Brunel, Bristol and re-forging history

Branagh-Brunel: Steampunk hero

Confession. I have this big crush on Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Or rather, on Kenneth Branagh as IKB, with those sideburns and a stovepipe hat, quoting  Shakespeare at the Olympic opening ceremony; an engineering Renaissance man.

Perhaps it played a subconscious part in why I took the kids on a half term minibreak to Bristol. We stayed in a magnificent Georgian B&B, convenient for marching onto Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge and admiring the big manly chains holding it up.

In the docks we wandered around his beautifully restored iron ship the SS Great Britain, marveling as we stood under a water level glass ceiling, at its huge rudder and I watched the pumping of its pistons in the throbbing heart of the engine room.

But enough steamy metaphor. Because as my Branagh/Brunel conflation proves, when it comes to history, nowadays we want to “like” people and places. It’s not easy though, when the present beauty and grandeur of places like Bristol  depend on a deeply ugly legacy.

In the M Shed museum of Bristol history, I learned Brunel, rather less sexily, complained that the army didn’t use MORE force to beat protestors demanding the vote in the 1831 Queen Square Riots, which historian Tristram Hunt has described as “the bloodiest battle on mainland Britain since Culloden”. At the time Bristol had just 6,000 voters out of an adult population of 104,000. Colonel Thomas Brereton initially refused to follow a command to order his men to open fire and charge on rioters. When he  later did, hundreds were killed and seriously injured. Brereton was court martialled for his initial delay and committed suicide before the verdict was delivered. I found myself looking at a human arm bone, recovered from the ruins of the Customs House, burned down in the riots. A human face had been carved into the ball at one end. A macabre relic.

Most notoriously, many of Bristol’s mansions were built on the profits of slave sugar plantations. The M shed has a city map marking the enduring elegant landmarks built by plantation owning Lords and merchants. Lists of slave “stock” written in beautiful copperplate lettering on ledgers make for sober reading: A man of forty with “bad feet” worth only ten pounds. There are a few sets of heavy manacles to stare at. It took the British anti slavery movement 20 years to secure an end to the trade in human beings. And a further 25 to ban slavery itself.

The displays on slavery featured blown up quotes from modern visitors praising and moaning about the idea of commemorating the city’s role in the slave trade, in a rather bizarre attempt, one assumes, to be inclusive and balanced. I wonder if any Holocaust museum would think it necessary to display complaints suggesting it’s time to stop going on about it.

In a city affected by riots and difficult race relations in the recent past too, the desire to let all sides be heard may have an honest motive. But past the slavery display, and next to the Gothic doorway where children are invited to dress up as medieval merchants and try out their bartering skills, I found this breathtaking  text about the history of prostitution in the port city: “Today a sex worker could be making porn films in a Bristol suburb, lap dancing in a club or walking the streets.; they could be a middle class student or a drug addict, male or female. Are sex workers exploited or do they have a choice?” I guess I should be grateful that my children weren’t offered the chance to dress up and try their “sex worker” bartering skills. But nor were there quotes from visitors pointing out that most female “sex workers” start out under 18, and most experience violence.

Every great Victorian metropolis was built on the exploitation of workers; including child prostitutes. But a parallel history of emerging human rights and protest is visible too. Seek out the display on Quaker sugar boycotts, and visit Bristol’s most atmospheric building — John Wesley’s first chapel in Horsefair – which helped birth a radically modern ideology of equality.

The true joy of Steampunk literature and art, which I adore, is that it’s a benign re-imagining of the Victorian age. Without slavery, or sexual exploitation. Perhaps this alternate fantasy history – like Branagh’s re-imagined Brunel – is a positive celebration of our age, and an acknowledgment that it is built on a past we are glad to have left behind.

This post was originally published in The Big Issue.

Further reading

SS Great Britain 

The Bristol riots

Tristram Hunt on the Riots and British Identity (Guardian 2006)

John Wesley’s New Room

M Shed museum

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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