Seven Saints of St Paul’s (Black History Month)

Live in Bristol for a while and it is impossible to escape the influence of the docks. Though the Waterfront is now a happening place for tourists and students, who have replaced the dockers and ship builders, Bristol Harbourside remains a focal point for the city in the twenty first century. Rewind the tape 200 years and a much smaller settlement would have had the activity in the docks right at its economic heart. At the bottom of the hills, below steep limestone walls, the Cumberland Basin in Hotwells was a construction scheme of national importance, enabling trade on a massive scale and the largest ships to access the upper reaches of the Avon. Fortunes were made, splendid mansions were built in Clifton and Brunel’s engineering brilliance in due course made Bristol one of the most important ports in Britain.

But with trade came trouble too – Bristol’s significant role as one of the corners of the Slave Triangle created immense wealth and immense misery, and the legacy of those times is intricately woven into the tapestry of the city today. Bristol hit the headlines recently of course when the bronze figure of Edward Colston, a prominent slaver, was tipped into the harbour. Names will be changed across the city to attempt to wipe clean the slate of the past after the sound and fury of the BLM headlines in the summer, but it will take more than just re-badging concert halls and the like to make things feel different. History, after all, cannot (and must not) be erased. And then there have been more recent times where Bristol has been the centre of racial tension, through the Windrush travesty and the post-war struggle for civil rights. The civil unrest in British cities during the 1980’s was sparked by the St Paul’s riots in April 1980; when I studied in Bristol in 1988-89 the edge of Stoke’s Croft was still blighted by the burned out ruins of flats and shops. Redevelopment – and hipster culture – were both slow to arrive.

All of which means that there is a need for some better news, some evidence that the great city is coming to terms with both its past and its present. And the evidence can be found, for example in the Seven Saints of St Paul’s Art Project, a series of monster murals designed by Michelle Curtis celebrating local heroes from the local area. The aim of the artworks is to bolster representation in Bristol’s social history, or, in Curtis’ words to “remember ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances”. The ‘Seven Saints’ were all founding members of the St Paul’s Carnival (see The murals are stunning, the stories are humbling and, in Black History Month, these works of Art provide hope for this great city and us all for the future.