As a proud son of Bristol (other locations may be involved, from Cheadle Hulme to south east London and York), I am loving the third series of A House Through Time on BBC2.
After Liverpool and Newcastle, the programme has moved to Bristol, where the British Nigerian historian David Olusoga now lives. Olusoga is happily into his stride with this lovely project.
When first met he seemed so laid back, so soothingly unruffled, that it could be difficult to concentrate on what he was saying. But he worked his presenter’s magic on me ages ago and now I willingly submit to being led through history’s dusty lobbies and kitchens by this unhurried man. I’d consider paying the licence fee for this programme alone.
Like many good ideas, this is as simple as they come: take one house and trace the history of its most significant, or sometimes most significantly unlucky, inhabitants. One house and many histories.
Number 10 Guinea Street is a Georgian house in a small row built in 1718 by Edmund Saunders, a wealthy slave-trading sea captain. As always, in the first episode we meet the present owners, in this case a couple who have lovingly restored a house that contains many original features, including a flagstone and wood-panelled hallway on which the camera often lingers. The house seems calmly set aside from the world, yet stands next to a block of modern flats, having narrowly survived wartime bombing (spoiler alert: that episode is yet to come).
Both Liverpool and Newcastle have clear links to slave-trading, and the cruelties of the past cast a long shadow in Bristol, a city much shaped and, to modern eyes, tainted by slavery. The opening episode dwells on Saunders and his slave-trading, yet also brushes past piracy, an abandoned baby, an escaped household slave, and the rise of the abolitionist movement.
Last night’s episode stepped forward to the 18th and 19th centuries, swiftly introducing new residents, including a young teacher who died in Bristol Lunatic Asylum, and a servant whose abuse at the hands of her husband garnered lurid newspaper coverage.
We also meet John Haberfield, spotted by Olusoga on the electoral roll as the 19-year-old son of new tenants in 1804. Haberfield went on to become Mayor of Bristol (six times, I think Olusoga said) and was in charge of the city’s civic response to the uprising of the Chartist movement.
The riots of 1831 are not remembered as widely, perhaps, as the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, yet were, as the historian Tristram Hunt has argued, “the bloodiest battle on mainland Britain since Culloden”.
The cause was parliamentary reform for working-class males as Bristol had only 6,000 voters for an adult population of 104,000. Such complaints causes disturbances elsewhere, but “in Bristol the fury was particularly keen”, as Hunt has put it, with troops sent into Queen Square to quell the rioters, in some case with cruel literalness. According to the government, 100 people died, while radicals claimed 250 died on the third day alone.
Olusoga swept through this episode efficiently – he does a lot of sweeping, as his historian’s broom sometimes has too much dust to gather in a short time – and referred in passing to the Newport Rising eight years later. This Chartist rebellion against authority popped up in an edition of Who Do You Think You Are, featuring the comedian Jack Whitehall and his comically grumpy father.
A House Through Time is a calmer, less messy version of Who Do You Think You Are, more focused with its attention on the inhabitants of one house, rather than chasing up the random strands of historical DNA attached to one famous person.
Last night the distant cruelty of what happened to people marching for the right to vote ran slap bang into news from the US of the Black Lives Matter over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. In Bristol the army was used against the people; and in the US President Trump threatens to do the same.
Sometimes history gives a tap on the shoulder, a reminder that past horrors can be present horrors, and present horrors can find their echoes in the past.