Bridgwater History Day has now become a feature on the Town’s calendar and although this year we couldn’t do our regular get together in the Bridgwater Arts Centre, epaulette to shoulder with 100+ other local history buffs and the usual mad rush to grab a dish of some fine Medieval Potage, we still managed to recreate the atmosphere of a bunch of bumbling amateur history enthusiasts struggling with 17th century technology over a 21st century wifi set up. By which I mean we did it online. A film has been made of the 2 and a half hour proceedings and several of the items are already in you tube form….AND….they’re all here assembled on this very page for future generations to marvel at what passed for historical research and interpretation in 2020.
I went on the radio that morning (Saturday 28th November) to talk about History Day -and walked straight into Bridgwater’s latest claim to fame – a now viral video of the Mayor and Chair (Town and District) turning on the Christmas lights with a detonator. Sadly the lights came on behind them before they plunged. That’s it. The media seem to find it hilarious, so I proclaimed it ‘the Miracle of Bridgwater’ and ‘yet another first’. Then I talked about all Bridgwater’s other firsts – first town to petition against the Slave Trade, First town to vote against Appeasement, First town where under 21’s voted. And…we were ‘a town full of historians’. And with no shortage, each year there’s a mad rush of people with new ideas for things to unearth from our town’s past.
Cllr Glen Burrows, Eastover Councillor. member of the Civic Society and history enthusiast was given the job of being compere for the day. Often unaware of what people could see on their screens and operated from another computer by a team of experts (Andrew and Brian) . But we bounced through with the charm that befat the occasion.
Kicking the show off was the viral Mayor of Bridgwater cllr Leigh Redman who reminded us that Bridgwater has had a Mayor since 1469. John Kendale (who the road is named after) famous for the Medieval Christmas lights gaff where, in lighting the annual bonfire , accidentally lit up a barrel of pitch 20 seconds too soon and ignited several watching Witches which weren’t even due on stage for another hour. It made all the 15th century Wanderin’ Minstrel shows. Leigh himself described the show as “Premature illumination”.
Catch it here.
Sticking with the Medieval theme were heritage dudes Miles Kerr-Peterson and Tony Woolrich who showed their film about the original stone bridge, going to great lengths to explain it’s construction, the difficulties of anchoring it in the tidal river and telling the history through the 17th century civil war where it was adapted for siegeworks and the 18th century when it was finally dismantled – but not before being sketched by radical anti slavery councillor and artist John Chubb.
Bridgwater history is captured in it’s photos and drawings. Chubb sketched plentifully and his caricatures of people in 18th century Bridgwater sit alongside his impressions of the buildings of the day. Paul Bovett, present day Bridgwater resident, has been taking photos since the 1960’s and these now provide a recent snapshot of the towns feel not so very long ago. People and places long gone but still remembered fondly and identifiable to older citizens and now a delve into pre-history for todays generations. Paul’s slide show with notes was enhanced by some modern jazz music curtesy of Sonny Rollins and Cannonball Adderley.
Stop the Nazis!!
My own choice for this years show was the ‘Stop Line’. Most people knew that their was a line of world war two pillboxes along the local canal and river…..but maybe not why. And what i wanted to know was what would have happened if they had ever been needed. I dug up some secret facts with the help of military records enthusiast Richard Gaskell -awarded a medal by the Czech Government for his research into the world war 2 Czech military, Bristol historian and world war 2 enthusiast Eugene Byrne, who went to school in Bridgwater, and ex Royal Marine Officer Martin Grixoni who had accidentally role played the destruction of Highbridge in a long misunderstood alternative plan for the intervention in Bosnia. With such a top notch line up of advisors what could go wrong. So to make sure something did I re-wrote a George Formby song and played that.
Dave Chapple is Bridgwater’s leading socialist historian with a very well researched book already out about the 1926 General Strike and several more on the way now he’s retired as a postman. Dave’s subject this time was the Bridgwater and Taunton women’s shirt and collar workers strike of 1912. Delivered face to camera with no room for anything either side of head, chin or ears, you just had to concentrate and couldn’t be distracted.
Val Bannister chose to interpret Bridgwater history through a self written piece of imagined history called ‘Emelia’s story’. Fiction based on fact. Val spoke and acted straight to camera and captured the mood and period perfectly just through her words and voice. A story of the workhouse now demolished and only very recently replaced by a primary school.
Yvette Staelens is probably Somerset’s most famous natural voice singer. And so to prove this wasn’t a category limited to just one, she had researched others across the county. For her talk she’d settled on Bridgwater singer Susie Clark who lived during late Victorian and early Edwardian times and who caught the eye of Cecil Sharp and his team of researchers who were collecting folk songs from the mouths of ‘the people’. One such song was ‘The Press Gang’ which Susie sang and which Yvette herself had reinterpreted . And to cap off the presentation Yvette managed to recreate what would have happened if Susie had been put in a room full of laptops, headphones, you tubes and facebooks but in 1905. A perfect encapsulation …..
Flashing across the Atlantic to Bridgewater Massachusetts , chair of the Historical Commission in that town Stephen Rogan, had just got out of bed (they’re 5 hours behind us, so their 1030 is 0530. But looking as fresh and happy as someone who’s country has just got rid of a maniac, Stephen introduced us to his research into the Bridgwater-Bridgewater anti slavery historical connections which he had taken to the BBC world service earlier in the year in a joint piece we did together which then went on to inspire a Bridgewater to Bridgwater ‘Black Lives Matter’ live link up and the first reuniting of the two populations since an exchange of letters in 1846.
Sadly, the technology lost a little bit in its transatlantic passage and floundered somewhere above the wreck of the Lusitania. So we had to solve it by booting Stephen out of the meeting for a while as his frozen screen froze the whole show! That’ll teach them for Yorktown!
See the film here
Pulling the show professionally back together it was down to Miles and Tony. They’d made a sequel to their earlier bridge film. ‘Bridge II’ told the story of the first iron bridge and how it fitted into the countries industrial revolution and morphed into the current bridge after about 100 years. Miles has an ongoing series of films about Bridgwater history and Tony is on his maybe 30th pamphlet from the Blake Museum highlighting different facets of the towns story, characters and sites of intrigue.
When the technology caught up with the timetable and everyone appeared on screen at the end of the meeting there was almost 100 people there. About the same as we’d get in the art centre but…..this year we’ve filmed it and so History Day…like history itself..is now out there for future generations to interpret, get nostalgic about or remember in a totally different way to which it actually happened….