Category Archives: History

Bristol bucket list: the two towers, part 2

To many, the Wills Memorial Building IS Bristol University. Sitting at the top of Park Street, its tower dominates the area, and locals are always tripping over tourists desperately trying to snap the great building. In reality, unless you study Law or Earth Sciences, most students only visit this building a handful of times -for exams, careers/open unit fairs, and *gulp* graduation.

Lottie wasn’t pleased to find that a lamp post was taller than the Wills Building

A team from the university’s Estates Services has been running tours of the building for some time, and though it was high on my Bristol bucket list to join one of the tours, it took a long time to get round to it. Tours run on the first Saturday and Wednesday of each month, so when the first week of June came and went, I thought I’d missed my chance to visit before graduation. Thankfully, I spotted a tweet offering the chance to join a private tour, so on Saturday, Beth and I got up bright and early to go and visit the building we’ve walked past almost every day.

Our tour was conducted by Dave Skelhorne, who has worked at the university for years and knows the building and its history inside out. Dave ran us through a brief -but fascinating- history of the building and the university, before marching us off to various areas to spot grotesques, point out secret doors and head to the top.




Odd to think that the next time we're in this hall will be for graduation

Odd to think that the next time we’re in this hall will be for graduation

Despite our fears that the poor June drizzle would ensure that the tower would be covered in fog, the views from the top were outstanding. At 215 ft (68 metres), Wills is the taller of the two towers, and the views reflect this. It really is amazing what you can see from here -we managed to spot Park St (which looks flat from above), the Clifton Suspension Bridge hiding behind other buildings, and we could even see as far as Dower House (aka the big yellow house on the hill by the M32 leaving Bristol).

Park Street from Wills

Park Street from Wills

Cabot Tower from Wills Tower

People on Cabot Tower. We tried waving but they didn't see

People on Cabot Tower. We tried waving but they didn’t see

Clifton Suspension Bridge hidden in Clifton

Clifton Suspension Bridge hidden in Clifton

That tiny yellow dot in the centre of the horizon?...

That tiny yellow dot in the centre of the horizon?…

...It's Dower House on the M32

…It’s Dower House on the M32

Once we’d made sure that we’d got at least one photo from every viewing point on the top of the tower (as well as some of us posing), we descended the winding staircase and headed for the belfry to meet Great George. For those of you not familiar with George, he is the 9.5 tonne bell, who runs the funniest Twitter account in Bristol.

We were lucky enough to hear the great bell chime in 11 o’clock.


Great George in the houseThis tour was probably the best £3 I’ve spent while at Bristol. Not only are the guides nice, the views brilliant and the access unparalleled, but half the profits from the tours go towards Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Appeal for Bristol’s Children’s Hospital -so far the tours have raised over £11,000 for the charity!

Although tours are only organised for the beginning of each month, it’s possible to arrange for group tours (like the one we crashed) so it’d be great for family reunions/society trips etc. Dave also mentioned that they are keen to take on another guide (preferably female) so if you live in Bristol, get in touch via the link below.

Tickets cost £4, or £3 for students over the age of 11, senior citizens and members of the university. Our tour lasted about an hour and a half. There’s quite a lot of stairs to climb on the tour, so this probably isn’t the best thing to do with grandparents or small children. If you really struggle with small spaces (like lifts or spiral staircases) and/or heights, you should also give the trip up to the top a miss (although I managed fine -I didn’t even get jelly legs at the top!).

For more info, head to the website here. You can also follow them on Twitter here (handy for finding out about last minute tours) and on Facebook here.

We noticed that quite a few naughty visitors to the tower had left their mark, including Mavis in 1948!

Tut tut Mavis

Tut tut, Mavis

Check out part 1 of the two towers trip here.


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Bristol bucket list: the two towers, part 1

The skyline of Bristol is dominated by a real mishmash of architectural styles. From the historic masts of the SS Great Britain, to the chimney-like spires of Clifton Cathedral, there’s really no such thing as a ‘typical’ Bristol building.

