When his home made the shortlist for the BBC’s A House Through Time, former ITV journalist Peter Cullimore was inspired to explore the untold stories of its former occupants for himself.
Drawing on a writing career which began as a student journalist at Leeds, and following the success of his first book, Peter (French and Spanish 1976) has now published a sequel which delves into the remarkable stories of doctors in Georgian Bristol – whose experience of a pandemic draws many parallels with our own.
“Leeds started it for me,” he says. “I wrote for the student newspaper, Leeds Student. I remember doing a double page spread about the City Varieties – I’d always had that interest in history.
I had a wonderful time, and some of my best memories are of the student community in Hyde Park.
“I was attracted to Leeds partly because The Who had famously just recorded their Live at Leeds album there, and it was a great choice. I had a wonderful time, and some of my best memories are of the student community in Hyde Park, going to the Hyde Park Picture House, socialising at the Royal Park – which was still there when I visited in 2019 – and of course, working on the newspaper.
“The newspaper connected me with like-minded individuals, and more or less helped me decide on my career in journalism.”
On leaving Leeds, Peter found work on a local newspaper in Cheltenham, before progressing to the Sheffield Telegraph and BBC Radio 4 programmes including World at One and the Today programme.
“Although there were memorable moments including interviews with the likes of Elton John and Cliff Richard, the highlight of my career was covering the health service in Wales for ITV for around 12 years,” he says. “I’d have been covering the COVID-19 pandemic now.”
Peter was unfortunately forced to retire early due to ill-health. “I loved my job. I wouldn’t have done anything else and I’d encourage anyone to give it a go if you’re willing to work hard. Journalism is more important now than it ever has been in the post-truth age – you need journalists to hold people to account and tell the truth as it really is.”
His journalism career, which spanned five decades, meant that the investigative work was nothing new when it came to starting his books.
Co-written by Peter and his wife Sue, and published by Bristol Books during UK lockdown restrictions, the book began after contact from the BBC’s A House Through Time – a programme which tells the stories of individual houses and the people who lived in them from the time they were built until now. “They shortlisted our house to the final three or four for the Bristol series,” Peter says, “but when they chose a different house to feature, we decided to follow the leads.”
The programme researchers provided Peter and his wife with the initial findings, and they were able to investigate further.
Home’s history in print
“In the first book, Saints, Crooks and Slavers, those stories include a shady French aristocrat whose parents were guillotined in the revolution, a Quaker philanthropist who twice married into slave-owning families, and the Phippen sisters who ran schools for destitute girls.
Its sequel, Pills, Shocks and Jabs, delves deeper into the stories of the dissenting doctors of Georgian Bristol. “These religious dissenters were inspired by a shared moral code, the desire to help the sick and needy and a lively interest in new scientific ideas.
“They were trying to find a jab to work against smallpox, and helped pave the way for Edward Jenner to create the smallpox vaccine. There were parallels with the modern day pandemic, and I speculate what the characters would be doing during pandemic if they were alive now.
“The presenter David Olusoga signed a copy of the first book, and in it he wrote, ‘We should have done yours’,” Peter laughs. “But I’m glad we’ve been able to share the fascinating stories either way.”
Find out more
Series four of A House Through Time featured a home in Leeds, which at one time was home to several University of Leeds students – some of whom returned for an episode. David Olusoga, who received an honorary degree from Leeds in 2018, also filmed some sequences in our Brotherton Library.