<1> On September 30, 1793 at about 8:15 p.m., the
Herefordshire militia fired into a crowd of unarmed people
gathered on and near the Bristol Bridge, the only one that
spanned the River Avon in Bristol in the west of England.
Accounts at the time report that without reading the Riot Act or
ordering the crowd near the bridge to disperse, the militia
fired “directly up High-Street” upon what John Rose described as
“that gaping populace,” killing eleven and wounding forty-five
men, women, and children (12). The episode, often referred to as
the Bristol Bridge Riot, was, in the words of Philip D. Jones,
“one of the most serious riots, in terms of killed and injured,
to occur in Britain during the last half of the eighteenth
century” (74). Three of the wounded died within five days, and
many of the injured subsequently had limbs amputated. The event
was the culmination of two days of protest over the reinstating
of the toll required to cross the Bristol Bridge which the
Bridge Commission had discontinued only nine days earlier. This
decision incited unrest among a range of Bristol citizens. “It
is not only the lower class of people that is against the
continuation of this Toll, after the Bridge is paid for,” the
London Sun noted, “but the inhabitants in general” (3). The atmosphere of
unrest continued after the shootings as citizens broke windows
in the guildhall and the council house, and threatened
individual members of the Herefordshire militia with revenge.
<2> The startling event, which was also reported
in the London papers, incited extensive and highly varied
commentary for weeks following the incident. Pamphlets, poems,
ballads, and broadsheets circulated as well as commentaries in
the Bristol’s seven weekly newspapers. Unarmed British citizens
shot on British soil by British soldiers aroused strong
reactions—both from those defending the actions of the militia
against the “mob” and those arguing for the innocence of the
victims. A handbill from the time,
Plain Truth, notes
that “No Citizen has been shot by a Soldier since the Days of
OLIVER CROMWELL, till the late drunken and violent Massacre,
committed on an unarmed Multitude” (1). At the core of these
discussions were fundamental questions of authority: Who can
lawfully regulate citizens’ movement? What is the extent of
citizens’ rights to peaceful gathering? Who can command a
militia to use force? These questions inform not only reactions
to the Bristol Bridge episode but also two oppressive cultural
practices regularly witnessed by Bristolians, steeped in a
culture of violence: slavery and impressment.
<3> Poet and relatively new Bristol resident Jane
Cave Winscom (1754?-1813) published a response to the Bristol
Bridge shootings with her poem, “Thoughts Occasioned by the
Proceedings on Bristol-Bridge, and the Melancholy Consequences,
on the Awful Night of Monday Last, Being the 30th of
September.” Published anonymously, “by a Lady,” the poem was
sold within a week of the event. A revised version of the poem
then appeared in the fourth edition of Winscom’s
Poems on Various Subjects, Entertaining, Elegiac, and Religious
(1794). In that volume “Thoughts Occasioned by Proceedings on
Bristol-Bridge” follows another 1793 poem, “An Address to the
Inhabitants of Bristol, Occasioned by the Present Calamities and
Recent Observations.” Together the poems interrogate the
specific moment of the Bristol Bridge riot and vividly allude to
the underlying challenges to Bristol’s moral climate wrought by
slavery and impressments. Read in the context of Bristol in the
1790s, the poems offer a sustained exploration of the tensions
between individual rights and the uses of governmental
authority. They address threats to liberty and the oppression of
Bristol’s marginalized, disenfranchised, or enslaved persons. As
such, they offer insight into Winscom, a heretofore little
discussed poet, into “the popular experiences and perceptions”
of the riot itself (Harrison 559), and into the cultural
tensions affecting Bristol and arguably the British nation. They
also provide a powerful example of the ways female poets of the
1790s engaged issues in the public sphere in complex and subtle
“The Second City in England”: Bristol in the 1790s
<4> Born around 1754 in
Wales to exciseman John Cave and his wife, Jane Cave lived in a
variety of places including Bath and Winchester before
publishing by subscription her first volume of poetry
Poems on Various Subjects,
Entertaining, Elegiac and Religious in 1783; it was
published in Winchester and listed more than 2000 subscribers
from towns throughout southwest England. That 1783 collection,
which went into four subsequent, revised editions, offered
primarily occasional and religious verse. The year
the volume initially appeared, Cave married Thomas Winscom, also
an exciseman. Her role as the daughter and then wife of an
exciseman may have informed her perspective on class and
governmental authority. Excisemen collect excise duties, what
Samuel Johnson describes as “a hateful tax levied upon
commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property,
but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid” (def. 1). Excisemen pursued a relatively
well-paid profession with great potential. “With the possible exception of officers of the
armed forces,” notes
Graham Smith, “it would
be difficult to find a trade or profession with salary or
prospects comparable with Excise” (qtd. in Messem 8).
