2. Historical sources and methods

Some who have made Bristol famous (1930)
Ernest Board (1877-1934)
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery: K917

Historians, as scientific practitioners,[1] have accepted ways of doing things; they have approved methods and use recognized skills. Many of these methods can be easily acquired and some of the necessary skills are held by most educated people; examples here could include the ability to use a library catalogue or write a text that might be read easily by someone else. Some techniques useful to the historian are taught to children at primary school, for example, basic quantitative techniques. Similarly, modern languages are taught in secondary schools as well as historic languages, especially Latin, though this is now more unusual than used to be the case. Some historians, including here archaeologists, use techniques that require specific equipment or use knowledge of human biology, organic chemistry, nuclear physics to analyse information that sheds light on the past.

This section explicitly considers a number of these skills in more detail, using specific examples to demonstrate both the nature of historical sources and the analytical approaches which could be adopted to extract information about the past. These wide-ranging skills are necessary because of the multitudinous variety of types of historical source which have survived. Although far from a full account of historical sources, those which are discussed below have been prominent repositories of evidence used by historians of Bristol, these include: different types of written source, visual images, maps and physical artefacts. This section also provides brief comment about historical methodology, stressing amongst other things the usefulness of quantitative analysis for local historians. It concludes with some comments about the use of history.

Written sources

One of the historian's basic and essential skills is the ability to read documents in a way which subjects a text to critical scrutiny. A document is read by a historian not only for its obvious content but also in order to extract additional but plausible meanings. This is achieved by examining it in the light of supplementary information, either contained within the document or drawn from other historical sources. Here the context of the document, its origins, its purpose, the reasons why and how it was drawn up, contribute to the historian's understanding of its significance. Like all skills this talent is developed by practice; and this requires documents upon which to practice. Some primary sources,[2] ancient hand written documents for example, appear on this CD and indicate the nature of the skills required for their interpretation.

Many documents are presented on this CD are held at the Bristol Record Office and the BRO is one of the best places where an aspirant historian of Bristol could commence their research. Richard Burley and Rob Petre, archivists at the BRO, have written an excellent contribution for this CD, which explains and illustrates many aspects of record management in a county archive and record office. This should be essential reading for any research novice planning a visit to the BRO; though, as much of the information provided is generic in nature, it will be equally useful for intending users of other Record Offices. Burley and Petre's contribution should also provide a valuable resource for lecturers who wish to impart to their students the nature of archival access, record storage and document selection and retrieval.

One barrier to the understanding of medieval and early documents is the hand writing, or script, in which they were written. Many students regard palaeography, the study of 'hand' and the deciphering of handwritten documents, as one of the most demanding aspects of historical research. And, for a beginner, with good reason. Rob Petre's highly practical guide to English hand written documents will provide friendly initial guidance and a useful demonstration of material from this period which will be held in a County Record Office.

These more ancient documents pose an additional problem - their extreme frailty - though all parchment, vellum and paper-based document are vulnerable to wear and tear in use; consequently, extreme care is required of those who consult original and unique documents.

An approach adopted here address both the problems of legibility and of fragility. The presentation of an annotated machine-readable text enables an author to add comments to a copy of the text while the original document itself is both undamaged and more rarely consulted.

Although not directly inspired by conservation, Peter Fleming's discussion of a legal case relating to the disputed ownership of a public house in Tudor Bristol makes use of this approach. His contribution provides a pair of transcripts for a series of documents; the second copy of each pair carries annotations of the legal terms, shorthand and abbreviations used in the original document and the reader can 'toggle' at will between the two renditions.

Hand written sources are held at a number of repositories in Bristol in addition to the BRO, these include: the city's Central Library, which has both a reference and local history section; Bristol Industrial Museum; the City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; and, the Special Collections section in the University of Bristol Library.

Each of these has its own specialism. The Bristol Industrial Museum, for example, holds a large collection of documents which relate to economic activity in and around the port of Bristol. Bristol's Industrial Museum also has a fine collection of artefacts, useful historical material in its own right for the imaginative and resourceful student; these include working steam engines, an interior display of the Concorde and a gallery of exhibits demonstrating the traditional trades and crafts once found around the docks. Blaise Castle House Museum, also owned by the city's corporation, displays artefacts of interest to the social historian, including textiles, dress, and fashion.

Although Special Collections, at the University of Bristol, was not established specifically to gather material relating to Bristol and its region, it holds documents which record not only the history of the University itself but also political and industrial activity in the city and its region.

