Features / A House Through Time

What to expect when A House Through Time comes to Bristol

By martin booth, Friday May 22, 2020

The historian and broadcaster David Olusoga has lived in Bristol for more than 20 years. With the new series of A House Through Time starting on BBC Two on Tuesday, he is able to tell the history of his home city by following the stories of residents who have lived in a single house in Redcliffe.

Through the four episodes following the house from its Georgian beginnings to the present day there is slavery, piracy, sexual scandals, an abandoned baby, riots, identity theft and lots of footage of Olusoga walking around Bristol, with his favourite spot for explaining proceedings sat on a table outside the Ostrich pub with a cider or a glass of wine in front of him.

“We felt it was really important that if we were going to bring A House Through Time to Bristol, we find an 18th century house,” said Olusoga, who was born in Nigeria, grew up in Gateshead and is a professor of public history at the University of Manchester.

“Once we made that decision to go back beyond the middle of the 19th century we knew that it also meant going back beyond the census and lots of the other sources that we rely on to make A House Through Time. So it was a real challenge.

“But the house we found is extraordinary and the story of Bristol we are able to tell through it is incredibly rich and varied.”

What is now 10 Guinea Street was built in 1718 at a time when Bristol was becoming Britain’s premier slaving port. The man who built the house, Captain Edmund Saunders, was a prolific slave trader himself, and the same is also true of the first full-time resident, Joseph Smith.

It’s not just the owners of the house that are featured, with a particular focus in this series on domestic servants and even a slave who made an escape attempt.

Joseph Holbrook, who moved into the house in 1751, was a wealthy trader importing luxury items to Bristol – predominantly sugar, produced on the slave plantations of the Caribbean. The Holbrooks’ servant, Thomas, is only described in historical records as a “native of Jamaica”; and his existence is only known from a newspaper article of 1759, which suggests that he attempted an audacious escape from 10 Guinea Street.

David Olusoga (left) with the current residents of 10 Guinea Street – photo: BBC / Twenty Twenty Ltd / Mark Bourdillon

While in Bristol, the show takes viewers to the likes of Perry Road, All Saints’ Court, the former Wills tobacco factory, Herbert Street in Bedminster, Somerset Street in Kingsdown and former slums near Temple Meads; as well as Central Library, the Register Office, Registry Office, Bristol Archives and the Lord Mayor’s Chapel.

Olusoga’s primary focus is on the residents of the house from over the centuries. Other experts include Deborah Sugg Ryan, professor of design history at the University of Portsmouth, whose son is a club promoter and DJ who lives in Horfield.

Part of Sugg Ryan’s job is the series is to interpret what rooms would have been used for what through the years. “Often with old houses, they challenge your preconceptions,” she told Bristol24/7. “It sounds really terrible to say, but lots of happy residents don’t necessarily make a good series.”

She added: “One of the great things about this series is the unexpected. The amazing things about Bristol as a port, with its amazing global links. Through this micro-history of a single house you can start telling a much bigger history.”

10 Guinea Street is the third house to be featured in A House Through Time following others in Liverpool and Newcastle – photo by Martin Booth

  • A House Through Time is on BBC Two on Tuesday, May 26 at 9pm.
  • Bristol Festival of Ideas is hosting an online conversation with David Olusoga at 1pm on Wednesday, May 27. The conversation will cover the series as well as the new book, A House Through Time, written by Olusoga and Melanie Backe-Hansen. For more information, visit www.ideasfestival.co.uk/events/david-olusoga-3.
  • Bristol Archives are creating a number of resources to help people research their home’s history. Experts will be hosting a free online talk to help people get started on Wednesday, June 10 at 5pm. They are also taking part in #HouseHistoryHour on Twitter every Thursday at 7pm, for tips, insights and case studies.

Main photo and video by Martin Booth

Read more: The resurgence of local history during lockdown

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