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'Saints, Crooks & Slavers' - how to be a house detective!

Peter and Sue Cullimore, long time fans of the Lit & Phil,  recently had their house in Bristol shortlisted for the BBC's A House Through Time.  They were so inspired that they penned their own not-for-profit book ‘Saints, Crooks & Slavers’ which also offers guidance for readers on how to explore the past of their own home. It is thought to be the first book of its kind.

 

As a sort of guest Geordie by marriage, I’ve been visiting Newcastle for 40 years, to see the in-laws from my home in Bristol. But they lived at Ryton, and preferred the countryside. I never got to know the city centre well until the past decade, when they were in a care home on the West Road.

Sadly, my wife Sue’s parents have now both passed away, her mother earlier this year just before the pandemic. But regularly for years, Sue or both of us would travel up from Bristol, stay at Sleeperz hotel, almost next door to the Lit and Phil, and get a bus to the care home.

I always loved the journey on the top deck, past St James’ Park, then further up via an ethnically diverse area thronging with busy shops and street life. I never realised that just off there stood a quiet and leafy enclave that included 5 Ravensworth Terrace. It was the address chosen for the Newcastle series of the BBC’s popular history programme, ‘A House Through Time’, in 2019.

I was glued to every episode, with the Gateshead-born David Olusoga as its charismatic presenter. But I did wonder about the other old houses around Newcastle. Some of them must have also have been in the frame for selection as the chosen one. What tales did they have to tell about past residents? We may never know. But I would be very surprised if their present occupiers have not since done some research of their own to find out.

Funny I should say that. About the same time, back in Bristol, a flyer was pushed through our door inviting us to submit our house as a candidate for the next series. Wow! Since 1986, Sue and I have lived in the Montpelier area of Bristol, which is full of early 19th century, or older, properties.

Ours, 60 Fairfield Road, is one of the oldest, but exactly when it was built remained a mystery. All we knew is that, according to our crumbling house deeds, a “ruinous cottage or hovel” stood on the site in 1812.

The producers of ‘A House Through Time’ asked us for all the information we had about the history of 60 Fairfield Road and who lived there before us. We knew of a few colourful names repeatedly mentioned in the deeds, like Shurmer Bath, Jacob Crook and Edward Bearpacker, but that was about all.

We forgot about it for a few months, until the series producer emailed us out of the blue to say 60 Fairfield Road was on their final shortlist, out of several dozen Bristol houses originally considered.

In the end, our home got pipped at the post by 10 Guinea Street, at Redcliffe near the city centre. ‘A House Through Time’ viewers will know that it proved a great choice, associated with dramatic tales of sea captains, piracy, the transatlantic slave trade and much besides. The Bristol series aired on BBC2 during the first national lockdown.

To be honest, we were quite relieved not to be on the telly after all. Apart from the intrusion of filming, we had been warned to expect sightseers, even people taking selfies outside our door! But we had the bare bones of some research findings from the selection process - and, as retirees, plenty of time on our hands for research of our own. (I was a journalist, Sue a teacher and lecturer).

For months, with help from Sue and knowledgeable friends, I trawled through our deeds, then original documents, trade directories and many other resources. These were available from our local public Archives and Central Library, plus numerous websites.

I wrote it up along the way - and realised eventually we had enough material for a book. We came across a whole array of fascinating historical characters, all now forgotten, associated with 60 Fairfield Road since the 1700s.

They include: a Quaker businessman and philanthropist, who twice married into slave-owning families and went bankrupt trying to build our house; a shady French aristocrat pretending to be English, whose parents were both guillotined in the 1789 Revolution; two sisters who ran early charity schools in their own home, for girls; a 13-year-old maidservant who later emigrated to Canada, to escape a life of poverty in Bristol.

Sue then used her core research skills from a career in academia to add our own detailed guidance for other people on how to explore the past of their own home. These tips, in separate boxes at the end of each chapter, were checked for accuracy by the head of Bristol Archives.

The result is ‘Saints, Crooks & Slavers’. Our non-profit book was inspired by ‘A House Through Time’, and 60 Fairfield Road almost becoming it. On screen, David Olusoga, another Geordie now living in Bristol, has often urged viewers to do their own house history research. We did just that. But as far as I know, ours is the first book to emerge from the current residents, rather than written by a professional historian or archivist.

Obviously, I hope people in the North East will buy our book. It tells you exactly how to go about exploring the past of your own home, wherever that may be. It doesn’t have to be a Georgian gem, or where Bessie Surtees eloped from, to be interesting. I’ve walked past loads of old houses around the Newcastle area, built in the 19th or early 20th century that must have secrets to yield if you can prise them out.

Why not have a go, and tell the Lit and Phil what you discover? Believe me, if we can do it, plenty of others can too. It was a steep learning curve for us, and as a retirement hobby very time-consuming and quite addictive, but also a lot of fun.

If you’ve already caught the bug from ‘A House Through Time’ and Olusoga in Newcastle, perhaps you found out about previous residents of where you live now, but haven’t told anybody. The Lit and Phil would love to hear from you, too.

After all, when you’re stuck at home because of Covid, you might as well get stuck into exploring its history!

‘Saints, Crooks & Slavers’ costs £12 and is published on a non-profit basis by Bristol Books (ISBN: 9781909446243). You can order a copy from any independent bookshop, or from the publisher via their website https://www.bristolbooks.org/ It’s also available directly from the authors by emailing petercullimore@blueyonder.co.uk. We will post the book to you.

If you would like to tell us about your own investigations or would like us to put you in touch with other keen social historians from among our membership, please email: library@litandphil.org.uk

 

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