains in place. The first stretch of motorway opened in 1966, then a second in 1970, and the final length in 1975. It is generally spoken of as a scar, an eyesore, or even a ‘dagger into the heart of Bristol’, reflecting the trauma of its birth.

Cars on the M32

To enable its construction, families were forcibly relocated to new estates, houses were demolished, streets cut in two, and communities broken apart. The new borderlands, bristling with brambles and dead ends, attracted graffiti, fly-tipping, muggers and caravan shanties. In 2018, the outrage might have died down, but resentment lingers.

Puschchair by the side of the motorway.

Infrastructure is usually intended to be invisible, or hidden, or at least ignored. Accordingly, pedestrians are held at arm’s length from the M32 for much of its four-and-a-half miles, as it cuts through Bristol, up the Frome Valley, and out into the Gloucestershire countryside.

Frome Valley sign.

It grows out of a dual carriageway in the city centre, like a river taking on tributaries, finally bursting into full being at Junction 3, in a frothing tumble of looping slip-roads and subways.

Land of Hope and Glory.

This is where the fences and walls go up, grey blocks and corrugated metal, protecting walkers from the roaring road, and the road from the strange behaviour of pedestrians. LET BRISTOL BREATHE reads repeated graffiti; LAND OF HOPE & GLORY says a banner on the bow of a concrete bridge, promoting a YouTube channel.

Twisted old trees.

Between St Werburghs and Easton, the motorway is pushed down into a deep cutting, and the path is pulled away from the road’s edge. Through black branches in buffering parkland there can be seen the odd glimpse of grey, the blue shimmer of overhead signs, the roofs of lorries whipping by. But the sound – the waterfall rush of rubber on asphalt – is swallowed.

Then it rises again, shooting above the rooftops, launching traffic into the sky, and pedestrians are allowed back, this time into the void left beneath the road. The space is extraordinary, a world of monumental columns and holy reverberation. People live here, in permanently parked caravans or converted vans, or curled up next to shopping trolleys full of possessions.

Trolley under the motorway.

Thin men in broken trainers conduct urgent, secret business in underpasses. In the deepest shadows, children, teenagers, young adults, and adult adults, send skateboards scraping and clattering, up and down graffiti-covered ramps.

The M32 cafe.

And then a symbol just too on the nose: the River Frome emerges from its man-made tunnel, following the course of the motorway for a few hundred metres, fenced in and covered.

Subway at Eastville

At Eastville roundabout it reaches a crescendo of on-ramps, off-ramps, levels and layers. Pedestrians are directed to hostile above-ground crossings, or channeled into subways where leaves and litter drift. One one side is the landscaped anti-wilderness of Eastville Park. On the other, soot-soiled suburban houses, and Pur Down, with the ever-watchful telecommunications tower like something from a Simon Stålenhag painting.

Caravan and Purdown communications tower.

As Eastville becomes Stapleton, the motorway curves off across Bridge Farm, where trespassers are not welcome. It doesn’t appear again until the bridge at Heath House Lane where parked vans advertise breakdown services and fly-tippers ignore ‘No Fly Tipping’ signs.

The motorway below.

Scrambling up to wind-battered Stoke Park reveals the stroke of the motorway laid out almost in its entirety, headlights like tracer fire connecting the city with its target.

Even if the Queen Square carriageway has gone, even with the Temple Meads flyover demolished, the 20th century at least left its signature here – careless, but with a certain elegance, and distinct vigour.

Bristol Without Cars


Bristol Without Cars (#BristolWithoutCars) is, I suppose, what you’d call a Project.

The idea is to capture images of the city without any motor vehicles in shot – not parked, not moving, and it’s been brewing for months, ever since I saw this Tweet:

It resonated because it made me realise how often I’d been frustrated at cars blocking my view of a landscape or a beautiful building when I went to take a picture.

Is anything less romantic than a 2015 Honda Jazz occupying a quarter of the scene?

Here are some embryonic attempts to capture urban scenes in a similar light, snapped with either my FujiFilm X100F, or just the camera on my phone, in the early part of 2019.

An empty road with billboard.
Wormwood Scrubs, London, April.

A shop on a side street.
St Andrews, Bristol, May.

Houses and main road.
Eastville, Bristol, in June.

Totterdown in June
Bath Road, Bristol, in June.

Empty roads in Birmingham
Empty roads in central Birmingham in early July.

That Tweet also stimulated my militant pedestrian tendency. Why should we put up with all that scrap metal littering the streets, blocking pavements and penning us in?

