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The Place of the Bridge

I.

 

Look up. A woman tumbles from the sky, her dress billowing around her like a parachute as she spins. The air caught in her skirt slows her fall, and she wonders what she is doing here as she panics, as she hits the mud on the River Avon, glistening silver in the light at low tide. She lives. 

She is Sarah Ann Henley, of 30 Twinnell Road, Bristol. The year is 1885, and she has quarrelled with her lover. She is one of only four over the next hundred years to fall from Clifton Suspension Bridge and survive. Two of that number are children, who plummet over the side, together, a decade later. Their picture is in a locket Sarah owns when she dies, in 1948.

 

Cities are full of ghosts. They are contained in the things we walk past every day: the roots growing from the plane tree into the pavement, the string wound round a metal fence, the cement traffic barriers lined up to stop cars driving down a lane that doesn’t exist. They lurk in cracks in the sidewalk, hinting at histories that have long been ignored.

 

This is a ghost story full of doublings and hauntings. I look at Bristol — where I’m a tourist, where I have no past, only a present — and read the past everywhere, like an overlay: two maps, two cities, past and present. I grew up in a small suburban town outside Washington, DC, that had been home to the country’s biggest slave traders, but no one ever mentioned that. Bristol, too, is built on money from the slave trade, but all you hear about are pirates: Bristol is obsessed with its glorious history. All around, Brutalist buildings are being torn down.

 

 

*

 

Recovering in hospital, our fallen woman receives proposals, not only of marriage. Her father is offered a fortune to turn her into a popular entertainment, a freak show. She and her beau, a railway porter, perhaps reconcile; she begs for him. He tries to see her. The doctors keep them apart, but fifteen years later, aged almost 40, she marries someone else. Newspaper reports suggested she’d boasted to the porter that she could do better than him.

Most jumpers are men, but the two children are girls. They don’t jump. They are thrown. Their names are Elsie and Ruby Brown, ages 3 and 12. Their father, Charles Brown, is bankrupt. His grocery store is failing. He has five kids but only tries to kill two; we may assume that the others are boys. At her father’s trial, Ruby recalls being soaked wet by the rain and crying, being forced to walk up and back across the bridge. ‘Father caught hold of me and I began to scream. He lifted me up on the side of the bridge and put me over.’ His business is going under, he pushes his daughters over.

 

The girls are saved by a boat captain and two police officers. The captain’s name, so it’s not lost, is James Hazell, and the police officers were PC Wise and Sgt Willie; they ran with the girls in their arms all the way to the infirmary to save their lives. Postcards are sold afterwards of the five of them together.

 

*

Queen Square is a Georgian park built on a wetland with slave traders’ money, and was once the toniest address in town. Cross its radiating paths now and pebbles crunch underfoot. Here, during the 1831 Riots, dozens die demanding the right to vote. Crowds gather in the square to protest the city alderman and judge Sir Charles Wetherell’s appearance in town. He’s come down from London at the end of October to open the assizes, having opposed the reform bill that would modestly increase the number of voters in the country. According to Bristol Past and Present by J. F. Nichols and John Taylor, that summer 20,000 Bristolians petition for enfranchisement: this in a city where only five per cent of the population – the male population, that is – is allowed to cast a ballot. When the bill is first overturned, speeches are made, opposition leaders elected, but those in power pay little attention to the concerns. Sixty thousand march to St James’s Palace in early October; others riot in Derby, and in Nottingham the castle is burned.

 

When Wetherell comes to town, just a few days before All Hallows Eve, 2,000 people line the streets to jeer. Sir Charles — who is lodging that night in Mansion House on Queen Square — is forced to escape the protests in drag. The protesters are read the Riot Act; they throw stones at soldiers, who retaliate with shots and sabres. The next day, the crowds return to the square to loot the wine cellars of the rich, absconding with ‘400 dozen choice wines’. Revelry and robbery prevail. Bridewell Prison is stormed and burned, Mansion House burned, the Bishop’s Palace burned (the Church of England also opposed voting rights). Wine cellars are raided again, the reading of the Riot Act reprised. Houses surrounding Queen Square go up in flames, while a street away ‘Fry’s warehouse full of cocoa burned, with a fearful stench which lasted for weeks’. Bodies fester in the smoking rubble; another twelve die subsequently in hospitals.