In addition to handwritten sources, historians frequently interpret texts which were printed. By contrast to handwritten documents, which were usually intended for but a few readers, printed documents were most often created with a larger and more varied readership in mind. Sometimes the intended readership of printed material was small and intimately known to the publisher, usually it was large, anonymous and more diffuse. While privately circulated, limited edition texts illustrate the former, the later is best exemplified by newspapers, probably the most obvious example of recurrent printed text of great value to the historian. Here the historian of Bristol's more recent past is fortunate as John Penny's forthcoming survey of local newspapers, Bristol Newspapers 1701 to 1962, is to be published by the Bristol branch of the Historical Association in the New Year (2001).

Alongside the press, a more select readership was catered for by specialist publications; here these are illustrated by two contrasting, even conflicting, poems published at the end of the eighteenth century. The first of these by Thorn, assertively lavished praise on all things relating to Bristol, clearly seeking a market among the city's respectable and prosperous citizens, who were much flattered by its unstinting praise. This urban idyll provoked an immediate riposte from Lovell, whose sceptical, but rather laboured, perspective on Bristol's contemporary scene presented a less complacent picture of the city's inhabitants; certainly, he can expected fewer sales to those who had been easily flattered by Thorn. While the factual material contained in either source is meagre, the use of language and the nature of the imagery employed by each writer says much about Bristol and its society at the time of composition. The poems also reflect the anxieties caused by the wars with France and the social and political consequences of the French Revolution.

Romaine Joseph Thorn (1794) "Bristolia, A Poem".

Robert Lovell (1794)"Bristol: A Satire".

Source: By kind permission of the Central Library, Bristol.

Editor's note:
Robert Lovell, who died on 7 May 1796, two years after the publication of this poem, was the son of a penmaker who lived in Downend and ran his business from Castle Green, Bristol. Lovell was a close friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and Robert Southey ( 1774-1843), the poet laureate, and also a Bristolian; the threesome each married one of the Fricker sisters, milliners of Wine Street, Bristol. This company, and others, had intended emigrate to a New England farm where they would create a Utopian artistic community, the 'Pantisocracy'; the plan was abandoned when practicalities had to be faced. His widow lived at Lairthwaite Cottage, Keswick, Southey's Lakelands home, until her death, aged 91, on 17 August 1862. (Source: Bound notes at Bristol Central Library; M. Drabble (ed.) (Oxford: 1995) The Oxford Companion to English Literature, pp. 214-5, 933-4: Drabble mentions neither Lovell not Thorn).


The historian can call upon other printed sources. Recurrent publications, such as the Municipal Yearbook and the Stock Exchange Official Intelligence, contain information relating to the activities of Bristol's council and publicly quoted companies based in the locality. Another example is Dods Parliamentary Companion, which reported election results, voting records in the two Houses, parliamentary business and a variety of statistics relating to the business of government.

Official papers, published by the state, provide another class of printed source. Parliamentary papers, Bills and Acts of Parliament, the Reports of Royal Commissions, and abstracts of official statistics all provide the historian with valuable material. The London-based records centres which act as England's national repositories, the Public Record Office (in Kew), the British Library (Euston), the British Libary's Newspaper Collection (Colindale), the Guildhall Library (the City of London), the National Maritime Museum (Greenwich), and the Library of the House of Lords (Westminster), all contain documents and papers useful to the historian of Bristol.

Official statistics relating to Bristol figure strongly on this CD; they inform the introductions to the Bristol Historical Abstracts and provide the raw material for the statistical series which indicate the state of the city: these include unemployment, ill-health and poverty. It is hoped that the provision of these detailed statistics will inform future research relating to Bristol and stimulate comparative research in other urban centres.

In the vicinity of the city, the University of Bristol probably has the most comprehensive collection of reference works though the libraries of the other two universities in the locality, UWE, Bristol and Bath, have similar sections. A valuable collection of reference works can also be found at the city's Central Library.