Having spent four years studying at Bristol University, my Bristol skyline has always been dominated by two impressive towers: Cabot Tower and the Wills Memorial Building. I put aside my general hatred of heights and headed up both towers to look down on the city.

Cabot Tower

Cabot Tower sits at the top of Brandon Hill Park, a beautiful escape from the hustle and bustle of Park St which is just a couple of minutes away. For many years, the tower was shut to the public due to the tower’s increasing state of disrepair. When I arrived in Bristol in 2009, it wasn’t even mentioned among students. A couple of years later, following a campaign by the Bristol Evening Post to ‘Save Our Tower’ and £420,000 refurbishment project, the tower reopened and now offers incredible views across the city for free!

Built between 1896 and 1898, the tower is a monument to the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s voyage from Bristol to Newfoundland in Canada. While the inside of the tower is little more than a simple winding staircase, the exterior has been well restored and is now as stunning as the views from the tower’s viewing balconies.

There are two viewing stages. The idea of getting up to the first one alone made my tummy do little flips, but it was absolutely fine. Instead of focusing on the fact that you are over 100ft above the ground, you become absorbed in trying to spot other Bristol landmarks. The balconies are also well enclosed so the likelihood of you falling off in some Saruman-style death scene is quite unlikely.

And then there are the views…

Cabot tower

View from Cabot Tower

You can just make out the masts of the SS Great Britain

Little ant people on the Triangle

Little ant people on the Triangle

The park below

The park below

If you’ve got half an hour to spare in Bristol, head up to Brandon Hill Park for a really special view of the city. The tower is open every day except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day (and who wants to be climbing a tower then anyway?!), and is open from 8.30 til dusk. You can find more info here.

Check back for part two and the views from the Wills Memorial Building.

View of Wills Mem from Cabot Tower

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Bristol bucket list: SS Great Britain

When I was 17 and choosing which universities to apply for, location was a major factor. Having grown up in London, the thought of going to a small academic backwater or remote concrete campus filled me with dread. Bristol, it seemed, had everything. Small enough to walk (almost) everywhere, but big enough to never be bored, it has been the perfect home for the last four years. But now, faced with graduation and an uncertain future ahead, I will soon be moving back to London to live with my family, and will be leaving my beloved Bristol behind.

When I was trapped in my house over Easter madly typing up my dissertation, I swore to myself that I would try and make the most of my final term at Bristol. For some people, this means trying to get drunk in clubs on the Triangle, but for me it meant enjoying the other things the city had to offer, revisiting favourite haunts and discovering new places, especially those I’d always meant to check out but had never got round to.

The SS Great Britain was one such place that I’d always planned to visit eventually. A few weeks ago, my friend Jon got in touch to say he had a spare ticket to visit the boat as part of the Museums at Night festival and so off we went to visit Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s famous ship.

IMG_0135I’d heard great things about the SS Great Britain -most notably that my brother, who ‘hates’ history, actually enjoyed his visit with my dad – and she didn’t fail to impress.

We started off underneath the boat. Although she looks like she is fully submerged in water, the bottom of the boat is in fact dry, and a glass platform, covered in a few inches of water, gives the illusion of the boat floating. Walking beneath the water to look at the ship’s propeller was bizarre and brilliant.


The huge propeller


Underwater but dry

The ship’s history is long and complex and to understand it best, it is well worth paying the (somewhat hefty) entrance fee to the ship and its adjoining museum. The Great Britain was launched in 1843, and for a long time was the biggest passenger ship in the world. She was also used as a quarantine ship and warehouse before being rescued and returned to Bristol.

Today the ship is a lively museum, telling the story of not just the ship, but of the people who built and used her. The adjoining museum building is organised as a timeline, taking you through what happened from the ship being built right up to her being rescued from the Falkland Islands and returned to her home in Bristol. On board, you can wander through the various rooms and cabins on the ship. Walking through these rooms, you are transported back to a different time and place, thanks to both the careful dressing of each area, and the smells permeating through the ship. This multi-sensorial approach was great for helping us forget that we were in a museum, although it wasn’t exactly pleasant. The room that was used for storing fish smelt like a fishmongers in hot weather, while we had to run straight out of the hull where the animals were kept due to the overwhelming pong of manure.





