An Alternative History of Gloucester

Gloucester is simply the finest city in England.

No other city in Britain has a greater depth of history, nor a deeper canal except Manchester.

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 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, with 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 his pragmatism and flexibility or opportunism.

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 showed the need for social regeneration too. 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.

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 until the great post 2010 manufacturing and apprenticeships revival.

Meanwhile regeneration started in the Docks, with Peel’s commitment to Gloucester Quays and since 2010 has spread to Blackfriars, the Railway Triangle, empty factories in Barton & Tredworth and community buildings in Matson, Barton and elsewhere. Today’s Gloucester has record employment and thriving cyber, nuclear, and export businesses with thriving leisure activity and more retail.