Although text is the main stay for most historians, there are other sources which assist an understanding and interpretation of the past. Statues, paintings and murals are all valuable historical sources if used thoughtfully. The significance of monuments erected by an official body or funded by public subscription is often obvious, particularly if an inscription or explanatory plaque has survived. Obviously such memorials are designed to carry a message to future generations, but often the meaning conveyed can encompass more than was intended either by the sculptor or painter or by the purchaser of the artist's labour


Visual sources

In Bristol the statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721), which currently stands at the very heart of the city, provides an interesting example. For the subscribers who paid for its casting and erection, Colston was a philanthropist and public benefactor whose example was lauded to inspire civic spirit, good works and charitable donations; the names of schools, streets, and the city's major auditorium all bear Colston's name. However, in recent years Colston's reputation has been questioned and his exemplary character called into doubt; many in Bristol now have no wish to celebrate the life of a pioneering and highly successful London-based slave trader. This modern reappraisal of Colston's reputation has called into question one of most significant pillars around which Bristol's eighteenth and nineteenth century civic society was constructed.

Steve Poole's chapter, 'Visualising the City', examines pictorial representations of Bristol to expose the motivations and metaphors of those who drew and painted Bristol in the early nineteenth century. As he explains, the reading of an illustration is as important as the intelligent perusal of a written text; like any historical source, a visual representation requires, and deserves, an understanding of its context, purpose and message as well as an appreciation of its content.

The use of visual material requires imagination and careful consideration; a brief reflection on some practical issues here may be revealing. First, take the example of Samuel Jackson's painting of circa 1831-1836, 'View on the Avon at Hotwells'. To the modern eye, and at first glance, this painting might appear to be a quaint 'olde worlde' landscape where the relatively small human figures, dressed in early Victorian costume, view the passage of steam-powered paddle ships, now an archaic technology, in the approach to Bristol through the steep-sided and sinuous Avon Gorge.

View on the Avon at Hotwells c. 1831-1836.
Samuel Jackson (1794-1869)
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery: K4

Alternatively this painting could, and probably should, be viewed as a fantasy of science fiction. Even as Jackson was painting this view river boats powered by steam were a relatively recent development and the application of this new technology to land transport, by railway companies, had barely commenced. Moreover, this is a fictional representation of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which was not to be completed until 1864, three decades later and five years after the death of its designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This painting provides an imagined perspective on Bristol's future rather than a photograph-like representation of a present experienced by Jackson.

My second example was painted by W.J. Muller (1812-1845). Muller's 'Forging the Anchor' (circa 1833) was commissioned by D.W. Acraman, owner of iron foundries located in Bristol Docks, and reveals the nature of production in the local industrial sector. In a hot, noisy, smoky, dirty workshop a blacksmith wields a sledge hammer while straining labourers raise the heavy drop-hammer which will batter a lump of resisting iron into shape.[4] Although relatively rare for Bristol, paintings of similar scenes are often used by historians to depict the Industrial Revolution as a dehumanising fracture in human history.

Forging the Anchor: Acraman's iron foundry at Bathurst Basin, Bristol (circa 1833)
W.J. Muller (1812-1845)
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery: K135

Such renditions, however, are not without their ambiguities, as this painting reveals. On the one hand, the scale of the task may appear enormous, with the workers lessened in size and, of necessity working, as a collective group so that the role of the individual diminished. The dramatic setting is also heightened by the stark contrast between the fierce glow of the white-hot anchor and the dark periphery of the smoke-filled forge. By this reading of the painting, sweaty, hard physical toil, in an harsh, unnatural environment negates the dignity of man.

On the other hand, the social nature of production is illuminated; manufacture of the anchor depends upon the combination of labour power and skilled craftsmanship, allied with the material resources of the capitalist. Rather than a scene of Stygian horror, this painting reveals Man's conquest of Nature, a victory which promises material prosperity and technical progress.

Which story is more plausible? It is not necessary to decide because both interpretations reflect the perceived realities of the period. That the owner of the foundry, and the employer of the workers, was sufficiently proud of this activity to suggest the scene to one of Bristol's most famous artists is some evidence of a positive interpretation. Nevertheless, Acraman did not hang the painting in his drawing room because it reminded him too much of the "shop". This decision may have reflected just a desire to escape the routine tasks of daily occupation but, perhaps, it also reveals the emerging division of the world of work from the the domestic home, the ideology of seperate spheres.

Furthermore, far from a revolutionary espisode in human history, the process of production revealled in Muller's painting now looks primitive, elemental and labour intensive; from a modern perspective, this technology can only be viewed as primordial.

Hopefully, my discussion of both these paintings has demonstrated that the reader is offered an interpretation, a provisional reading, rather than a definitive verdict upon a work; it is also an interpretation which often reveals much about the narrator as well as the subject under discussion. The writer of this introduction is evidently an economic historian, interested in the perceptions we have of the process of industrialisation and economic change, rather than an art historian. However, even as an economic historian, I can expect, and demand, that historical evidence should be treated with thoughtful respect. One further case study, though not a little exaggerated, may make this point with greater clarity.

