Saturday, 23 June 2012

Tales of War and Conflict - Clifton Town, opera by John Humphreys (Part I of IV)

Poster from 1988, when "Clifton Town" was staged
at the Bristol Old Vic

My partner John Humphreys, a civil engineer by profession but a musical composer by choice, wrote an opera some years ago when he became interested in a particular period of Bristol history – that of the riots of 1831, which involved Clifton, a well-to-do suburb of Bristol.  The carefully researched episode was interwoven with the story of a fictitious family – Bert, Bess, Sarah, little Acorn, the Trooper - the rest were all real people, with the added contribution of probably the greatest civil engineer of his time, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859). 

The great man was living in Bristol at the time of the Bristol riots, overseeing the building of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, one of the city’s most famous features. 

In fact, the construction of the bridge was halted as a result of the unrest, and did not recommence for a further five years.  Brunel was made special constable during the violence, and as John will tell, it is perfectly possible that he would have known a character such as Bert, and heard his story.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

What this tale cannot tell you is how beautiful the music is, how catchy the songs. It was staged in its final form in 1988 at the Bristol Old Vic, and I’ve lost count of the number of times when people have told us how they remembered the tunes and which their favourite was.  The musicians in particular remember it with affection; many have approached John over the years to tell him and have entered the details on their curriculum/ resume.  It is alas an expensive proposition to stage an amateur work without sponsorship, no matter how worthy, and it has not been possible to do so again.  Even the recording made at the time was not of the best quality, or I would upload it here for you to listen to as you read the story.  Another sad fact, my passion for photography had not made its appearance yet, and the photos taken by someone else have long since been lost.

A brief bit of history is necessary for you to follow the rest, please bear with me:

The Great Reform Bill of 1831 met with much opposition from MPs (Members of Parliament), the wealthy and the influential, because it was aimed at getting rid of the rotten boroughs and giving Britain’s fast growing towns – such as Bristol – greater representation in the House of Commons. Rotten Boroughs were non-existent towns – they had once existed and for one reason or another had disappeared, and yet they had retained parliamentary representation.  These historical anomalies enabled MPs to have undue influence in political matters, and to enjoy the benefits, including votes to which they should not have been entitled.  They acquired these constituencies simply by purchasing them.  Sir Charles Wetherell who is prominent in this story, was one such MP.

Sir Charles Wetherell MP, Bristol Magistrate and Recorder
“…half mad, eccentric, ingenious…a coarse, vulgar mind, delighting in ribaldry and abuse …” He was rich and a bigot. He was fired from his cabinet post in the Duke of Wellington’s government because he refused to support the de-criminalization of Catholicism. And when the government moved to reform the stifling limitations on suffrage in Britain, he opposed that, too. A colleague noted, “…no one spoke more than Sir Charles Wetherell; often to no good purpose.” Sir Robert Peel watched his performance in the House of Commons and was not impressed. “This Wetherell unbuttoned his braces (suspenders) when he began to speak, and put his hands into the waistband of his breeches…Horace Twiss said he was very mad, and had but one brief lucid interval, which was between his breeches and waistcoat.”

Wetherell’s constituency was a non-existent town in Yorkshire, but he was a Bristol magistrate and also Recorder of Bristol, a role which gave him the power of life and death in Bristol courts.  He was naturally against the Reform Bill and was noted as having made more than 60 speeches in the House of Commons against the Bill in 1831 alone.  He was in the habit of claiming to speak on behalf of the people of Bristol, which infuriated the citizens. 

Clifton Town
(The Bristol Riots of 1831)

Cast of Characters:

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Civil Engineer
Sir Charles Wetherell, Magistrate and Recorder of Bristol
Colonel Thomas Brereton, Principal Recruiting Officer, Bristol
The Bishop of Bristol
Charles Pinney, the Mayor of Bristol
Bert, the common man
Bess, his common-law wife
Sarah, their daughter
Billy, or little Acorn, her son
The Trooper, Sarah’s beau
Seamus Trubble, a rabble-rouser
Part I

Bristol Gaol, Cumberland Rd (contemporary plans)

All that is left today - the gate

At the beginning of the story of Clifton Town, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was visiting Bert in Bristol gaol one evening to hear and record his story.  He soliloquised first...


In Clifton Town: no dashing heroes in our story
No tales of glory
No mighty battles for a victor’s crown;
In Clifton Town, a single page of history laid before you,
Played in life as on the stage
By ordinary people living simple, ordinary lives;
Walking, talking, falling in love in the ordinary way.
Their hearts beat just as your hearts;
Their lives you are living today,
Fostering the same illusion (a common delusion)
That ordinary folk are always peaceful
And like to be peaceful,
As ordinary people quite frequently do!

