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a house through time

Bristol’s alternative ‘house through time’

Many of us were glued to the BBC Two series presented by David Olusoga and starring Redcliffe’s 10 Guinea Street – an early 18th-century house with slave traders among its past residents, and now up for sale. But a house in Montpelier was almost chosen instead, prompting owners Peter and Sue Cullimore to do their own research on their Spring Cottage predecessors

When an estate agent showed us round Spring Cottage 34 years ago, it was love at first sight. How could anyone resist this long and thin Georgian house on a hill which looks so different from the rest, even in characterful Montpelier? It’s now called 60 Fairfield Road. But we prefer the old name even if that, too, remains an enigma.

We still don’t know if Spring Cottage refers to the season, or to it being built above a water course. Sue and I, despite being very amateur historians, have won praise for the quality of research that went into our book, Saints, Crooks & Slavers. Yet we still can’t answer the first question everyone asks – when was your house built? Not for sure, anyway. We also have trouble with the next basic question – who first lived in it? Again, that’s very uncertain.

Sue and Pete decided to do some digging around DIYstyle for their own A House Through Time project

Perhaps it was because the house looks such a curiosity that A House Through Time researchers pushed a flyer through our door early last year. They were inviting us to join the selection process for their Bristol series. Spring Cottage eventually finished a close second to the property that was chosen, 10 Guinea Street in Redcliffe. But by then we were hooked, and decided to do some exploration of our own.

Our crumbling, but unusually complete, deeds tell us the first tenant or occupier of our house was a man called Shurmer Bath. A Quaker from Stokes Croft and a maltster by trade, he moved in the same social circles as Joseph Fry, Hannah More and the diarist Sarah Fox. He was the original developer for Spring Cottage and other nearby houses around Montpelier in the 1790s. But Shurmer Bath never finished building them, because a city-wide construction boom was halted by the Napoleonic Wars. He ended up bankrupt, as did so many other local property speculators at the time, especially in Clifton.

Similar doubts surround the residency of our second developer, a “common brewer” with the equally colourful name of Jacob Crook. According to our deeds, when he bought the land in 1812, a “ruinous cottage” already stood on the site, which was “then in the occupation of said Jacob Crook”. However, in old-fashioned legal jargon, words like ‘tenant’ or ‘occupied’ could be ambiguous, perhaps even meaning that someone was active on the site rather than living there. Besides, both Shurmer and Jacob kept family homes elsewhere in the city. Despite the obtuse language, we found our deeds were a priceless launch pad towards further investigation into these characters and other occupants of Spring Cottage/60 Fairfield Road, right up to the late 20th century. It was here we first came across names like William Beaumont (originally Guillaume de Beaumont), son of aristocrats guillotined in the French Revolution, and the Phippen sisters, who ran early schools for deprived girls in their own home.

A much later sale document in the deeds eventually led us to Penny Gane, an owner/occupier not long before us in the 1980s. In 2020 she remains an influential campaign leader for women’s rights in the city, as chair of Bristol Women’s Voice.

For more detailed research on past residents, we turned to other sources. We found most useful the historic documents kept at Bristol Archives, where they’re available for you to search; online genealogy websites for censuses or for birth, marriage and death records; local trade directories from the mid 1700s onwards which you can leaf through in the Archives search room or in the reference section of Bristol Central Library; and local newspaper articles found online via the British Newspaper Archive.

The living room at Spring Cottage

These were the resources which helped us re-discover, for example, the story of Charles Franklin. Just before he rented Spring Cottage with his family in 1892, Franklin’s large factory making glass mirrors, in Rupert Street, burnt down in a dramatic fire that could be seen from miles around. We traced a vivid account in the Bristol Mercury.

Residents of our house listed in the 1901 census included a 13-yearold servant, Ada Tovey. She later emigrated to Canada as an escape route from destitution but soon perished in faraway Vancouver, according to the British Columbia Death Index which we accessed online via the Ancestry website.

The 1939 register, or wartime census, recorded the Fiddes family living at 60 Fairfield Road. One of them, young Ernest Fiddes, lost his life serving on board a Royal Navy submarine, sunk by a torpedo attack in the Mediterranean in 1942. Stoker Petty Officer Fiddes was posthumously honoured for gallant action in the face of the enemy.

Neither Sue nor I are experts, so in the book we focus on the sources we used most. These weren’t always the best possible option for our house history research, but they were ones that worked for us. The practical tips on how to find out about the earlier inhabitants of your own home are based on our steep learning curve. That’s why Saints, Crooks & Slavers is deliberately written in a nuts-and-bolts style, telling you both what we discovered and how.

The message is that our way may not be perfect, but if we can do it, so can you! However, there are some public records, especially land tax and electoral registers that, with hindsight, we could have and maybe should have consulted more.

Our research was kick-started by Spring Cottage making the final shortlist for A House Through Time. In the end, 10 Guinea Street was definitely the right choice by the BBC. Episode one alone featured an unbeatable mix of eye-catching period features, slave-trading sea captains, an escaping servant and a baby left abandoned on the doorstep. But our near miss gave us a few new clues, and the inspiration to unearth a lot more information about Shurmer Bath et al in Montpelier.

The maltster who started building Spring Cottage, and may or may not have lived in it, had a mixed CV. On the plus side, he was a devout Quaker and a generous philanthropist who gave out free medicine to the poor and subsidised new charity schools. On the other hand, Shurmer Bath had close links with slavery – not as a trader like Edward Colston half a century earlier, but by marriage. His first and second wives, Mary Lewis and Alice Dury, were cousins in a Quaker slave-owning dynasty from Bristol that ran sugar plantations in Barbados. The Durys had sold up and returned to Bristol in 1762, well before Shurmer married into the family. Our source for these revelations was a wider family archive, free to download online viaGoogle Books.

By the later 18th century, the Quaker community in Bristol, or Society of Friends, who until then had a deep involvement in slavery, were in full withdrawal mode and veering towards support for abolition – important contextual data we borrowed from work by a Bristol historian specialising in the city’s slave trade, Dr Madge Dresser. Thanks to her research, we found evidence that in later life Shurmer Bath became an abolitionist himself.

It’s amazing that our book has coincided with a 21st-century equivalent of the Plague and the brutal murder of George Floyd by police in America, the event that sparked the Black Lives Matter protests across the world and the toppling of our notorious Colston statue in Bristol. The outcome is a huge growth in pressure for removing other memorials associated with the slave trade, and for real change towards racial equality.

In Saints, Crooks & Slavers, we’ve tried to give a balanced portrayal of Shurmer Bath, warts and all. Our first house builder was no saint, and can’t be exonerated from his slavery links, but nor should he be bracketed with Colston as a murderous villain. Instead, our book as a whole reinforces the new vision of history as no longer set in stone, and full of shifting uncertainties.

Saints, Crooks & Slavers, £12, is published by Bristol Books, illustrated with photos and historical maps, and available from Max Minerva’s, Storysmith and Better Food. You can also order it online from Bristol Books or direct from the authors by emailing petercullimore@blueyonder.co.uk