Easton in Bristol, England: History, Life Today, and Banksy
Easton in the Past: A Vibrant Community
Every Christmas I remember a childhood Boxing Day tradition with a sense of nostalgia and loss. There is no way that the tradition could be revived, even if I wanted to re-create the past. The people involved have died or aged and moved on to other interests. The street where it took place no longer exists, obliterated from existence by demolition and new construction.
I grew up in Cardiff, the capital city of Wales. Most of my mother's relatives lived in Bristol, a major city in England. On Boxing Day my father would drive us from Cardiff to my grandfather's house in Bristol, where we would continue our Christmas celebrations. Relatives and neighbours visited Grandad's house to meet us and to celebrate the season. The house and the neighbourhood became a hub of fun, family and friendship.
My grandfather lived in Easton, an area within Bristol. Today Easton is a lively and artistic place. It's also described as a "deprived" area that has social problems. Banksy began his street art career in Easton. He has an international reputation for his graffiti, which is often a form of social or political commentary.
Cardiff and Bristol in the United Kingdom
The House on Fleet Street
My grandfather lived in a house on Fleet Street, which was a short cul-de-sac in the area between the Lawrence Hill railway station and Easton Road. The inhabitants of Fleet Street and the nearby houses formed a vibrant community. The people living in the area would have been called "working class". Much as I miss Britain, one thing that I intensely disliked, at least as it existed in my childhood, was the custom of classifying people by class. My Bristol relatives were hard working people with hearts of gold.
Fleet Street was lined by terraced houses which had a similar design. The front door of my grandfather's house opened directly on to the pavement (sidewalk). The front room downstairs had the best furniture and was kept ready for visitors. It was rarely used by the family. Daily life happened in the back room downstairs and in the adjoining kitchen. Only family and close friends were welcomed into the living area. Here the furniture was chosen for comfort and utility instead of looks.
There was no bathroom in the house. Bathing was accomplished by laboriously filling a tub in the kitchen with hot water from a kettle. The toilet was in an outhouse in the back garden. There were only two rooms upstairs, both of them bedrooms.
The houses on Fleet Street were old and rather primitive, especially compared to our standard Cardiff house with a modern indoor bathroom. I never really minded this, though. I just accepted the fact that when I visited Grandad things were different from the way they were at home.
Grandfather and Grandmother, or Grandad and Nana
Grandad was a jovial man who didn't seem to mind his house being invaded by visitors. He liked to tell me that thunder was produced by God moving the furniture around in heaven. One of his favourite sayings was "Call me anything you like, but don't call me late for dinner!" He was a train driver before his retirement, which always seemed like an exciting career to me. I loved trains when I was a child
Grandad enjoyed gardening and always like to show us what he was growing in his back garden when we visited. So did the neighbours, as I discovered when I learned how to climb the wall separating the end of Fleet Street from other back gardens in the neighbourhood.
My mother, her sister and her three brothers grew up in the house on Fleet Street. My grandmother died of cancer shortly before I was born, so I know her only from photos. I have always regretted not knowing her in person. Based on what other people have told me, she was a lovely person.
The Fleet Street Neighbourhood
The area around Fleet Street contained shops and other amenities for residents. There was a grocery store on one side of the entrance to Fleet Street and a pub on the other. Both businesses played a daily role in the lives of their neighbours and the business owners were known as friends. The essential fish and chip shop - as ubiquitous in some communities in those days as McDonalds is today in many North American cities - was just a short walk away. The time of the first frying of the day at the chippy was a serious matter of concern for my family.
The photo above shows a group of neighbourhood children gathered outside the pub on the corner of Fleet Street In 1927. My family referred to the pub as "Clements" after the people who owned it. I've forgotten its real name, if I ever knew it. The little girl on the right of the front row who is looking away from the camera is my mother. The smiling boy on her right and slightly to the front of her is one of my uncles. The houses in the background are the type of houses that existed on Fleet Street.
I remember my grandfather telling me why the photo was taken, but I don't recall the reason. I do remember that the children belonged to a club or an organization of some kind. The reason for the gathering seems to be a special occasion, since the boys are wearing suits or uniforms and someone has written a nice comment on the photo.
Fleet Street Community
When we visited Fleet Street, the neighbourhood children welcomed me and my sister right away after only a brief introduction from my cousins. (At that time my aunt and her family lived with Grandad.) We played together in the street every day and had a lot of fun.
Front doors were often left open on the street and community news was shared. Neighbours chatted daily. Tragedies were shared as well as joys. Drawn curtains in the front room and a framed photo at the window were signs of a family death and received respect and commiseration from the neighbourhood. The pub was a place for socialization and bridge tournaments as well as drinking.
Of course, humans being what they are, they were sometimes minor tensions between certain people in the neighbourhood, but in general - at least as viewed by my childhood self - Fleet Street was a happy place. The area gave me a sense of community that I have never experienced in any other neighbourhood - not even in my own - even though we were only temporary visitors at Christmas time and during the summer.