Fact and fancy here on view: judge then, if you are able
Which the stranger, fact or fable,
It matters little now because such things don’t happen to
Such folk as you,
Yet they were ordinary people living ordinary lives;
They dreamed, as you have daydreamed,
And as you are dreaming.
They wander once again down there in Clifton,
As you may have wandered -
Just ordinary people, no stranger than you –
No stranger than you!


What tales you’ll have to tell of Clifton Town!
It seems an age ago that I was free...
I want the world to know
What happened here to me;
Oh say you’ll write it down, this strange, sad tale
Of simple folk you met in Clifton Town...


It will be told, my friend, no doubt, one day;
And people in the end will shake their heads and say
“Must Fortune ever frown
On simple harmless folk, like those who spoke
And laughed with me down there in Clifton Town?”

Many years before Bert had met Bess... 

This pair produced an only child, christened in the name of Sarah.
Fortune on the baby smiled – never was a daughter fairer!
Radiant as a fairy queen, sweet as nectar, brought up nicely;
Fell in love at seventeen, loved too well but none too wisely.

Young lovers in the buds of spring,
The summer’s flowers perceiving,
Too soon, alas, may taste the fruits
That bring the pain of winter’s grieving...
The seed of love no sooner sown
(No golden ring her hand adorning)
Her love set sail next morning.
A ship is lost at sea; while fathers drown
A child is born in
Clifton Town...

Yet Sarah re-built her life...

Time passes; a dozen years or so of wistfully sighing,
Her child of love a lonely mother’s only treasure.
Until one day, the bitter tears of May
September sunshine wipes away, and strange to say,
Cupid’s once again at play in some small measure:
A young dragoon; an autumn afternoon;
A heart no longer quite immune
To warm, romantic pleasure...

So:  here’s the poor man in his cell;
Here’s the Bess for whom he fell;
Here’s the lass who loved too well;
Trooper bold beneath her spell;
Now the Introduction’s done,
Come back just half a year or so,
Just six unhappy months ago,
Back to October...


We now go back in time to when Bert was free. 

Friday October 28th 1831. 

Bristol Downs

It was a fine, crisp, autumn morning, and on the Downs Bert’s daughter Sarah was suggesting to her trooper that they visit Clifton Town...


In Clifton Town all kinds of people
Gather there and take the air,
Or simply stand and stare.
In Clifton Town, there’s love and laughter everywhere...

Down there in Clifton Town
Rich folks and gentle folks (titles a plenty!)
Treading a measure, taking their leisure;
Dressed in the very latest of fashion...
Uttering a merry message of greeting.

Young folk in love, meeting and wandering...
Old folk a-pondering memories of meeting!
Calm in the morning, bright in the evening,
Daytime is any time down there in Clifton!

Going to the Fair 
Painting by E V Rippingille


Rich folks and vain folks, taking their leisure
View with displeasure troopers and plain folks!
Dressed in the very latest of fashion,
They’ll not be wanting common young soldiers...
Dearly I’d love laughing and wondering...
Building up memories...
Memories of Clifton...


Down there in Clifton Town people are friendly.
They’ll not be spurning honest young soldiers.
Come down and see:
Meet me in Clifton, we’ll gather memories,
Memories of Clifton...
Smart in your uniform, I’ll join you proudly...


 ...I’ll join you proudly, we’ll go down,
We’ll be the fairest couple in the town
And folk will stare to see us there,
Down there,
In Clifton Town!

1988 Copyright John Humphreys.
Copying any part of John Humphreys' work is
expressly forbidden by copyright laws.


In Part II:  While Sarah  and the Trooper fall in love, discontent in the populace grows and flares out of control.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital album

Pictures of Bristol

View of the Portway into the city,
as seen from the Clifton Suspension Bridge,
winter evening

General view with marina on the left and
Rownham Mead flats/apartments

By the suspension bridge, a slippery slope
much beloved by children and very shiny from
millions of bottoms over the generations...

A shot taken at the Galleries -
I'm not sure what uniform they're wearing

A flower clinging to the steep precipice
around the suspension bridge

Evening in the docks with Totterdown in the background.
In 1831 Totterdown was where Wetherell first became aware
of the hostility towards him of the people of Bristol.

Go straight to Part Two


Tina said...

