Friday, 26 February 2010

The Fabian Society's View of Bristol


Published by




MAY, 1891.

To be obtained at the Office of the Fabian Society, 276 Strand, London, W.C.; of the Secretary of the Clifton and Bristol Fabian Society, 18 Cotham Road, Bristol; or of Mr. Rydill, Bookseller, Union Street, Bristol.

I found the a copy of the above document whilst searching out some background information for a presentation that I am due to deliver.
One of the key features that stands out is how Bristol even then, and in contrast to most other British cities of the time, had put many of its key public services into the hands of private business - essentially Bristol was an example of early privatisation - and it is apparent from the Fabian Society study (who, of course, may not have been entirely neutral on the matter) that the results were not entirely satisfactory;
"BRISTOL is in many respects the most backward of English municipalities. Most important towns in England own their own waterworks: Bristol leaves this vital public service in the hands of a monopolist company earning a dividend of eight and a half per cent. Two-thirds of the gas-consumers in the United Kingdom are supplied by municipal enterprise: Bristol depends for light on a company earning ten per cent. More than a quarter of the tramways in this country are owned by public authorities: Bristol allows private adventurers to earn five per cent, by running cars through the public streets. Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford, and many other places keep all three of these public services under public control for public profit. Bristol enjoys the bad pre-eminence of being the largest provincial municipality which allows all three to remain in private hands for private advantage. Bristol can borrow capital at three and a half per cent: if the capital of these companies had been municipal stock at three and a half per cent, instead of private investments at an average of six per cent., the inhabitants of Bristol would be saving £50,000 per annum, representing a rate of one shilling in the pound."
Other issues of concern to them was the confusion caused by different parts of the city being under different administrations, and the multiplicity of local elections leading to a lack of public interest in local governance;
"Public administration in Bristol is a confused and perplexing tangle of uncoordinated authorities, exercising diverse and ill-defined powers over varying and over-lapping areas, elected on different franchises, at different dates, with different qualifications for membership. One public body spends money in opposing the projects of another.....During three years, 1881-4, no fewer than 16 elections to one public body or another have taken place.......Lack of public spirit, due largely to lack of knowledge of public affairs, is the inevitable result of this confusion. "
Later in the pamphlett, the Fabian Society says;
"The times and method of election, and the qualifications of candidates for these bodies, are in almost in each case different, and it is obvious that under such conditions, there must be waste of power, of money, and lack of interest and of harmony, and an unnecessary multiplication of officials. At present there are some 180 elected members of the various governing bodies, and with ex officio members, about 250 in all."
the study then goes on to describe how the city is divided up into four parliamentary constituencies, with a population of approximately 300,000. It estimated that there was an adult male population of about 65,000 with about a third of those being ineligible to vote (along with women, the poorest men did not get the vote until 1918). At the previous general election only 25,422 had voted, about two-thirds of those eligible.
The Fabian Society than cover in some detail, various aspects of living in Bristol in 1891.
"it is practically certain that one in three of the wage-earners ends his or her life in a bed provided by public charity. Over a third, indeed, of these deaths were those of indoor paupers in the three workhouses."
"the people of Bristol are crowded together more closely than the inhabitants of any of the 27 largest provincial towns in the United Kingdom, with the exception of Liverpool, Birmingham and Plymouth."
The density in the city proper was estimated to be even higher, with a rate of 71.5 persons per acre, and in the 600 or so "courts" which the Fabian Society considered "mostly unfit for human habitation" they were living at a density of 4 per room.
"Notwithstanding these facts no action has been taken by the Town Council under the Artisans' Dwellings Acts to provide decent accommodation for the poorer citizens! Other municipalities have been less backward in this respect."
"About two-thirds of Bristol's children attend schools over which the citizens have no control"
"Bristol compares badly with other cities with respect to the number of children at school"
"If the water works had been constructed by the Town Council, the annual interest payable upon their cost would have been, at 3 per cent, only two thirds of the amount annually received by the shareholders"
