wWw – To access the Bristol Speakers’ Corner website, please click here.
Bristol became the third UK city in which SCT has promoted a Speakers’ Corner after local people, impressed by the Nottingham initiative, suggested that its diverse communities, rich heritage and burgeoning cultural life would make Bristol an ideal candidate for a project. The City Council was equally supportive and, in summer 2009, SCT undertook a successful consultation among potential stakeholders.
Bristol – One of the UK’s Great Cities
Bristol has for centuries played a key role in Britain’s history, as as a great seafaring and trading city, a place of technological and industrial innovation and as a home to artists, thinkers and politicians.
Originally known by the Saxon name of Brigstowe or ‘Place of the Bridge’, Bristol was perfectly situated eight miles inland in a well-drained and easily defended spot on a navigable waterway, the river Avon. Founded as a medieval trading centre, primarily dealing in cloth and wine, Bristol received a Royal Charter in 1155 and became an independent city and county in 1373. It continued to grow steadily, gaining renown not only for its trade links around the world but also for the quality of its shipbuilding.
By the fifteenth century, many of Bristol’s merchants had become wealthy and influential figures, replacing the old barons in controlling the life of the city. They invested part of their fortunes in speculative ventures to find new markets of which the most famous was John Cabot’s Atlantic expedition of 1497. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries vast fortunes were made in the city from the infamous triangular trade between Bristol, Africa and the Caribbean and American colonies. Trinkets, cloth and other goods were traded for enslaved African people who were in turn traded for rum, sugar and tobacco.
Bristol also played a prominent role in the industrial revolution as testified by the work of the great engineer Kingdom Isambard Brunel who designed the Great Western Railway between Bristol and London”s Paddington station, the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the two great steamships, the SS Great Britain and SS Great Western, both built in Bristol.
For five hundred years Bristol had been, with Norwich and York, one of the largest and most important cities outside London. But, though it continued to expand with the coming of industry, its economic importance was diminished in the nineteenth century by the rise of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. In the early twentieth century Bristol went into further decline as a trading port as the city-centre docks were too small for large cargo ships and the city then suffered serious damage from the blitzes of World War Two.
But more recently, Bristol has enjoyed an impressive renaissance. Though some post-war reconstruction programmes have been condemned for their lack of sympathy for the historic origins of the city, more recent regeneration has helped make Bristol one of the most creative and attractive places in the UK. Today, with a population of over 400,000, Bristol is the UK’s eighth and England’s sixth largest city, designated one of the UK’s Centres of Culture as well as one of six English Science Cities with a flourishing creative economy and a reputation for innovation in transport, technology and environmental initiatives. It is also home to stunning architecture, a vibrant waterfront and a rich cultural life.
Bristol has a great tradition of religious, political and artistic freethinking – and piracy. Blackbeard was a Bristol privateer, John Wesley founded the first Methodist Chapel, the New Room, in the city in 1739, Edmund Burke was Bristol’s MP from 1774 t0 1780 and Tony Benn represented Bristol South East between 1950 and 1983. The writer Hannah More, a leading abolitionist, and the women’s rights activist Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence were born in the city.
But it is not only the famous who have contributed to the UK’s social and political progress. In 1963 the Bristol Omnibus Co’s refusal to employ black people triggered a boycott which influenced the introduction of the Race Relations Act of 1965. The St. Paul’s riot of April 1980 was the first of several throughout the country which focused attention on the grievances of young black people and led to a review of the policing of Britain’s inner cities. More recently, Bristol was one of the first UK cities to be awarded Fairtrade City status. In 2009, graffiti artist Banksy’s exhibition packed out Bristol Museum.
Bristol’s famous sons, daughters and adoptees include:
Woodes Rogers (c 1679-1732), privateer and colonial governor of the Bahamas
Edward Teach (died 1718), better known as Blackbeard the pirate
Hannah More (1745-1833), writer, educationalist and abolitionist
Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), the boy-poet and faker of antiquarian documents who came to a tragic early end
Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829), Cornish chemist and inventor
Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), designer of transatlantic steamships, the Great Western Railway and Clifton Suspension Bridge
Sir Michael Redgrave (1908-1985), actor
Dorothy Hodgkin (1910–1994), Nobel prize winning chemist
Tony Benn, Labour MP and Minister
Robin Cousins, Olympic Gold figure skater
Jo Durie, tennis player
Helen Dunmore, Orange Prize-winning novelist
Towards a Speakers’ Corner
SCT’s consultation with a wide cross section of Bristol’s public, voluntary, arts and business sectors led to the founding of a Speakers’ Corner Founding Committee in September whichmet again in October to discuss plans for a project model adapted to reflect the city’s distinctive characteristics and meet its particular needs.It was agreed to begin the process of shortlisting potential Speakers Corner sites and designing a launch in the new year.
When the Committee met in January, half a dozen potential sites were discussed and it was agreed to work with the Bristol Old Vic on an imaginative proposal to test-drive aeach location. The idea is for actors and perhaps representatives of voluntary groups to perform at each site to see how they work in terms of gathering and holding audiences and how they relate to the other uses around them.
Bristol’s People’s Hustings
On 4 May, just two days before the general election, the Speakers’ Corner Committee organised a People’s Hustings at College Green, one of the sites under consideration for the city’s permanent Speakers’ Corner. The event was kicked off by professional actors recruited by the Bristol Old Vic who performed great speeches of the past by Oliver Cromwell (Robin McLoughlin), Emmeline Pankhurst (Kirsty Cox) and Winston Churchill (Paul Humpoletz) each of which, in their contrasting ways, not only marked a key moment in Britain’s political history but also powerfully illustrated the power of words to convey the ideas and convictions which have shaped the country’s democracy.