Nevertheless, the nature of the exciseman’s work was generally
unpopular and, at times, hazardous. Excisemen were also required
to move regularly, and every four years
Winscom and her
husband relocated, arriving in Bristol in 1792.
<5> The Bristol in which Winscom arrived was an
active port city of nearly 60,000 people which characterized
itself as “the second City in
1). Bristol’s period of dominance as a port had passed, although
it was still an important center for both domestic and
international trade. Because of Bristol’s involvement in sea
trade, by one estimate nearly twenty-five percent of the male
working population was involved in some employment related to
shipping, a population desirable (and susceptible)
to a press-gang. Consequently, early in the century, Bristol was
a popular location for press-gangs seeking to force men into
naval service. Press-gangs often met great resistance and
Nicholas Rogers details how “cuts, bruises, and fractures were
commonplace in these affrays, and sometimes gangers and their
prey lost eyes, ears, and even parts of their noses” (13).
Bristol was notorious for its fierce resistance to the efforts
of press-gangs. For example, in 1759, Admiral Gordon’s
press-gang was “assailed with ‘vollies of small shot’” in which
one sailor was killed and several members of the press-gang were
wounded. This episode, indicative of press-gang encounters in
the 1750s, stopped press-gang activity in Bristol for a while,
although “the memory of the bloody confrontations…were seared
into the consciousness of the gangs” and doubtless the general
population (Rogers 78-79). The strong reaction to
press-gangs was consistent with other kinds of social unrest
that occurred in Bristol. In the early part of the eighteenth
century, the city experienced at least eleven episodes of civil
disturbances between 1709 and 1753, and as Mark Harrison notes,
“the reputation of the South West for riot remained well
justified during the second half of the eighteenth century”
<6> Bristol’s port and geographic location in the
west of England made it an integral player in the “triangular
trade”—Britain, West Africa, and the West Indies—from the
earliest part of the century, and, as Linda Colley notes, the
economy “rested heavily on overseas trade with North America and
the West Indies” (84). Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade
“had greatly diminished by 1793” (Morgan 221), eclipsed by that
of Liverpool’s, yet during the 1790s ships originating in
Bristol still consistently proceeded to West Africa and
transported enslaved Africans to the West Indies; in 1793 alone,
ships originating in Bristol transported 9,110 Africans (Voyages).
In fact, Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who worked closely with
William Wilberforce (1759-1833) in the parliamentary
anti-slavery campaign, drew heavily on Bristol in providing
examples of the moral and physical dangers of the slave trade.
In service of the committee for the abolition of the slave
trade, Clarkson, in 1787, took responsibility for investigating
every source of information relevant to their cause. After
completing his research in London, he moved on to Bristol. The
resulting document, The
Substance of the Evidence of Sundry Persons on the Slave-Trade
(1788), like his widely distributed
An Essay on the Impolicy
of the African Slave Trade (1788), reveals that while
Bristol’s involvement had diminished, the cultural legacy
remained very much in place. His report is filled with
interviews with Bristol men involved in the trade as captains,
merchants, or sailors; it also details the treatment of seamen
and enslaved Africans. Bristol was “particularly” notorious for
crimping, or entrapping, men into service: “there are certain
landlords, who make a practice of crimping seamen for the slave
trade. They suffer them to run into debt from a prospect of the
advance money that will be given them, and then consign them to
<7> Bristol also retained an association with
slavery through its dominance in the sugar trade. The
Bristol and Hotwell Guide
accurately claims “there is more sugar imported into Bristol
from the West India islands, in proportion, than there is even
into London” (Shiercliff 18). Sugar, as many
scholars have discussed, is considered a “slave commodity.”
“Sugar seems to result from the physical excretions of the
slave—tears and sweat,” writes Charlotte Sussman, as well as
“his or her agricultural labor;” in abolitionist rhetoric of the
period there is “the equation between the slave’s body and the
sugar it produces” (53, 55). In Bristol, the port traffic from
the West Indies bearing primarily raw sugar for refining in
Bristol sugar houses was considerable. The week of the Bristol
Bridge riot, the shipping news in
The World notes that
on September 30, the Leeward Island Fleet returned to Bristol
with nine ships arriving from Nevis, St. Kitts, Barbados, and
Antigua (4). Similarly, Lloyd’s List from Friday October 4, 1793 details twelve ships
docking in Bristol, eleven from Jamaica and one from Antigua
(2). It is also reasonable to assume a visible population of
Africans in Bristol.