When I was a kid, there used to be an advert which warned against crossing between parked cars. These days, there’s no other option – almost every street is lined with them, bumper to bumper.

And on more than one occasion recently, cars have mounted the pavement to overtake or perform some other manoeuvre, leaving me no option but to leap out of the way making noises like a frightened chicken.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to click your fingers and make them go away?

Well, that’s what taking these photos feels like.

Industrial wasteland.
Netham Road, Wednesday, 21:15.

A pub.
St George’s Road, Sunday, 15:34.

I started taking this really seriously a couple of weeks ago, going out on hunting expeditions along the M32, and keeping my eyes open on the various routes to and from work.

I wasn’t sure of the rules at first – I knew I didn’t want cars in shot, obviously, but what about people or bicycles?

Sharing my photos on Twitter, I got some instant feedback: shots of completely empty streets were more striking than this…

People in a street.
Queen Charlotte Street, Wednesday, 13:33.

…which looks a bit like the kind of CGI rendering a property developer would plaster across a hoarding.

So I decided, rule two: no humans either, just empty streets.

A city street.
Stokes Croft, Tuesday, 18:05.

Responses to this lifeless world were interesting. On the one hand, there were people who saw it as I intended, as a sort of Utopia – ‘River of Orchids where there was a motorway’. The world as a pedestrian friendly playground.

But others said it looked bleak or post-apocalyptic, which it absolutely does. For all my frustration with them, cars are, it turns out, a symbol of life and humanity.

I like the idea of these photos being a kind of Rorschach, with paradise/hell in the eye of the beholder.

I wonder how responses map to the old idea of introversion and extroversion?

With that in mind, one interesting development is how impatient I’m becoming with other pedestrians. When my frame is almost clear and someone takes so long dawdling out of shot that someone else wanders in, I feel something close to fury.

People walking in and out of shot.
Corn Street, Friday, c.12:55.

I’ve also learned that people often wander back and forth when they’re on the phone, presumably because they’re almost where they need to be but can’t hang up quite yet.

I’ve had a few suggestions for ways to remove cars using digital editing techniques, e.g. taking three photos of the same location and then averaging them to remove anything that’s different from one shot to the next. This would clearly be against the spirit of the thing.

So, there’s rule three: no cars or people to be edited out, although I will allow myself a bit of cropping and straightening.

Suburban street.
Bishop Road and King’s Drive, Sunday, 12:33.

Another convention that has begun to emerge (rule four) is around labelling: for the past week or so, when I share these photos, I’ve been saying where they were taken, on which day of the week, and at what time.

That’s because a couple of people asked if I was going out with my camera at 5 am which made me realise that a photo of, essentially, nothing, needs context – a few words so that others can hear the sound of my magical finger-click.

Hill without cars.
Constitution Hill, Sunday, 15:18.

These photos don’t show the cars that are parked just out frame on either side, or the lorry that passed out of view half a second before I hit the button.

I cannot emphasise this enough: there’s hardly been an easy shot yet.

Fumes on a quiet street.
Feeder Road, Wednesday, 19:14.

Even on quiet backstreets or industrial estates which ought to be quiet, there is always – always – a car idling, turning or speeding through.

But that does help me zero in on what looks most unnerving or impressive. We expect motorways to be busy, for example, so a shot of the M32 in momentary blankness has greater impact and, yes, is actually harder to achieve, but not much harder.

Empty motorway
M32, Friday, 18:40.

There are certain images I’m especially proud of because I know how long they took to achieve. This one was like torture but when it came together I literally punched the air, even though the reflection of a car crept into one of the windows.

Empty city centre street.
Wine Street, Friday, 17:58.

In general, the waiting is pleasant. I stand there with people brushing past me or ducking beneath my lens, feeling the sun or rain on my head, listening to birdsong or the sounds of the suburbs, and enter into something like a trance.

When the viewfinder flashes clear, CLICK, then a moment of absolute joy, as if I’ve actually achieved something.

It can be frustrating, especially when I go out on my lunch break from work and know I can only wait so long for the shot to come good. That haste is why the angle is sometimes off, or a finger slips into shot.

The ideal shot shows a long stretch of road to the horizon but, in practice, those are almost impossible. But perhaps that’s the big game I need to be going for. If I get ten in a year, it might be worth it.

Tricks and techniques

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far, feeling my way.

