The Strange Case of Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are among the top stories of the 19th century. After selling hundreds of thousands of copies since their first publication, the name Robert Louis Stevenson is recognised by a significant number of people. Despite being a popular author, Stevenson’s novels are better known than his own life, which proves just as interesting for those who take the time to read about him.

Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 13th November 1850 to Thomas Stevenson (1818-87) and Margaret Isabella Balfour (1829-97). On reaching 18, Stevenson changed the spelling of Lewis to Louis, then in 1873 dropped Balfour from his name. Thomas Stevenson worked as a lighthouse engineer, and his father, Robert Stevenson (1772-1850), after whom Robert Louis Stevenson was named, built several lighthouses around Scotland. The Stevenson family had a long history of lighthouse work, but the young Robert Stevenson chose not to follow that profession.

As an only childhood, Stevenson grew up under the protection of his nurse, Alison Cunningham “Cummy”. Stevenson inherited weak lungs from his mother’s side, and Cummy nursed him through several childhood illnesses, telling him stories from the Bible. Stevenson dedicated one of his future stories to Cummy, calling her “My second mother, my first wife. The angel of my infant life.”

Stevenson found it difficult to fit in at the local school, and because of his many illnesses, he did not learn to read until he was seven years old. Nonetheless, he loved to hear stories and frequently dictated his own to his nurse or parents. As soon as he could write, Stevenson compulsively composed stories throughout his childhood, an activity his father encouraged. At 16, Stevenson’s father helped him publish his first work, The Pentland Rising: A Page of History, 1666, which gave an account of the Covenanters’ rebellion. This was a tale recounted by his nurse many times during his bouts of ill health.

In 1867, Stevenson began studying engineering at Edinburgh University. Despite his love of writing, Stevenson’s father expected him to join the family business, but Stevenson showed no enthusiasm and avoided attending lectures. Instead, Stevenson joined The Speculative Society with other students at the university. The society predominantly focused on debates and public speaking, and Stevenson made friends with several people who encouraged his passion for storytelling.

To encourage his son to take his studies seriously, Thomas Stevenson took him on trips to various lighthouses during the summer months. This backfired when Stevenson enjoyed the experience because it gave him more writing opportunities, rather than evoking an interest in the engineering work. Although disappointed, Stevenson’s father agreed he could pursue a life of letters but insisted his son earn a degree in Law to provide some security.

As well as turning his back on engineering, Stevenson rejected religion, declaring himself an atheist. This decision appalled his parents, causing his father to proclaim, “You have rendered my whole life a failure.” Stevenson shocked them further by choosing to wear Bohemian clothing and grow his hair long.

In 1873, Stevenson visited his cousin in France, where he met Sidney Colvin (1845-1927), an art critic who became Stevenson’s literary adviser. Colvin set Stevenson on the path to fame by posting his article Roads in The Portfolio, a British art magazine. After returning to Great Britain, Stevenson spent time getting to know writers in London, including poet William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), who had an amputated left leg. Henley inspired Stevenson’s most famous character, Long John Silver (Treasure Island).

Toward the end of 1873, Stevenson returned to France to recuperate from an illness in Menton on the French Riviera. While in France, he spent time in artists colonies and visited many galleries and theatres. Back in Scotland, Stevenson qualified for the Scottish bar in 1875 but never practised law. Instead, he continued writing and travelling.

In 1876, Stevenson took a canoe voyage through Belgium and France with Walter Simpson, who he met at The Speculative Society in Edinburgh. The trip finished in Grez, North France, where he made the acquaintance of the American magazine writer, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne (1840-1914). She had recently moved to France with her children, Isobel and Lloyd, after separating from her husband. When Stevenson returned home, he could not stop thinking about Fanny, so went back to France the following year.