Ernest Board's 'The Departure of John and Sebastian Cabot from Bristol on their First Voyage of Discovery, 1497' provides my third and final example. This enables me to make two interrelated points concerning the use of visual sources for the purposes of historical interpretation. These are: first, that the historian should treat visual aids with the same care and respect that they would apply to text; and, second, that the user of a visual aid should expect their interpretations of visual sources to receive the same scrutiny that would be awarded to an explanatory account of text. If neither of these propositions hold, there is the danger that visual material is reduced from the status of evidence to that of light relief.

The Departure of John and Sebastian Cabot from Bristol on their first voyage of discovery, 1497 (1906)
Ernest Board (1877-1934)
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery: K102

'The Departure' plays an important role in a recent text entitled Modern Historical Geographies which, on its cover, claims to be 'the first comprehensive undergraduate text to explore the historical geographies of modernity that have shaped and connected places and landscapes on a global scale.' In this setting, modernity is considered in two ways: first, 'the differential experience of modernisation across space and through the social divisions of class, gender and race' and, second, by exploring 'the interconnections between places shaped by and in turn shaping modernity'. And Bristol and Bristolians play an important part in this story as one of the editors, Catherine Nash, takes an episode in the city's recent history, 'to reconsider rather than reiterate the conventional ways of telling their stories.' [5]

Bristol's 1996 International Festival of the Sea provides Nash with a concrete example to contexualise her examination and critique of the history of historical geography: as she writes, 'Bristol's contested maritime heritage at the International Festival of the Sea is one vivid example' which illustrates 'the ways in which the historical geographies of colonialism or the Atlantic world are written (that) have crucial implications for contemporary understandings of social relations or cultural identity.' And, as Nash demonstrates clearly, the Festival provided ample evidence with which to review an exhibition of public history in the light of past events and current imperatives. [6]

The discussion is headed by The Departure, of which Nash writes:

The celebration of Cabot's story in Bristol, here pictured at the moment of departure and hanging in Bristol's Museum and Art Gallery speaks of a longing for the security of the later age of Elizabethan exploration that Cabot's voyage foretold. When this painting was produced in 1907, the model of Elizabethan expansion, commerce and rural life provided an ideal for Edwardians anxious about threats to the empire abroad and social stability at home, and an antidote to the extremes of nineteenth-century industry and commerce. [7]

However, two problems arise here; one is related to presentation, the other concerns interpretation.

First, let us examine presentation. It is immediately obvious to anyone who has seen Board's painting, or a postcard copy, that the black and white Figure which accompanies Nash's text lacks the richness of colour of the original. The economics of publishing have dictated this format. Nevertheless, the lavish ceremonial setting and the luxurious apparel of the historical actors depicted in the painting is strikingly diminished in the monochrome replica. Some of its glory can be appreciated by the user of this medium as shown above.

But there remains a nagging doubt, something other than colour is different, even wrong. Further inspection reveals that everyone in Nash's Figure is left-handed; the symbolic emblems are back-to-front; one's attention is drawn to the central mayoral figure in black rather than the senior Cabot. And then it dawns on the reader that the painting has been printed the wrong way round, it has been rotated around its vertical axis; the glib comment would ask, 'Is this, perhaps, the return of the Cabots?'

This example, of very little significance in itself, does however allow a more serious and general request to be made. This asks that visual evidence be treated carefully, in manner and approach, as if it were text, subject to the same close scrutiny as any other historical source material.

The second point concerns interpretation. A citation at the end of the passage cited above suggests that the interpretation may have been crafted either by Nash herself or it could rely heavily upon a previous publication by Howkins.[8] However, Nash continues:

This turn to a romanticised Elizabethan era of continuity, community, harmony and natural social hierarchies of religious and civil power as well as expansion and discovery offered an imaginative escape from anxieties about social change and challenges to old authorities and ideologies. In late twentieth century, post-industrial and post-colonial British society, it also seems to evoke an implicit imperialist nostalgia, or at least an untroubled celebration of heroic endeavour. [9]

Well, yes, and maybe. This is an interpretation, but is it an interpretation which will stand up to scrutiny? Those who inhabit early twenty first century British society will themselves be able to decide about the latter proposition.

