Bristol’s history, particularly its role in slavery, has been of international interest in recent weeks, after the toppling of its statue of trader Edward Colston by anti-racist protestors on 7 June. It is timely, then, that the third series of historian David Olusoga’s hugely informative BBC show A House Through Time – first shown in May and early June – is set in Bristol, and is currently available to view on iPlayer. It recounts the history of a single house, 10 Guinea Street, from when it was built in 1718 by a Captain Edmund Saunders: one of Bristol’s most prolific slave-traders, he is thought to have trafficked over 12,000 people from Africa to the Americas.
The first episode spans the 18th century, examining everything from wealthy inhabitants like Captain Joseph Holbrook, who kept an enslaved man named Thomas in the house (in 1759, Thomas ran away and, hopefully, escaped), to the Methodist chapel built over the road in 1779, to the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1807.
Later episodes chart the house’s existence through the 19th and 20th centuries, as it transforms from a comfortable family home, to rented accommodation for more than 16 people, a private school, a base for a mail-order abortion and impotence remedies business, and housing for neighbours whose homes were destroyed in the Bristol Blitz. The building’s surprising story enables Olusoga to follow inhabitants from every area of society: servants, an abandoned baby, a gifted teenager sent to a Bristol asylum, the owners of an alcohol-free milk tavern, and an Ethiopian refugee all feature, offering a striking insight into the lives of those usually omitted from history.
This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis