Local news from afar

Time and circumstances have changed the nature of local papers, but their content is always fascinating, and not always local.

Not everything found in a museum stays in a museum. A bag of tattered old newspapers destined for the bin at Bristol’s Glenside Hospital Museum, proved to be a revelation about life as she was lived in the city and elsewhere, ninety years ago.

Back then the one penny broadsheet Bristol Evening Post had a much grander role. The front page lead of its 6:30pm edition on Friday 25 January 1935 was ’57 MISSING IN U.S. LINER DISASTER’, spread across all five columns. It told in detail of the sinking of The Mohawk off the New Jersey coast earlier that very day.

America had also lost 180 people to extreme weather conditons. Inside the paper told how the worst blizzards in 50 years had swept across the northern states dumping 17 inches of snow on New York. And floods had inundated the southern states, where the waters of the Mississipi river were still rising. In the town of Sledge, in Quitman County, birthplace the year before of country singer Charley Pride, 1,000 people were said to be clinging to their roofs. This latter figure is somewhat confusing since the 1930 census recorded a population of only 337, and even today fewer than 400 people live there.

At the foot of the Post’s front page a Reuter’s report from New Jersey headlined ‘HAUPTMANN TRIAL FIRE DRAMA’, revealed the bravery of defence counsel for the man accused of kidnapping and murdering aviation hero Charles Lindbergh’s baby son. When fire had broken out around midnight the night before, in the law offices opposite the court house, ‘Mr. Fisher and his secretary dashed into the blazing building, fighting smoke and flames’ to rescue documents crucial to Hauptmann’s defence.

Elsewhere in the paper a critical day in Richard Hauptmann’s trial was recorded. ‘STORY OF THE LITTLE BOX – ISADOR FISCH AND HIS PROPERTY’ recounted his claim that a box of the ransom money found in his cupboard was one of several items, including 400 sealskins, left with him by fellow German Isador Fisch who he left for Germany on the day Lindbergh’s son was found dead in 1932. In the three years since, Fisch had died.

Although Hauptman ‘spoke with a tone of injured innocence and a trace of bewilderment’, the jury would not believe his claim that Fisch was the kidnapper and killer. Despite evidence that Hauptman had been beaten by police who had also tampered with evidence, and several stays of excution, Hauptmann went to electric chair in April 1936.

Numerous investigators and journalists have raised doubts about his conviction, pointing the finger firmly at Fisch, and citing media hysteria, police collusion, and the undue influence of flying hero Lindbergh himself, but Hauptmann has never been cleared of the crime. His last words were “I am glad that my life in a world which has not understood me has ended. Soon I will be at home with my Lord, so I am dying an innocent man.”

The Spirit of St Louis, now on display in the National Air & Space Museum, Washington DC.
Pic by Ad Meskens.

The publicity surrounding the trial stemmed as much from the horrific nature of the crime as from public adulation for Lindbergh who had made the first solo flight from New York to Paris on his plane ‘The Spiriit of St Louis’ back in 1927. After the trial his family fled to Europe, returning before the start of World War II, but his popularity had waned given his racist and anti-semitic views and his support for the anti-war America First Committee.

Back in Bristol the only local story on the front page was headlined ‘Killed in a Storm’. It told of an unnamed middle-aged women who had lost her life that very afternoon crossing the Filton Road near Horfield Barracks. Identified in the STOP PRESS column on the back page as Mrs Emma Hodgetts from a lodging house in Lamb Street, St Judes, she was ’thought to have been temporarily blinded by the violence of [a hail] storm. The driver of the motor car made a desperate swerve to avoid her.’

Fishponds news stories were similarly grim. An inquest report into the apparent suicide of Mrs Emily Bussell of 9 Downend Road, described how two boys out fishing had found her body in a disused railway cutting between two East Bristol coal mines, Speedwell Pit which was to close in 1936, and Hanham Deep Pit shut down ten years earlier when a drop in the price of coal made it uneconomical.

In the ‘Hatched, Matched and Despatched’ (Births, Marriages and Death) column, Emily was mourned by husband Harry and her children, one of whom was in the USA. Emma Amelia Booth of 512 Fishponds Road was also remembered by her husband Arthur.

By extraordinary coincidence, under the headline ‘Sequel to Fishponds Fatality’, another inquest recorded an open verdict on the death of 73-year-old Mrs Caroline Bussell of Stonebridge Park. She had been knocked down on 7 January by a car traveling at 25 miles an hour partly on the tram tracks along the Fishponds Road. It was claimed there was a ‘black patch’ on the road caused by lights from nearby shops, and that Mrs Bussell had walked into the side of the car with her head down. She suffered multiple injuries and died the following week in the Royal Infirmary. Although the offside windscreen had shattered and the direction indicator was broken, the driver was not called to give evidence.

Togged out in their Sunday best Britsih Legion members pose
for the Post photographer.

