An Alternative History of Gloucester

Gloucester is simply the finest city in England.

No other city has our depth of history, nor a deeper canal – only the Panama Canal is deeper.

We’ve had every type of invader – the Welsh were the most frequent to start with. Which was why the city grew important, once the first major bridge over the River Severn was built: it was either the road to invade Wales or the place where you kept the Welsh out. Now they send rugby teams instead of blokes in woad and the fighting is always at Kingsholm.

Every decent civil war, a sort of Premier League fight for power – and we had a few of them – involved Gloucester. Henry III was crowned here at nine years old and held a parliament here later by way of thanks. Centuries afterwards the Parliament Room had a few windows put in, and from them you could recently see Dr Who being filmed in artificial snow in Millers Green. We do history across the ages here.

Edward II was a bit older when he got his comeuppance at Berkeley Castle, a disgraceful act of regicide and homophobia up with which the Equalities Act would not have put. He was brought here to be buried in a sort of royal tourism initiative, only rivaled in visitor numbers by Harry Potter’s filming in the Cathedral cloisters.

We slipped off the radar screen again until the late Wars of the Roses after which our own Duke (of Gloucester), clearly the best man for the throne, was upstaged by the more photogenic, red rose wearing Edward IV and then finished off by the Mandelson of the day – the Stanleys, who changed sides at the Battle of Bosworth. Gloucester slipped down a division.

Once again the Cathedral gave us our next bit of fame when the good Bishop Hooper was burned to the stake for not being on message about the role of the Catholic Church. True, the Protestants later burnt a couple of catholic priests (see the front door of St Peters Church) but after this embarrassment broadly we went quiet and got on with business until the 1630s.

Then the 24 year old Colonel Massey offered his services to Prince Rupert, thought the terms of the trade were pitiful and swapped sides to the Parliamentarians. He went on to defend Gloucester against the Royalists in our biggest ever civil war. 5,500 Gloucester inhabitants had held out for three weeks, losing only 50 casualties.

The King, holed up in Matson House, had to leave without the city keys: heading south because he couldn’t break though, and soon after lost the battle of Newbury. I’m sorry to say that the combination of Gloucester and Newbury cost the Royalists the civil war and King Charles his head. But his son took revenge by destroying the city walls and ensuring that Gloucester would never become a strong city again. Massey came back as royalist MP, something that shows the city’s pragmatism and flexibility or a sort of early if you can’t beat ’em join ’em approach.

We’re left with memories of Humpty Dumpty, a civil war cannon, the scratched names of the Princes on windows in Matson House and some bits and pieces in the Folk Museum. But while Massey moved on the city lost out. The eighteenth century more or less passed us by: we slumped down the league, only to be regenerated by the canal, the docks, the spa and the energy and money this all brought. But not completely, for Robert Raikes and his Sunday Schools started here. Gloucester was an early child of the Industrial Revolution, and the matches and wagons we made were great winners of their time. England’s Glory matches were made here in a factory on the Bristol Road which still bears its neon sign, the first in Gloucester .

The Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Company owed part of its success to the supplies of wood brought up the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal, and Gloucester became a busy railway junction. With an inventor like Charles Wheatson, Mr Wood the banker (model for Dickens’ Scrooge) and then Beatrix Potter’s The House of the Tailor of Gloucester we stayed on the map into Edwardian times. They brought war, poetry, Ivor Gurney (whose blood stained letters are in our achieves) and Will Harvey, more heroism from the Gloucesters, Aircraft industry and a long link to the RAF, at Quedgeley and Innsworth – both ends of the city.Rugby Stadium from the air

Post war Gloucester saw some giant eyesores built while the planners turned a blind eye, and the creation of the Civic Trust as the new defenders of our city against the architectural whims of arguably Britain’s worst period. We created a services industry in the 1980’s, C & G and insurance led, but the city’s manufacturing took a long time to overcome the final collapse of Winget, successor of the Wagon Works, and Morelands. Confidence in our ability to produce high quality industrial goods to export to the US, let alone China, deteriorated. Meanwhile regeneration started in the Docks, and didn’t get much further. Peel’s commitment to Gloucester Quays made it happen but it is only now in 2011 that real progress on King’s Square, Blackfriars, the Railway triangle, empty factories in Barton & Tredworth and community buildings in Robinswood is now happening. The challenge now is to make sure that manufacturing’s recovery is sustainable, does expand and does take up lots of apprenticeships!!!

Heritage Lottery Fund – Heritage Q&As

What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the word “heritage”?

Heritage is Honey. Take a little and often. The taste is enhanced if you know a bit about it – where it comes from and how its varieties are made, and you can spread it lightly on lots of things. Honey has been part of life for ever: we just need to look after bees, keep making it, thinking of new ways of enjoying it – and treasuring it. Just like Heritage.

What’s your favourite heritage in Gloucester?

All the streets and buildings and people with stories. I like the less easy questions: where was Aethelflaed buried, what is left of Whitefriars, was Col. Massey a hero or a turncoat, were the remains of Llanthony Priory smashed up for the canal, why exactly did the Wagon Works and Dowty collapse? And always – what can we learn from the past that might help the future?

Why is your constituency historically important?

Because it was the nearest crossing of the River Severn to Wales and so of strategic and trading importance. Geography determined destiny. Gloucester was the third greatest city in England and we’re still finding things that reflect that. The industrial re-invention of the city is every bit as interesting too – from the Docks to the Gloster Aircraft Co.

Is there a fact about Gloucester that not many people know?

Many that none of us know, except perhaps Phil Moss. But start with the spelling of the Aircraft Co.: which was simplified to make it easier to sell aircraft to the Japanese between the wars.

What’s your favourite heritage within in the UK?

Anglican choral music, cricket, our great forests, a feast of great buildings large and small from yester year and a number of semi mad happenings like the cheese rolling that no-one can kill off. We value our heritage enough to laugh at it. Look at the Mock Mayor of Barton.

Who is your favourite historical figure, and why?

My heart says James Graham, Montrose, the romantic Scotsman who won impossible victories and ‘dared to put unto the touch to win or lose it all’ – he did lose it all, including his head.

But my head says Brunel. In a lifetime of genius the Clifton suspension bridge Temple Meads station and the line that snakes through our county to Gloucester all stand out as technically brilliant and stunningly beautiful.

Do you have a favorite bit of parliamentary heritage or history?

The story of Westminster Hall alone, and how it has evolved, is the story of our nation – the ambitions of kings, the work of great craftsmen, the trials of great men, the bombs of WWII: and the new window to a great Queen. Look no further for our Island Story.

Where was the last heritage attraction you visited?

Dromana, a home built on a Norman keep high above the River Blackwater in Cork, Ireland. You reach it across a bridge and through a gatehouse modelled crudely on the domed Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Only in Ireland.

Describe a few of the heritage highlights for visitors to Gloucester.

Our shining jewel is the Cathedral. Inside look for William the Conqueror’s son, Edward II, the medieval golfer in the East Window, the cloisters that Harry Potter and every film maker love, the cross Col. Carne VC carved in captivity, the Stars and Stripes by the composer of the U.S. National Anthem and Thomas Denny’s stained glass brilliance. And that’s just the start of it. Then go to evensong when the choir is on duty. Angels voices can still be heard.

But think too about St. Oswalds and the role of Aethelflaed as nation builder and drink under the wisteria clad galleries of the (very old) New Inn. For a treat, go to the alley beside 26 Westgate when the Antiques Centre is open: and just look up. It’s a metaphor for Gloucester – behind unpretentious openings lie great surprises….