Looking backwards to royal days

Happenstance brought some telling tales of yesteryear to the surface just as public funds were being lavished on an extravagant spectacle

Another dusty batch of old newspapers has emerged from a clear out at Glenside Hospital Museum.

In a January 1976 edition of the Daily Mirror, gossip columnist Paul Callan offered photographic evidence that Michael York’s role as a lascivious prince in Seven Nights in Japan was modelled on Prince Charles. The film’s director Lewis Gilbert hoped the prince would see it. “I think he would get the joke,” he said. 

At the time Harold Wilson’s Labour government were hoping to create new job opportunities for young people by putting £400,000 into a Community Service Volunteers scheme in Sunderland. The pilot would guarantee youngsters £25 a week and on-the-job training for helping out in hospitals, schools, and playgroups, in the hope it would give them ideas for future careers. In those days only one in ten employers said they planned to increase their workforce, though consultants Manpower were predicting a fall off in redundancies.

A year later, claiming a daily readership of 400,000, the Bristol Evening Post ran a ‘Royal Talkabout’ supplement in its 8 August 1977 edition. The four-pager recorded the queen’s visit to Portbury where she opened the new West Dock four days earlier. Her great-grandfather Edward VII had done the honours for the Avonmouth Docks in 1908. 

The royal entourage then visited Filton High School, before taking a walkabout in a barely recognisable city centre. Thirteen-year old Prince Edward was in the royal landau, but his older brother Andrew missed trip as he was ‘staying on board the royal yacht with a heavy cold.’

All the while church bells were being rung throughout city. Campanologist William Coles, 72, from Mayfield Road, Fishponds explained “Years ago if the bells were not rung when the monarch passed by, the church wardens had to pay a heavy fine. Whether that still happens, I don’t know.” 

There were plenty of opportunities to cash in on the occasion. Williams’ Big S in Fishponds Lodge Causeway had a ‘Sovereign Sale’ offering 50% of Milady Kitchens complete with gold trim. There was 30% off on Bermuda Gas Boilers at £111.77, but their coloured bathroom suites at £76.52 did not include taps. Over in Bedminster, Supergas Ltd were offering mobile gas heaters with ‘slightly damaged cabinets’ for the special price of £38 plus VAT, then 12.5%.

The paper proper splashed news of a ‘Secret Boost for Troops in Ulster’. Yet the story somewhat oddly said 500 Scots Guards had been flown to the province ‘amid a fanfare of publicity’ ahead of an upcoming visit by the queen. Alongside it a companion story told of the plight of 18-year-old Trooper Laurence Bardwell from Weston-super-Mare who had been hospitalised after being shot by an IRA sniper.

There were plenty of films on that summer for the kids. The Gaiety on Wells Road had a Disney bonanza with 101 Dalmatians, Ride a Wild Pony, The Treasure of Matecumbe, Wind in the Willows, Freaky Friday, and Shaggy DA.

The various ABCs had The Eagle Has Landed and Are You Being Served? and the Europa in Lower Castle Street was showing Bambi and The Strongest Man in the World

Meanwhile there was plenty of raunchy entertainment for adults. The members only Europa Cine Cub was screening Banging in Bankok and Dirty Tricks, and there were more X-rated films at Studios 1, 2, 3 & 4 in Broadmead shopping centre including Erotic Eva, Sex Rally, Sex after Six, and Fiona Richmond in Expose, alongside Taxi Driver and Confessions of a Driving Instructor

By strange coincidence Bristol’s Hippodrome was also advertising ‘adults only’ fare – Robin Askwith in The Further Confessions of a Window Cleaner was set to follow Victor Spinetti’s Duty Free. At the Bristol Old Vic patrons had to make do with a Feydeau farce, The Birdwatcher.

On the sports pages we learned that Bristol Rovers, fresh from a 3:1 defeat by Bristol City were facing a double blow. Their goalie Jim Eadie announced he could be out of action for three months. He needed an operation on his back after an injury sustained during the Rovers’ June tour of America. Manager Don Megson said 17-year-old Martin Thomas would step up for the Rovers’ mid-week Anglo-Scottish Cup match against Birmingham City.