Fanny returned to America in 1878. That year, Stevenson conducted a lengthy walking trip, which he wrote about in Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879). Over twelve days, Stevenson walked 120 miles in the barren Cévennes mountains in south-central France. Several hikers have retraced Stevenson’s route, beginning in Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille and finishing at Saint-Jean-du-Gard. The journey, which Stevenson completed alone, cost him his health, although this did not prevent him from travelling on the steamship Devonia, to join Fanny in California.

Stevenson’s health deteriorated during the crossing of the Atlantic. Approaching death, local ranchers in Monterey, California, nursed him back to health until he felt fit enough to make his way to San Francisco, where Fanny lived. Unfortunately, Stevenson did not have much money and lived “all alone on forty-five cents a day, and sometimes less, with quantities of hard work and many heavy thoughts.” When he eventually reached the city, Stevenson was once again at death’s door. This time, the newly-divorced Fanny nursed him back to health.

In May 1880, Stevenson married Fanny. Whilst he had regained some of his health, he declared he felt like “a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom.” For their honeymoon, the couple spent the summer at an abandoned mining camp on Mount Saint Helena. Today, the area is known as Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. Stevenson’s parents were not overly pleased about the marriage, but after several trips to Britain, Fanny helped patch up the relationship between mother, father and son.

In 1884, Stevenson and his wife settled in Bournemouth, Dorset, where they purchased a cottage called Skerryvore. Still poorly, Stevenson spent a lot of time confined to his bed but enjoyed regular visits from the neighbouring author, Henry James (1843-1916). Despite his physical health, Stevenson felt able to write and produced many of his well-known works during his three years of bed rest.

Before settling in Dorset, Stevenson wrote, serialised and published one of his popular stories, Treasure Island. It is a story about pirates and a treasure hunt on a tropical isle. The story begins at the Admiral Benbow Inn in Bristol. Stevenson also mentioned other Bristol buildings, including Spyglass Tavern, which may be the present-day Hole in the Wall pub, and the Llandoger Trow, an historic public house dating from 1664. Stevenson aimed Treasure Island at children and started publishing chapters in the Young Folks magazine. Once all the chapters were written, it was printed as a book in 1883 by Cassell & Co. To date, it remains one of the most dramatised and adapted novels in history.

Also published in the Young Folks magazine from May to July 1886 was Kidnapped, a novel set during the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745. The full title of the story is Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751: How he was Kidnapped and Cast away; his Sufferings in a Desert Isle; His Journey in the Wild Highlands; his acquaintance with Alan Breck Stewart and other notorious Highland Jacobites; with all that he suffered at the hands of his Uncle, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, falsely so-called: Written by Himself and now set forth by Robert Louis Stevenson, yet that is a bit of a mouthful. Critics suspect Stevenson loosely based the story on James Annesley (1715-60), who was kidnapped by his uncle Richard and shipped from Dublin to America.

Another work written during Stevenson’s period of bed rest was the Gothic novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Aimed this time at adults, it is a short story about a lawyer investigating the strange occurrences surrounding his friend Dr Henry Jekyll and a sinister man called Edward Hyde. The book led to the turn of phrase, “Jekyll and Hyde”, to refer to someone with a dual nature: good and evil.

Critics continue to speculate the meaning behind Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Some interpret it as the examples of humanity versus animal or civilisation versus barbarism. Others suggest it demonstrates the difference between God and the Devil, or even the debate between Scottish nationalism and the union with England and Wales. The story also deals with the evils of addiction or substance abuse, which can corrupt a man. Stevenson left much of this up to the readers’ interpretation but said he had always been intrigued by how human personalities reflect both good and evil. He named one of the titular characters after his friend, Reverend Walter Jekyll (1849-1929), the younger brother of the renowned gardener, Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932).

Following his father’s death in 1887, Stevenson took his doctor’s advice and moved to a different climate. Taking his mother and family with him, Stevenson headed for the United States, where he spent the winter in the Adirondacks, New York. The Stevensons resided in a “cure cottage” intended for sufferers of tuberculosis. Now serving as a museum called Stevenson Cottage, Stevenson wrote some of his best essays while residing there on the Saranac Lake.