On a jollier note there was a picture and a report of the annual dinner of the rapidly expanding Fishponds Branch of the British Legion. Attended by some 250 people, it was held at the Cadena Cafe in Wine Street.

Staid guests at the Gloucestershire Hussars’ Ball

Another grand social event was happening at the Berkeley Cafe in Clifton. The paper hailed the ‘Glo’shire Hussars’ Gay Function’ as ‘one of the most brilliant social events of the West dancing season.’

The 300 in attendance were treated to the music of the band of the 12th Royal Lancers (Prince of Wales Own) who had just returned from a tour of duty in Egypt.

Military folk and their families were joined by members of the Berkeley Hunt. By all accounts it was a colourful affair, and a ‘decided novelty was the fanfare of trumpets, otherwise the Cavalry Call, at 11 o’clock to announce the arrival of supper’.

By contrast, back in Fishponds one social club was looking for someone to teach five men how to play the piano accordion, and a reveller from Tudor Road in Easton was looking for a black velvet cape lost between the Fishponds Lido and the White Swan on the previous Saturday. The following Sunday Fishponds Wheelers Cycling Club were planning an outing to Seend in Wiltshire.

Two young women trying their hand at Winford Forge.
There were blacksmiths aplenty in those days

The paper also paid tribute to 87-year-old William Eacott said to be the oldest working blacksmith in England. He had lived in the same cottage in the North Somerset village of Cleeve for 60 years, attending the local chapel “twice neary every Sunday”. He recalled being given a penny for remembersing his five Ps – Piety, Patience, Perseverance, Punctuality, Politeness – while walking three of four miles each way to school in Wickwar as a lad.

Apprenticed to a blacksmith at 15 he made nuts, bolts, door and gate irons, and put in some overtime making spiked nails. He would later design and make wrought Iron gates and ploughs. He did not bemoan the arrival of machines that could take on work he had to do with sledge hammers weighing up to 20 lbs and more.

The only injury he had sustained, despite being accidentally thrown off of a cart 11 times, was a broken collar bone. “That is the only illness I ever had in my life,” he said. “As long as I keep on working I feel quite all right.”

Those intent on going out at the weekend there was plenty to choose from. It was pantomime time with ‘Dick Whittington’ at the Prince’s Theatre, and ‘Jack and Jill’ at the Theatre Royal. Colston Hall’s Little Theatre had ‘The Lake’.

Amateur dramatics were all the rage. The paper previewed Bristol Amateur Operatic Society’s upcoming production of ‘The Desert Song’. A review of ‘The Geisha’ spoke of the ‘highly creditable work’ of Bristol Light Opera Club, but there was high praise for the all-girls pantomime ‘Robinson Crusoe’ put on by Taylor’s Dramatic Society, ‘the cleverest and prettiest show of its kind’ ever seen in Bristol.

The Brislington Players (Operatic Section) meanwhile were performing ‘Virginia’, and Bishop Road Higher Institute Operatic Society planned a change of cast for the main roles in their two performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado’ at the YMCA.

Bristol Co-operative Players had a success on their hands with A.A. Milne’s ‘Mr Pim Passes By’, and rehearsals were going well for the Jewish Literary Players’ upcoming production of John Van Druten’s West End hit ‘London Wall’.

The Kingsley Dramatic Society were putting on three one act comedies in Kingsley Hall, Old Market. And St Brendan’s College was working on a new production, ‘The King’s Men at Stratford’ based on Shakepeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ following their earlier success with ‘Queen Elizabeth Comes to Bristol’.

And film fans were not short of choice. Back then Bristol boasted at least 25 cinemas, all showing different double bills, except The Kings and Whiteladies Cinemas – which were showing John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in the comedy ’20th Century’ and a crime caper ‘Among the Missing’ – and The Vandyke in Fishponds. Its main feature was the crime thriller ‘What Happened Then’ but the ‘B’ movie ‘The Romantic Age’ also had top billing at The Park cinema.

There were plenty of rom coms – Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette Macdonald in ‘The Merry Widow’ at the Regent; Jack Oakie and Ginger Rogers in ‘Sitting Pretty’ at the Metropole; William Powell and Myrna Loy in ‘The Thin Man’ at the Bishopston Premier; and a double bill at the Stoll Picture Theatre and Cafe – Winifred Shotter in ‘Lilies of the Field’, and Charles Farrell and Mary Lawson in ‘Falling in Love’.

For comedy there was Will Hay and Lily Morris in ‘Those Were the Days’ at the Eastville Hippodrome. The Bristol Hippodrome, then functioning as a cinema was advertising three films in ‘An all “U” programme. Children admitted without adults.’ Top of the bill was a rather creepy comedy ‘The Last Gentleman’ with George Amiss, along with ‘Lucky Dogs’ and the utterly bizarre ‘Mickey’s Steam Roller’ (see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbjFKRwxezU)

At the Embassy, on a double bill with another rom com ‘Servants Entrance’, was the thriller ‘Forbidden Territory’ based on a Dennis Wheatley novel about an attempt to rescue a prisoner in Soviet Russia. I doubt ‘Electrosila’, who lauded the achievements of the Soviet government on the Letters Page, would have watched it.

