The original influencers: Inspiring people from Bristol’s history
19 min read
So many talented and inspiring people have been born in our wonderful city over the centuries. Historian Catherine Pitt takes a look at the lives and achievements of some of these Bristolians
The word ‘influencer’ has taken on a whole new meaning over the past few years – which got us thinking about the more old-school sort and had local historian Catherine Pitt popping on her researcher’s hat and poring over Bristol archives to dig out some of the city’s very earliest change, taste and history-makers.
Dame Janet Vaughan
Pioneering scientist (1899 – 1993) Born in Clifton, Vaughan attended Somerville College, Oxford, to study medicine. Her clinical training was in London where she was initially interested in blood diseases and transfusions. As a female doctor in the early 20th century, she found it difficult to access patients for research, and instead had to experiment on pigeons. In 1938, while a pathologist at Hammersmith Hospital, she created a national blood bank scheme and modified collection bottles. In 1945 she went to Europe to research starvation and worked at Belsen-Belsen in Germany with recently liberated concentration camp victims. Vaughan’s later years were spent on studying radioactivity on bone and bone marrow. Damehood came in 1957 and she became principal at her old alma mater Somerville. Vaughan was fondly remembered by students and colleagues alike as a figure in tweed, whizzing around Oxford in her yellow Mini, or entrenched in the Bodleian Library, oblivious to her whistling hearing aid.
Lady Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence
Activist (1867 – 1954) Described by her school as a “corrupting influence on other children,” Pethick-Lawrence’s rebellious nature was channelled as an adult into political and social campaigning. The deprivation she witnessed when she moved to London shaped her socialist leanings. She co-founded the co-operative dressmaking business, the Esperance Club, which guaranteed fair wages and conditions for women. In 1906 Pethick-Lawrence joined the Women’s Social and Political Union but was expelled in 1912 for her resistance to the growing militancy. Despite this she continued to champion women’s rights. She lectured in the United States, and was one of three women who risked their lives travelling through submarine-filled waters during the First World War to attend the Congress for Peace at The Hague in 1915. In a period of patriarchy, Pethick-Lawrence’s marriage was a rare one. Her husband agreed to double-barrel both their surnames and the couple had separate bank accounts. She published her autobiography My Part in a Changing World in 1938.
Sir Albion Rajkumar Banerjee
Civil servant (1871 – 1950) There was nothing ordinary about the life of Albion Banerjee, whose Indian parents visited England in 1871 at the invite of the reformer Mary Carpenter. Banerjee’s father, Sasipada, was an activist, and his mother, Rajkumari, was the first woman to visit England from the caste of Bengali Brahmins. Subsequently Banerjee’s birth in Bristol meant he became the first Bengali Brahmin to be born in Britain. To celebrate this fact he was named Albion, after the Celtic word for Great Britain. In 1872 the family returned to India. Banerjee returned later to study at Balliol College, Oxford, and in 1894 passed the Indian Civil Service exam. India was still part of the British Empire and it was the ICS that administered British rule. In 1907 Banerjee became the first ICS employee to become a regional Diwan (equivalent of Prime Minister). As Diwan of Cochin, Banerjee dedicated himself to the welfare of its state and people. When Diwan of Mysore in 1924, Banerjee’s negotiations over the sharing of the River Kaveri’s waters were unpopular and even today he is a controversial figure in Mysore. In 1927 Banerjee became the Prime Minister of Kashmir, but resigned on moral grounds. Knighted for his services in 1925 he wrote a number of books in his lifetime, and a major road in Cochin is named after him.
Norah Lillian Fry
Reformer (1871 – 1960) Born into the local chocolate dynasty, Norah led a life of privilege and wealth. She also had social reform in her veins, for her great grandmother was the renowned prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (1780 – 1845). Norah decided to follow her great-grandmother into investigating social issues, and put her time and money into bettering the lives of children (and adults) with physical and mental disabilities. Fry visited families all over Bristol and Somerset to find out what they needed. She wrote up reports on her findings for The Royal Commission. In 1905, after seven years of active research, she set out her vision of inclusion for children, especially in school. Fry also campaigned for parish workhouses to be closed down and reinstated as hospitals or care units; one example of her successes being Shepton Mallett’s workhouse. In 1918 she became the first female councillor in Somerset and was a member of the Bristol University Council for 50 years. Fry gave money toward the creation of a research department on mental health which in 1988 became the Centre for Disability Studies.