<8> While 1793 was a prosperous time for
Bristol’s wealthy sugar magnates, who would not cede dominance
in the sugar trade to Liverpool until 1799, not all shared the
financial benefits. The price of consumer goods rose
precipitously between 1789 and 1795. War with France was
declared in February 1793 leading to a steep decline in the
building trade which, in turn, contributed to rising
unemployment. Bristol had 94 bankruptcies in 1793, compared with
13 in 1792, and the Bristol economy was experiencing what
Winscom describes in “An Address to the Inhabitants of Bristol”
as “numerous Bankruptcies and other Calamities” (Poems
173); “If those who late soft affluence could boast,”
writes Winscom, “A scanty pittance now possess at most!” (ll.
5-6). Additionally, Bristol was governed by a corporation, also
responsible for the Bristol Bridge, that engendered limited
respect—or, as Harrison asserts, “long-held dislike”—from its
citizens (561). These local tensions, coupled with growing
national anxiety about social unrest exacerbated by the American
War and the French Revolution, created a volatile
<9> Rebuilt in 1769, the Bristol Bridge itself
was financed in part by a toll that was to be collected only
until a £2000 surplus existed; then interest on the £2000 was to
pay for bridge maintenance. The Bridge Commission, part of the
governing body of Bristol, announced tolls would end September
19, 1793; on that date the gates were removed and no tolls were
collected. However, four days later, the bridge commissioners,
without publishing their accounts, publicly denied they had
sufficient funds and then, after nine toll-free days, erected
new toll gates on Saturday September 28.
The first citizens’
protest occurred that day as people gathered at the toll
house protesting the reinstatement of the toll. Jones notes that
the “. . . protestors believed that the bridge commissioners
were acting illegally, as well as deceptively, when they did not
end the tolls…and that crowd action was thereby justified” (84).
The Riot Act was read and, according to an account
published shortly after the incident,
“the magistrates sent for the military, to awe the people into submission”
<10> The arrival of the militia with its fife and
drum had the effect of attracting individuals to the location
rather than driving them away. At 11:30 p.m., the militia fired a warning shot to disperse the
crowd; it killed John Abbot, a builder’s laborer who happened to
pass by the crowd on his way home from a pub. The next day,
Sunday September 29, the militia was still present, and while a
few altercations occurred on the bridge—and the chanting of ‘No
toll, no toll’—the militia was not ordered into action.
The Riot Act was again
“read . . . to very little purpose, tho’ the crowd was by no
means so great as might have been expected, considering the
force of curiosity, the greatness of the thoroughfare, and its
being Sunday” (Rose 9). 2,000 Handbills were printed and
distributed, stating that the Riot Act had been read and warning
people to stay away from the bridge on that day with details
that the military were to fire in case of “any tumult.”
<11> Monday morning, September 30, a chain hung
across the bridge (for the toll gates had been burned by the
crowd the previous Saturday), halting the flow of all traffic
across the bridge. John
Rose notes that “the average number of persons who pass over
Bristol Bridge in a minute is more than sixty . . . every
interruption, even of a few minutes, must therefore make a
crowd” (11). Between 10:30 and 11 a.m., the Riot Act was read
three times to the crowd that gathered, yet the arrival of the
militia brought no forcible efforts to disperse them. Five
hundred handbills with
that day’s date were printed, but it is not clear they were
actually distributed. “The people who were looking on,” writes
John Rose, “and many of those who passed by, crying, Go on! No
toll! With such a variety of hissing, huzzaing, and clamorous
noises, as frequently startled the horses” (10). Despite obvious
tensions with the crowd, the magistrates, constables, and
soldiers all left the bridge between 6 and 7 p.m. More than one
account describes the soldiers as “quite drunk” because others
“gave unto them much Liquor” (Lamentation
of Bristolia 7).
<12> Shortly thereafter a group from the crowd made a bonfire, to
which they added “the table, chairs, and what else was
combustible, even the door” from the toll-house itself (Rose
12). The bonfire prompted the return of the militia and
officials to the bridge at about eight.
The reportedly carnival atmosphere of the
previous days had increased the number of spectators: “There
were some [not the most prudent] who had children upon their
shoulders, to ‘see the sight!’” (Rose 12).
