The owner of a large hostelry seems an unlikely hero of the abolition movement, but John Weeks of the Bush Tavern was an extraordinary citizen. His pub was in the centre of the old city, opposite the Exchange on Corn Street from about 1773, and for 4 decades he was a flamboyant, patriotic, innovative and benevolent businessman. He made it famous for its belt busting Christmas dinners which included bald coots, sea pheasants, sulks, and pineapples. Also potted turtles which were popular with the Corporation and which he bred in the rector’s pond near his farm at Filton on the outskirts of the city. He was patronised by the Prince Regent.
He owned the adjoining coffee house where newspapers were available and politics and other great matters discussed. It was often used for auctions and sales. He also had a property in Broadmead with stables, coach houses and blacksmiths shops, so he had a very extensive business empire.
In 1775 coachmen refused to reduce the 2 day journey to London, so Weeks began a high speed service to the capital in a mere 16 hours. He then ran services to other provincial towns, becoming the city’s premier coachmaster, revolutionising travel in the West Country from an office in Broad Street.
Like other large inns, the Bush was used by politicians at election times, with opponents’ mobs often smashing their windows. In 1774 Edmund Bure and his whig supporters were there. When Henry Hunt – the firebrand orator later famous for his involvement in the Peterloo Massacre – sat as an independent against a pro-slavery candidate, Weeks did his catering at the Talbot Inn across Bristol Bridge.
But it was Weeks’s role in public celebrations that really makes him stand out. When Admiral Rodney arrived in Bristol in September 1782, his first landfall after the Battle of the Saints secured England’s hold over the French West Indies, he rested overnight at the Royal Fort Mansion overlooking the city.
About 6 o’cock he noble Admiral came to his city and alighted at Mr Tyndall’s.. News spread over the town and excited the utmost joy. Bells began ringing and continued to a late hour that night. A considerable party of respectable citizens processed in the evening from the Bush Tavern, each with a lighted torch, accompanied by a band of music – an incredible number of the inhabitants, to pay their respect to the gallant veteran. Soon after their admission to the inner gates of the Fort, the brave old man, attended by his honoured host, and some naval officers, appeared upon the steps outside the door, but it being understood that he was not sufficiently elevated there to be seen by all the visitors, he went up stairs and expressed from one of the windows (as well as gesture can express) the sense he entertained of their attachment to his person, and their intention of honouring him on his arrival. The most vociferous repetitions of applause were, after a moderate stay, succeeded by a very orderly retreat, from whence they paraded though Queen Square, and he principal pars of the city and returned in procession to the Bush Tavern which Mr Weeks .. had elegantly illuminated and so much was he elated by he appearance of a man in this city who had done such essential service to his country that he for that evening bid all his guests feely welcome, and liberally treated the population with liquor.
This may have been the first celebration in the city where nobody died through fights or falling into the harbour, so it seems Bristol was becoming a more civilised place.
The admiral was so impressed with his welcome he returned, and was met at Totterdown where Weeks organised a welcome procession including a 40 ton ship with swivel guns firing. He later organised processions to celebrate the end of the Napoleonic wars and to welcome Wellington to the city.
Weeks also patronised science, and in 1785 with Joshua Springer, Scientific Instrument Maker, tried to raise funds to launch a scientific ascent in a balloon. The money was not raised, but his farm, Rodney Hall, later became part of Rolls Royce aircraft works.
In 1787 a “remarkable Norway rat” was on display at the Bush which suckled milk from a cat. Weeks’ huge scrapbook of news clippings and handbills shows his impressive range of interests, especially his passion for theatre and literature.
When the theatre in King Street was applying for its patent i 1773 the petition could be signed at The Bush. Many abolition related plays were performed there. But his claim to abolition fame was his appearance – by public demand – at the Theatre Royal in a benefit for the Infirmary as Mungo in the hugely popular play The Padlock in June 1801. This role has often been derided as an early example of blackface, and for degrading African people, it made important points about the conditions and rights of slaves and Clarkson claimed it was one of the most important tools in the abolition cause.
In the early 19th century Weeks moved to Shirehampton, by then a country retreat for wealthy Bristolians, where he made the Lamplighters’ Inn a popular destination for daytrippers.
He seems to have been a highly respectable citizen, as an event in 1794 shows. A ‘respectable young surgeon’ named Richard Vining Perry was put on trial for his life for abducting and marrying at Gretna Green Clementine Clerke, a 14 year old at Miss Mills’s school on Park Street, formerly ran by Hannah More. Clerke was the niece of a Scottish mason who amassed a large fortune in Jamaica and on his death left his entire fortune to her. When the young couple fled, Miss Mills set off in pursuit with her brother and Mr Weeks. But when the affair was heard in court, the young woman declared herself perfectly happy with the match.
Weeks is buried in the cathedral, where his bell shaped memorial is high up in the cloister. His obituary in Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal compared him to the Prince of Denmark with “Take him for al in al, we shall not look upon his like again.”