Location of Easton in Bristol, England
Demolition in Easton
Sadly, Fleet Street and the nearby streets no longer exist. Demolition of nearby houses began even before my grandfather moved out to live with my Aunt's family, who had moved to their own home. Old houses without an indoor toilet, bathroom or modern fixtures and plumbing weren't considered desirable by the powers that be (or were). Blocks of flats now cover what was once Fleet Street and my grandfather, parents and aunt are all dead.
In the 1960s and 1970s, large sections of Easton were destroyed to make way for a new motorway and new housing estates. The destruction of Fleet street and its surroundings was probably part of this remodelling process.
I've found photos and information about areas located near Fleet Street on the Internet but no reference to the street itself. I suppose there are references somewhere in Bristol archives and in birth, marriage and death records, and people other than my family probably have photos of Fleet Street, but for all intents and purposes the street lives only in people's memories. Once the people with those memories have died, the street will be gone for ever.
People Describe Why They Love Easton Today
Bristol and Easton Today
Bristol today is a modern city with many tourist attractions. It's the eighth biggest city in the United Kingdom and the sixth largest in England. The city contains some beautiful historical buildings as well as a very well respected university. Like most big cities, however, Bristol has some problem areas.
While looking for records of Fleet Street on the Internet, I discovered that Easton is considered to be one of Bristol's problems today. It's sometimes described as a deprived and even dangerous area with a high crime rate. It's interesting to read some of the local people's assessments of the area, though. There is a great deal of loyalty to Easton. Some locals claim that the reports of the area's social problems are exaggerated.
Despite its problems, Easton is reportedly a lively area. It's a multicultural community and has become a popular place for artists and for those who follow a "Bohemian" lifestyle.
I haven't been to Easton in many years, so I can't give a personal assessment of the area as it exists today. I know that as a child I never noticed the problems there, if they existed. I always enjoyed my visits and my walks through the neighbourhood. Today there seem to be both positive and negative aspects to life in Easton.
Changing Face of Easton, Bristol
Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.— Banksy
Banksy: A Famous and Mysterious Graffiti Artist
Easton is associated with Banksy, an internationally known graffiti artist, painter, political activist and film maker who keeps his identity secret from the public. His graffiti appears on walls or other outdoor structures as if by magic. He's developed a stencil technique for his street art so that he can create it quickly before being noticed. Some artists feel that this is a type of "cheating". Many people appreciate the art, however. Banksy's oldest works are located in Easton, where he started his graffiti career.
Banksy has had many international exhibitions, all the while keeping his identity secret. His first film was nominated for the Best Documentary Academy Award in 2011. In 2014 he received the Person of the Year Webby Award. He's a very popular artist, although his street art irritates some people. They feel that by admiring it people are glorifying vandalism. On the other hand, some institutions are happy to see a Banksy stencil appear on their property and take steps to protect it.
Banksy is known for his epigrams as well as his art. He has published several books containing his images and writing and maintains a website. He has developed a reputation for entering countries around the world and secretly creating graffiti in unexpected places. In 2015 he created a cute kitten stencil on a ruined building in the Gaza Strip. He says that he wanted to highlight the problems in the area on his website but that on the Internet "people only look at pictures of kittens".
Nobody ever listened to me until they didn't know who I was.— Banksy
Who is Banksy?
Banksy is believed to be a Bristol native and is thought to be a "he", although at times there have been suspicions that he is really a she or is actually a group of people. Recent photos of him with his head covered seem to confirm that he is a male, although this could be deliberately misleading. It does seem strange to me that after all his efforts to maintain his secrecy he is now willing to show what he looks like, apart from his head.
Although some people have revealed what they say is Banksy's true identity, nothing has been confirmed, at least as far as the general public is concerned. Some of his actions are elaborate procedures that almost certainly require the cooperation of several people. Some people use this as evidence that "he" is really a team of people.
Banksy's graffiti career began after my family moved to Canada, so he's not part of my Easton memories. Nevertheless, the ideas associated with him match my memories of Easton very well. For me, Banksy is a symbol of the vitality, significance and unconventionality that I experienced during my visits to my grandfather so long ago.
An Update: The Prospect Tavern and the Paxton Arms
I'm happy to say that since I wrote the original version of this article I've found information about Fleet Street via a website called Bristol's Lost Pubs. I've discovered that the pub on Fleet Street was actually called the Prospect Tavern and—according to the website—was run by Harry Clements from 1935 to 1953. I visited Fleet Street after 1953, but my grandfather still talked about visiting Clements when he went to the pub.
The pub was located on the corner of Fleet Street and Leadhouse Road (a name that I'd forgotten but now remember). The website entry about the Paxton Arms contains a photo of the Fleet Street pub. The Paxton Arms and the Prospect Tavern were located next door to each other. When I saw the photo, I remembered the door on Leadhouse Road that led to a different pub right next to Clements. It's a shame that we have so many memories stored in our brain that we'd like to recall but that are inaccessible without the correct stimulus.
The Paxton Arms opened in 1855 during the Victorian Era. The adjoining building on Fleet Street became a pub in 1871. According to the Bristol's Lost Pubs website, it was a house before this date. I'll be doing more research now that I've made some headway. Historical research is great fun, especially when it has a personal significance.
© 2014 Linda Crampton