  • Start by looking for a section of road with no parked cars – everything else is a matter of timing.
  • Junctions are good – it seems counterintuitive but there’s usually no parking.
  • Road markings are fun – they add interest and irony – CAR CLUB.
    Use the camera grid for alignment – minimalism looks better with straight lines.
  • Be patient – the frame will clear, the shot will come, even in the busiest spot.
  • But be realistic – on a busy street, go for a head-on shot of the road and buildings opposite, or a slight angle, rather than the full panoramic sweep. (Unless you have all day.)
  • Frame with your feet – if there’s a car in view, shuffle left, right or backwards until it disappears behind a wall or hedge.

Bristol on Film: Some People, 1962

Some People is a little-known social realist film from 1962 that offers a glimpse of a post-war Britain rarely seen on screen. It is not set among northern terraces or the slums of the East End of London but on the docksides and gleaming new council estates of Bristol, the capital of the West Country.

When I moved to Bristol last year I wanted to get to know its culture and so asked around for tips on which novels and films best represent the city. Some People was one of the suggestions and after a little hunting I found a DVD released by Network in 2013.

It was lying on the coffee table when my then 69-year-old Dad visited and he recoiled at the sight.

“Is that… Is that Some People?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Oh, nothing,” he replied, still eyeing it with suspicion, and I knew there was a story to tell.

His reaction prompted me to watch the film sooner rather than later.

It was directed by Clive Donner who would make a name for himself with The Caretaker in 1963 and then head to Hollywood to make What’s New Pussycat? In 1965.

While Some People is clearly the work of a director finding his feet it is nonetheless an enjoyable drama about a teenager, Johnnie, played with charm and intensity by Ray Brooks, and his struggle to choose between straightening up or continuing a descent into delinquency.

Johnnie and his friends Bill (David Andrews) and Bert – a baby-faced David Hemmings – get into trouble racing their motorbikes along the Portway on the banks of the Avon and are banned from riding them which leaves them frustrated and deepens their boredom.

Then one night, while messing around in a church they’ve all but broken into, they are taken under the wing of Mr Smith, a local youth group organiser played by veteran British actor Kenneth More, who encourages them to form a pop group.

A grab from the film: the pop group.

Bill rejects Mr Smith’s mentorship seeing in it an attempt to control him and breaks with Johnnie and Bert, falling in with a gang of hard-cases.

Then, fuelled by jealousy over his girlfriend’s attraction to Johnnie, Bill tries to sabotage his friend’s new found stability. It’s small stuff – squabbling and scrapping, hardly Marlon Brando territory – but that makes it feel all the more authentically British.

The film’s strengths are its cast, setting and its considerable charge of nostalgia.

Filmed entirely on location, it captures the reality of Bristol in the heat of post-Blitz reconstruction, half tumbledown harbour city, half planners’ dream.

A large part of the action takes place on the Lockleaze estate, high on windswept Purdown in the city’s northern suburbs.

St Mary church
CREDIT: Desmond Tripp from Bristol, T.H. Burrough, 1970.

St Mary Magdalene with St Francis church is one of the stars of the production – a mad modernist vision in concrete and stained glass that provides a surreal sci-fi backdrop to the boys’ antics. The church opened in 1956 and was typical of the space age houses of worship built on overspill estates all over the country in the post-war period.

Unfortunately, though it looked astonishing, it was plagued with structural problems and was demolished in 1994, which only adds to the value Some People holds as a record of a time and place.

Another particularly striking scene takes place in the Palace Hotel, an especially grand Victorian pub on Old Market. There Johnnie has a breakthrough conversation with his taciturn working class father played by Harry H. Corbett (whose Bristol accent, it must be said, ends up drifting to somewhere near Cork). Real pubs are rarely seen on film, especially in colour, and this is a particular lovely example – cast iron tables, a beaten up piano, everything dark with age, the aroma of smoke and stale beer positively wafting from the screen.

Those with an interest in public transport will thrill at the plentiful footage of the famous Bristol ‘Lodekka’ buses while aviation geeks will get a similar thrill from scenes of Mr Smith at work: when he isn’t encouraging young tearaways to play nicely together he is an engineer overseeing test flights of the Bristol 188 ‘Flaming Pencil’ supersonic jet.

Anneke Wills plays Mr Smith’s daughter, Anne, who has a teenage fling with Johnnie. His influence leads her to buy tight jeans which she further shrinks to fit in the bath. You’d think this scene a little ripe if it turned up in a modern period drama set in the 1960s but here it is charmingly authentic.