But the point of the protest gets elided in these stories; men and women took to the streets to win the right to vote, to be heard. A year later, the riots work, in a way, as Parliament passes a bill to increase enfranchisement — for men, middle-class men. Most of the rioters are still too poor to vote. The next year, in 1832, a huge party celebrating and wooing the new voters is held on Brandon Hill. Tickets are sold for 6,000 of the new electorate, but 14,000 show up, storming the festivities and running off with the wine and puddings. Jane Caroline Crofs, a Bristol woman, remembers these protests in 1877: ‘I went with Mr Crofs into the Square and saw the men gather skulls, legs, pieces of flesh and bone into baskets and throw them in large pits dug inside the square, [inside the rails and between the trees.] The effluvia was horrible and we were obliged to cover nose and mouth…’

 

So these are the ghosts I walk on.

 

*

 

In order to create a stable sensory environment, our visual perception of things is influenced by what we saw up to fifteen seconds ago. What we see is a composite of past and present. Our brains also bundle information, so the things we expect to see, we don’t have to notice precisely. It’s the same with our actions in a city. If you’ve walked up one street countless times, each step you take becomes an average of each past step, and the things we pass don’t scream for attention, don’t even beg for it. We just ignore them, not even conscious of having done so.

 

To note every crack in the pavement or tack in a wall, remnants of posters that were torn down last week, is to invite yourself to get lost in a city, to welcome in its ghosts. Yet to take one city street and annotate each crack and fissure, the roots and weeds poking through the pavement and the names of the people who cast the kerbs and bollards, is impossible. It’s like trying to map the city in a 1:1 ratio.

 

*

 

Castle Park is named for the castle that by the 1640s was beyond repair. On the northwest corner stand two Brutalist buildings, the Norwich Union insurance offices and the Bank of England, concrete forts both. They are the new castles in this park, but their windows are boarded up. Metal plates cover the doors, giving them a blank, hulking look. They were built in the 1960s, and soon, no doubt, will disappear, submerged in the waving stalks of purple buddleia and grass. Brunel’s Clifton Bridge opens the year before Sarah Henley was born, and she dies just after Bristol has been cut full of craters in the war, each gap a reminder of a missing past.

What else are ghosts but hints of history, a connection? Perhaps they’re all around in ways more literal than I have imagined: the city council’s website lists local paranormal organisations that one can consult to deal with any ghosts that turn up.

 

*

 

In the years after Sarah Ann Henley jumps her mother dies and her father remarries a woman five years older than Sarah. In 1890 and 1891 two half-sisters are born. Sarah marries and moves from Twinnell Road to Croydon Street, less than half a mile away. Does she love her husband, or does she just want to escape?

 

At the time of her jump Sarah Henley worked in a pub. Did she and the railway porter talk of a better future together? Could they have walked the streets of their neighbourhood, Easton, dreaming of new lives and better homes, of not having to live with siblings in cramped houses? Maybe they took the train up to the Bristol Zoological Gardens and walked through the cages, imagining their own freedom. The story of their disagreement is detailed in the papers, the information gleaned from a letter Sarah has on her when she leaps. Only two words are reported. He says they ought to ‘dissolve partnership’. We get the man’s letter, but not his name. We have her name, but never her words.

 

Elsie Brown marries a Fred Morris in Bristol. Do they ever talk of her father or the bridge, or the failure of her father’s business?

 

 

II.

Maps of the city record dreams and their failures. Bristol is full of cement walkways in the sky, now fenced off, and metal gates blocking stairs that lead to nowhere. They’re the last fragments of a utopian future that was never realised. The critic Reyner Banham coined the term Brutalism as a pun on beton brut, raw concrete, a style true to its materials: the concrete laid bare for all to see. There is another irony here. Many Brutalist buildings are ‘bush hammered’, that is, a jackhammer is taken to the surface of the concrete to rough it up. The concrete looks better when rain-stained, but doesn’t weather nearly so well. The hammering introduces cracks that with the cold, wind, rain and ice start to degrade the material, reducing the concrete’s lifespan.

 

Brutalist buildings were intended to embody social progress: providing housing, schools, government services and even parking. All the gaps of the war, the holes left by bombing – the poverty and the Depression – would be covered with concrete and a dream of a better future. But the gas crisis and recessions of the 1970s heralded Brutalism’s end, while the price of concrete quadrupled between the 1960s and 1980. Thatcher sells off the housing estates, and the country enters an age of private ownership. The holes are getting filled in quickly. And with what? Student accommodation, a tribute to another historic era, Tony Blair’s.