"Why should not Bristol imitate Bradford, for instance, and, taking over its gas-works, reduce the price to the consumer, secure fair treatment of the gas-workers, improve the lighting of its streets, courts and common stairways, and make an annual surplus in aid of the rates? "
Public Transport
"The internal communications of Bristol are mainly in the hands of the Bristol Tramways and Carriage Company, which makes a profit out of its gratuitous use of Bristol streets, and pays its ordinary shareholders five per cent......To earn this profit for the tramway shareholders, the tramway workers are kept on duty over 14 hours per day."
"Much additional public provision for the sick is needed before the ideal is attained of a hospital bed available for every case of serious illness in the city"
The Fabian Society also looks at the city's finances.  It estimates that rental values had grown by some 50% in the two decades between 1870 and 1890 and that as "the city proper has long been entirely covered with buildings" this rental growth was an "unearned increment" which over a 15-year purchase period "represents a capital sum of nearly £2,000,000" and was "a gratuitous present from the people of Bristol to the proprietors of their homes".
"Bristolians pay every two years to the proprietors of their city, for the mere privilege of inhabiting it, as much as the whole outstanding cost of the docks, schools, public buildings, and street improvements"
It later adds;
"It is impossible to avoid the suggestion that the Bristol authorities have been less active than those of other municipalities in those departments of collective expenditure such as public sanitation, the re-housing of the people, and the common provision for the needs of crowded urban life, which, though not pecuniarily remunerative, are of such inestimable public advantage."
The final conclusion of the study still rings true, at least for me,  today;
"The two signs of a free and self-governing community for which Bristol burgesses contended in the earliest days were popular elective government and municipal control of the revenues from city land and from profitable public services. A free city, in the view of our forefathers, should not be beholden to any landlord — not even a royal landlord — nor subject to any monopoly. The plain duty of the commonalty at the present moment does not differ one jot from the principles which constituted the life and breath of the patriotism of free Bristolians six hundred years ago. By a strange irony of fate, the Socialist who appears to himself, no less than to others, to be the advocate of brand-new revolutionary changes, has only to search the annals of the past to find that in his principles of municipal reform he is, after all, in truth, a most consistent Conservative. If the large income from its city property proves the wisdom of the city fathers of the past, the deficits on the Dock account prove the folly of those of the present day in allowing private competition to usurp the field and to spoil the game, when, in the end, the city was forced to step in at the eleventh hour. But, in the case of the Docks, it was the private self-interest of a number of merchants and others which forced the city into the policy of undertaking their management. This is a very one-sided application of municipal Socialism, if the city should only deal with concerns that will least pay. The public self-interest of the mass of citizens must be aroused to overcome any opposition of landholders and shareholders, and to acquire for the profit of the community those monopolies which the municipality can manage. "


  1. Tony

    Great radical history again. Its as if someone is decribing the modern day problems of bristol in a fake historical voice.

    Do you have a copy of the pamphlet ?

  2. I'm afraid not, but it is available as a ring binder for view in the Reference Library at Bristol Central Library.

    Record number: M0005121AN
    Title: Facts for Bristol: an exhaustive collection of statistical and other facts relating to the city: with suggestions for reform on socialist principles
    Publisher: Bristol, Fabian Society, 1891
    Physical description: 17 pages
    Series name: Fabian tracts, no.18
    Subject headings: Socialism
    Genre: Local Studies
    Joint corporate name: Fabian Society

  3. We have agreed with the City library to print and sell this on the bookstall for our April events.

    Do you (or anyone else) know of any other good historical political or election pamphlets ?


  4. Interesting that the Fabians' criticisms tend to be about ownership models, rather than whether the services are actually any good.

    I particularly like "About two-thirds of Bristol's children attend schools over which the citizens [i.e. the government] have no control" Wow. We can but dream...

    I keep meaning to dig out the old "Bristol Citizens Party" manifestos from the records office; they've got a box somewhere according to the index