In general the film is a useful reminder that in 1962 kids were still wearing quiffs and leather jackets.

Original press ad from 1962
SOURCE: British Newspaper Archive.

Passing scenes of dancehalls, espresso bars and roadside motorbike hangouts will also bring back memories for anyone who was on the scene in the 1960s. Less thrilling but no less evocative are the bus stations, council houses and cigarette factories where real life plays out between bouts of fun or violence. It isn’t Grim Out West, only a little grey, a little sparse, slow and sleepy.

If Some People has weaknesses they are the score – square rock’n’roll arranged by Ron Grainer and performed by local Shadows wannabes The Eagles – and the fact that it is effectively propaganda for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme which part-funded the production. I say ‘effectively’ because Bill, the rebel, delivers several stinging diatribes against it and, frankly, seems much cooler than Johnnie and his gang of goody-goodies.

Once I’d finally watched the film I was more curious than ever about Dad’s reaction and pressed him on it when we next went for a pint. With some reluctance he told me the story.

Like Johnnie, Bill and Bert, he and his 14-year-old friends on a Somerset council estate were often bored and got up to mischief. When it wasn’t joyriding, it was repeatedly breaking into the local CO-OP to steal cigarettes.

One night he returned home to find his father in a foul temper.

“Where have you been, boy?”

“In town to see Some People.”

“Oh, yeah? Some People? Well while you’ve been out, some bloody people have been here to see you.”

The people in this case were the police and Dad ended up with a criminal record.

After that, like Johnnie in the film, he started a rock group and threw his energy into making music rather than trouble, before settling down to a life working in factories and warehouses.

Art imitating life imitating art.

You can watch Some People via BFIPlayer.

Art Deco Bristol

The protagonist of William Gibson’s 1981 short story ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ finds himself pulled into an alternative reality in which the streamlined modernist design of the 1930s never went away.

Spotting surviving examples of Art Deco architecture in Bristol can feel rather like that – the shock of a sudden glimpse into a time before the Blitz and the ensuing austerity, when buildings soared, waved and curved into ever blue skies.

The term Art Deco derives from the French Arts Décoratifs and arose in the early part of the 20th century. It was a self-consciously modern movement that drew on diverse inspirations including industrial design and Egyptian art, and employed bold colours, geometric patterns alongside expanses of black, white, pale grey or cream to sell a vision of clean, bright living.

Bristol didn’t go all in on Art Deco, preferring the more conservative neo-Georgian style in many cases, and much of what there was was destroyed by war or progress. Most of the city’s lavish Art Deco cinemas, for example, have been pulled down (the Orpheus at Henleaze) or allowed to decay to their concrete bones like the Ambassador in Bedminster, now a climbing centre. There is still plenty to see, however, if you know where to look.

Central Health Clinic.

Bristol’s surviving Deco tends to be in the vaguely totalitarian Ministry of Information style, intended to project an image of business-like modernity, not leisurely decadence. The Bristol Central Health Clinic of 1935 by C.F.W. Dening is typical, and easy to miss unless you catch it from the right angle and pay attention to the details. It is composed around a central tower that barely towers, and has geometrically formed text over its defunct doorways – WOMEN PATIENTS and STAFF.

Queen's Court.

Alec French was an important Bristol architect whose firm is still trading today. His work includes the twin office blocks, Eagle House and St Stephen’s House, that take up most of one side of Colston Avenue. One oddity is French & Partners’ St Nicholas House which looks like pure 1930s Deco but was actually built as late as 1959. Queen’s Court, a block of flats built in 1937, is particularly striking. It resembles an ocean liner in red brick, its prow cutting into the road junction, with balconies turning its flats into seaview cabins. Halifax House on St Augustine’s Parade was built for the building society of the same name in 1937 before becoming once Alec French’s own HQ, and most recently a branch of Toni & Guy. It is quite plain but with distinct Deco touches around the balcony and in the black stone fascia.

Electricity House

The Centre has more yet. Electricity House is a former showroom of 1937 by Giles Gilbert Scott, perhaps best known for designing Battersea Power Station and the famous red telephone box. Northcliffe House, a former newspaper office built in 1929, has streamline details and a clock tower which states thrusting modernity without subtlety.

Odeon cinema.