There was ice skating and roller skating to go to and plenty of dances. Harry Weston and his Orchestra were playing at a Select Dance for the East Bristol Cricket Club in St Mary’s Parish Hall, Fishponds, and Freddie Williamson and his Ambassadors were providing the music at the Alcove Lido. The Stapleton Sports Dance was on at St Thomas Parish Hall. St Chad’s in Whitehall was hosting an Old Time Dance, and the British Legion had a Carnival Dance in Frenchay Village Hall.

The Provident Ball Room had dances on Saturday and Sunday and applications were opening for the 1935 West of England Ballroom Championships. The Lockier-Grosvenor Sextet were putting on a Pop concert at the Colston Little Theatre, and the Broadway Melody Makers were performing at Stapleton Memorial Hall.

Those preferring fresh air might have enjoyed the nostalgic account of a walk across Purdown from Horfield. It mentioned the loss of a beech wood cut down to make rifle stocks during the Crimean War, and reminded readers of a time when there were no ‘tea houses’ to take refreshments. Instead cottages would advertise ‘hot water supplied’ to let walkers know the they could picnic in the garden and borrow cups.

The walker also referred to the establishment of the Stoke Park Colony for people with mental impairments at the base of the hill ‘an admirable site for such an institution’, and to the expansion of the Mental Hospital and Poor Law Institution.

The big political meeting of the day was to be at the Colston Hall that Friday evening. Winston Churchill MP, then Chancellor of Bristol University, had arrived by train,brandishing his trademark cigar, to address an India Defence League meeting opposing Indian independence. Tickets were on sale from 6 pence (less that 3p) to 2/6d (12.5p). Churchill woud return to London on the 11:15 train that night. On the Leader page of the paper an anonymous ‘Student of Politics’ outlined the strengths and shortcomings of the massive Governement of India Bill then before the Commons. All the newspapers of the day were full of it, as the Evening Post revealed in its Press roundup. Once it became law the Bill would have extraordinary repercussions for the sub-continent but was designed to keep Britain firmly in control of its Empire.

Meanwhile on the Sports Pages, Bristol City were off to a Cup Tie with Portsmouth at Fratton Park and the Evening Post and GWR had organised return train tickets at only 5 shilling and 6 pence (just over 26p). Bristol Rugby were at home to Newport and anxious to avenge an away defeat. The weekend fixtures of every conceivable amateur football, rugby and hockey team were listed, along with all the greyhounds racing at the Eastville Stadium that night.

In the second Test Match in Port of Spain, Learie Constantine had amassed 90 runs in the West Indies’ first inninings of total of 302. England had been 15 for 1 at close of play, and would go on to lose both the match and the series.

Advert on the Entertainments page

Elsewhere in the paper there was plenty of evidence that things were tough for the poor. Bristol Trades Council were exercised about the impact of the 1934 Unemployment Act which was reducing benefits to families.

A conference to plan action was proposed, and the Trades Council gave its backing to a campaign by the Actors Equity Association.

The Bristol Public Assistance Committee (BPAC) reported that 3,303 unemployed people were eligible for help, up by 200 on the December figures. In addition, relief was granted to ‘indoor poor, 2,033; ‘outdoor poor, 8,490; lunatics, 1,029’, up by almost 4,000 on the same week in 1934. But Edwin John Fisher of 10 Barton Street, Barton Hill was fined £2, with the option of 21 days in prison, for wrongfully obtaining £20 from the BPAC after falsely declaring that his son was out of work.

Free food – a familar sight, then as now

The BPAC voted to give 4 ounces of sweets each week to the children in its care, and the Central Hall Mission Christmas Cheer Fund money was used to provide tea and entertainment for 200 men living in Bristol’s common lodging houses.

And tucked away on the back page, with a delicious touch of irony, the Evening Post offered a cautionary tale about a local newspaper seller short of cash. Frederick Fry (18) of Bedminster Down, was up in court for purloining receipts ‘from the sale of newspapers entrusted to him’.

‘Det.-Inspector Griffiths said Fry really needed discipline.

The chairman, Sir Sidney Humphries, said Fry seemed really out of hand, and was on the way to being a really bad lad.’

Fry was sent to the Young Prisoners Class for six months.

The back page also told us that the TUC had been lobbying the Conservative Minister of Labour Oliver Stanley, for a 40-hour week and the Minister had met with the Confederation of Employers that very day. He had told the unions he was anxious to reach a voluntary agreement rather than to impose limits on the working week. Ten years later the aristocratic Stanley would represent Bristol West in Parliament after a wartime stint as Secretary of State for the Colonies.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.


  1. Great fun reading this Mike, even enjoyed the Mickey Mouse film – amazing what the cartoonists were able to do without the help of digital tools.

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