Representatives of a range of local voluntary and community groups – some of whom had earlier benefited from a free coaching session from John Dawson of Speaking-Infront – then set out in eloquent terms their agenda for the next government, covering issues as diverse as the rights of ethnic minorities, the burden of tuition fees on young people, the needs of families in poverty, the powerlessness of communities to influence decision-taking, barriers to employment and the need for a more integrated approach to community sustainability.
Five of Bristol West’s seven Parliamentary candidates (for the Liberal Democrat, Labour, Conservative, Green Parties and the Independent) then did their best to respond to what they had heard. No doubt encouraged by glorious sunshine, an event scheduled for ninety minutes was still going strong when it was brought to a close after two hours with many of those who had joined the crowd at the beginning still there at the end.
Later the actors performed at two other locations which the Committee has identified as potential Speakers’ Corner sites, Colston Avenue and Corn Street. The ‘roadtesting’ of the sites, using the mobile Speakers’ Corner designed by Ade Armstrong and built by the Old Vic, was intended to assess each in terms of its acoustics and sightlines as well as footfall, space and relationship with other local activities. At each location, the performances enouraged passers-by to stop and listen and to applaud what they heard.
To hear the speeches, please click here.
Site Selected and Coordinator Appointed
The roadtesting exercise was a great success and after a careful consideration of the merits of each site the Speakers’ Corner Committee overwhelmingly chose College Green as the space for Bristol’s new Speakers’ Corner. The Cathedral, which owns the land, enthusiatically endorsed the decision and Bristol City Council, which manages it, also gave the go-ahead.
In August, with a grant from Bristol City Council, the project was able to appoint Ina Hume as its part-time coordinator. Ina will be developing the project further in the period up to June 2011 and is currently planning its launch later this year.
Ina has already set up a Bristol Speakers’ Corner blog, Facebook group and Twitter, all of which are not only getting the word out about the project but also gaining a growing number of followers and volunteers.
Speakers’ Corner at the Portents Exhibition
Bristol Speakers’ Corner provided a platform for discussion and debate for those taking part in the Portents exhibition on College Green on Saturday 18 September.
Portents was a unique event which brought together artists and communities from across Bristol to give them a voice on the theme of Home, Histories and Hope.
The mobile Speakers’ Corner, which is being constructed at the Bristol Old Vic, was on hand to provide a platform for exhibitors to talk about their work and engage with visitors to the event and for members of the public to join in the discussion.
Speakers included Michael Smith of Knowle West Media Centre, recent recipient of Current TV’s Best Documentary Film Award for Light and Dark, Jeffrey Johns of Art and Power, the living Bristol legend more commonly known as Big Jeff who runs performance poetry group Non Compos Mentis, and Marian Liebmann of the Bristol Quakers, who spoke about the history of the Quaker children who took over and ran the meetings when all the adult Quakers were arrested.
I Have a Dream – on International Women’s Day
On 8 March 2011, to mark the visit to the city of Clarence B Jones, the civil rights lawyer who with his friend Martin Luther King wrote the immortal words “I have a dream”, Bristol Speakers’ Corner staged the re-enactment of arguably the most inspirational speech of the twentieth century.
A large and appreciative audience gathered to hear actor Leo Wringer perform the speech, first delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on 28 August 1963. He was followed by Kirsty Cox who, on the global centenary of International Women’s Day, reprised her much admired performance of Emmeline Pankhurst’s great “Freedom or Death” speech, first delivered in Hartford Connecticut on 13 November 1913.
Stephen Perry, chair of Bristol Speakers’ Corner Committee, then invited members of the public to have their say from the Corner’s new portable podium and several did so, expressing views on public service cuts, the rights of women, people with disabilities and young people and the importance of voting in May’s local elections. One young man simply wanted to share his lunchtime sandwich which was gratefully accepted by a hungry passer-by.
It is hoped that a link can be provided in due course to a video recording of the event.
Speakers’ Corner’s Monthly Events
Britol Speakers’ Corner is to host a regular events at noon on the second Saturday of the month. The first, to highlight the problem of homelessness, took place on 5 March after a sleep-out led by a number of local charities and voluntary organisations in the grounds of Pip ‘n’ Jay Church on Tower Hill.
Bristol’s Mayoral Debate Makes The News
Bristol Speakers’ Corner kicked off its new season on 13 April 2012 with a public debate on the forthcoming referendum on whether Bristol should have an elected mayor – a key issue about which, both sets of campaigners conceded, very little had been said and much less heard on either side.
The debate attracted almost all the main protagonists in the for and against camps as well as a large crowd and considerable media coverage at both national and local level. A special edition of BBC 2’s Newsnight which focused on the case for elected mayors in several UK cities heavily featured the Bristol event and BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight also reported on it.
Closer to home, BBC Radio Bristol covered proceedings and the Bristol Evening Post gave over considerable space to the debate and devoted an approving editorial to it, reporting that “the open-air debate about an elected mayor for Bristol literally brought the issue onto the streets and to the people. And that is where it needs to be.”
For some at least of the 200-strong crowd, the debate had the desired effect. The Evening Post reported civil servant Andrea Dell, 29, from Cotham, as concluding that “it has been entertaining and interesting to hear the different points of view.”
Bristol voted Yes on 3 May and George Ferguson was elected Mayor in November 2012.