After not showing much sign of improvement, Stevenson decided to try a warmer climate. He set sail from New York in 1888, stopping first in Hawaii, where he befriended King Kalākaua (1836-91). Kalākaua, sometimes referred to as “The Merrie Monarch”, ran a choir called Kalākaua’s Singing Boys, who enjoyed performing for Stevenson and his family. Kalākaua also played the ukulele and was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 1997.

Stevenson returned to Hawaii several times while sailing around the Pacific on his hired yacht, Casco. When not in Hawaii, he visited the Gilbert Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand and the Samoan Islands. Stevenson recorded his experiences in letters, which were published after his death. He also spent time completing a novel, The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale, and a short story, The Bottle Imp. The latter is set in the Pacific, but the novel contains themes of piracy and the Jacobite rising of 1745.

During his voyages, Stevenson met several notable people, including Tembinok’ (1878-91), the High Chief of Abemama in the Gilbert Islands. The tyrannical chief allowed Stevenson and his family to stay on the island on the condition that they did not give or sell money, liquor or tobacco to his subjects. In his letters, Stevenson described Tembinok’ as “greedy of things new and foreign. House after house, chest after chest, in the palace precinct, is already crammed with clocks, musical boxes, blue spectacles, umbrellas, knitted waistcoats, bolts of stuff, tools, rifles, fowling-pieces, medicines, European foods, sewing-machines, and, what is more extraordinary, stoves.”

On Stevenson’s final trip from Australia to Samoa, he met “Tin Jack” Buckland (1864-97), a trader in the South Pacific. He told the family all about his adventures and almost set fire to the ship after some fireworks in his luggage accidentally went off. Stevenson used Tin Jack as the basis of a character in his novel The Wrecker (1892), which he wrote with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne (1868-1947).

In December 1889, the Stevensons arrived in Samoa, where they purchased 314¼ acres of land in the village of Vailima. They built the first two-storey building on the island and invited their extended family to live with them. Stevenson immediately immersed himself in the country’s culture, renaming himself Tusitala, which meant “Teller of Tales”. He collected stories from the locals in exchange for his own, which were translated into Samoan.

The more Stevenson learned about the Samoans, the more he understood the risk of colonisation by foreigners and higher powers, such as Britain, Germany and the United States. Putting his storytelling to one side, Stevenson used his knowledge of the law to write letters to The Times about European and American misconduct. He expressed his concern for the Polynesians, who feared the loss of their culture to foreign influences. For most of his life, Stevenson avoided politics, but after experiencing the situation in Samoa, he openly allied himself with chief Mata’afa Iosefo (1832-1912), whose rival Susuga Malietoa Laupepa (1841-1898) was supported by the Germans.

During his time in Samoa, Stevenson wrote over 700,000 words, completing several short stories and novels, including The Beach of Falesá (1892); Catriona (1893), the sequel to Kidnapped; and The Ebb-Tide (1894). Many of his works from this period reflect life in the South Pacific, although critics find many parallels with his earlier works. In 1894, he began working on Weir of Hermiston, about which Stevenson exclaimed, “It’s so good that it frightens me.” Whilst the story is set in Scotland during the Napoleonic Wars, Stevenson incorporated examples of Samoan culture. Although he felt it was his best work, Stevenson never had the chance to finish it.

On 3rd December 1894, Stevenson turned to his wife and exclaimed, “What’s that? Does my face look strange?” and promptly collapsed. Within a few hours, he passed away from a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 44. The Samoans insisted on guarding his body through the night and carrying him on their shoulders to Mount Vaea for his burial the following day.

As per Stevenson’s request, his tombstone was inscribed with his own words:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

The epigraph was translated into Samoan and sung as a song of grief.