William Tierney Clark
Civil engineer (1783 – 1852) When people think of civil engineers and Bristol, one name comes to mind – Isambard Kingdom Brunel. However Brunel was not a native of the city and he wasn’t the first to build suspension bridges. Tierney Clark was a local millwright’s apprentice when his engineering talents were spotted by civil engineers Thomas Telford and John Rennie who guided him into the profession. An early pioneer of the suspension bridge, in 1827 Tierney Clark designed the first of such structures to span the River Thames – that of Hammersmith Bridge in London. He constructed other bridges in England and abroad, with his most famous being the Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest, Hungary; this was the first permanent bridge to span the Danube linking both sides of the city (opened 1849). An engineering award in Hungary is named after him and he also was awarded a fellowship of the Royal Society.
Sarah Ann Henley
Survivor (1862 – 1948) Unwittingly it was barmaid Sarah Henley’s actions on a breezy Friday in May 1885 that caused her to become a cause célèbre. Spurned by her fiancé, a porter at Temple Meads Station, Henley’s desperation led her to the parapet of Clifton Suspension Bridge. The bridge, since its opening in 1831, had been a favoured suicide spot for many. According to eye witnesses, Henley climbed over the railings and jumped before anyone could reach her.
However her descent didn’t end quite how anyone expected: “She was blown…falling feet first to the water below…the wind blew under her wide skirt and her clothes acted like a parachute, gently slowing…the rate of her fall” [Thomas Stevens, eyewitness]
Henley’s fashionably large crinoline skirt saved her life. She was rescued from the muddy river bed by two local men and taken to hospital. As she lay recovering, her story spread around the globe and she was inundated with proposals of marriage and monetary offers to do talks. Local poet, William E. Heasell, even wrote a poem about the incident. Henley, though, never spoke to the papers, quietly returning to relative anonymity. She eventually married, had a family, and died at the age of 85.
War poet (1890 – 1918) Considered one of the finest war poets, though lesser known than Sassoon and Owen, Rosenberg was born in Bristol – the son of Lithuanian Jewish refugees. The family moved to London when he was 12 and he began attending night classes at the Arts and Crafts School in Stepney Green. His first love was art but an interest in poetry began to grow. He studied at Birkbeck College and formed an artistic group known as the Whitechapel Boys. In 1911 Rosenberg left a job as an engraver to study at the Slade School of Fine Art, alongside Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash and Dora Carrington. In 1914 he developed bronchitis and moved to South Africa, returning to England in 1915 to find work as an artist. Although critical of war, he reluctantly joined the army and in 1916 was sent to the Western Front where, in his spare time, he wrote poetry about his experiences. On 1 April 1918 Rosenberg was returning from night patrol when he was killed. Even today his words speak of the ordinary man in the trench and the brutality of war.
Diarist (1897 – 1978) Born Victoria Rogers in Woodbury Lane, Blackboy Hill, Hughes lived, worked and died in the city. Her husband, Richard Hughes, had fought and was injured in the First World War. He was unable to work due to his injuries, so Victoria was forced to become the breadwinner of the family. Post-war Britain saw many economic struggles and many families of returning wounded men found themselves in similar situations. In 1929 Hughes became a lavatory attendant on Stoke Road, Clifton, later moving to Clifton Suspension Bridge’s toilets. What makes Hughes extraordinary is the fact she recorded her daily life over 30 years. The job was eye-opening for her as much as it is for her readers. From miscarriages to sexually transmitted diseases, Hughes heard and saw it all in the loos of Bristol. It was only in her retirement that Hughes’s family encouraged her to write her memoirs. In 1977, at the age of 80, she published The Ladies Mile. Hughes was the first of her profession to have an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and in 2003 a blue plaque was erected to her in Bristol.