The Odeon at Broadmead is one example of frivolous leisure Deco, decked out in polished green and white tiles, and with a flying saucer canopy over what was once the grand entrance. The Merchant’s Arms at Stapleton, currently closed pending refurbishment or redevelopment, is a rare pub built in the streamline moderne style. In Stokes Croft there’s the former Blundell’s department store by W.H. Watkins at No. 77, much-altered but still unmistakably of the 1930s. The junction of Zetland and Gloucester roads has two minor relics: the former Morgan’s department store (lately Maplin’s) with its minimalist clock-face; and a Sainsbury’s supermarket which, if you look at the details, reveals itself as a branch of Burton’s the tailor dating to 1938.

Briavels Grove.

The very humblest examples can be found in residential suburbs. Subtly streamlined semi-detached houses crop up here and there in Westbury on Trym, while Briavels Grove in St Werburgh’s is an entire cul-de-sac of houses with bold geometric door surrounds and sun-ray garden gates. It’s all enough to conjur the sounds of Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra from a distant radiogram:

“It’s just the time for dancing/ Tomorrow is today/ Go where the music’s calling/ And dance the blues away…”

Rogue One: The Strange Career of Bampfylde Moore Carew

Bampfylde Moore Carew.

A thief, conman, beggar, trickster, adventurer and teller of tall tales, Bampfylde Moore Carew is the most famous West Countryman they never tell you about in school.

I first learned of his existence in a book called Somerset Legends by Berta Lawrence, published in 1973, a copy of which I bought for 10p in a sale of cancelled books at Bridgwater Library when I was about thirteen. Reading this was the first time it ever occurred to me that my home county might be anything other than rather flat and rather dull, and I took the book away with me to university, and then to London, as an antidote to homesickness.

Now, thanks to the magic of online book archives, I’ve been able to go back to Ms. Lawrence’s source, namely a book called The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde Moore Carew, published in 1745. We would probably now recognise it as having been ghost-written for Carew by one Robert Goadsby, though its status as autobiography-biography, or perhaps even a form of picareseque proto-novel, remains muddy. It is almost certainly a pack of fibs built around some kernels of truth, but was nonetheless a bestseller in its day and reprinted, with further embellishments, many times in the century that followed.

Here’s the story it tells, as the precursor to the embroidered gangster memoirs of today, with a few details taken from other sources, and quotations taken from this Project Gutenberg version of an 1850s reprint.

Carew was born in July 1693 in Bickleigh, a village near Tiverton in Devon. His father was the rector of Bickleigh and his family was well-to-do. He was sent to Blundell’s, the famous West Country private school at, at the age of 12, but (according to his own account) ran away rather than face punishment for tearing up farmland with his horse-riding hunting pals and a pack of hounds. And this is where his life got interesting.

Painting of a gypsy camp.
Morland, George; Encampment of Gypsies; The Fitzwilliam Museum.

He joined a band of gypsies and made a living with them through trickery and petty crime. As a well-spoken, gentlemanly figure he was uniquely well placed to win over respectable folk and relieve them of their money, as in the case of Mrs Musgrove of Monkton just outside Taunton, in Somerset. (Now best known for its garden centre — such romance!) She called on young Carew having heard that he was an expert gypsy-trained treasure diviner. 

When he came, she informed him that she suspected a large quantity of money was buried somewhere about her house, and if he would acquaint her with the particular place, she would handsomely reward him. Our hero consulted the secrets of his art upon this occasion, and after long toil and study informed the lady, that under a laurel-tree in the garden lay the treasure she anxiously sought for; but that her planet of good fortune did not reign till such a day and hour, till which time she should desist from searching for it; the good lady rewarded him very generously with twenty guineas for his discovery.  We cannot tell whether at this time our hero was sufficiently initiated in the art, or whether the lady mistook her lucky hour, but the strict regard we pay to truth obliges us to confess, that the lady dug below the roots of the laurel-tree without finding the hidden treasure.

This is a classic con-man story in which the mark positively asks to be ripped off because of her greed, and her stupidity — perhaps one of the earliest in print?

Eventually he was convinced to come in from the field and return to Bickleigh where he was welcomed with tears of gladness and the ringing of church bells. But having had a taste of freedom and adventure, he got bored and went back to the gypsies, via their camp at Tiverton, and set out on a new phase of his career: he became a fake shipwrecked seaman.

Our hero’s wit was now set to work, by what stratagems he might best succeed.  The first that occurred to his thoughts was that of equipping himself with an old pair of trowsers, enough of a jacket to cover his nakedness, stockings such as nature gave, shoes (or rather the body of shoes, for soles they had none) which had leaks enough to sink a first rate man of war, and a woollen cap, so black that one might more safely swear it had not been washed since Noah’s flood, than any electors can that they receive no bribes.  Being thus attired, our hero changed his manners with his dress; he forgot entirely his family, education, and politeness, and became neither more nor less than an unfortunate shipwrecked seaman.