As to the interpretation of those who lived in Edwardian Britain, and Ernest Board's motivation, at least for argument's sake, I would differ on a variety of grounds.

Ernest Board, the painter of 'Some who have made Bristol famous', which appears at the beginning of this section, was a keen historian of Bristol's past and knowledgeable of England's history. Board well would have known that Cabot sailed from England during the reign of Henry Tudor, the grandfather of Elizabeth I who was to ascend to the English throne more than sixty years later in 1558. It seems unlikely in the extreme that Board, having dated the title of the painting so exactly, could have confused the reigns of these two monarchs.

Furthermore, Henry VII, whom Cabot courted as a sponsor of the voyage, had seized the English throne from Richard III on the battlefield at Bosworth in 1485. Inspection of the painting suggests that a martial interpretation is not far fetched; the hooded figure in the right foreground is armed to the teeth. As Henry began his rule with bloodshed, and its legitimacy was contested throughout his reign, this was not a period that an educated or well-read Victorian would have chosen to exemplify continuity, harmony, stability or the universal acceptance of civil and religious authority.

And, of course, the latter point raises the great religious chasm which separated the two rulers in time, that of the Reformation, a shorthand term which serves here to cover the break with Rome imposed by Henry VIII, the fabrication of the Church of England by Edward VI, the Catholic interlude of 'Bloody Mary', and, finally, the triumph of Elizabeth's cautious middle way. The iconography of Board's picture depicts none of these events essential to a rendition of the Elizabethan period but is replete with the regalia and trappings of Catholicism.

In turn, this raises the question of foreign affairs. And it raises this in a context which, it might be suggested, harks back to very birth of modernity. The suggestion that the Catholic Church might have supported Cabot's trip is a counterfactual reminder of the poignant reaction of the English to the Papal degree of 1493 which had divided the New World between the thrones of Spain and Portugal four years before the event commemorated by the painting.

This political attempt to justify the exclusion of the English from the riches of the Caribbean and South America failed as an effective restraint, as did the military operations designed to enforce it. A consequence of this policy was conflict between the English privateers and their Iberian opponents in these areas which provoked the tempestuous relations with Spain that overshadowed Elizabeth's reign.

As a schoolboy in the late Victorian period, Board would have been fully conversant with the military heroes of the Elizabethan age: Drake, Frobisher, Raleigh and, perhaps, most of all, that valiant, glorious champion of English nationalism, Sir Richard Grenville. At the beginning of the new millennium, in our age of surreptitious pan-European state-construction, collective security and political correctness, these military figures may be long past their date of purchase. It is probable that one hundred years ago the Revenge more accurately represented the Elizabethan era to the English than any of the images evoked by Nash. And, in any case, as suggested above, none of these are indicative or symbolic of the year of Cabot's departure.

I think it most unlikely that Board, or his contemporaries, would have read his painting in the manner described by Nash. Furthermore, I think that a historical reading of this painting which raises the issues indicated above is more likely to encourage a sensitive appreciation of Board's intent. But this is just a personal view. It is not my purpose here to replace an erroneous view with the truth. Rather I wish only to insist that we should treat visual sources as we do other historical evidence and, similarly, that we should scrutinize critically the uses to which this material is put.

One of the dangers of an interpretation of a painting or drawing is to treat it as though it presents an exact likeness of a scene. Even photographs do not necessarily tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. A photograph can be a more accurate representation of a selected view than a painting but its interpretation still needs carefully consideration.

It may be that we are all so familiar with photographic images that we think we handle this analytical process almost without a second thought. However, there are a host of issues which should be considered if a photograph is to be presented as historical evidence: why was the photograph taken? who wanted the photograph taken? what was the motive of the photographer? and that of its subjects? was the scene posed? how was the photograph processed? how has it been edited?

Again the city is lucky, Bristol's photographic record is rich and varied. There are a number of photographic collections which contain visual material of interest to the historian; one of the most prominent is the Reece Winston collection, which provided the images published in the multi-volume series, Bristol As It Was. [10] Moving pictures, another type of visual source material useful to historians, are also discussed on this CD, in the section by Richard Burley and Rob Petre which indicates the BRO's collection of films.