Stevenson was a celebrity of his time and admired by many authors, including Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.M. Barrie and Ernest Hemingway. G. K. Chesterton, the creator of the fictional priest-detective Father Brown, declared that Stevenson “seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing spillikins.” Spillikins is another name for the game Pick-up Sticks. Unfortunately, as time passed, a lot of Stevenson’s work was forgotten, with only Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde remaining popular. He was excluded from the first seven editions of The Norton Anthology of English Literature until his name was resurrected in 2006.

Since its publication, Treasure Island has been labelled a children’s book, yet American film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 1996, “I was talking to a friend the other day who said he’d never met a child who liked reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Neither have I … But I did read the books later, when I was no longer a kid, and I enjoyed them enormously …The fact is, Stevenson is a splendid writer of stories for adults, and he should be put on the same shelf with Joseph Conrad and Jack London instead of in between Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan.” After reevaluating Stevenson’s work in the late 20th century as adult literature, critics declared his writing superb, ranking him the 26th-most-translated author in the world, coming just below Charles Dickens in 25th place.

Robert Louis Stevenson is commemorated across the world for his contribution to literature and his insight into Samoan politics. The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh devotes an entire room to the author, which is filled with some of his possessions. Other memorabilia is located at Stevenson House in California and the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, located in his former home in Samoa.

In 2013, the Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin unveiled a statue of Stevenson as a child with his dog outside Colinton Parish Church. There is also a bronze relief memorial to Stevenson in St Giles’ cathedral. Another statue is located in Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, and six US schools bear his name. To mark the 100th anniversary of Stevenson’s death in 1994, the Royal Bank of Scotland issued a series of commemorative £1 notes.

Robert Louis Stevenson is no longer forgotten, at least in name, and his books are widely read across the globe. Yet, as is the case with many well-known names, Stevenson’s life proves just as interesting as his stories. He touched many lives in his relatively short life and achieved more than the average person despite his many illnesses. For that, he should receive as many accolades as his written work.


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Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part One

Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) has returned to the South Western city of Bristol for more adventures. On his last trip, he visited the cathedral, Clifton Suspension Bridge, the SS Great Britain, Bristol Aquarium and the M Shed, but there was still so much left to explore. After patiently waiting out another Covid-19 lockdown, the double-vaccinated gibbon made his great escape in the back of a Vauxhall Corsa. Having returned from his latest adventure, Simeon wishes to tell you everything he discovered.

Broadmead and Castle Park

Simeon’s favourite way of exploring a city is by taking part in a Treasure Trail. Last year, Simeon solved a murder mystery, but this time, he received instructions about a TOP SECRET spy mission. An Eastern bloc spy ring called the “Trojans” had attacked the computers of Bristol businesses and were demanding a ransom of £10 million. The only way to avoid paying the ransom was to discover a four-digit code. Agent Simeon, under the code name “Achilles”, immediately started searching for clues and discovered some interesting facts about Bristol along the way.

The trail began in Broadmead, a street in the shopping district of the city. Originally called Brodemede as far back as 1383, the name may mean “broad meadow”, referring back to its pre-city times. Alternatively, it may refer to brodemedes, a type of cloth once woven in Bristol. In the 18th century, a shopping arcade was built in Broadmead, but the area received significant damages during the Second World War. Rebuilding began in the 1950s, and today, Broadmead is home to a shopping centre called Cabot Circus, which opened in September 2008.

In 1227, a man named Maurice de Gaunt founded a Dominican priory called Blackfriars on Broadmead. Its name describes the black hooded cloaks of the friars who inhabited the building. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, the friars surrendered the buildings and contents to Henry VIII (1491-1547). Two years later, William Chester, the Mayor of Bristol purchased the buildings from the king.

During the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), the Smiths and Cutlers Company bought the old priory and leased parts of the buildings to other organisations, for instance, a workhouse for poor girls. During the 17th century, the Religious Society of Friends acquired the premises and became known as the Quaker Friars. Only part of the original priory remains standing today. During the 20th century, the building housed the Bristol Register Office. In recent years, it has become home to a restaurant.