Charles G Stephens
Daredevil (1862 – 1920) Stephens’ early life is as extraordinary as his death. Declared dead as a child from a mystery illness, he survived being hit by a runaway coal truck in a Welsh mine aged 16, and lived through three and a half years in the trenches during the First World War. Post-war, Stephens worked as a barber in Bedminster, supplementing the family income by performing death-defying stunts, some with his wife Annie. In 1920 he planned his greatest stunt yet – to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. He wasn’t the first, but it was a great promotional opportunity. The barrel, equipped with straps, padding, an oxygen tank and an anvil, was displayed at The Empire Theatre in Bristol. On the morning of 11 July 1920, more than 200 people gathered at Niagara Falls. Ignoring all safety warnings about trialling the barrel beforehand, Stephens set off at 8.15am from Snyder Point, 5km from Horseshoe Falls. At 8.55am the crowd witnessed the barrel plummet over the churning Falls. 150,000 gallons of water per second fell onto Stephens. He never surfaced. Parts of the barrel and a severed arm (legend has it with the tattoo “Don’t forget me Annie” on it) were later recovered and buried at Drummond Hill Cemetery, Niagara. Stephens’ feat far surpassed his original aim; instead he goes down in history as the first ever person to die attempting to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Ethel Phyllis Bedells
Prima ballerina (1893 – 1985) Known professionally as Phyllis Bedells, she was born into a theatrical family in Knowle. Her father, Bruce Bedells, founded the Bristol Amateur Operatic Society (BAOS) and her mother was a singer and actress. Bedells attended weekly dance lessons in Clifton and made her first stage appearance aged eight. In 1906, aged 12, she made her London debut performing First Oyster in Alice in Wonderland at the Prince of Wales’ Theatre. By 1907 Bedells was a dancer at the London Empire Theatre where she became its first British prima ballerina in 1913. In 1916 she left to dance in the West End and Covent Garden, as well as in early film. Bedells studied dance with the greats including Anna Pavlova. In 1920 she became a founding member of the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), and purchased No. 20 Vyvyan Terrace in Bristol to create a dance school. Today No. 20 is part of the Bristol School of Dancing. Bedells retired from ballet in 1935 but became a teacher and examiner. A RAD bursary was created in her name and she also wrote an autobiography, My Dancing Days.
John Addington Symonds
Pioneer of gay rights (1840 – 1893) Described as a “delicate child” it was at Oxford University that Symonds underwent a number of epiphanies that shaped his future both personally and professionally. Not only did he realise that he was gay, but through studying classical texts and art, Symonds realised that Victorian sensibilities had oppressed, and people were in denial about homosexuality in Ancient Rome, Greece and Renaissance Italy. As a result he went on to translate classical works, privately publish studies, and even write poems, all on homoerotic themes. While lecturing at Clifton College and Ladies’ School, Symonds fell in love for the first time with a Cathedral chorister; however the illegality of homosexuality at this time forced Symonds to seek a ‘cure’. After a number of brutal physical treatments he married Catherine North in 1864 and they had four children. Symonds’ natural desires couldn’t be suppressed and he continued to have homosexual affairs. The couple eventually moved to Davos in Switzerland where Symonds could travel easily to Italy to study and pick up lovers. It was in Rome that he died, buried near to the poet Shelley’s tomb.
Emma Head née Parker
Freeborn daughter of an ex-slave (c.1856 – c.1920) Born in the city to a white, Irish mother and a black, ex-slave father, Emma represents the tens of thousands of un-named black and mixed-race Bristolians who have been under-represented in our history. Emma’s father, Henry Parker, was born in Florida in 1826 and sold as a slave to a plantation owner when he was just a child. Aged 20, Parker made his escape and, with help from a family of Quakers, he made his way north to where slavery had been made illegal. At Boston, Parker boarded one of the many British ships docked there and by 1850 found himself stepping ashore in Bristol, England. Although he had been born in the United States, on the 1851 census Parker described his birthplace as Bristol. Perhaps he considered the city to be the place of his re-birth as a free man. Parker became a lay preacher and local stonemason and, with his wife Louisa, went on to have seven children, including Emma. In 1871 the family were living in St Pauls where, even to this day, many of his descendants still reside.