Next out of the bag of yellowing newspapers came a 1985 Gazette Guide to Bristol.

In it the late Professor Emeritus of Imperial History, C. M. Macinnes reminded readers that the only reference to the city before the Battle of Hastings in 1066 was when Bishop Wulfstan, favourite of King Ethelred the Unready (966-1016), had berated Bristolians for their involvement in the slave trade with Ireland. 

The good professor went on to to tell more of the city’s royal connections. After William the Conqueror seized the throne, the Normans trekked west and established an island fortress on what is now Castle Park. Bristol’s importance as a major trading centre was assured when the river Frome was later rerouted to join the Avon at Canons Marsh. For centuries, traders and explorers brought the city fortunes and infamy, not least in the transatlantic slave trade.

In 1552, a year before he died, 15-year-old Edward VI, Britain’s first Protestant king, granted the Society of Merchant Venturers a Royal Charter. It was a licence to fill their coffers with the proceeds of lucrative expeditions. Exploiting their links with Pennsylvania and Virginia they took up the tobacco trade, turning to smuggling when King Charles I tried to make it a London monopoly. 

They took a similarly rebellious attitude when London also sought to keep the hideous trade in African slaves to itself, excluding other British ports. Exchanging guns, booze and shackles for men and women in West Africa who would be sold into slavery if they survived the treacherous journey to the Caribbean, Bristol merchants got rich on the return cargoes of molasses, sugar, rum, dyes and tobacco. 

To protect their investments they remained neutral in the English Civil War, but were unable to prevent Cromwell’s troops from taking the city in 1642. The Royalists stormed Bristol but were forced to surrender when the Roundheads twice laid siege to the city. At the time the forces of King Charles I in the west were ostensibly under the command of his 15-year-old son, the Prince of Wales, who would later become King Charles II after the restoration of the monarchy.

Bristol merchants also financed privateers, or pirates, like Woodes Rogers who famously rescued Andrew Selkirk from a desert island in 1709, the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

In 1713 Rogers was sent to buy slaves from Madagascar, where he convinced pirates to petition Queen Anne for clemency. The notorious buccaneer would himself receive a ‘Kings Pardon’ in 1718 from George I, who granted him a pension and made him Governor of the Bahamas, a position to which he was reappointed by George II in 1728 despite a tumultuous first term and subsequent bankruptcy.

But by the time George III had signed the Bristol Dock Act in 1803, the city’s fortunes were in decline. A collaboration between the Venturers and the city Corporation to build the floating harbour was designed to herald a new age of prosperity, but the management, harbour charges and finances of the Bristol Dock Company put Bristol at a disadvantage during Victoria’s reign. Even Brunel, hired to advise over silting and sewage in the harbour, found them unhelpful over his SS Great Western, the world’s biggest paddle steamer, and the better known enormous SS Great Britain. The company’s intransigence resulted in both ships operating from elsewhere.

The Gazette‘s back page headed ‘Shopping with confidence’ promoted Bristol’s pedestrianised Broadmead Shopping Centre. Part of the city’s post-war reconstruction after the Blitz it had once been a dank, marshy area known as Irish mede in medieval times where poor labourers lived. An advert listed 13 firms committed to being more helpful to customers, especially the elderly and frail. BHS, Boots, British Telecom, C&A, Currys, Debenhams, John Kent Menswear, Littlewoods, Marks & Spencer, Mothercare, W.H. Smith, Timpson, and Woolworth were household names for generations, but few of them still function in shopping centres anywhere.

The Gardiner Haskins’ store, now also a shadow of its former self, splashed out on a double page advert promoting its Easter 1985 Spring Spectacular sale. Washing machines were on offer for less than £200, a hoover-mower for under £40, a full-size Silentnight divan for £129.95, and a G-plan 3-piece for £638. Petrol in those days had just topped £2 a gallon.

All a far cry from today’s prices and a UK of charity shops and food banks, where a man with an estimated personal fortune of £1.8 billion expects the public to cough upon some £100 million on his coronation at the height of a cost of living crisis.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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