Pelted by oyster-shells
and stones thrown by the crowd, the militia were ordered to
front rank fired upon their assailants and the gaping populace:
some oyster shells
being that instance thrown from that part of the Back near St.
Nicholas-church, the rear
faced about, and fired directly up High-street. Men, women, and
children, flew on all
sides: and whilst the press which it occasioned impeded the
progress of their flight, it
the military an opportunity to practice the science of
street-firing with astonishing
adroitness, the people being brought down by the musquetry in
almost every direction.
Some accounts report that individual soldiers
picked off stragglers as though “trying their skill at a flying
shot” (Rose 12). Others claimed that the soldiers were ordered
to “FIRE LOW: spare neither Age nor Sex” (Lamentation
of Bristolia 7) According to another account, “[t]he angry
soldiers . . . left their ranks in order to single out
individuals, whilst others of them kept a desultory fire up
every street that radiated from the bridge” (Nicholls and Taylor
3:218). A handbill, The
Extraordinary Gazette, published a satiric representation of
the event, “Extract of a Letter from General Don Diego Twig
Pigeon, to His Satanic Majesty,” which labels the populace the
The Enemy received us with a Volley of Brick
Bars, and Oyster Shells (they not being
provided with other Weapons) which we
immediately answered by a heavy Fire of
Musquetry . . . Mistaking a Number of the
Inhabitants who appeared in our Rear,
(brought together by the sound of the Drum)
for a Part of the Enemy, we ordered our
Soldiers to face about and Fire; the
Consequence was, many peaceable Inhabitants of
the City of Bristol fell, amongst whom were
some Women and Children. (1)
<13> The attack had a leveling effect and the
victims represented a cross-section of Bristol’s society, a
cause of both despair and further anxiety. The London
World reported that “a
Midshipman belonging to the press-gang has been wounded, and it
is feared, from this unlucky circumstance, that the sailors will
join the rioters, who have already proposed to release the
prisoners, that their numbers may be strengthened” (3). Fears of
escalating violence persisted among a populace with eleven dead,
forty-five injured, and a damaged attitude toward Bristol’s
“My Pensive Muse”: The Politics of Winscom’s Reflective Poetics
<14> Prior to her published response to the
Bristol Bridge Riots, Winscom’s engagement with issues in the
public sphere was certainly present but not overt; however, over
the course of her career she evinced a heightened sense of
agency and an increasing awareness of, in the words of Clifford
Siskin, “writing’s capacity to produce . . . change” (3).
Strategic revisions in the five editions of
Poems on Various Subjects
published between 1783 and 1795 increase the political resonance
of Winscom’s poems. The first three editions contain poems that
center on the questions of authority, national identity, and
morality similar to those that inform her reaction to the
Bristol Bridge Riot. In those early editions, however, their
political nature is obscured somewhat by generic, non-specific
titles or classification with poems “On Religious Subjects.” In
later editions, subtle adjustments heighten the poems’ political
focus and Winscom’s claims for agency as a poet. For example, a
“Poem Occasioned by Hearing Prophane Cursing and Swearing”
(1783) gains new meaning when “at the Time of the American War”
is added to the title in 1786. “On the General
Fast, Feb. 8 1782” beseeches God “Our land, our sinking land
protect” (33); when positioned as the final poem in the volume
in 1789, it assumes a powerful, valedictory tone.
<15> The most overtly political poem in the 1783
Poems on Various Subjects,
“Written by the Desire of a Lady, on Building of Castles,”
criticizes Britain’s involvement in the American War by
questioning governmental authority and decisions that led to
costly military encounters. The original title
belies the content. However, when the phrase “During the
American War” is added, the poem’s active critique of British
foreign policy is foregrounded. The poem begins with a
description of the original use of castles constructed in the
material world: “for our defence, / And usually erected were, /
Adjacent to the Seat of war” (2-4). While “blood and slaughter
did abound” (5), the castles, decorated by the “whole artillery
of war” (16), serve to defend against the enemy. If these
physical castles can be justified, the castles “fabricated in
the air / . . . the mental kind, / The sole construction of the
mind” cannot (22-24). Such a castle “Our ministry . . . built”
when it “Fancy’d a thousand men or two / Could all AMERICA
subdue” (31, 33-34) Winscom vividly describes the human cost to
the British nation attempting to retain control of America:
But thrice ten thousand cross’d the main,
A million’s in the contest slain.