Llywelyn ap Dafydd (c.1267-1287), the eldest son of the then Prince of Wales, was buried in the priory grounds after a four-year imprisonment in Bristol Castle. This information confused Simeon because he could not see a castle anywhere. The matter was soon cleared up after Simeon carefully crossed the road to Castle Park.

Situated in Castle Park is the partially excavated remains of the stone keep and two preserved vaulted chambers of Bristol Castle. It was built in the Norman era to protect the walled city of Bristol from attack. The original castle, a timber motte and bailey, was presumably built on the orders of William the Conqueror (1028-87). It was strategically placed between the River Avon and the River Frome and surrounded by an artificial moat.

The castle was later rebuilt in stone and became the possession of Robert of Gloucester (1090-1147), the half-brother of Empress Matilda (1102-67), the legitimate heir to the throne. During Matilda’s fight with her cousin, Stephen (1092-1154) over the English crown, Matilda appointed Robert as her trusted right-hand man. Bristol Castle became a notable location in the war. Stephen was briefly captured and imprisoned in the castle but released in exchange for other prisoners. When Stephen became king, he thought little of the city of Bristol and the castle remained Robert’s property.

When Robert of Gloucester died, the castle and title passed down to his son William (1116-83). Unfortunately, William fell foul of King Henry II (1133-89), who confiscated Bristol Castle, making it a possession of the crown. As a result, the castle became one of the most important in the country. King John’s (1166-1216) sons received their education at Bristol Castle, including the future Henry III (1207-72), who added a barbican, gate tower and great hall during his reign.

By the 16th century, Bristol Castle showed signs of neglect, as recorded by the English poet, John Leland (1503-52). He wrote a description of the castle, noting its dungeons, church and domestic quarters, but revealed, “Many towers still stand in both the courts, but they are all on the point of collapse.” Bristol Castle had fallen into disuse and, after the civil war, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) ordered the destruction of the castle in 1645.

The land on which the castle once stood is used as a public park today. In the centre stands the ruins of St Peter’s Church, which was bombed during the Bristol Blitz on the night of 24th November 1940. The church foundations date back to 1106, but the majority of the building was constructed in the 15th century. Excavations after the Second World War revealed St Peter’s may have been the first church built in Bristol.

The majority of the church walls are still standing, but the roof and interior suffered severe damages. Rather than demolish the rest of the building, the city maintains St Peter’s Church as a memory of the civilians who died during the Bristol Blitz. A plaque on the south wall of the church lists the 200 Bristolians who lost their lives on the night of the Blitz. Nearby, another plaque remembers the names of citizens from Bristol who died fighting against the Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

St Peter’s is not the only church destroyed during the Bristol Blitz. Temple Church in the Redcliffe district of the city, which Simeon visited towards the end of his trip, remains an empty shell and is protected by English Heritage. Fortunately, the unique bell tower survived the bombing. Constructed between 1441 and 1460, the tower leans towards the left due to subsidence. During the construction, builders noticed the lower sections sinking into the ground and attempted to correct it by building the upper section at a different angle. The reason for the subsidence was due to the soft alluvial clay beneath the foundations, which was compressed by the weight of the stone.

The destruction of the church revealed the foundations of a previous round nave from the 12th century. This belonged to the Knights Templar, who received the land from Robert of Gloucester. After the suppression of the Templars, the Knights Hospitaller took over the building in 1313. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the church became the property of the crown, but the Bristol Corporation managed to purchase it from the king in 1544.

