Son of a Bedminster boy became Oz's top outlaw
A bushranger is keeping an eye on Bedminster. Just as residents are dismayed as its "high street" is abandoned by Pied Piper shopping centres taking their customers, I sense its future will be safe due to sheer force of will, watched over as they are by incorrigible ancestors.
Ben Hall was himself run out of town just as life was going well before reluctantly becoming one of Australia's most liked bushrangers. He may be generally unknown in the West Country today – but his father Benjamin Hall was born in Bedminster, Bristol, in 1805. He was caught stealing to survive and transported to New South Wales where he became a respected farmer, married an Irishwoman. Ben was their fourth son.
The outlaw joins Bedminster's other famous sons, like tragic silver button-wearing Billy the Tinker; of unsuccessful over Niagara Falls in a barrel fame; and rag-and-bone-man George Harris and wife whose cart was pulled by a dog.
Thrilling as shiny multi-storey shopping centres are they can never have the high street's attributes: fresh air, fruit sellers shouting, fish shops, the proud ritual of necessary walking in the rain, chance meetings/nattering, junk-shops, secondhand bookshops, non-chain shops, cafés with tables outside, old convertible buildings, exciting shop-windows in Christmas darkness, news-stands, and busking involving tightropes and flames.
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Shopping centres are like the massive plazas and cold architecture of Brazil's showy capital Brasilia they started building in 1956. Its construction workers lived in a nearby 'free city', and when Brasilia was finished in 1960 when they were asked to move in they refused. They were happier in their own town, bustling with life; and it remains there today, population 36,472.
When Ben Hall was ten, an obituary in the New South Wales Western Examiner would write in 1867, he used to help his by now "well-to-do farmer" father with his livestock: "If he saw a calf dropped, he could in a year afterwards identify the cow and the calf, and locate them."
When married, Ben Hall's wife ran off with someone else and he was arrested for robbery by a policeman who disliked him, shocking other settlers he helped who "held him in high esteem for his enterprise and energy".
Found with a man "Hall did not know had just robbed the police station" he was chased but this time kept riding, formed a gang and was at large for three years, his racehorses always outpacing police horses.
Never shooting anyone he robbed, he once entertained townspeople with food and drink before leaving empty-handed.
When he ended up in court, the jury would acquit him.
But with a £1,000 price on his head at 28 and reputation one biographer attributed to his "reckless courage, courtesy to women, humour and hatred of informers" he was eventually ambushed and shot, his funeral, attracting 40-50 women, "rather numerously attended".
His father survived his own tough period despite Ben's own efforts being undermined by a lawman bent on proving his guilt, and other Bedminster characters joined them as examples of individuals prepared to do things their way, even if it involved a fight.
Independently minded Bedminster characters are also highlighted in A Bristol Panorama by Doreen Street.
"At the Bristol end of East Streey… Old Mother Pearce, whose cottage was next to the police station, cheekily took in 'shady individuals' (threepence a night). Italian Johnny Icecream claimed to be the first man to sell ice-cream at Weston-super-Mare, kids knowing he was coming on hearing his concertina; 'Paper Sally' sold newspapers in all weather; and South Liberty Lane coal miner Joe Wring won a bet that he couldn't "lift up a 14 stone [89 kg] man on his shovel".
And that is why East Street will live to see another day (like its neighbour, the transformed cosmopolitan heaven of North Street) as its prettier old buildings and spaces stand waiting to be converted into things I suspect the public needs, like housing, B&Bs, pubs, cafés, different shops and markets – plus places with foliage to sit in the sun.
If you hear horses' hoofs while this goes on, worry not. It will only be Ben Hall riding into town to see how you're doing.