Yet, ah! Fell castle, direful ill,
AMERICA’s un-conqu’red still. (35-38)
<16> While it would be an overstatement to
describe Winscom as radicalized or even increasingly liberal in
her views, these kinds of revisions evince a more assertive tone
that demands reflection from the reader. The two volumes
published in the 1790s (1794 and 1795) after Winscom’s arrival
in Bristol give voice to her support of abolition, her
condemnation of British foreign policy, and her (limited) sense
of empowerment through her published work. Her poetic response
to the Bristol Bridge Riot a decade later illustrates Kathleen
Wilson’s observation that “far from being expelled from the new
public culture of the period, women, it seems, were pivotal
creators and participants in it” (92). Within this context of
heightened political awareness, we can read her poem on the
<17> Winscom published “Thoughts Occasioned by the
Proceedings on the Bristol Bridge” immediately after the
episode, and then revised the poem for inclusion in the 1794
edition of Poems on
Various Subjects. In the version published within a week of
the events on the bridge, the title notes the date as “the Awful
Night of Monday Last, Being the 30th of September,
1793” (Image One). It was published anonymously, written “by a
Lady,” and sold for three pence. The poem recounts the events of
the night of the shooting, offering the perspective of both the
innocent victims and the militia; most notably, it rejects all
justifications for retribution or vigilantism, advocating
instead a faith in divine justice. Written in the conditional
voice, the poem likens the situation at the Bristol Bridge to
the Biblical city of Sodom. When Lot asked “Ah! Wilt thou not
the city spare / If fifty righteous souls are there?” (42-43),
“the great I AM” (51) (Jesus) was “cautious” allowing Lot and
his family to escape. The magistrates at the Bristol Bridge have
not acted with such “conscience;” in their zeal to restore
order, they, in the metaphor of the body politic, have “cure[d]
the swelling of the toe, / By the whole body’s overthrow”
(76-77). Winscom advises instead a return to “The Book we call
our rule of life,” the Bible, which “promotes no bloodshed,
noise, or strife” (94-95).
<18> The different opening stanzas of this poem
mark their proximity to the event. The 1793 version, (Image
One), published within a week of the shooting and designed to
quell citizen unrest, begins with an epigraph from Matthew 8.29:
“But He said, nay, lest while ye gather up the Tares, ye root up
also the Wheat with them” (“Thoughts” 1). If one of the central
questions of the events on Bristol Bridge was who had the
authority to order the militia to fire, Winscom points to a
higher authority—“the great incarnate Lord” (l. 1). Winscom uses
the designations of local magistrates to refer to God who is
figured as “CAPTAIN of all the Hosts on high” and “Chief
MAGISTRATE of Earth and Sky” (3-4). That verbal move diminishes
the corporation’s local, ultimately limited authority. Had God
been in command, asserts Winscom, “Carnage and Woe had not
prevail’d, / Not Horror ev’ry Face assail’d” (7-8). As the first
stanza concludes, it captures the confusion and movement of the
While Bullets flew from Street to Street,
Leaving no Moment for Retreat;
But winging through the Smoke and Fire,
Made Numbers groan ! bleed! And expire!
The term “retreat” echoes the adversarial
tone used by the Bristol’s officials, in which the citizens are
the “enemy,” while the last two lines—not included in the
revised 1794 version of the poem—present the progressive
suffering of both the individual and the collective: “groan,”
“bleed,” and “expire.” With the last line of the first stanza,
Winscom actually modifies a line that appeared in the first
stanza of “Written by the Desire of a Lady, On Building of
Castles”: “Made thousands groan, bleed, and expire” (10).
Doubtless that mild ‘self-plagiarism’ prompted her to remove the
line from the poem when it appeared in the same volume as “On
Building of Castles.” While the poem ultimately advocates
patience in the face of a desire for retribution, the rhetoric
of this opening stanza uses more inflammatory language perhaps
because of its publication within days of the event.