Back on the spy trail, Simeon trekked through the Physic Garden running parallel to St Peter’s ruined nave. Replacing a neglected sensory garden, the Physic Garden was planted by the luxury fragrance brand Jo Malone London in 2015 as part of a global charity initiative to support people living with mental ill-health and physical disabilities. Designed to nourish and nurture, the garden is a peaceful haven for rehabilitation and recovery. Jo Malone London also supported the homelessness charity St Mungo’s to create the Putting Down Roots (PDR) programme, which encourages the homeless and jobless to help maintain the garden, earn qualifications in horticulture, and seek permanent employment.

Behind the church, Simeon was excited to discover a feature called Beside the Still Waters. Two Kilkenny limestone fountains sit in small ponds, which are joined together by a narrow channel of water. At one end, the carved stone resembles a pine cone, and at the other, the stone has a cinquefoil form, giving it the appearance of a garlic bulb. The feature was created by Peter Randall-Page (b.1954), who has public work on display in several locations, including London and Cambridge. Randall-Page focuses on the geometry of his designs, which he explains “is the theme on which nature plays her infinite variations”.

Simeon was intrigued to discover another sculpture nearby of a throne made of Normandy limestone. While inspecting it for clues for his spy mission, Simeon found giant footprints at the base of the throne. Simeon is now convinced that giants once roamed the city of Bristol, but this sculpture was commissioned in the early 1990s during the new landscaping of Castle Park. The sculptor is Rachel Fenner, who takes inspiration from ancient natural and archaeological sites of Britain.

With no time to worry about the existence of giants, Simeon hurried on through Castle Park – he had spies to catch! He even resisted climbing the five Silver Birch trees planted in memory of the five D-Day landing beaches, code-named Juno, Gold, Sword, Utah and Omaha. Nor did Simeon notice the memorial trees for Anne Frank and the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the centre of the park stands another sculpture, which Simeon paused at to sniff for clues. Unveiled by the Bristol Civic Society in 1993 to provide drinking water, the bronze fish fountain was created by ceramic artist Kate Malone. The water spouts, which poured out of the mouths of the fish, were later turned off when they failed the updated Water Regulations Advisory Scheme. Plans to refurbish the fountain are underway, so hopefully Malone’s work will function once again.

Whilst combing through the rest of Castle Park for clues, Simeon spotted a couple more things of note, such as several bird and bug boxes hanging on a wall. Opposite this, an S-shaped footbridge takes people across the Floating Harbour to the Finzels Reach development. The bridge opened in 2017 and, in Simeon’s opinion, is far more attractive than some of the industrial-style bridges. Unfortunately, Simeon did not have time to cross the bridge – he had spies to catch – but he was able to enjoy the experience later in the week.

Situated on the harbour is a floating ballast seed garden called Seeds of Change. Ballasts were frequently unloaded from trading ships in the harbour between 1680 and 1900. They often contained seeds of plants from all the countries the ships had visited, some of which flourished after arriving in Bristol. In 2007, Bristol invited Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves (b.1961) to exhibit her work in an exhibition at the Arnolfini gallery. During her stay, Alves dug up some of the remaining ballasts and extracted the seeds, which she grew and displayed in the gallery.

In 2010, Bristol invited Alves back to the city to develop a permanent ballast garden. A disused barge in the Floating Harbour was selected as the location of the garden, and with the help of German designer Gitta Gschwendtner, Alves chose several plants grown from seeds by participating schools and organisations. These plants arrived in Bristol from all over the world and include figs, asphodels and squirting cucumbers. Admittedly, the Seeds of Change garden did not look all that impressive to Simeon, but many new plants may flourish between now and September. 

Having collected all the clues he needed from Castle Park, Simeon returned to Broadmead, where he enjoyed following a snake-like blue line along the pavement. Along the way, he rested his weary legs on stone spheres decorated with blue mosaic tiles. This installation refers to Bristol’s famous blue glass, produced in the city in the 18th and 19th centuries. ‘Bristol Blue’ glass was mostly used for medicine bottles, and the landscaping firm Reckless Orchard recycled many of these to create the blue bricks seen along Broadmead.

