Who built the Clifton Suspension Bridge? It’s a question that everyone in Bristol should know the answer to, and yet when the question is asked by a tour guide leading a special cycling tour to mark International Women’s Day, it had an unexpected response.
A group of 14 cyclists on this special Cycle The City tour stopped opposite the Grain Barge and contemplated the question from guide Holly McGowan-Hayes.
Of course it was Isambard Kingdom Brunel; everybody knows that. Just a few hundred yards away outside his other most famous Bristol creation, the ss Great Britain, a new museum is currently being built to celebrate his achievements.
There will never be a museum celebrating the achievements of Sarah Guppy, but on this tour it was this pioneering Victorian engineer who was celebrated and not Brunel. The mother-of-six who lived at Arnos Court in Brislington patented a design for a suspension bridge across the Avon Gorge but gave her plans away for free because she believed women must “not be boastful”.
The story of Guppy was just one story of an inspiring Bristol woman who Holly artfully wove into this two-hour two-wheeled tour.
Starting at the Cascade Steps, Holly recalled how in Bristol’s trading heyday, one-third of the men who set sail from the city didn’t return, leaving many widows to become business owners: running pubs, lodging houses and shops. Widows also inherited their husbands’ trades, with 18th century street directories showing that women had trades such as organ builders, watch makers and carpenters.
As Holly posed more questions, bicycle bells dinged at the correct answers. On Queen Square, which in 1831 was the scene of Bristol’s largest ever riot, Emma Smith was remembered – a Bristol woman who set up the first ever trades union for women workers.
Among other firsts for women in Bristol are women able to enroll as students at University College Bristol (the predecessor institution to Bristol University) on the same basis as men when it was founded in 1876; Elizabeth Blackwell 20 years earlier becoming the first woman doctor on the UK medical register having had to travel to New York to receive her training; and the first women to sit on a jury in 1920.
And let’s not forget the suffragettes Elsie Howey and Vera Holme, who camped out overnight within the organ at the Colston Hall in 1909 and interrupted a men-only political meeting with shouts of “Votes for women!” as local MP Augustine Birrell was making his speech; nor another suffragette, Theresa Garnett, who later in the same year hit then-cabinet minister Winston Churchill with a riding whip as he arrived at Bristol Temple Meads, shouting: “Take that in the name of the insulted women of England!”
Holly called herself not a historian but a woman from Bristol who cycles. Her two-wheeled tour celebrating some of Bristol’s most inspirational women cast a new light on our proud city.
Cycle The City’s next Women of Bristol tour takes place on Saturday, March 11. For more information, visit www.cyclethecity.org/product/womenofbristoltour
Read more: 18 brilliant Bristol women