Truly beautiful photography. The opera sounds divine as well. Perhaps it could be staged with community historical funds or an arts grant? The story is very intriguing. I cannot wait for more :)


Lonicera said...

Wow, thank you Tina! I'm not sure how the libretto of an opera goes down with readers, but I so wanted to do it. (The music is so lovely, wish I could get people to hear it...).

OneStonedCrow said...

Interesting Caroline - obviously I've never heard of this piece of history ...

I'm so envious of people with musical talent - in my youth I had fantasies of being a Rock 'n Roll star but alas, ... I can barely tune a guitar ...

Great pics ... love your photo finish but I'm really intrigued by the image of Isambard Kingdom Brunel ... the size of those chains in the background! ... how on earth did they make them?

Coral Wild said...

How sad that the opera has only been staged once. Is it that difficult to try again?
I once knew a really really good rock musician but his work has never been made public. There is just so much musical talent out there that we never get to hear

I can't wait to read more of the story:)

I spent almost 2 years in Bristol, at the Poly (before it became UWE), and your beautiful photos bring back good memories.

Lonicera said...

Graham - well you LOOK like a hip rockstar... You didn't have to be musical anyway, you could have played the drums...?? (I never thought Ringo Starr could sing a note, and he didn't do too badly).

This is what it says under the pic of Brunel: "Isambard Kingdom Brunel by the launching chains of the Great Eastern
by Robert Howlett, 1857." The Great Eastern was a ship, so that's the size of chain you need to hold something as heavy...

Lonicera said...

Sue that's amazing - I didn't know you'd been at UWE for two years, you never mentioned it!! Quite a difference from the wild beauty that surrounds you now... I've been in Bristol since 1974, so I would have been here - probably living in Westbury-on-Trym then. Wot a small world...

John's opera is perfect for staging in Bristol if they had (say) a year of celebrating their history, and if we could interest the cultural person on the Council. I haven't discarded the idea, but no body (as in organisation) has any money these days.

Coral Wild said...

Hi Caroline, well it is such a small world we certainly may have crossed paths.
I was at Bristol Poly (the "new" campus) from '77 to '79. Tho we spent the summer term at Seale Hayne Agricultural College in Devon both years.
My first winter was memorable. I had never seen snow before and in Feb '78 Bristol had the heaviest snow in 18 years - do you remember?
I got rolled in it many times by my college "friends"!!

Lonicera said...

Certainly do remember - I was married in '77 (no longer) and lived in Henleaze then. My parents came to visit me the winter of '78 and spent all their time shovelling snow! (being from a warm climate they found it exciting).
First time I ever saw snow was on my first visit to Europe in 1973 when it was snowing on the site of Waterloo, in Belgium. Fascinated I scooped some up and immediately dropped it in shock, I hadn't expected it to be so cold! Doh...
UWE has a high profile these days, and is much involved with the University and Southmead Hospital on research issues. Let me know if you ever come re-visiting old haunts - would love to meet you.

Coral Wild said...

Thanks Caroline.
When I ever get back to visit the UK (it is such a mission nowadays with the visa's we have to get this side) I will definitely put Bristol on my list - haven't been back to the West Country since '79!

Joyful said...

Nice post Caroline. I enjoyed the story line and the photos. It's too bad that the Opera has only been staged once. I wish I could hear the music.

Anonymous said...

Lovely photographs and beautiful presentation, Caroline. Brought back good memories, not least us all with mutton chop whiskers ! I still have my original score and recording.

Lonicera said...

Thank you - whoever you are! Wish you had identified yourself, and John will be saying 'wish I knew who it was' over and over till he drives me mad! I'd love to know what part you played, and if the quality of your recording is any good. Ours is poor, and I'd so like to make a good copy of it.
Thanks a lot for the comment!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Caroline - try again! You may remember I worked with John at MRM and was also a member of the chorus. I have the score and the programme and I think a taped copy though not sure whether the quality will be any better than you already have. It would be great to hear your news.

best wishes


Anonymous said...

Sorry still can't seem to do this right. Anyway it's Bill Finlinson!

Lonicera said...

Hi Bill!! Of course I remember you! And I remember the mutton chop whiskers you wore and singing "You can't blame me" and "we're all sitting pretty". I wish I had been interested in photography then. John delighted by your comment and hopes you and your family are all well. He's found it very touching over the years how musicians and singers alike remember being in Clifton Town, and will come up to him if they see him, and tell him how much they enjoyed it. Thanks again for the comment!

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