There are other visual sources which get only the briefest of mentions here. Where the unknown territories and marginal areas of ancient maps might have been marked 'And here be dragons', the equivalents here are television programmes. These come in all sorts of shape and size; they include: intensely researched, big budget, documentary series; popular programmes which aim to both educate and entertain an audience interested in history; and, commemorative items which appear in regional televisions reviews and news bulletins. The financial resources available to the media companies ensure they are 'image rich' but, for the most part, these materials are not easily obtained. Furthermore, where they are obtainable, it is at a price which renders them inaccessible to most potential users. While multimedia presentations may be a practical option for historians who have access to a PC of the current vintage, the stock of material available is likely to be regarded increasingly by its owners as a valuable resource from which an income flow should be extracted.


Maps provide a different kind of pictorial resource that has been used by the historian in ways similar to those discussed above. A competently constructed map is a very efficient means of relating information and a map can be a very effective method of indicating change through time. Obviously, comparison of a map with an earlier version covering the same terrain can reveal the changes on the ground which occurred between the start and the end of the period separating their construction. Additionally, a comparison of two such maps can also highlight changes in social attitude, priority or even scientific knowledge; the map reflects the cartographer just as the text reflects the author.

Pictorial Plan of Bristol
Copy of Robert Ricart's Plan by Seyer
Bristol Record Office

Bristol is unusually fortunate with regard to its cartographic history. In 1479 Robert Ricart recorded in 'The Maire of Bristowe is Kalender' (The calendar of the Mayor of Bristol) a plan of Bristol; this is sometimes presented as earliest diagrammatic representation of a British urban centre. Ricart's plan is a highly schematic representation which resembles closely contemporary depictions of other cities, including Jerusalem. At the plan's centre is the High Cross, which lies astride the crossroads formed by the diagonal routes leading to the four gateways shown at each corner of the map: Newgate, St Nicholas', St Leonard's and St John's.

Although not a cartography, William Wyrcestre, a contemporary of Ricart, constructed a more faithful record of Bristol's topography in 1480 which resulted from his careful survey, measured stride by stride, of the main streets and buildings.

View of Bristol, 1568
William Smith
Bristol Record Office

In 1568, ninety years later, William Smith surveyed the first cartographic representation of Bristol to impart the features of the city in a format that resembled what appeared on the ground. Smith's view obviously informed Hofnagle, just over a decade later, as his 1581 map of 'Brightstowe' shares much that is reported on Smith's map. Although Bristol is shown as a walled settlement in both maps, the overspill of buildings along major routes into the city had already stretched its ambit far beyond the gated precincts.

Hofnagle's Map of the City
Bristol Record Office

Early in the second half of the seventeenth century Jacob Millerd, a citizen of Bristol, produced three editions of a detailed map of Bristol which revealed the streets, houses, public buildings and open spaces of the city. In addition to the close attention Millerd paid to topography of the city, his map was annotated at the margins with cameo representations of some of Bristol's most important buildings and landmarks. This collection of images, which includes the Bristol Bridge, the Tolsey, the Custom-house, the Gatehouse of St Augustine's and the River Avon at Hotwells, has proved a valuable resource for historians. One of these is a unique drawing of Bristol's Castle, demolished in 1655 at the order of Oliver Cromwell.

Bristolia - Millerd's Map of Bristol 1673
English City: The Growth and the Future of Bristol
(J.S. Fry & Sons Ltd.:1945) Published by the kind permission of Cadbury.

By the early nineteenth century cartography had become a science. A group of established practitioners, who had accepted ways of doing things, using approved methods and employing recognised skills, produced large scale maps of the United Kingdom. The Ordnance Survey, which owes its origins to plans made one hundred and thirty years ago to defend the south coast of England against the threat of French invasion, has provided a rich resource for the historian. Recent digitalization of OS maps, which are now published in electronic form, has made the 1:10,000 and the 1:2,500 maps available on a commercial terms.[11]

The origins of the Ordnance survey is a reminder that some maps are created for a political or administrative purpose. In the 1920s the territorial ambitions of some of Bristol's councillors, members of the Bristol Town Planning Committee in particular, were married to the policy prescriptions offered by the academics interested in urban and regional planning. This match gave birth to the Bath and Bristol and District Joint Regional Planning Committee which sponsored research undertaken by Professor Patrick Abercrombie, of the Department of Civic Design at the University of Liverpool, and Bertrand F. Brueton, Town Planning Officer of the Corporation of Bristol.[12]

Bristol and Bath Regional Planning Scheme Map
Reproduced by the kind permission of Liverpool University Press

With the active co-operation of the County Councils of Somerset and Gloucestershire, and assisted by the passage of the 1929 Local Government Act, this new agency appeared to provide a forum for the development of regional planning initiatives. However, in a development which foretold the demise of Avon County Council half a century later, political opposition to this venture came from two Rural District Councils, Long Ashton and Clutton. Although Somerset County Council appeared ready and willing to cede control over these districts to a Bristol-dominated authority, these districts refused to participate.

