Tucked away down a quiet street in Bris­tol, this free mu­seum has a lot to say about the 18th cen­tury – and about slav­ery, too…

Your Family History - - Contents -

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!

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