The History of Bristol

Bristol owes its status to the sea. It was a port in Saxon times and it remains a port today. Bristol prospered on trade. Throughout the medieval period it vied with York as the largest English city after London. Today it is the largest city in South West England.

View of the Floating Dock, Bristol, by William Henry Bartlett 1836

View of the Floating Dock by William Henry Bartlett, 1836.

The very name of Bristol is a clue to its origins. The Saxons knew it as Brycg stowe, meaning the settlement by the bridge. Some of the world's greatest cities have grown up around the lowest bridgeable point on a major river. That position combines the advantages of riverine port and crossing - a meeting of the ways where a market can thrive. [More on Saxon Bristol.] Bristol was well placed to trade with Ireland. Sad to say, a major export was English slaves. Slavery was part of Saxon society.

The sea can bring raiders as well as trade, but Bristol, set on a tongue of land between the Rivers Avon and Frome, had natural defences. The Normans improved on nature. A massive castle was built to guard the landward approach to Bristol. The town itself was walled around too. Moreover siege tactics would be wasted on Bristol, which could bring in provisions by water.

Bristol was so successful a port that it needed to expand. By diverting the River Frome in 1239, the burgesses more than doubled their wharf space. It was an impressive feat of civil engineering for those times. At the same time the old Saxon bridge was replaced. The bridge linked the old town with the growing suburb of Redcliffe on the southern bank of the Avon. The development of Redcliffe meant that Bristol was divided between Gloucestershire and Somerset - an awkward arrangement. The problem was resolved in a unique way. Bristol became a county in 1373 by royal charter.

Its Corporation was dominated by the Guild of Merchants, which evolved into The Society of Merchant Venturers. The Society regulated Bristol's maritime trade for centuries. As a west-coast port, Bristol was well-placed to gain from the exploration and colonisation of the New World. Bristol merchants financed the Italian navigator Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) to sail west from Bristol in 1497 in his ship the Matthew. He discovered Newfoundland. Later ships left Bristol to found or support colonies in the New World.

By the 18th century Bristol was the principal British port for trade with the American colonies and the West Indies. Once again the city was involved in the slave trade. A common trade pattern was the transatlantic triangle. Manufactured goods from Bristol's rising industries were shipped to Africa, where slaves were picked up for transport to the West Indian and American plantations. Ships then returned to Bristol laden with sugar, molasses, tobacco, rum and cocoa. These imports fuelled the development of related industries in Bristol: sugar refining, chocolate making and cigarette making.

Bristol had grown wealthy through its harbour. Yet for centuries strong tides left vessels half buried in mud at low water. The problem was solved in the early 19th century, when a stretch of the River Avon was enclosed to create a deep water pool - the Floating Harbour. Even so the port declined. It was not ideally suited to the massive ships that new technologies were making possible. So new docks were built at Avonmouth in the 1870s. The Floating Harbour has now been transformed into a leisure marina. It is thronged each year for the Bristol Harbour Festival. Tall ships visit for the event, like ghosts of Bristol's past.

These pages mainly publish articles from past issues of The Bristol Magazine.

This map shows about 100 attractions in Bristol, including historic buildings. Zoom in and pan around to see them all. Click on the stars for more information. Then click on 'further details' to see a photograph and brief description at UKAttraction. The entries for Bristol were almost all supplied by me.