 

*

 

Stare out of the seven-sided windows of the Princes Street NCP (‘National Car Park’), and from the top floor the harbour floats below, the clouds above. A few streets away is another kind of park, which is hardly more pastoral: Magpie Park, named for a newspaper whose offices stood across the street in the nineteenth century. In the centre of this park, traffic streams around me. Here is something truly brutal: Edward Colston, slave merchant standing on stone.

 

This is where the ghosts are. Bronze fish at his feet gulp at air, and reliefs around the sides show him giving money to the poor. Another seems to feature frolicking mermaids, but none show slaves on ships. There’s no bronze relief for the initials ‘RAC’ – the Royal African Company – that were branded on slaves’ chests. There’s no memorial in the park for the 20,000 who died on the boats or the third more who passed away within a few years of reaching America. There is just this man in his wig. ‘One of the most virtuous and wise sons of this city,’ the inscription reads. His elbow rests on his walking stick as if he is weary.

*

Tracking the number of city buildings that have been transformed into student housing in the last few years is to follow Blair’s mantra of ‘Education, education, education’ into our new era, the education age. Since 2010, British universities have been entitled to charge students up to £9,000 per year for the privilege of tertiary education. There is money in this, in Bristol, in Froomsgate House, a 1971 office block converted in 2014. In its very name is a hint at what lies beneath. Here, in July 1643, Dorothy Hazzard and 200 other women rope themselves together at the Frome Gate in one of the first acts of civil disobedience, hoping to hold Bristol for the Roundheads and to preserve the religious freedoms of the republic. Above Café Mocha and Princess Inaya Hair and Make-up is the church she founds in 1640, Bristol’s first dissenting church, Broadmead Baptist, rebuilt in 1968 in the Brutalist style. Walk inside and the walls open like a jewel box carved in concrete. Now as you climb the stairs a rope hangs along the wall as a handrail, a ghost of that which Dorothy Hazzard used to try and secure the city.

 

(Dorothy Hazzard’s second husband was Matthew Hazzard, an Anglican minister with puritan leanings. His beliefs still weren’t reformed enough for her, though. After she decided she couldn’t abide by the Church of England’s dictates any longer, she declared that she and Mr Hazzard could share a bed but not a faith. She also ran a grocery store, which she kept open on Christmas Day, believing faith should be practiced equally everywhere, every day.)

*

Those who see ghosts believe that Isambard Kingdom Brunel stands by his celebrated bridge at the edge of the city on the cusp of Leigh Woods. I’m more intrigued by another ghost who haunts his story: Sarah Guppy, a woman who is said to have advised Brunel on the footings for the bridge. Guppy patented her first invention in 1811, the year Jane Austen published her first novel anonymously (the title page of Sense and Sensibility states only that it was written ‘By A Lady’). She was rich; her son Thomas became Brunel’s partner in the Great Western Railway. Her money came, like Bristol’s, from slaves and sugar plantations.

 

Brunel volunteered as a constable in the riots. The poor stood up for enfranchisement, for rights, and he offered his services to keep them down. So maybe it’s fitting that the riots prevented his bridge from being finished. There was no money, no investment after the protests. No one believed in Bristol. Later, as the bridge was built, the design veered from his plans, so he stands now on the banks to rue it, haunting his unfinished dream. Instead, I stare at the mud 93 metres down and wonder how Sarah Ann Henley survived.

 

She never returns to her job as a barmaid at the Rising Sun. What happens in those anonymous years, between her not-death and her actual death, between jumping for love’s failure and her marriage? She has an ordinary life with one extraordinary instance – an hour, no more – and the facts of her miraculous survival complete her legacy. We rarely hear the names of the ones who died.

 

I’m interested in the anonymous people, the gaps in history. It’s not the gash ripped in Sarah Ann Henley’s life that I want to understand, but every other moment. The gaps in people’s stories are built into the historical narrative as holes we don’t even miss in the retelling. 

In the sole image I find of her, she’s dressed in black satin, a pin at her throat. Her long Modigliani face implores me; her brown eyes beg a question. Her face is unlined. Any marks of age have been lost to the camera’s blinding flash.

 

‘A Peculiar Story’, runs the headline in the Bristol Times & Mirror. The newspaper reports that a letter was sent, and ‘when it reached the young woman on Thursday, its contents were of such a nature as to cause her to cry bitterly, and almost continuously, up to the hour she left home’. The paper calls the letter ‘a remarkable epistle, and well put together for one in the position of the sweetheart, who, we believe, is a porter at the Joint Railway station.’ He informs her, according to the newspaper, that ‘his faith in her had been shaken. He had heard that she had called him a rogue and a vagabond. She had told him frequently that she could get lots of husbands in a higher social class than he.’