Although a shotgun marriage between the districts was achieved by English local government reorganisation in 1974, opposition in these districts to the new Avon County Council continued. Two decades later, in an act of political expediency, the Conservative government introduced another round of local government reorganisation which left these districts detached, unwanted by Somerset, the county to which they wanted to return, and independent of the city they had rejected.

Although local government maps appear the most obvious tool for a historian, any attempt to define the Bristol region in terms of these will be of limited practical use to the historian, as the current situation demonstrates. The political boundaries of Bristol now appear to constrain the city which is surrounded by a shatterbelt of smaller local authorities. This makes the negotiation of any major initiative difficult, especially as the other authorities are so varied in nature, ranging from the dynamic South Gloucestershire 'Edge City' located around Patchway at the interchange of the M4 and M5 motorway to the less vibrant areas controlled by North Somerset Council.

The difficulty of using political boundaries to define the city's region is also demonstrated by the existence of the Avon and Somerset Constabulary. Similarly, maps of the areas covered by companies which provide city's gas, electivity, water, transport and environmental services demonstrate that the lack of correspondence between Bristol's economic region and its ward or constituency boundaries. Even the city's Scouts and Guides plan their collective activities on a larger scale, reminiscent of Avon County.

If defining Bristol is difficult, defining a Bristolian is also not unambiguous but this has not prevented historians from attempting analysis of the city's elite. Recently the method adopted has used prosopography, or collective biography, to look at the characteristics of a number of prominent citizens whose obituaries appeared in the local press. The purpose of this research is an attempt to capture both the common activities and allegiances and the individual character of its subjects.[13] The traditional biography still has its place in historical analysis, as Thomas Otte's study of Sir Michael Hicks Beach demonstrates for this medium. The two approaches, taken together, facilitate a much richer and more comprehensive historical understanding of Bristol's society.


Local history, statistical sources and quantitative methods

Moving from the study individuals, either taken on their own or as groups, we can consider the city's population as a whole. The historical record has little to say about the vast majority of Bristol's inhabitants. There is, however, a great deal we can say about their lives. A few can stand for the many and the careful selection of case studies can allow the development of generalisation to extend our view beyond the limitations of surviving records. A different route, however, uses the copious material produced by various official agencies and departments established by government to oversee, direct and organise the bureaucracies which characterise modern society.

The Bristol Historical Databases Project produced four historical abstracts, three of these report statistical material produced by government bodies to record and report the ills of urban life in the city; these series include: ill-health; unemployment; and the relief of poverty. These series demonstrate many aspects of life in Bristol which have previously been unrecorded. These include, for example, the scourge of scarlet fever in the mid-nineteenth century, the sudden increase in the numbers applying for relief in October 1921 and the relatively low incidence of unemployment, in comparison to the national experience, in the 1980s.

History students are not usually enthusiastic about using statistical methods to analyse quantitative data. A decade ago I designed a computer assisted learning package, HIST, the Historian's Statistical Toolkit, in an attempt to encourage history students at UWE to take their first steps towards a quantitative approach to history. For the most part, HIST has been a useful teaching and learning aid; it has encouraged students to 'play' with numerical data while diminishing their fears. It has also helped to raise their appreciation of both the uses and limitations of quantitative information. In this spirit, HIST is included on this CD.[14]. There is much quantitative data provided on the CD which can be used for this and other historical purposes. I hope the statistical abstracts, and indeed all the information provided here, encourage broader, richer, more inventive and continuing historical investigations of Bristol.

Public history

History has many purposes. While the academic purpose of history is obvious, history has a broader purpose in the community which should never be overlooked. Although it shares much methodological ground with college-based history, local history undertaken by enthusiasts within a specific district is a good example of history outside the academy. Local historians are often amateurs, which means only that they are not paid a salary for their efforts, who aspire to the highest standards of scholarly enquiry which they share with their professional counterparts. There is no conflict of interest here: the two communities can, and should, work together, as they have much to exchange and much to learn in that exchange.

As in many communities, Bristol has a number of local history societies where participants gather to share their knowledge and understanding of the past with those who are like-minded. Often these groups publish historical research which has been undertaken by their members and in at least one case, in Frenchay, a museum has been established to act as a showcase and a focus for future activities.

