Although many Bristolians and performers had refused to enter the building because of its links to the slave trader Edward Colston, it was this year’s Black Lives Matter protests that finally tipped the balance of public opinion in favour of renaming.
The hall was built on the site of Colston’s former sugar refinery, part of a ‘triangular trade’ empire that accrued the vast fortune he used to fund his altruistic ambitions. The hall was not built with his money, though it replaced a school which he had endowed. Notwithstanding being burned to the ground twice, it became one of the country’s premiere auditoriums and hosted concerts by Sergei Rachmaninov, Arthur Rubenstein, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix among many others.
However, the taint of Colston’s enrichment through slavery was too much for many Bristolians who felt the name was a constant insult to the city’s extensive black community. Despite claims of censorship and the erasing of history, a project to find a new name started in 2017 after Bristol band Massive Attack refused to play the hall. When Black Lives Matter protesters tore down Colston’s statue on the Bristol quayside a few months ago, it was decided to change the name as soon as possible.
The city council and the Bristol Music Trust, which runs the hall, engaged with the whole Bristol community for ideas. Schools, creative organisations and Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees took part and a public consultation was carried out by the branding agency, Saboteur.
The Bristol Beacon was chosen because it described a focal point and gathering place for the city. ‘In this naming process we have the renewal of the soul of the building,’ said Mayor Rees.
Louise Mitchell, the Chief Executive of the Bristol Music Trust, said the renaming was a new chapter in the history of music and Bristol. ‘The Trust hopes that this moment serves as a fresh start for the organisation and its place in the city, with a focus on music performance and education,’ she said. ‘We believe in the power of music to break down barriers and cross boundaries. Bristol Beacon will celebrate this in everything we do.’
The Bristol Beacon is currently undergoing a £55 million refurbishment and the new name plates were installed in a naming ceremony on 23 September.