 

He returns her photograph. ‘Her ‘cadding’ about him in the neighbourhood offended him, especially that she had said he had ‘never spent threepence upon her when he had been in her company’. But, he writes, she need not return the gifts he gave her.

 

In the photograph her brows are knit with worry. At least, that’s what I see in her face. The paper hopes that ‘her act of folly may be a lesson to her.’

 

 

III.

 

Here rest in certain hopes of a glorious resurrection the bodies of Bridget, Mary and Sarah  Lewis. Three virgin sisters, daughters of S William Lewis Knt late mayor and alderman of this city by Dame Bridget his wife. Bridget deceased the 28th day of Feb 1703 aged 18 years. Mary the 8th of September 1710 aged 21 years. Sarah the 10th of January 1710 aged 28 years. Also here interred in this vault John Davies, Gen. who died 31 Oct 1799 Aged 56 and Ann his wife who died 28 Sept 1799 aged 52. 

 

Nothing more is known of them other than that their father was rich enough for his unmarried daughters to be buried together in the floor of St Mary Redcliffe, a medieval parish church with gilt arches paid for over the centuries by wealthy merchants and slave traders. The girls share a grave with a woman, Ann, and her husband, who must in some way be related, though they died nearly a century apart. Near the girls stand three moulded concrete barriers: I know the names of the former and nothing of the latter, but, in my mind, each has become the representation of the other. I want the sisters to speak, and I want to know who put in the stanchions. They are stand-ins for all that is unseen, unspoken and unknown in the city.

 

Haunting is emotional, a paranormal tells me. She’s talking about experiencing the ghost of a prostitute in the Llandoger Trow, a ye-olde pub with timber frames, waddle and daub and enough stories to it that it pops up on ‘Haunted Bristol’ lists. On the second floor is a bust of a pirate. Grasp it and apparently you’ll rock as if at sea.

 

The woman explains that she didn’t see the prostitute but sensed her. The sensation, she says, was like being drunk – tipsy and swaying.

 

*

 

Up in the sky, a woman falls; a drop of lead plummets into a perfect sphere. There’s a ball, a fall, bombs and missing walkways – bridges to nowhere, dreams descending, stairways and paths fenced off. Construction walls paste over the absence, hoping we won’t notice it. There’s a perilous drop and four different ways to die.

 

In 1782, William Watts has a dream. He is sleeping off some ale in the churchyard of St Mary Redcliffe, lying in the damp grass under the church’s truncated spire. Here, where the rich and glorious of the city, shippers and slavers, merchants and men of means, have worshipped for centuries, Watts suffers visions in which his wife drops molten lead on him. It’s rain. He’s a plumber. It’s easy to imagine a plumber dreaming of water, the drops turned to lead. As they fall, the drops transform into perfect spheres.

He goes home, soaked and sober, and tells his wife. She, the story goes, being practical and intelligent, climbs the church’s spire. Destroyed by lightning in 1446, it’s a mere stump. She carries molten lead up with her. How? Where is it heated? There are holes in the story and holes in her pot, a frying pan, the tale goes, rusted through.

 

Multiple versions of this story exist. In the first it’s his dream, in others hers. She dreams three times, always of lead falling in perfect balls. Each time she wakes her husband, telling him he must try this out. The first two instances he ignores her, rolls over and goes back to sleep. The third time he finally agrees. He heats the lead; she climbs the stairs of their house and drops the molten metal (on his nose, apparently); as it falls it turns into perfect globes, thus inventing the lead shot for which her husband, William Watts, takes out a patent. I prefer the version in which he dreams and she experiments, where she is the hero of the story, the one who make things happen. Either way, her name is lost to history other than as ‘Mrs Watts’.

 

Soon William Watts converts a house just over the road from St Mary Redcliffe, where my three virgin sisters are entombed. He builds up a tower and down into the red sandstone below, so he can continue dropping lead into balls. In the paper he claims the tower ‘will remind spectators of the prospect of Westminster Abbey’. Instead the neighbours complain of the smell, and he prints this notice in the paper:

 

William Watts presents his compliments to the GENTLEMEN who united for the purpose of taking legal measures to procure the removal of his SMELTING and SHOT-WORKS, and begs leave to ask them, whether it is not as unreasonable, to expect he should knock down his SHOT-WORKS, because some people are offended with the smell occasion’d by that particular process, which may be conducted (with very little additional expense) as well on the heights of Mendip, as on Redclift-Hill—as it would be to require Mr. Crofs to demolish his great DISTILLERY, merely because those nauseous PIG-STIES, offend the delicate NOSES of a few Individuals? However, to obviate every cause of complain, as well as to disappoint that malignity which would be gratified by involving him in an expensive suit, WILLIAM WATTS will as soon as possible cause that process to be discontinued at Redclift-Backs, which alone can furnish the least cause of complaint.

