Last Friday morning, I did a couple of hours work on my computer, then drove Son Number One twenty miles to his consultant’s appointment at the hospital. After collecting a bag full of free prescriptions, we came home. He went up to his room to do some private study before his exams, while I went back to work on my current work-in-progress.
None of that would have been possible in the period covered by my current project for Pen and Sword Books, Women’s Lives In Bristol, 1850-1950. I would still be living in the house where I was born—assuming I’d survived the birth of my first child. Without the miracle of medication taken for various health problems since then, I wouldn’t have lasted beyond the age of thirty-five.
The internet, personal transport, antibiotics and many other innovations have changed everyday life so much. Things we take for granted would seem miraculous a hundred years ago. Only a decent lifespan before that, Bristol was famously thriving on the three S’s—Slaves, Smoking and Sugar. Back then those evils weren’t recognised as such, but revolution was in the air.
When campaigners against the slave trade, including Bristol women Hannah More and Mary Carpenter, inspired the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, it knocked out one cornerstone of the city’s economy.
The Industrial Revolution came to the rescue. Bristol stopped relying on men and women toiling at piece-work in their own homes, and became an industry-driven metropolis. The Kennet and Avon canal brought in raw materials that weren’t as exotic as tobacco and sugar, but could be turned into products everyone needed, rather than luxuries. The mechanised manufacture of paper, textiles and soap demanded a huge workforce. Large factories sprang up all along the River Avon from St Philip’s Marsh to Bedminster and beyond, employing the latest technology. The smaller, more nimble fingers of women made them the first choice for jobs needing accuracy and speed on production lines and in operating machinery.
Life in Bristol improved—at least for some. A steady stream of employable labour abandoning poorly-paid seasonal work on the farm came looking for steady, indoor jobs in factories. They settled in the cheapest lodgings. These were damp, disease-ridden courts bordering the River Avon far below the heights of the rich, beautiful Clifton area. Boats heading out from Cork, filled with families escaping the Irish Potato Famine made the Port of Bristol their first destination. Desperate people make cheap employees. Desperate women and their children are the cheapest labour of all.
Religion came to the rescue of nineteenth-century Bristol. The pioneering Methodist John Wesley’s mission in the city made it a magnet for non-conformists. Like their Anglican contemporaries, Methodist women were subordinate to men, although they were encouraged to take a much more active role in worship. They spread the word, supported the life of their church and played leading roles in education. They were vital to the success of the Sunday School movement, knowing that where children are led, there’s a chance their mothers will follow.
|Fry’s—you came for the chocolate, but stayed for the social reform…
With slavery abolished, Mary Carpenter’s Unitarian background drove her to open ragged schools for the poorest of the poor. Later, she created reformatories to train offenders as domestic servants. Great Quaker families such as the Frys and Sturges spent their money improving the minds and conditions of the Bristol poor. Businessmen and entrepreneurs followed the money to the city. Its multiple supply routes by road, rail and water made it easy to import raw materials, and export the finished articles. These men brought their wives and children. Many were non-conformists, who bonded with the local Methodists and Quakers to create a wide network of men and women determined to do good.
Knowledge is power. With the introduction of compulsory schooling, and the examples set by intelligent role models such as the Priestman sisters and the Sturge Sisters, Bristol women became unstoppable. Education led to ambition, and the realisation they could find a life beyond overcrowded squalor in the Pithay, or the Dings.
United in optimistic bloody-mindedness, Bristol women fuelled Barton Hill’s Great Western Cotton Mill strike of 1889, created a major hub for suffragette activities, developed a network of cooperative societies, and helped win two world wars with their work on the Home Front.
Individually, they were resourceful, inventive and brave. Cobbler’s daughter Mary Willcocks had a ten-week flirtation with royalty which took her all the way to America before she returned to Bristol, and the life of an honest woman. Pauper Ann Howe exposed institutionalised cruelty at the mighty Bedminster Union Workhouse. Bristol inventor Sarah Guppy showed Isambard Kingdom Brunel where he was going wrong with his initial design for the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Frail, deaf Ada Vachell worked all her life to create opportunities for those even more disabled than she was.
The women of Bristol have proved themselves unbeatable.
You can find out more about the inspiring mix of saints and sinners who have called the city their home in my forthcoming book for Pen and Sword, Women’s Lives In Bristol 1850-1950.
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