In the dining room, a lady played old time tunes on the piano, while another trio of musicians played among the cramped cabins in the first class area. We poked our heads into the tiny rooms, which got smaller and more uncomfortable the further down into the boat we went, and visited the ship’s barber, doctor and other miscellaneous characters.

When we finally emerged onto the top deck, the sun was beginning to set. The flags that cover the riggings fluttered in the evening breeze and we watched steampunks wander around, occasionally getting stopped for photos.





Because we visited as part of Museum’s at Night, our tickets only cost us £1 each (a complete bargain!) Regular tickets cost £12.95 for adults (or £10.95 for students), and they allow you to return as many times as you like within the space of a year. I left wishing I hadn’t left it so late to visit, as I would have liked to go back again in a few months’ time.

More info here

Have you visited the SS Great Britain? What did you think? Where else should I add to my bucket list?


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I have a new blog!


In an attempt to trick myself into thinking that the dreaded ‘D’ word might be fun, I have set up a blog to keep track of all the research I am doing for my dissertation. I think that by forcing myself to blog at least twice a week, there might a bigger chance of me actually handing in 12,000 words of something decent come April 2013. I also hope that it will solve the common ‘what are you doing your dissertation on?’ question, as my current answer, ‘I’m-looking-at-the-changing-attitudes-towards-First-World-War-memorials-in-the-run-up-to-the-centenary-of-the-outbreak-of-the-War’, isn’t very catchy and has the habit of sending people into temporary comas. So here it is:

I plan to change the name once I think of something better, as I am increasingly finding that a lot of WWI memorials are not made of stone, and that many of them have been forgotten, or at least ignored. If you have any suggestions, please whack them in the comment box below. As for the topic: I want to know how people in modern Britain feel about First World War memorials. In just a couple of years, we will mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, but I wonder how many people really care? Several organisations have already set up 2014 projects to help fund conservation of memorials, but I’m also beginning to find that there are people out there keen to honour the dead who aren’t getting the help they require. Then there are the people that aren’t recorded in the newspapers: the apathetic. Those people who walk past war memorials every day without realising they are there, who probably haven’t held a minute’s silence on the 11th of November since they left school, but who may still be somewhat perturbed by the notion of a rock star’s step-son swinging from the Cenotaph. Another group of people I am keen to talk to are the people who see war memorials as a source of income: the metal thieves. So if you think you might be interested, head over to my new blog, and please let me know if you hear any war memorial news in your area (maybe your grandma lays a wreath at her father’s memorial every November, or perhaps you have a friend who was recently arrested for pissing on a war memorial?). I will attempt to keep this blog updated (as I have completely failed to do over the last three months) but it might prove a bit tricky between editing my university newspaper, working on my dissertation and other uni work and attempting to keep at least a portion of my sanity intact.

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An afternoon at Shaw’s Corner

When the playwright George Bernard Shaw was looking for somewhere to live in the early 20th century, the story goes that he and his wife stumbled across the grave stone of a 70 year old woman in the Hertfordshire hamlet of Ayot St Lawrence. The woman’s epitaph read ‘Her time was short’. The Shaws were impressed that 70 years was a short period of time here, and decided to settle in the area.  Whether this tale is true or not, Shaw lived in the hamlet until the grand old age of 94, so perhaps there was something in the water after all.

Today Shaw’s Corner, the house where the couple lived for over 40 years, is owned by the National Trust. In fact, the house opened to visitors just six months after Shaw’s death in November 1950. This means that today the house looks much the same as it did when the Shaws lived there, from the papers in GBS’s office, to the lino flooring on the servants’ staircase. Shaw’s socialist leanings are evident throughout the house, especially on the family mantelpiece where pictures of Lenin, Stalin and Gandhi are proudly on display. Also littered through the house is evidence of the many influential people that Shaw befriended, especially William Morris and T.E. Lawrence.
I found this  a refreshing change from the type of properties the National Trust is usually known for -imposing aristocratic buildings which to me seem fairly irrelevant and, honestly, a bit boring.