Great work, Simeon! You have managed to solve all the clues, worked out the code and stopped the Trojans. Simeon patted himself on the back and set off in search of some well-deserved tea and cake.

Treasure Island Trail

Being the adventurous little gibbon that he is, Simeon sought out another treasure trail to follow around Bristol. Put together by the Long John Silver Trust, the trail takes intrepid explorers around parts of Bristol’s harbour to celebrate the city’s connection with Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850-94) classic novel Treasure Island (1882). Simeon’s task was to locate eight wooden barrels, upon which he would learn a bit about both the book and the city.

Simeon located the first barrel outside the old Merchant Venturers’ Almshouses. Built in 1699, the houses accommodated many sailors, including William Williams, the first person to introduce a pirate treasure map in his book The Journal of Llewellin Penrose, a Seaman. Stevenson incorporated the idea for his novel, which involved pirates, treasure hunting and a young lad from Bristol.

Treasure Island begins at the Admiral Benbow Inn on the Bristol Channel, where an old sailor named Billy Bones warns the innkeeper’s son, Jim Hawkins, to keep a lookout for “a one-legged seafaring man”. On Simeon’s walk through Bristol, he came across the Llandoger Trow, a historic public house built in 1664. It is this building that inspired Stevenson to invent the Admiral Benbow Inn. It is also where English writer Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) met Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721), a Scottish privateer who spent four months stranded on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific Ocean. Intrigued by Selkirk’s story, Defoe wrote one of the first English novels, Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk may also be the inspiration for Stevenson’s character Ben Gunn.

In the book, a blind beggar visits Billy Bones to give him “the black spot”. This is a summons to share a map leading to buried treasure. Shortly after, Bones suffers a stroke and dies, and the beggar and other men attack the inn in search of the map. Jim finds the treasure map first and escapes. After sharing his find with Squire Trelawney and Dr Livesey, they secure a ship called the Hispaniola to seek the treasure, but first, they need to hire a crew. In a fictional Bristol pub called The Spy-Glass, they meet the landlord, Long John Silver, who offers his services as a cook. Jim is a bit wary because Silver only has one leg, and he recalls Billy Bones’ warning. 

Stevenson described The Spy-Glass as having a spy hole through which people could warn others of the presence of press gangs or slave traders. In Bristol, Simeon came across a pub called The-Hole-in-the-Wall, the only known pub in the country to have a spy hole feature. It is likely Stevenson based The Spy-Glass on this pub, which has other similar features, including doors leading on to separate streets so that patrons could make a swift exit. Fortunately, Simeon did not see any one-legged seafaring men in the area.

The Treasure Island Trail took Simeon to Redcliffe Wharf, where he learned of the many barrels loaded onto and taken off ships in the harbour. In the book, Jim Hawkins finds himself trapped in a barrel when he overhears Long John Silver’s plans to find and keep the treasure for himself. Simeon shuddered at the thought of getting trapped inside one of the barrels on the trail. Fortunately, they also function as plant pots, so there was no danger of Simeon falling in.

On the trail, Simeon heard about a real-life pirate who grew up in the Redcliffe district. Edward Teach (1680-1718), better known as Blackbeard, served on an English ship in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), after which he became a notorious pirate. He attacked merchant ships and stole their goods, weapons and valuables. Fortunately, there is no record of Blackbeard killing anyone. (“Phew!” thought Simeon.) Blackbeard’s second-in-command, Israel Hands, also known as Basilica Hands, inspired Stevenson’s character of the same name, a villainous sidekick of Long John Silver.

Simeon thoroughly enjoyed the Treasure Trail spy mission and the Treasure Island Trail. It was a lot of walking for such a small gibbon but he learned a lot of information about Bristol. Simeon still had several days to enjoy in the city, but first, he needed a nice long rest. He will tell you about the rest of his trip next week. See you then!

Read about Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden
Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure
Simeon Conquers York
Simeon’s Bristol Highlights


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