YFH RECOMMENDS: THE GEORGIAN HOUSE MUSEUM
Tucked away down a quiet street in Bristol, this free museum has a lot to say about the 18th century – and about slavery, too…
We head west to a free museum in Bristol that doesn’ t shy away from the controversial side of the city’ s history.
If you want to learn more about the life in the 18th century, you could do far worse than visit the Georgian House Museum, an unassuming yet highly informative townhouse in Bristol, run by Bristol Museums and Art Gallery. Decorated as it would have been in the late part of the century – although much of the interior furnishings come from other buildings, rather than being original to the house itself – it offers a fascinating glimpse into what life for a well-to-do Georgian family would have been like.
The house – described as a ‘typical middle- class merchant’s house’ - was built in 1790 for a local man, John Pinney, who made his wealth as the owner of a slave plantation, and as a sugar merchant. Pero Jones, a slave of African descent, also lived here. Pinney looked after his slaves, giving them adequate food and encouraging them to grow their own additional provisions, as well as giving them every Saturday afternoon off work, making him one of the more humane plantation owners – but this had a selfish aspect, as keeping his slaves healthy meant that he would not have the expenditure of regularly having to replace them if they died prematurely due to having been worked too hard or fed too little. This concern with not spending too much money was made clear when he told his plantation managers to avoid calling in the doctor to help his sick negro slaves when they were ill, as this cost too much – home-made medicine using herbs from the kitchen gardens were, in his mind, more appropriate.
Pero Jones had been bought by Pinney with his sisters to work on the Mountravers plantation on Nevis; Pinney had paid £115 for the three youngsters and one other adult slave. Just Pero and a freed female slave, Frances Coker, were brought back to England from Nevis when the family returned in the 1780s. Pero became a personal servant or valet to John Pinney, while Frances Coker became lady’s maid to John’s wife, Jane.
Pero started to drink in the 1790s, and became so ill by the end of the century that he was sent out into the countryside near Bristol to live; however, he remained officially a slave until he died.
When the Pinneys returned to England, two decades after having moved to Nevis, they initially rented a house at Park Street in Bristol, before John Pinney then bought land on Great George Street. He commissioned William Paty, the architect, to build him a house, and in 1791, John, Jane and their five surviving children (one having died on Nevis) moved into the house where, two years later, a further child was born. Their return did not mark the end of their links to Nevis, however, as John kept his plantation, but put a manager
Life above stairs involved entertaining, and the family welcomed many notable figures to their house
in charge of it. He also formed a partnership with another Bristolian who had a Nevis plantation, and they became traders, importing sugar to Bristol, and exporting supplies to the Caribbean plantations.
Given Pinney’s connections and occupation, it is important that the museum recognises the wider social context of slavery, and recognises Pinney’s role in it, and it does so, dedicating a room on the top floor to a discussion of slavery and its abolition. Throughout, references are made to Pinney’s business; for example, from his bedroom window, he could see ships on the river bringing his goods into Bristol, the end of a long journey from his plantation.
The museum also assesses the differences in lives between those above stairs, and those working below. Above stairs includes drawing rooms and bedrooms; and grand rooms designed both for eating and for polite conversation. John Pinney’s study can be explored, and his bookcases are full of books that reflect his many interests, including in plants and geography. Each room includes a guide as to what the room contains, so, for example, the ‘eating room’ (or dining room) includes two Derby porcelain ice pails on the sideboard, from which to serve ice- cream. Even the festoon window curtains in the breakfast parlour are detailed, with the guide noting that they would no longer have been fashionable by 1790. Life above stairs also involved entertaining, and Pinney and his family welcomed many notable figures of the time to their house; Lord Nelson’s Nevis-born wife, Frances, certainly would have been entertained in the drawing room, and it is also possible that the likes of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge also visited.
Meanwhile, downstairs includes the large kitchen (with adjustable grate and butler’s lift), laundry room (complete with box mangle and other technological innovations suitable for a wealthy family) and the housekeeper’s room, a cross between a parlour and a study, from where the housekeeper could monitor anyone arriving at either the front door or the tradesman’s entrance. One of the most startling innovations here is the basement plunge pool – around five foot four inches deep, it was designed for jumping into; but it could not have been that pleasant an experience, given that the water was cold, and wouldn’t have been emptied and replaced more than about once every six months. The thought of jumping into dirty, six-month- old water, without even central heating to get back out into doesn’t bear thinking about!
John Pinney died in 1818, with his estate worth the equivalent of around £17 million in today’s money; the house remained in the family for over 40 more years. Today, though, you can still get a glimpse into his life, by visiting his former home.
John Pinney’s house was a typical merchant’s abode
It’s an unassuming, pleasant building, but it’s full of history
The front of the Georgian House Museum
A bedroom, complete with cot Dinner is served! Well, it would be, from this service
The box mangle in the laundry room
The view from the staircase
The plunge pool - not for the timid!