 

*

 

The tower doesn’t move – not until 1968, when it is lost to a road-widening scheme, when the planners are giving over the city to cars and the sky to pedestrians. But shot is still made in the same way to this day. Watts does, however, leave Redcliffe for Clifton, where Bristol’s wealthy are now settling, while his own Westminster Abbey is eventually replaced by Brutalist concrete.

 

The balls he drops from the sky contain within them four ways to die: the lead, the drop, the shot, and poison. Arsenic and antimony are the alloys that cause the lead to form into a ball. It’s mere luck that Watts experimented with metal from the Mendip Hills, where just enough arsenic occurs naturally in the lead. After that supply is exhausted, workers add in arsenic, which the French call the poudre de succession – inheritance powder — and antimony, whose name comes from ‘monk killer’.

 

Antimony also means ‘against aloneness’ because it’s never found unalloyed. The phrase seems apt for William Watts, alone as he fights his neighbours in Redcliffe and rails against his detractors in the paper. Instead of discontinuing the works, he abandons the pig sties and Mr Crofs’s distillery for the cliffs of Clifton and the Avon Gorge’s fresh air. In the rock face he’ll cleave another wall, another drop. He invests in real estate, but first must build a retaining wall in the cliff, only the process turns out to be more expensive than he’d reckoned.

 

Work stalls. Notices are published in the paper, trying to sell the half-finished project. A boom in real estate has turned to a bust, and two years later, another notice appears. He’s bankrupt. His debtors are summoned to the Bush Tavern in Corn Street to divvy up his holdings. Still this doesn’t stop molten metal from dropping into spheres. The business carries on under different owners, making lead shot to be used in hunting. By the 1980s animal rights activists protest that the birds being stuffed full of lead shot too often live on, poisoned and poisoning. Production ceases in 1990.

Now, nearly a mile away from his original premises, I visit the Brutalist tower. I’m here for the dream of a drop of lead like a bead of water, like a leak from a pipe, like the silver sound of metal. ‘Silvery rain’, it’s called in the 1890s, ‘falling into a tub of water.’ At the top, 43 metres into the sky, not even as high as Sarah Henley’s fall, I listen for the silvery rain and hear the traffic. I think of King George III saying to William Watts: ‘I wish all the men in my army were so regular like this shot.’

 

*

 

At the top of the tower, clouds scud in the wind. The sky is bitterly bright like a rebuke, and it’s 131 years since Sarah’s fall. My heart rises as Bristol spreads out before me. I think of her last day, which became her first day, her long skirts and laced boots, tight and pinched, worn in the soles. She leaves home early, promising her father she’s off to work at the pub, off to the Rising Sun. Somehow she ends up in Clifton instead.

 

She walks the streets like a sylph. No one notices her, or if they do, not enough to think of her later. She crosses the city, the drawbridge over the Frome to College Green and up Brandon Hill. Her feet are sore. The breeze is brisk on the park’s slopes. Her skirts whip against her legs. In her pocket, she fingers the leaves of her fiancé’s letter.

 

To jump is to lose that weight, to float free, to drop, to feel her own gravity and break through the sphere, the film between her and the world’s order. This is the woman I see, the one I want her to become, free, self possessed – independent. I want her fall to give her that, at least.

 

On the banks below the bridge the trees are in leaf, the green bold against the cerulean sky, and the river has shrunk to a narrow rivulet in the mud. Light glistens off the surface. Drops fall. Everything descends.

 

 

 

Jennifer Kabat would like to thank the Arnolfini, Axel Wieder, Ludy Badrocke and Kate Newby for their support.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

A finalist for Notting Hill Editions’ Essay Prize, Jennifer Kabat is working on a book of linked essays, Growing Up Modern, exploring ideology and the landscape from the modernist suburb where she grew up to where she lives now in the Catskill Mountains. She writes for Frieze and The Believer and was awarded a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. Included in The Promise at Arnolfini and Autobiography at Index in Stockholm, her ongoing collaboration with artist Kate Newby, The January February March, will be at The Poor Farm in rural Wisconsin  this summer.

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