The Making of Victorian Bristol

Professor Peter Malpass has spent a great part of his life in Bristol and so it comes as no surprise that this is the area that he decided to focus his publication on. In this article, Peter discusses his research and the process which led him to the making of The Making of Victorian Bristol.

Having spent most of my academic career thinking and teaching about aspects of the UK housing market and housing policy in the 20th century, I resolved that I would belatedly move to a wider frame of reference, beyond housing, but more focused on Bristol, the city I had lived in since the mid 1970s without ever doing much locally based research. My initial and over-ambitious idea was to write a new urban history of the city since its inception, sometime in the century before 1066. Fortunately, I soon realised that I was not equipped to do this, and in any case, other people had already done good work on many of the themes that interested me. A lot has been written about Bristol’s so-called golden age in the 18th century when the city’s merchants grew rich on the Atlantic slave trade and the production of sugar in the Caribbean. There are good arguments that Bristolians today still need to learn more about this shameful period and to acknowledge its continuing relevance.

A map of Bristol in 1882 from Bristol Past and Present, vol. 3.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire in 1834 and a substantial amount of the compensation subsequently paid to slave owners came to Bristol, where some of it was invested in projects such as the Great Western Railway, thereby giving the local economy a much-needed boost. My interest was drawn to the growth and transformation of the city in subsequent decades, not least because of the quality, quantity and above all the legibility of the surviving records. My primary focus was the physical fabric of the city and the way the urban landscape changed as the population grew and the built-up area expanded. One of the best sets of records for this sort of research consists of the building plans submitted to the Local Board of Health from its creation in 1851. These plans, now in the Bristol Archives, were pasted into large leather-bound volumes and provide an invaluable resource for researchers interested in who built what, when and where. I was delighted to find the plans of my own 1890s house still preserved and easily accessible, but I then spent many happy hours studying plans from different periods.

Another equally invaluable resource in the Archives is the set of tithe maps drawn up in the 1840s for the areas surrounding the ancient city. These maps were produced to facilitate the ending of the tithing system and they provide a pretty comprehensive record of land ownership at a key moment in time, just before the acceleration of urban expansion. Accompanying each map is a document called the ‘apportionment’ in which the area, value and ownership of each plot of ground is recorded. I was thus able to produce (with the help of former colleagues at the University of the West of England) maps coloured to show the pattern of ownership. This was enormously satisfying work, although I am still wrestling with the complexities of copyhold enfranchisement and other esoteric aspects of land law.

A screenshot of Know Your Place, and initiative launched by Bristol City Council

The tithe maps are precious and delicate objects, as well as being very big, but they are now available online because of an initiative by Bristol City Council which in 2011 launched a website called Know Your Place (maps.bristol.gov.uk). This proved to be yet another wonderful resource, one that I use almost daily. It is an evolving project that now consists of eighteen maps from 1750 to the present. To say this is to give only the most basic information about the site but to explain how it works would take all the words available to me.         

Several people have asked me how long it took to write the book and I struggle to answer because it’s hard to say when I actually started. I do know it was a long time. I like to say that my curiosity about the growth of urban Bristol was originally piqued in 1977 or ’78 and that I always had it in mind that one day I would devote some time to researching the subject. I also like to describe the book as the product of recreational scholarship, a retirement project unconstrained by the demands of the academy. I am pleased to be able to say that writing the book has by no means exhausted my enthusiasm and I am currently happily working on a new project.


This guest post was written by Peter Malpass, Emeritus Professor of Housing and Urban Studies at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

The Making of Victorian Bristol
by Peter Malpass
Hardback / 9781783273911 / £48.75 or $86.25

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