Long John Silver Trust

The History of Long John Silver With grateful thanks to Eugene Byrne for permission to use extracts from "Extracts from Bristol Myths and Legends – Tall Tales" copyright 2006.

From the era of the slave trade comes a character who may well turn into one of the most famous Bristol myth figures of all. Hop forward please, Long John Silver.

Long John Silver has, on first appearance, little to commend himself to Bristol. He was a Bad Guy, and more importantly he is a complete work of fiction, product of the pen of a Scottish novelist who didn't actually visit Bristol until after he had written 'Treasure Island'.

But we like Silver a lot. We like him so much that in recent years people ranging from the Bristol Civic Society through to a local anarchist newsletter have called for a statue of Silver to be set up somewhere in Bristol.

In 'Treasure Island' we first encounter Silver running a dockside pub with his black wife. Many Bristolians believe that Silver's pub is the Hole in the Wall on Queens Square or possibly the Llandoger Trow in King Street. Indeed, many Bristolians probably believe that Silver was a real historical character.

He is a powerful icon for all sorts of reasons, but which basically stem from the fact that Robert Louis Stevenson knew that to make the bad guy a bit more interesting, he had to make him a little bit good. In fact, it's only a pity that being a Victorian, he couldn't follow the corollary and make the good guys a little bit bad. Dr Livesey, Squire Trelawney and Jim Hawkins are all insufferably dull and upstanding when compared with the charismatic and amoral Silver.

So why not a statue to a fictional bad guy? Some say it would make a nice tourist attraction. Others say Silver is a real working-class hero. A disability rights campaigner said to me, "We like Long John Silver because it proves you can be disabled and be interesting as well. The one thing he's not is a victim."

The story starts in the pub, the "Spyglass", named because of the two slit windows let into the walls of a porch-like projection into the street, to enable a watch to be kept out for the dreaded "Press Gang". This was a gang of naval sailors who would invade a pub to find some unsuspecting drunk, and press a shilling into his hand. This 'acceptance' of the "Queen's Shilling" meant that the poor fellow would wake up on board ship, unable to leave only as a deserter, with the noose as penalty.

The "Hole in the Wall" pub still has its spyglass, hence its strong contention for the original "Spyglass" in Stevenson's book. However many pubs had such windows, and so the situation is not conclusive, especially as Stevenson did not visit Bristol until after publication.