Edwin Stuart Francis Cole
First World War flying ace (1895 – 1984) Cole was a mechanical engineer but qualified to fly in December 1915. By April 1916 he was commissioned to the Royal Flying Corps, becoming a flying officer and serving in Number One Squadron. He flew a Nieuport Scout and would be sent on missions across the battlefields to scope enemy positions and engage with enemy aircraft; the life expectancy of such pilots was mere weeks. Cole’s first of eight aerial victories that earnt him a Military Cross occurred in September 1916. He wrote letters to his family about his encounters and in May 1917 he wrote of a confrontation with a German Albatross D.111 flown by 28-year-old Alexander Kutscher: “At 9.45 we had a long reconnaissance and at the end of this when we were crossing the lines I spotted a brilliantly red coloured machine with three other machines…on our side of the trenches, all of us dived at them and a general scrap followed… it left me with one fellow… we each tried to better the other… when we got near the ground I managed to get in some good shots and down he came…” Post-war, Cole ran a garage in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, but in March 1939 returned to the skies as a flying officer for the Royal Air Force. Declared unfit to fly in 1940 he was assigned to ground duties. Cole resigned his commission in 1954 having reached the rank of squadron leader.
Merchant (d.1435) In the medieval period, women had little autonomy. Their father and then their husband would control their money and lives. Chestre represents the unspoken for and hardworking women of Bristol during this period. Her husband, Henry, was a Bristol draper (and mayor) who traded textiles with Ireland, Spain, Lisbon, Bordeaux and Brittany in return for iron and wine. On his death in 1471, not only did Alice take on responsibility for her husband’s debts, but very unusually proceeded to trade independently, even having her own ships and merchant mark. Alice’s status as a widow gave her a level of independence that married women didn’t have. Her wealth meant she had no need to remarry. Records of her philanthropy in the city survive. She gave Bristol its first crane at the Welsh Back in 1475 and is described in All Saint’s Parish records as a “blessed woman”.
Edris ‘Eddie’ Albert Hapgood
Footballer (1908 – 1973) Hapgood showed prowess with a football from a young age. Living in the slums of St Phillips he was fined by a magistrate for breaking a window while playing the game in the streets. At school he played junior football at St Phillips FC and when 18 he was selected to play for Bristol Rovers. After a brief sojourn at Kettering Town, Hapgood left to go to Arsenal FC where he was signed for £950 (approximately £40,000 today). Hapgood became captain of both Arsenal (1937-8) and England (1933-9) during his career. He was captain for the 1938 match in Germany where the England team were ordered to give a Nazi salute. In the 1930s Hapgood was one of the first footballers to partake in advertising – from fashion to chocolate – and was also the first footballer ever to write an autobiography, entitled Football Ambassador. After being loaned out by Arsenal during World War Two, in 1945 he faced retirement. Hapgood went on to manage Blackburn Rovers, Watford FC and Bath FC, and his final years were spent touring and giving talks to international football youth teams.
Clothier and wool merchant (d.1371) In the 14th century, one of Bristol’s main industries was weaving. During the reign of Edward III (1327 – 1377) the King had restricted the import and wearing of foreign cloth to encourage British industry. A number of weaving families from Flanders migrated to England in this period, and it is possible the Blanket family were one. We know that Edmund was a wealthy cloth merchant in the city, employing dozens of local weavers, and that he was also Member of Parliament for Bristol between 1362 and 1369. Victorian newspaperman Joseph Leech invented the myth that the woollen cloth called a blanket was named after Edmund who, allegedly, being cold one night, removed a strip of wool from a loom to cover his bed. However the word Blanket or Blanchette has been used in England and Europe since the late 12th century. More likely Edmund descended from a family who, on making such an item, were given the surname by association.
Sarah Anne Bright
Artist and photographer (1793 – 1866) Women’s contributions to history have often been neglected. However Bright’s talent as a photographer has finally been recognised, after a case of mistaken identity. Born into a wealthy Bristol family, her father, Richard Bright, was founder of the Bristol Institute (Bristol Museum today). Sarah was not merely a lady of leisure. At the family home, Ham Green House, her father set up a chemical lab that he, his son Henry, and Sarah, used in early photographic experiments. Sarah’s album of watercolour sketches and photographs was passed down generations until, in 1984, a page from it containing a photo of a leaf (dated 1839) was sold at Sotheby’s in London. The photo was initially attributed to photographic pioneer William Fox-Talbot, but when taken in context with the album and comparing the handwriting on the photo with that in the album, researchers realised their mistake. In 2015, nearly 150 years after her death, one of the earliest surviving photographs in the world taken by a woman, has been re-attributed to Bristolian Sarah Bright.