'Public History', which is emerging as a new field of study in the discipline of history, investigates representations of the past within a community. The irony here is that this is the history which has so far largely escaped the controlling influence of the academy and its professionals. Such representations can include ceremonies and festivals, monuments of remembrance, civic buildings and commissioned works of art. Often these are designed to provide a focus for collective appreciation of the past and, as such, frequently have to some extent the stamp of official approval from a public authority of some kind. Some aspects of this official use of history are discussed above in the context of Bristol's 1996 Festival of the Sea and the recurrent debate about Colson's statue.

There is, however, a more radical use of history within society which might be considered a form of public history; often this involves the justification of present actions by a particular and specific collective memory of the past. History can be used in an informal way to justify actions or attitudes among various minority groups, be they workers in a labour dispute or members of disadvantaged ethnic groups. In these cases, the past is an important point of social reference which informs by providing understanding of the present as well as a sense of community or collectivity. Such perceptions are important and are strongly held. Historians now struggle to analyse the popular political protests of two centuries ago which called for a restoration of 'Merry England' or demanded an end to the 'Norman Yoke'. Future historians may well find it much more difficult to analyse the political undercurrents of present Bristol.

Sometimes, however, these protests condense and become organized. An excellent example is the recent campaign in Bristol which has pressed the local authority to acquire the Arnos Vale cemetery. From its establishment in 1837, at the very birth of the Victorian era, the Bristol General Cemetery Company's Arnos Vale cemetery was both the epitome of capitalist enterprise, as a joint stock company, and the focal point for Bristol's celebration of its departed civic dignitaries.

Death in the Victorian period was a much celebrated public event, marked by ritual and ceremony, pomp and circumstance. Having departed this life and the centre of the city in procession, for many of Bristol's prominent sons and daughters, Arnos Vale provided both the last resting place and the lasting memorial. Amongst those interred can be found: several holders of civic office, including H.O. Wills and Charles Wathen; many pioneeering figures from Britain's Imperial past, including Raja Rammohun Roy, and numerous soldiers, sailors and merchants; members of the medical profession and social welfare reformers, including Mary Carpenter and Reverend Urijah Thomas; and, fittingly, Sir John Haberfield, an original shareholder of the Bristol General Cemetery Company. Arnos Vale also has a large war memorial constructed after the First World War.

Although prominent and significant for over a hundred years, by the end of twentieth century the cemetery was much neglected and its broader role in Bristol's public life had largely been forgotten. The ambitions of the private company which owned the cemetery centred upon property development of the land. The prospects for speculative house building, the most profitable venture for urban land in this setting, would be enhanced if the cemetery was allowed to deteriorate so that the redevelopment of the site was seen as not only desirable but necessary. Despite the dereliction, development was opposed by local residents. In 1998 the imposition of new public health restrictions resulted in closure of the Crematorium which terminated the Cemetery Company's major source of income.

By 1999 the cemetery was derelict, overgrown, largely unaintained and, in parts, dangerously neglected; outside its gates protesters mounted a solemn vigil to publicise its decrepit state. In some ways it could be said that derelict Arnos Vale represented metaphorically Bristol's late twentieth century civic disdain for its nineteenth century heritage. Certainly it is difficult to imagine a major European city showing such disregard of its dead and it is barely possible to conceive of any Scottish city allowing its necropolis falling into a state of rack and ruin.

This business strategy of sustained neglect provoked strong reactions both from those in the locality who objected to the deterioration of their environment and from those who had relatives interred in the Cemetery. Throughout the last decade of the twentieth century a popular campaign, organised by the Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery (formerly, the Association for the Preservation of Arnos Vale Cemetery), publicised the Cemetery as a place of remembrance, an urban wildlife santuary and as a site of historic significance. Eventually the campaign was successful and the City Council was obliged to act by compulsory purchase of the cemetery.

During the publicity campaign, which achieved great prominence in the local press, the history of Arnos Vale and its significance in Bristol's history was a constant feature. Additionally, the Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery used modern IT, in the shape of the world-wide-web (www.favc.freeserve.co.uk), to mobilise public support. Now successful, the campaigners hope to see the physpcal restoration of Arnos Vale's former glory.

This effective combination of history and information technology, in the service of a community profoundly aware of the significance of history, brings to a natural conclusion this section of the Introuction devoted to 'Sources and Methods'.