It’s a truism that the first step to commanding the present is to have a firm grasp on what happened in the past. In which case the Bristol Radical History Group have done more than most to gird us for future struggles by their work over the last decade.
The group was first set up in 2005/06 by a loose coalition of local historians, ‘organic intellectuals’ and general ne’er do wells, some of whom had a connection to the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls sports club. The idea from the start was to uncover and throw a light on some of the forgotten figures and overlooked corners of our city’s past.
Whilst the group have been radical in terms of content – people’s history, from ‘below’, the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect to see on the current GCSE syllabus – they have been radical in form too. BRHG have taken local history out of its traditional ghetto of poorly-attended talks in church halls. Their gatherings have included a boat trip around Bristol’s pirate landmarks, the dramatisation of a suffragette’s attack on Winston Churchill at Temple Meads station and their unforgettable first event in October 2006 – a recreation of the ‘blasphemous ride’ of 17th Century radical preacher James Nayler through Central Bristol that involved the Sealed Knot and a group of can-can dancers in the role of Nayler’s ‘disciples’.
It hasn’t been all fun and games. Their work has encompassed publishing three books and over 30 pamphlets, the latest of which is the first to be written about the Eastville Workhouse.
In addition, they have worked with other groups to commemorate figures like Walter Ayles, the World War I conscientious objector and Bristol North MP who was finally honoured with a plaque outside his old home in Ashley Down in April this year. The group have proved that they are serious historians.
“I think originally we were regarded with a mixture of bemusement and envy by some ‘proper’ historians in Bristol,” suggests the groups’ co-organiser Roger Wilson. Although some people like the history department at UWE have always been very supportive and encouraging in our ventures.”
It could be argued that the group have gone some way to shifting established ideas about Bristol’s history. “I think you can see in the way the 1831 Bristol riot is now regarded,” says Wilson. “I saw something about that at the M Shed a while back and it had mentioned that it was a precursor to the 1832 Reform Bill – the first act to widen the franchise. Previously the riot had been seen as this outbreak of disorganised chaos, but now people are starting to see what we have always argued – that it was an important staging post on the long road to democracy.”
In all this time the group have been completely self-funded, taking no funds from political parties, universities or local government, “That’s given us a lot of freedom,” explains Wilson. “We’ve been able to say things than other people, particularly academics who are either constantly under threat of funding cuts or have issues about being openly political about stuff, cannot do because they lose their reputations. Whereas we have no reputation to lose, which is a very powerful position to be in.”
It’s a position they’re intending to be in for some time yet. “All this stuff is important,” adds Wilson. “Part of understanding a political struggle is knowing who you are and where you come from,” says Wilson. “But perhaps, more importantly, knowing why you don’t know certain things. Usually, they’re because those things are uncomfortable to the people in charge at the moment. And once you know that you can do something about it.”
For more information about Bristol Radical History Group, visit www.brh.org.uk