Everyone has a story to tell, some have more than one!
Anyone visiting Bristol’s Glenside Hospital Museum will notice an elderly gent in a flat cap ensconced in the Information Booth opposite the entrance.
This is the redoubtable John Pimm, very much a part of the place. He has researched and written about the history of the bright yellow ‘Dower House’, on nearby Purdown, visible to anyone using the M32 into or out of Bristol.
Now luxury flats, it was once part of the Stoke Park Colony for Mentally Defective Children, set up by the Reverend Harold Nelson Burden and his wife Katherine in 1909. Later they would establish the National Institutions for Persons Requiring Care and Control (NIPRCC) and after Katherine died in 1919, Burden ran Stoke Park with his second wife, the former matron Rosa Williams, from 1920 until his death ten years later.
The place became Stoke Park Hospital on the formation of the National Health Service in 1948, and John worked there as a driver. He would later compile the museum’s exhibit about it. But engage John in conversation and you will discover his interests extend far wider.
He has his own theory about Oliver Cromwell’s visit to nearby Stapleton to plan the siege of Bristol during the Civil War. Then England’s second largest city, Bristol had been recaptured from the Roundheads in 1643, by Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of the ill-fated King Charles I. Prince Rupert was to surrender the city within three weeks of the Parliamentarians’ siege.
The fact that a sword from the English Civil War period was found at Wickham Court off Blackberry Hill, just down the road from the museum, cuts no mustard with John.
He is sceptical that Lord Protector Cromwell held a council of war there with his Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Thomas Fairfax in September 1645.
“The horsemen of the New Model Army may well have watered their steeds at the River Frome nearby,” says John, “but I believe Cromwell and his Fairfax would have surveyed the scene from above at the Dower House.”
The house had been built I’m 1553 as a family home by Richard Berkeley before he was knighted for services to Queen Elizabeth I in 1568. His grandson Richard Berkeley would become the Gloucestershire MP in 1614, and was fined for supporting King Charles. He only regained control of his estates after a decision by the Committee for Compounding for the Estates of Royalists and Delinquents in 1652. All of which lends some credence to John’s theory.
A confirmed republican and bachelor, John likes to think he may be descended from Tavistock MP John Pym (1584 -1643). Pym was one of the five Members of Parliament King Charles sought to arrest when he stormed into the House of Commons in 1642, accusing them of treason. The five had wisely absented themselves. The remaining parliamentarians’ defiance of the king so weakened his authority that Civil War, the triumph of the Puritans, and the execution of the monarch became inevitable.
Charles’ incursion was what led to the convention of slamming of the door to the Commons in the face of Black Rod when the Sergeant-at-Arms at the Palace of Westminster is sent to summon MPs to hear the monarch’s speech at the start of each Parliament.
Born on 23 May 1939 John Pimm claims to share his birthday with Pym, and revels in the idea that he may be related to one of the men who brought about Britain’s parliamentary democracy.
He also recalls that his boyhood hero Kit Carson (1809 – 1868) died on 23 May. Brought up on cowboy comics portraying the fictional exploits of the Wild West trapper and frontiersman, John has traveled to New Mexico in search of the facts about Christopher Houston ‘Kit’ Carson.
“I wanted to know what he was really like,” explains John who is keen to rehabilitate a reputation sullied by claims that Carson was a ruthless killer of native Americans.
Born in 1809, one of 10 children, the young Carson quit school at 9 when his father died. He took work to help feed the family and was apprenticed to a saddle-maker, but aged 15 he ran off from the family home in Missouri and joined trappers and traders heading south.
Depending whose version of the truth you follow, Carson was responsible for the death of many ‘Red Indians’ but his first two wives were from the Arapaho and Cheyenne nations, and he won the respect of the Utes of Colorado when he served as an Indian agent. And, although illiterate, Carson spoke several First Nation languages.
In his years in the wilderness of the Wild West he would learn French and Spanish and the many skills that made his a revered ‘mountain man’ and guide. He took up with explorers and his exploits would be turned into legends by the ‘dime’ novelists, creating a ‘pulp fiction’ that turned Carson into a classic Wild West cowboy.
Carson’s skills were put to good use first of all in the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846 when settlers sought to create a Californian Republic on land then controlled by Mexico, and in the subsequent Mexican-American War (1846-48).
Carson joined the Office of Indian Affairs working as an Indian Agent, forming good relations with the Utes of Colorado among others. When the American Civil War (1861–65) broke out he joined up and commanded the First New Mexico Volunteer Regiment. Afterwards he was given the task of quelling uprisings amongst tribes who objected to the White man’s takeover of their territory.
Initially resistant, he eventually accepted the task of driving thousands of Navajos some 300 miles from Arizona to a ‘reservation’ in New Mexico. As a result he is remembered for the ‘Long Walk’ inflicted on them. The Navajos have not forgiven him for killing their livestock and destroying their crops and way of life.
John Pimm’s ambition is to visit them and apologise on Carson’s behalf. “We’ve got to let them live in their time, not ours,” he says. He had hoped this would be the year he fulfilled his ambition.
In 1868 Carson’s third wife Josefa died after giving birth their seventh child. Carson would follow her to the grave a month later.
A pacifist himself, Stapleton-born John Pimm resisted his call up for National Service, and went absent without leave (AWOL) several times.
Once he hid overnight at timber merchants John Randell & Son where he had been apprenticed. Another time he hid in a pit he’d dug beneath a bench in a workshop behind his family home. To avoid a patrolling policeman one night he ducked into the cart shed where the City Council kept snow ploughs. And, with help from two girl friends, he even bedded down in a room above The Old Tavern on Blackberry Hill, unbeknownst to his mother who worked there.
Caught and sent back over and over again to take his punishment he spent time in Shepton Mallet Prison, run by the military in the post-war period. The notorious East End gangsters the Kray brothers are alleged to have met their South London adversaries, Charlie Richardson and George Cornell in the Somerset clink when they also absconded during their National Service. The prison is now a privately-owned ‘heritage site’ with a sinister history spanning four centuries.
After his last AWOL escapade John was sent to Long Marston, near Stratford-on-Avon where he felt that the officer in charge, a Major Tierney respected his views. “I wanted to be a soldier, you didn’t,” he told the errant young man. Tierney allowed him to spend a Christmas at home, trusting him to return, and set John up as a staff driver. It was a move that would later help John get work at Stoke Park.
John has used his skills as a carpenter and calligrapher to help develop the Glenside Museum but he has always got time to share the results of a lifetime’s research, if you give him half a chance.
- *The Museum is open 10-1pm on Wednesday mornings and 10-4pm on Saturdays <www.glensidemuseum.org.uk>