For most of Bristol’s history, the region south of St Mary Redcliffe was outside the city limits, but when The Floating Harbour was built in 1805-9 a large number of Irish navvies moved into the low lying area of what is now Bedminster. It seems many of them settled and were joined by the near constant influx of poor country people, so by the mid 19th century, the region was becoming noticeably crowded with low cost housing, and lots of children. This is a piece from ‘The Bristol Churchgoer’ by Joseph Leech, who terrorised vicars in the area by doing reviews of their churches anonymously. The book is an invaluable and often funny account of the region at the time. This is from his visit to Bedminster Church, one of the oldest in the area.
“I should like to have had Malthus [An Essay on the Principles of Population, 1798] under one arm and Harriet Martineau under the other, as I walked through Bedminster causeway sometime since to the shrine of St. John. Whether it was that all the children were out at that particular moment by preconcertion, or that the population of the parish, to make up for other derelictions, do more abundantly than their neighbours to fulfill the command to increased and multiply, I cannot say, but this I know, I never saw such living swarms before in my life. They buzzed about like flies; they ran along the road and between one’s legs like cockroaches; they settled upon horse and dog-cart, curricle and wagon, as each rattled by; alighted upon every projection, crept up every eminence, filled the air with their voices and the face of nature with their forms, and seemed in numerical extent and facility of annoyance to be only surpassed by the Egyptian locusts. Now, although an old bachelor – a title with which too often is associated all that is fidgety and tetchy- I do not dislike children; on the contrary, indeed, I am quite partial to a rising generation, and for one who has never seen them pass through probationary cow-pox, to whom the trials of tooth-cutting are quite mystery – who know, nothing of measles, and to whose perception croup and whooping cough are matters of history, I may be said to feel intensely for all their tiny troubles. And so I do; but then you may have too much of even a good thing, and Frederick the Great himself, fond as he was of the young urchins, used at times to lose his temper when overrun by them in public places. Campbell tells us in his Life of that good and great monarch, that on Saturday as he rode along the streets of Berlin, the youngsters, spoiled by previous indulgence, pulled him by the stirrups, brushed his boots, and annoyed him to the extent that he hastily exclaimed, ‘go to school, you wicked young pests,’ when they set up a shout of triumphant glee, and cried out, ‘A pretty king, not to know that this is a half holiday!’
For my part, I wonder the juvenile population of Bedminster are not murdered by market-carts, and that every time a horse hoof comes to the ground it does not commit a homicide; the creatures run, roll, and flit about in such mighty multitudes, suggesting most uncomfortable conjectures as to where meat and drink, are to be found for so many mouths by-and-bye. If my mind were at all uneasy on this matter before gong into church, my entry into the sacred edifices was not at all calculated to mitigate my mental unrest, following my own guidance I found myself in a seat where three mothers were waiting with as many babies for baptism. The little beings lay horizontally on their parent’s laps, rocked to quiet by a kind of perpetual motion of the maternal knees, their little pursy red faces were covered with white handkerchiefs, and from time to time they gave proofs of their existence by an abortive cry which rarely reached above the cambric: when they did exhibit anything like unusual energy, however, and succeeded in making a robust attempt at a bawl, the corner of the kerchief being coyly raised the father, who sat opposite his better half and baby in a state of bashful affection, was invited to chirp into the pretty creature’s face, a civility which was always successful, and almost as invariably returned by a convulsive chuckle from the child.