The house is surrounded by beautiful extensive gardens, which Shaw himself tended to until his death, which was brought about by a fall whilst pruning a tree. The Shaw’s were vegetarians and you can still wander around their orchards and vegetable patches. Even in the middle of the April showers which were raining down on my visit, the grounds were still a delight to walk around.

At the bottom of the garden is George Bernard Shaw’s writing shed, where he would hide away from visitors to work on his plays, and presumably take shelter from bad weather on his perambulations around the garden. The green pole to the left hand side of the shed was built in order to swivel the shed to follow sunlight throughout the day. Inside the tiny hut is a small writing desk with a type writer and a telephone, as well as a little bed which one imagines GBS would have used to nap on in the afternoon.

The house is about an hour’s drive from London and is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays (although open on Bank Holidays). As it is a fairly modest house, there is no café but there is a second hand book stall with ice creams and soft drinks for sale, and you can also buy 1950s variations of plants found in the garden if that floats your boat. For further info about visiting the house, and upcoming productions of Shaw’s plays there, visit the National Trust’s website.

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Travelling through time in the Chilterns

The British are renowned for their odd collections of things; lead soldiers, novelty tea pots, Royal Wedding paraphernalia and the like, which sit in sheds and spare rooms across the nation, lovingly dusted by their eccentric owners. The Chiltern Open Air Museum in Buckinghamshire is a collection on a monumental scale. Founded in 1976, it was set up to rescue historic buildings at risk of demolition or decay. Set in a 45 acre site consisting of park land, meadows and woodland are more than 30 old buildings, ranging from a reconstructed Iron Age round house to a 1940s prefab. Each one has its own unique history, but represents a way of life that has died out.

Inside my cottage

Unlike museums where exhibits sit behind panels of glass, here you are invited to walk around the buildings, travelling back hundreds of years as you step over the threshold. Eager volunteers are keen to share  their extensive knowledge with you, but the ones we encountered were not the kind of bores that you might associate with museum guides. Here, you are allowed to see a 19th century threshing machine up close, try on a milkmaid’s yoke and have a go at making your own beeswax candle, safe in the knowledge that you can go home to 21st century living with the luxuries of sprung mattresses, motorised vehicles and Freeview.

We visited on a beautiful spring day, when the sun was shining, the blossom was blooming and the first lambs of the season were making an appearance. I could have stayed for hours, or possibly even forever (I had eyed up a rather nice cottage on the village green with outdoor loos and sheep in the garden), but unfortunately the museum closes as night, and the unexpected heat had made us all desire a pint in a pub garden. In fact, a good old country pub was really the only thing missing from this rural idyll.


The museum is open from April til October, from 10am-5pm (although the last admission is 3.30pm, and you’ll probably want a bit longer than 90 minutes to wander round). The museum plays host to a number of events and courses throughout the season, from medieval pageants to heavy horse shows. According to the leaflet that came with our tickets, the museum needs to take at least £1000 a day to stay open, so make sure you say yes to Gift Aid when buying your tickets!

I love tin churches, and this one from Henton in Oxfordshire was probably my favourite building at the museum

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How one Victorian bargeman solved a 30-year murder mystery

Sometimes a certain face just sticks in your head -one of an old friend, maybe, or a stranger you flirted with on public transport, or perhaps someone more like this:

Amelia Dyer was arguably one of Victorian England’s most notorious killers. Posing as a ‘baby farmer’, she would place advertisements in newspapers claiming to be from a financially stable married couple, keen to adopt a child. Desperate women would, for fees of up to £100 and a bundle of baby clothes, leave their child in her care, in the hope that she would raise it in the loving environment the child’s mother could not herself provide. The reality was far from rosy. For several years, Dyer would feed her charges opiates, which significantly reduced the babies’ appetites, leading to malnutrition and, ultimately, starvation. After a while, doctors began to get suspicious about the number of death certificates they were writing for babies in Dyer’s care, and she was eventually charged with neglect and sentenced to six months hard labour. This apparently increased Dyer’s mental instability, and led to several attempted suicides. On one occasion, she drank two bottles of laudanum (a potent narcotic containing high levels of opium), but because of extended substance abuse, she had built up a tolerance to opium products and survived. This did not stop her ‘baby farming’. To avoid the suspicion of doctors, Dyer began disposing of bodies herself, strangling babies with white edging tape used in dress making. It is thought Dyer’s killing spree took place over three decades, and the number of victims could be as high as 400 infants.

However, despite using a number of aliases and constantly relocating to Bristol, London, Cardiff and Reading, by 1896, Dyer’s luck had run thin. On the 30th of March, a bargeman passing along the Thames at Reading spotted a parcel floating in the water. Upon retrieving the parcel, the man discovered it contained the body of a baby girl, aged between 6 and 12 months, who had been strangled using a piece of white edging tape. Although many other babies had been found in a similar condition in the same area of the Thames, this one, Helena Fry, contained vital clues. From the paper used to contain the body, police managed to decipher the address of a Mrs Thomas, and a label from Bristol Temple Meads station. It later transpired that the baby had been given to Dyer, or Thomas as she was known to the victim’s mother, at Temple Meads on the 5th of March, and Dyer had promptly killed the baby on the same day, and let the body fester in her house until the pungent smell led her to dump the package in the river. This was not the last of Dyer’s killings, though.  On the same day Fry’s body was taken from the river, Dyer (masquerading as a Mrs Harding), met with Evelina Marmon, a popular barmaid who was reluctant to give up her daughter, but was consoled by the knowledge that Mrs Harding and her husband would provide “a good home and a mother’s love”. Instead, Dyer travelled with baby Doris to Dyer’s daughter, Mary Palmer’s, house in Willesdon, London. Here, Dyer carried out her signature murder with the taping. The £10 she had been paid by Marmon to look after the child was used to pay her daughter’s rent. The following day, Harry Simmons was left in Dyer’s care. Having run out of tape, she unpicked that tied round Doris’ neck, and repeated the process on Harry. She then piled the two bodies into a carpet bag and added bricks to weigh down the bag. After returning to Reading, she threw the bag into a weir at Caversham Lock.

Caversham Lock in 1890 by Henry Taunt (c) Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive HT6417


The next day, on the 4th of April, Dyer’s home in Reading was raided by police. Officers entering the house spoke of being greeted by the stench of decomposing human bodies and, although none were found, they discovered correspondence regarding adopted babies, white edging tape, pawn tickets for children’s clothes and receipts for newspaper advertisements. This evidence, along with testaments from around the country, was enough to have her charged on the following day with murder.

Her daughter and son-in-law, Arthur Palmer, were charged as accessories to murder, but later released. In her defence, at her trial in May 1896, Amelia Dyer pleaded insanity as the reason for her murders, and despite her history of twice being committed to asylums in Bristol, the prosecution successfully quashed this argument, claiming that she may well have feigned insanity to avoid suspicion. With the evidence stacked against her, including a statement from her own daughter, it took the jury less than 10 minutes to reach a guilty verdict. Dyer was sentenced to death and hanged at Newgate Prison on the 10th of June 1896, although not before she made her own feeble attempt to hang herself using a handkerchief in her cell.

Despite Dyer’s killings, and similar crimes committed in the same period, it wasn’t until 1926, 30 years after Dyer’s last murder, that the Adoption of Children Act was enacted in England and Wales, after five failed attempts to introduce such laws.

Yesterday (freeview channel 12) are currently showing Jeremy Paxman’s series, The Victorians, which includes a segment on Dyer, and the hardships of women in Victorian England.

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