<19> By contrast, the 1794 version of the poem
that appears in Poems on Various Subjects has a new, additional, opening stanza that
may invite a more reflective reading. The poem, within the
volume, follows “An Address to the Inhabitants of Bristol,
Occasioned by the Present Calamities and Recent Observations,”*
which also responds to events in Bristol. Winscom’s footnote
qualifies the title of that poem: “*Written in the Year 1793, in
Consequence of the numerous Bankruptcies and other Calamities
that occurred there at that Period” (Poems
173). While the number of Bristol bankruptcies did increase
in 1793, the “other calamities” clearly include the Bristol
Bridge riot. “An Address to the Inhabitants of Bristol” begins
by asking the citizen to “pause” and reflect on “the sins our
house conceals” that cause “ruin and distrust [to] pervade our
“. . . sins of deepest die infect the place, / And sink
the Man below the brutal race” (1, 11, 3, 9-10). Winscom details
episodes of cruelty to animals that happen on the streets of
Bristol: The horse which is beaten to death, when “lash
succeeding lash his body wales” (30); the “Dogs, cats and pigs,
the harmless bird and fly,/ Live to be tortur’d, or by tortures
die!” (47-48). These “horrid scenes” (49) embody
the real subject of her poem—“* The SLAVE TRADE"
177). Winscom does
not use that term within the poem; she includes it only as a
footnote where, visually it is set apart, centered at the bottom
of the page. Just as “numbers pass by and view each horrid
scene” (51) of cruelty to animals without comment, so too all
citizens of Bristol by silence make the guilt of slavery their
To cruelty inur’d we think that just
Which should excite abhorrence and disgust;
And thus inur’d we send our ships abroad,
To buy and sell, and sport with HUMAN BLOOD!
The repeated use of the term “inured”
captures the essence of Winscom’s poem; Bristolians, accustomed
to seeing the operations of the slave trade, do not reflect upon
a moral climate in which the Bristol Bridge episode seems,
<20> “Thoughts Occasioned by the Proceedings on
Bristol-Bridge” follows that poem, suggesting Winscom may have
assumed (or hoped for) a linear reading of the volume (or at
least a sequential reading of the two poems). It begins: “PAUSE,
reader!” This opening injunction compels the reader to reflect
upon the previous poem, depicting a desensitized public. Winscom
may also want the reader to consider the multiple discourses
contained in the first page of the poem (Image Two). The use of
the term “Thoughts” in the title (rather than “An Address”)
retains the occasional quality of the poem’s initial
composition. The slightly revised title places the event in the
past, and the subtitle offers something akin to a journalistic
description of the event: “the Awful Night of Monday, the 30th
of September, 1793, When the Military were ordered to fire on
the Populace, in Consequence of their collection together, to
obstruct the Continuance of the Bridge Tolls, by which Means
many innocent People passing by lost their Lives” (Poems,
1794 181). The term “awful night” suggests, perhaps, a
slightly Gothic tone, while the placement of the quotation from
Matthew, previously an epigraph, at the bottom of the page as a
footnote gives the page the appearance of a scholarly text.
These diverse generic elements—journalism, fiction, scholarship
and, of course, poetry (as we are reminded by the header at the
top of the page)—provide a complex and perhaps more visually
confusing point of entry to the poem than the 1793 version.
<21> The prose subtitle captures the poem’s
fundamental tension between Winscom’s call for civil authority
and her critique of state violence. Her use of the term
“proceedings” carefully avoids the suggestion of a riot, yet the
term “populace,” while distinct from “mob,” possesses a
similarly derogatory connotation. That populace “obstructed” the
tolls with the inevitable “consequence” of the militia’s
assault. Citizens who defy civil authority will potentially
suffer sanctioned retribution. Winscom neither defends nor
denounces the Herefordshire militia, but notes their lack of
agency—“the Military were ordered to fire.”
<22> Winscom highlights the ways in which state
violence can too easily affect law-abiding citizens who adhere
to the dictates of public order. Because of the nature of the
militia’s assault, firing into a crowd, readers too could easily
have been victims, for
Thy husband, neighbour, friend, or son
All tranquil stood as thou hast done:
When lo! they met the awful doom!
Which now consigns them to the tomb.
Events could have been avoided with “the
MAGISTRATE on high” (7) in command, with divine guidance.
The honest tradesman homeward bound,
Would not have met the mortal wound;
No amputated legs or arms,
(As tho’ amid dire war’s alarms)
The hapless woman, boy, or man,
Had mourn’d through life’s protracted span.
Poems 13-14, 17-20)
Instead, victims will bear the scars of a
kind of domestic war whereby “amputated legs or arms” remain
permanent cultural reminders. Her detailed descriptions of the
unnamed victims are consistent with John Rose’s “list of the
wounded; with their ages, descriptions of their Wounds, &c.”
published in An Impartial History of the Late Disturbances in Bristol.