He learned the jargon and the manners of a sailor and in this persona conned multiple people out of “a considerable booty”, before reinventing himself again as a simple Kentish farmer who had lost his cattle in a flood:

His habit was now neat but rustic; his air and behaviour simple and inoffensive; his speech in the Kentish dialect; his countenance dejected; his tale pitiful—wondrous pitiful; a wife and seven helpless infants being partakers of his misfortunes; so that if his former stratagem answered his wishes, this did still more so, he now getting seldom less than a guinea a day.

Next, he adopted the persona of Mad Tom, a half-naked lunatic, roving the countryside and observing human nature, learning more “than most of our youths who make the Grand Tour”.

Carew the trickster disguised as a ghost at South Molton, Devon.

From Dartmouth in Devon He travelled to Newfoundland where he acquired a “fierce and large dog” and stayed just long enough to learn enough about fishing and sailing to take his shipwrecked mariner act to the next level. On his return, via Newcastle, he fell in love, eloping with one Miss Gray, marrying her in Bath, and settling in Bristol, where they turned heads with their dandy dress.

Going back on the road, he impersonated a clergyman to prey on Quakers; developed a wheeze whereby he would turn up anywhere there had been a notably large fire and pretend to be a survivor, with a singed hat for evidence; and strapped himself up to portray the part of a one-legged beggar. Circling back to Bristol, he pretended to be the son of a Newfoundland gentleman whom he vaguely resembled, lately arrived in England and in need of credit on clothes and provisions. On one occasion he witnessed a shipwreck off the Dorset coast and had the presence of mind to strip and fling himself into the surf to be rescued as a survivor or, as he tells it, to attempt to rescue one of the crew like some kind of superman, only to be quite innocently mistaken for a member of the ship’s crew.

Eventually, all this caught up with him and he was arrested at Barnstaple in Devon, and taken to court in Exeter, from where he was transported to Maryland in the American colonies. You might think this was the end of Carew’s West Country career but, no, he somehow escaped custody, convinced some Native Americans to remove his irons, and made his way back to England via Philadelphia, New York and various other fascinating places out of the scope of my project.

A parade of convicts.
British convicts in chains ready for transportation, via Early American Crime.

He carried on where he had left off (shipwrecked sailor act, turban-wearing Greek, French smuggler, Presbyterian parson, and so on), got caught again, and sent back to Maryland, from where he escaped a second time. (If he was making this up, he could have done with a firmer editor – who would invent this repetitive narrative structure?)

In the third and final phase of his career as a conman he tried some bigger schemes, such as convincing a group of his school friends to join him at St Matthew’s Fair in Bridgwater, Somerset, in the guise of a group of crippled, deaf, dumb, blind beggars. The mayor, though, suspected the trick and had them thrown in prison for vagrancy, but contrived to let them escape so that he could see which of them broke into a run on leaving their cell and then re-arrest them on more serious charges. (This sounds like something from one of the sillier spaghetti westerns to me.)

Although the book presents all of this with a sort of smirk, and its sales are evidence that people found Carew’s antics to some degree charming or at least entertaining, his admitted tendency to prey on the bereaved is simply grim. For example, he tricked a man whose son had died at sea into giving him money in exchange for a supposedly first-hand account of his death and burial, which of course Carew knew nothing about that he had not learned from gossip around the village. In another instance, at Buckfastleigh in Devon, he got an accomplice to dress as a victim’s dead grandmother as part of another ‘hidden treasure’ con:

In order for the execution of this scheme, Coleman put a woman’s cap on his head, washed his face, and sprinkled meal on it while wet, stuck the broken pieces of a tobacco-pipe between his teeth, and wrapping his body in a white sheet, planted himself in the road that Collard and Mr. Carew were to come; the moon at this time shone very bright, which gave an additional horror to the pretended spectre.  Our hero, by virtue of his supposed profound learning and most mysterious science, spoke to it in an unknown language, to the following effect:—“High, wort, bush rumley to the toggy cull, and ogle him in the muns;” at which command the terrific hobgoblin fiercely advanced up to poor Collard…

But this couldn’t go on forever and eventually, having made a small fortune, and growing old and ill, Carew retired to a cottage in the West Country, published his memoir, and died in 1759.