John Randolph Sutton
Music hall star (1888 – 1969) Bristol is renowned as the birthplace of acting royalty like Cary Grant and Sir Michael Redgrave. It is also where ‘Britain’s Premier Light Comedian’, best known as Randolph Sutton, was born. As a child, Sutton would spend his pocket money on trips to the Bristol Empire, returning home to enthusiastically recreate the variety acts he saw. As a young man, while holidaying at Burnham on Sea, he partook in a benefit concert and was such a success that he left his printing job in the city to begin life as an entertainer on the theatre circuit. By 1930 Sutton was topping bills all over the country and also performed at the Royal Variety. In 1951 he made his TV debut and in 1966 even featured in Coronation Street. Sutton was a prolific recording artist known for singing On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep and The Sun Has Got His Hat On. Retiring aged 60 due to a bout of stage fright, he was coaxed back to star in Thanks for the Memory along with other music hall artists. Sutton continued to perform in his trademark top hat and tails until two days before his death in February 1969.
Sarah Belzoni née Bane
Explorer (1783 – 1870) Little is known of Sarah’s early life in the city, but we do know that in 1813 she married Giovanni Battista Belzoni, an Italian strongman, explorer and archaeologist. Giovanni was in England performing as a strongman to fund his next trip, and in 1815 he and Sarah travelled to Egypt. Belzoni was often left to fend for herself while her husband headed off on his excursions. However, instead of moping around, Belzoni made detailed records of the people that she met. She would also set off on excursions, such as to Jerusalem or Jordan, either alone or with locals in tow. In Egypt she is credited with discovering four tombs in the Valley of the Kings. When she retired she published numerous books about her adventures. Watercolours she produced during her explorations can be found at the Bristol Museum gallery.
Nobleman (1095 – 1170) Fitzharding was the son of Harding of Bristol, the King’s Reeve, and one of the few Anglo Saxon noblemen to retain their lands and status after the Norman invasion of 1066. Fitzharding inherited the family wealth and used it for philanthropic means, founding the Abbey of St Augustine in 1140 which is where Bristol Cathedral stands today. The Chapter House within is one of the few visible remains of his legacy. Fitzharding was also one of the financiers of the future King Henry II during the time of The Anarchy (1133-1189) and as a result the King granted him the position of Baron of Berkeley in Gloucestershire. In 1553 he attained royal assent to rebuild the castle. To secure his family’s future he married his heir and one of his daughters into the displaced Berkeley family. Fitzharding became a canon in his own abbey and was buried on the site. In the cathedral today one can find a memorial plaque and window dedicated to Robert and his wife Eva.
Mascot(1884 – 1895) As HMV’s future remains uncertain, one thing that is secure is the place in history of a local pooch that has been the company’s logo for over 100 years. Nipper, part terrier, part Jack Russell, belonged to Bristol scenery designer Mark H Barraud who lived in the Prince’s Theatre on Park Row. On Barraud’s death in 1887, Nipper went to live with Barraud’s brothers. One brother, Francis, was a painter who was often amused by the interest Nipper showed in his Edison-Bell phonograph. Although Nipper died in 1895 it wasn’t until 1898 that Francis decided to immortalise Nipper’s quizzical expression on canvas. Francis presented the finished painting to the Edison-Bell company but was promptly sent packing with the words, “dogs don’t listen to phonographs.” In May 1899, after altering the picture, Francis sold the painting and its slogan for £100 to The Gramophone Company of London. Initially entitled “Dog Looking and Listening to a Phonograph” Francis soon shortened it to the more succinct “His Master’s Voice” (HMV). A statue to Bristol’s canine celebrity can be found above a doorway on the site of Prince’s Theatre.
Main image: ActivistLady Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence: LSE Library/Wikimedia Commons; war poet Isaac Rosenberg: Tate Britain/presented by David Burton, 1972/Wikimedia Commons