<23> Once initiated, authorized violence against
citizens cannot always be contained, potentially affecting even
those most committed to the doctrines of control within civil
society. Winscom describes the imagined death of her own
husband—“He ! who with warmth espous’d the cause/ Of those who
sought t’inforce the laws,” “Had [he] pass’d the street in
duty’s call,” “he! with ball in breast or head, / Perchance had
sunk among the dead! (“Thoughts,”
Poems 29-30, 25,
38-39). By imagining an exciseman such as her husband as a
possible victim, Winscom highlights the consequences of broadly
applied authority, when a militia “fire promiscuously on all”
46). She also focuses on the excessive nature of the act,
consistent with accounts that describe how victims were shot
fleeing and some militia broke into individuals’ homes: . . . bullets flew from
street to street, / Leaving no moment for retreat” (“Thoughts,”
Poems 11-12). The poem repeats the persistent question surrounding
the incident: “By whose
command the bullets flew?” The question interrogates not
just who, specifically, ordered the shooting but also,
theoretically, who possessed the authority to order the militia
to fire on a group of “spectators, and indeed the rioters”
which, as John Rose describes, “had not the least idea that the
military would fire . . . they had no knowledge, that the [riot]
act being read to others, nine hours before, was a legal warning
to them” (13).
<24> Although Winscom laments the shooting of
innocent citizens, she is simultaneously attentive to the
untenable situation of the militia, compelled to fire as ordered
or risk charges of insubordination and the punishments that
follow. The attention to the individual British soldier appears
throughout this poem and Winscom’s volume. “What private soldier
durst withstand” asks Winscom, “His stern superior’s dread
command?” (84-85). The soldiers themselves are, in a sense,
victimized by the military authority that controls them; they
are also “grossly insulted” (Poems,
1794 186) and treated “with unjust abuse” (l. 182) by
citizens of Bristol, “so great was the Resentment of the People
against the Military” (Manson 49). One of the most
vivid images in the poem is the imagined military punishment of
a fictional insubordinate soldier who refuses to fire:
. . . with his arms to halberds ty’d,
In streaming blood had soon been dy’d,
While lash succeeding lash had flown,
And stript the culprit to the bone!
It is notable that the most graphic image of
violence in the poem is not a depiction of a shooting but the
flogging of a British soldier. Winscom displaces the description
of violence from the citizen to the legal authority highlighting
the continuum of sanctioned state violence. The image also
summons descriptions of the treatment of enslaved Africans on
West Indian plantations which were widely distributed after the
introduction of Wilberforce’s bill to end England’s involvement
in the slave trade in 1790. A passage that seems to depict the
plight of a British soldier more broadly engages Bristol’s
involvement in slave trade both through the transporting of
slaves and through participation in the sugar trade; the image
may, secondarily, resonate with Bristol’s history of violence
with press-gangs. All three situations, linked visually and
structurally, undermine Britain’s claim to moral authority as
well as the implicit rights granted to a “free-born Briton.”
Domestic actions by British authorities were questioned as, at
the end of the century, the emergent concern for British liberty
became overwhelming, especially as the French had
highlighted Britain’s claims to be the land of liberty during
their own revolution.
<25> In the face of a desire for retribution by
Bristol citizens, Winscom urges “forbearance! kindness! love!”
for those seeking “redress,” a compensation or reparation
usually conferred through legal means (“Thoughts,”
Poems 96, 99). Within the poem, she ventriloquizes her husband’s
conservative views which privilege procedure over protest:
(‘The legal pow’r should be obey’d,
And due investigations made;
If wrong, --to law apply for aid,
And not by riot seek redress’ . . .).
She fashions her poem as the means for
deterring those seeking immediate, physical revenge: “let this
Page your minds impress,/ Who by revenge would seek redress; /
For limbs or friends that’s torn away” (98-100). She, again,
urges a reflective moment among the collective “let this Page
your mind impress.” She does not even concede the possibility of
a local, legal resolution; rather she urges citizens “Calmly to
heav’n submit your cause” and trust a higher authority (103).
Just as Anna Laetitia Barbauld reminds Wilberforce he will be
favorably judged by “faithful History,” Winscom asserts that
“vengeance belongs alone to GOD!” (106) a transcendent morality
removed from the contingencies of misunderstood military orders
or mediated interactions. Messem suggests that “in the tone and
content” Cave “aligns herself firmly with the more humble and
wage-earning ranks,” although her tone seems instead to share a
perspective with the middling classes (9). While her poems
strategically deploy vivid images of violence to remind readers
of the dangerous climate of Bristol, she advocates a course of
moderation, “common sense,” and reason. Winscom’s conciliatory
tone seeks to dissipate the perceived radicalism of the
“populace” and affirms the legal and moral authority of the
status quo. It is perhaps appropriate, then that
The Bristol and Hotwell
Guide concludes its description of Bristol by noting: “We
have only further to remark, that no place in
England is better
regulated with respect to the police than
Ultimately Winscom’s poem endorses regulation even at the
expense of individual rights.
