Bristol Chronicles 1930s
1935 Recollections of H. L. Vowles 'first published Bristol Evening Post'
WHEN about two years old, I was taken by my parents to live at Bishopston. There were only a few houses there then, it being mostly fields. Old Black Harry, the smith, was a noted character, then established where Elton Road now is, in an old kiln with boards placed on the top for a roof. As boys we used to throw stones on it and then run away, for he kept half a dozen dogs. From Zetland Road to Arley Church were fields, with a low wall along the pathway, and a ditch at the side of the wall, which became flooded after much rain.
In the winter of 1881 I saw the water four feet deep under the railway bridge, and an old woman with a bundle of newspaper on her shoulder struggling through it from Cotham Brow. The water was over her waist, and it was a wonder that she was not swept away. After the rains came snow - it was ten feet deep over the high walls, and on the level it was four feet deep. I remember the snow of that winter being piled along the gutters, six feet high, with gaps every now and then to enable people to cross the street.
Eventually the snow was carted away to the Horsefair and piled as high as the roofs of the houses. But it would not melt, and so had to be broken up with pickaxes and carried to the harbour and thrown in.
Where Horfield Prison is, there was once a large round pond, with water about two feet deep and an island in the middle, on which we used to skate in the winter. The place was called Horfield Gardens, and my uncle who was a comic singer, used to sing and play the guitar at galas there. Opposite St. Michael’s Church, Bishopston, when I lived there (it was called Hill View, St. Michael’s Mount) were all fields, and I used to frighten the birds off the wheat with a bell.
There were fields where St. Andrew’s Park now stands, and a very deep quarry with water in it, where I used to get fossils like mussels and eels turned to stone - it seemed as though the sea was at one time where now there are villas and the park. When a boy I used to go behind Colston’s Girls’ School and watch the bathers go up a ladder at the side of the wall and dive in at Rennision’s Baths. In those days I liked to see the soldiers from Horfield Barracks marching to church wearing the old shako (with its knob in front, half red and half white) and the red tunic with yellow facings and braidings.
I have seen back streets become main streets, and main streets become back streets. I saw Lower Union Street being cut through to Horsefair, before which the arcades were the main way; and I also saw Baldwin Street being made and the People’s Palace being built, I was one of the first to go and see a show there. I have seen at the Palace the White-eyed Kaffir, Florrie Ford, Harry Lauder, Charlie Chaplin, Austin Rudd, Ada Limberg, the Sisters Tilley, Peter Goty, Hackensmidt, Sandow, Sims Reeve, Marie Lloyd, and many others. My uncle was chairman at the Albambra Music Hall in Broadmead, later called the Star, and then the Tivoli. He used to tap on his desk and say, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, George Elton will now appear '. Then it was: 'Millie Tempest will sing a song '.
The porter stores at Zed Alley were then carried on as a music hall, and another attraction was Wombwell’s Show, held every winter in the Horsefair. They had a splendid band, playing outside to the crowds looking on, and girls came out and danced on the small stage to entice the onlookers to go in and see the animals. Then there was the grand circus, with gilded cars drawn by elephants, and piebald horses and camels, and the band leading the way in a chariot.
I have been on the stage myself at the Prince’s Theatre in several companies in years gone by, and have been in plays in which Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Wilson Barrett, Frank Benson, Mr. Tearle and others appeared. I have also appeared at the Old Theatre. I can well remember being in 'Faust' in which I was one of the lost souls in Hell. I was among fifty boys and fifty girls grouped on the stage, with mountain scenery around us, and Henry Irving dressed in red as Mephistopheles looking down on us from a rock, grinning.
There were pretty old houses in Lewin’s Mead, and in the Horsefair—all gone now ! - and shops each side of the Pithay, with their fronts ornamented with carpets and clothes which were hung outside. You could get lost in Lewin’s Mead and Black Friar which were full of courts and alleys. There were policemen at the beginning of these streets who never ventured to go down them.
An inspector, a sergeant, and a policeman would go down together for mutual protection—even in daylight. The same state of affairs prevailed in Gloucester Lane, where they would throw a policeman in the river. About 1875 I remember the little shops along where Fry’s factories were built later. In the hauling-way there is still an iron plate over the River Froome. I knew the caretaker, and one day his kitchen and all his coal disappeared into the Froom. St. Bartholomew’s Church was in Union Street, close by Fry’s factories, with an entrance round the back, and a narrow door in Union Street.
At last Fry’s bought it and a new church was built in St. Andrews, Montpelier. When I was four years old I had an old widow as a nurse, who, as far as I can remember, was old and wrinkled. Later on my mother told me her name was Mrs. Davis, and that her son who was one of the rioters in Queen Square had been hanged for his activities. When I grew up I consulted some books on old Bristol, and found that there had been a man named Davis hanged, so the story would seem to be true.
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