History floods Bristol today. No longer contained in museums and archives it flows on the streets, in the news and in our political discourse.
Caught in the swell of competing narratives vying for control over our understanding of the past, it is easy to feel overwhelmed.
We can be thankful, then, to Bristol Radical History Group who, since 2006, have attempted to chart a course through the tempestuous waters of Bristol’s past.
After a two-year Covid hiatus the BRHG’s Radical History Festival returns on May 14 for a day of exploration of our city’s hidden histories. The Festival, BRHG’s fourth, promises a packed schedule of talks, walks, workshops and exhibitions hosted by M-Shed.
BRHG co-founder Roger Ball said he wants people to come away from the festival saying “Blimey, I didn’t know that”, and to follow that up by asking “why didn’t I know that?”
The histories we are taught in school come in two varieties. There is the establishment history which glorifies the Empire and which continues to ‘obscure and distort’ history, and which a lot of people want to defend, said Roger.
Then there is the “social democratic” narrative of history which takes an equally rosy view of history, failing to address the divisions that exist within progressive movements. Roger gives the example of how some Suffragettes went on to join fascist parties. A dark side to the traditional picture which many liberals would rather ignore.
This year’s Radical History Festival is split into two themes. State and private surveillance of labour and social movements (1792 to now) explores how from the French Revolution to surveillance of the Black Panthers to today’s Spycops scandal the State has attempted to monitor and suppress radical movements.
Meanwhile, hidden histories of post-war Britain (1945-51) delves into campaigns for social reform and civil rights after the war, and explains how these were the product of popular movements rather than the much-celebrated Labour government of the time.
Roger will give a talk on this second theme looking at resistance to personal ID cards after the War. A true example of a hidden history, Roger’s talk tells of Clarence Wilkins, who fought against compulsory ID cards in court and captured public dissent against the unpopular cards, which were tied to rationing. With a popular movement behind him Wilkins eventually won the political support which brought them to an end.
The talk leads to discussion of the state of police monitoring today, where ID cards are replaced by techniques like forced biometric fingerprinting.
Roger’s personal recommendation for the festival is “A Black Life Lived Large” by Colin Prescod, Chair of the Council of the Institute of Race Relations. Told through the story of his mother, Pearl Prescod, Colin challenges the prevailing narrative of the Windrush generation as idealistic migrants politicised by racism. The reality is that many of those who came to the UK did so already armed with radical political and anti-colonialist ideas.
Connecting past and present is a key aim of the festival, Roger said. The standout example is the toppling of Colston which was the culmination of over a century of dissent over not only the statue but the culture of veneration surrounding the slave trader.. A history walk led by members of Countering Colston will look at the campaigning that took place in the years leading up to the statue being thrown in the harbour.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the discontinuities, such as how some historical events are remembered and others forgotten. The Kill The Bill riots of last March continue to make news today, but the Hartcliffe riot of 1992, after two people were killed by police, and the Broadbury Road riot of 1998 are largely overlooked.
Another discontinuity is apparent at M-Shed, where this week a new display launches charting Bristol’s history of disability activism and the struggle for equal rights. This returns us to the driving question: why didn’t I know this before?
Bristol Radical History Group is a volunteer-run and volunteer-led organisation that started with the aim of putting on history-focussed events and became more research-oriented over time, welcoming new members of all levels of experience along the way.
Roger said: ‘Most of us are not so-called professional historians, but I never really believed that is a dividing line anyway. I think people can learn how to do research and writing and speaking, we’ve always encouraged that.’
The Festival, Roger says, is open to all and free of charge. Anyone with an interest in history, whether family trees or political revolutions, and anyone who simply wants to know more about Bristol’s radical past will find a place at the Radical History Festival.
Full event information for the Radical History Festival can be found at the Bristol Radical History Group website.