Winscom’s Poetic Authority
<26> Winsom’s poems on Bristol and the incident at
the Bristol Bridge capture the fraught climate of the 1790s and
the fundamental contradictions between Briton’s claims for moral
authority despite its involvement in ongoing violations of human
rights. These two poems, like others in the volume, address
basic questions of governmental authority and military authority
in the face of an engaged citizenry. Who has the right to
collect tolls? Who has the power to order a militia to fire on
unarmed citizens? Who has the right or responsibility to read
the Riot Act and when? These questions shape the poems, and even
as Winscom retreats from condoning the actions of the crowd, she
remains constant in her concern for consistent civil order.
<27> These questions of local, situational
authority necessarily engage similar questions at the global
level, questions central to what Winscom describes as “our
reformed enlighten’d day” (“Thoughts Occasioned” 63). When and
to what degree should civil or military force be used against
citizens? Who has the authority to impress a male citizen into
naval service? What national interests justify the deployment of
troops on domestic or foreign soil? What is the appropriate
balance between personal liberty and national security? How can
the nation continue to participate in the slave trade? Winscom
addresses that final question directly in the penultimate poem
in the volume, “Thoughts on the Present Times; Written Some Time
after the Proclamation for the Late General Fast.” Written, as
the title suggests, as a similarly occasional poem, “Thoughts on
the Present Times” presents the plight of enslaved Africans as
comparable to the enslaved Israelites; accordingly England’s
ongoing engagement in military conflicts, “when thousands
undistinguish’d bleed,” are like the “vengeance cloth’d in
blood” delivered by God to “All who deny’d that Liberty” (9, 49,
52). Although Winscom still seeks divine interaction to break
“the dire oppressive band” that “have bound . . . Afric’s hapless
race” (55-56); she also finds hope in “Great
pity’s friend” (61). Urging him to “pursue thy grand design; /
Till horrid slavery shall end, / And Afric’s sons with
freedom shine” (62-64), Winscom expresses her hope that through
his efforts, “May truth and justice sway the
realm, / And each opposing voice destroy” (71-72).
<28> Ultimately we must ask what claims for
authority is Winscom making for herself as a poet? The opening
poem in the 1794 edition of
Poems on Various Subjects
modestly describes her verse as filled with “a thousand faults
and more” (2), a predictable rhetorical move. Yet the poems
within that volume offer criticism of British involvement with
the American War, detail her successful efforts in 1791 to raise
by subscription funds to get an impoverished widow out of
debtor’s prison, and repeatedly critique the moral atmosphere of
Bristol. These subjects suggest Winscom thought her specific and
direct engagement in the public sphere would have some measured
effect. Additionally, publishing “Thoughts Occasioned by Bristol
Bridge” separately and then also including it, revised, in the
fourth edition of Poems on Various Subjects, reveal she felt increasingly authorized
to comment specifically, directly, and immediately on the
situation in Bristol. Her ultimate conclusion defers to a higher
authority—God—and is perhaps typical of Bristol’s middling
“progressives” whose radical impulses are compromised by social
deference and an anxiety about social unrest. Yet her poems
demonstrate the wide reaches of the subject of women’s poetry
and their unflinching treatment of some of the most pressing
issues of the day. Ultimately she increasingly sought not just
to function within the public sphere as a spur to social change
or a voice of cultural memory; she also sought to reveal the
discrepancy between the cultural ideal—the high standard
demanded in the age of enlightenment—and the different cultural
realities her poems present.
<29> These Winscom poems, like many by her female contemporaries such
as Barbauld, Elizabeth Teft, the Falconer sisters, or Amelia
Opie (to name but a very, very few), contradict essentializing
discussions that look at women’s poetry as primarily
autobiographical. Although often personal responses to public
issues, these poets demonstrate women’s deep engagement in
imagining their world, and their position in it, differently.
They illustrate women’s awareness of the complexities of
domestic and foreign policies and the implications of the same
for the lives of citizens, adding a new dimension to our
understanding of women’s poetry and the cultural history of the
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