Bristol urban myths

12Jul11

This is kind of by way of an appeal. I’m currently working on a project concerning tall tales and urban legends in and around Bristol. I’m not altogether sure where this is headed; book, articles, something electronic, whatever … But the point for now is to gather together as many stories as possible.

Urban myths are different from the normal round of research. Older stories obviously can be sourced from newspaper reports, books, public records and private papers, but the more recent living-memory stuff is far more nebulous. Basically, if someone tells you a story in the pub, or you read it on the internet, then it qualifies. The interesting thing about urban myths isn’t just about how true they are, but in trying to figure out why each story gets spread around.

Urban myths come in two basic varieties. The first are those that travel the world. The Bristol Zoo car park attendant story is a classic example. It did the rounds a couple of years back; oh, you know, it turned out that he didn’t work for the Council or the Zoo and had been collecting parking fees off people for 25 years and nobody figured it out until he disappeared into comfortable retirement. Not a grain of truth in it, and the same story has been applied to several other places around the world.

The other kind of myth, and much more interesting, is the one that only applies to a particular place. These are the ones I’m really after, and I’ve collected quite a lot from distant past to present day. But there’s always room for more!

Some of my favourites from recent decades include:

– Princess Diana was murdered, and the killing was masterminded by a sinister secret organisation based in Bristol.

– Concorde was taken out of service by Air France and British Airways at the behest of the US Government after 9/11 because if a supersonic airliner got hijacked it’d be a lot harder for the US Air Force to stop.

– At some point in the 1960s? 70s? there was a ghost at the Spillers mill in Avonmouth. But it only haunted members of the Transport & General Workers Union.

– A member of the Wills tobacco dynasty, while serving in the army in WW2, was captured by the Germans, but released in return for a ransom of several million cigarettes.

– The architect of the Council House positioned one of the golden unicorns on the roof so that its arse would be directly facing the front door of someone he didn’t like.

– Back in the days of videotape, Bristol was one of the last places where people abandoned the Betamax format, because either Betamax tapes or players, or both, were mostly imported via Avonmouth, where light-fingered dockers liberated them for family and friends.

If anyone knows owt about any of these stories, or has any other local yarns (let’s leave the feral chickens thing for now), then leave a comment or mail me.

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17 Responses to “Bristol urban myths”

  1. 1 thebristolblogger

    Sort of an urban myth:

    . . . It might be useful to recount an example of particularly aggressive whipping. It comes from the former Conservative Chief Whip, Lord Renton, in his excellent book Chief Whip and it concerns an encounter between the then Labour Chief Whip, Michael Cocks and a young backbench Labour MP.

    The MP was said to be thinking of rebelling, and so Cocks explained the party’s position to him. The MP—who happened to represent the constituency of Blackburn—replied that he didn’t find it a particularly convincing argument.

    At this point, Michael Cocks seized Jack by the genitals, held on to them tight while Jack turned white in the face and finally released him with the comment, “Are you convinced now?”

  2. Ha! Not really what I had in mind, but good story. There are many others concerning Cocks. My favourite: Cocks apparently loved playing cricket, but was a notoriously poor batsman, Prime Minister Jim Callaghan rang him only to be told that he’d just gone on to bat: “Oh, that’s alright,” said Callaghan. “I’ll wait.”
    Is there a blue plaque anywhere for Cocks? If no, we should start lobbying for one. And for Dawn Primarolo to unveil it.

  3. 3 thebristolblogger

    One more Cocks story:

    In opposition in the early 1980s, Harry Cohen, then an idealistic young MP, had set his heart on speaking in the Commons even though the whips of all parties had agreed to an early termination of the debate.

    Cohen spent weeks preparing a speech but on the day Cocks went and sat beside Harry:

    “You’re not speaking Harry.”

    “But I’ve got to speak. It’s a terrible bill.”

    “Of course it’s a terrible bill, Harry. It’s a Tory bill but you’re still not speaking. They’ll be more terrible bills along soon enough”

    Of course there isn’t a Cocks plaque. And now there’s nowhere to put it as they knocked down the South Bristol Labour Club to build a supermarket (metaphor or wot?)

    None other than the Dim Prawn herself turned up, donned a hard hat and grabbed a sledgehammer for the demolition photo op.

    I keep meaning to get Cocks’ book actually. Apparently the embittered tone is lightened a little by the forensic analysis of how about eight Labour Women’s Groups popped up in their South Bristol Constituency in the mid-80s.

  4. There’s a Cocks book? Didn’t know that. I want to see that, too. And surely he had a house or at least a flat in/near his constituency that’d be suitable for plaque.

  5. What about this Bristol Hum?

  6. Here’s one I could think of http://www.bs16.com/apps/blog/show/7704340-local-urban-legends
    I’m I know more but just accept them as fact. I’ll keep me thinking hat on though.

  7. Wow! That’s a *really* good one. Everyone else, go read it now! Will look into it and let you know if I find owt. Thanks!

  8. 11 thebristolblogger

    Having just watched Newsnight on monkey experiments I’m reminded of the Bristol University monkey experiment stories.

    There’s a variety of claims but most revolve around the use of monkeys from Bristol Zoo, access by secure, sealed lift only and the Wills Physics Lab.

    I’ve tried to find out more about this in the past. But it seems to be bollocks …

  9. Hadn’t heard that one, but it sounds highly implausible. There was another story which I’m told went round a lot in the 1980s/90s (though I never heard it at the time) that dogs and cats were being swiped off the streets of Bristol by men in vans and taken for experiments at the Uni. I actually asked an academic about this and he said it was ridiculous; if you’re conducting experiments using animals, he explained, then you need to know the animal’s history, and be sure it’s free of various diseases. Kidnapped pets would never do.
    More recently a friend told me that during the 1990s when everyone first started being scared of genetically modified organisms, there were all sorts of rumours surrounding the Long Ashton research station, including the accidental (or even deliberate!) creation of a new breed of super-slugs.

    • 13 Art of the Impossible

      “new breed of super-slugs” Huh? You’ve got to ask, why?
      That’s a good one!

      There’s also the mythologies based on misunderstanding the triangular nature of Bristol’s slave trade, eg Whiteladies Rd and Blackboy Hill being where slaves were traded, “Slave Caves” and so on.

  10. 14 nick

    In Bristol it is socially acceptable for adult cyclists to ride on pavements?

  11. Myths exist in towns and cities across the country! Some of these one mentioned are great 🙂

  12. 17 tom

    The phantom is back – http://3desk.com/job/71/parking-attendant/ – freelance job board has opening for mythical parking attendant


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