Welcome to Bristol
The ancient port city of Bristol is situated on the River Avon in the south west of England. For centuries as England’s second city and the major port of the maritime nation, Bristol prospered, a fact evident from its many architectural delights. Later due in large measure to the engineering genius of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Bristol was connected by rail to London and gained its landmark structure, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which opened up a new period for the city’s economic and cultural life. While today much of Bristol’s prosperity is the result of the its status as a location for media and new technology, Bristol (pop. 400,000) remains one of the most attractive of Europe’s waterfront cities.
From earliest times the area around Bristol has been marked by human activity. 60,000 year old artifacts left by hunter gatherers at nearby St Annes and Shirehampton, Stone Circles at Stanton Drew and iron age forts Clifton Downs and Leigh Woods testify to the area’s prehistoric heritage. The Roman era also left marks on the landscape at the nearby Inns Court and Sea Mills and traces of the Roman road to Bath.
Clifton Suspension Bridge across the Avon Gorge, Bristol
Permanent settlement at Bristol may owe its origins to those who gave it its enduring name; Bristol is derived from Brig Stow meaning “place by the bridge” in the old Saxon language. The Saxons settled this part of England in the centuries after their invasion, c.450 AD.
Although the presence of a mint and a population of about 4,000 testify to a town of some importance by 1066, it was in the years after the Norman conquest in which Bristol would truly flourish. After the conquest the town grew to supply the fort, built by William the Conqueror, to oversee the trade between the town and Devon, Somerset and Ireland. The castle was rebuilt in stone around 1120 and although demolished in 1650, its impressive ruins are worth a visit. The ascension of King Henry II (r.1154-1189) marked a turning point in Bristol’s history as a port. As ruler of large swathes of France, Henry’s coronation opened up Bristol to considerable new markets for local produce such as woolens and to a boom in the import of wine. Furthermore, after the conquest of Ireland in 1171, the people of Bristol were granted Dublin as a colony, a city with which they had long traded and with which they could now do so on more favourable terms. Bristol Cathedral is another architectural legacy of these centuries.
When the Italian explorer Giovanni Caboto (known as John Cabot in England) sailed out of Bristol Harbour in May 1497 on the small ship the Mathew, the town was already amongst the most important ports in England. The lands he ‘discovered’ in the Americas would by the 17th century promote Bristol to perhaps the most important port city in the world (his importance is celebrated by Cabot’s Tower on Brandon Hill). Bristol boomed, exporting butter, cheese, hides, lead, tin and glass, while importing sugar from the Caribbean and Tobacco from North America. Predictably, Bristol also became a major shipbuilding centre. The impressive old buildings of King’s Street provide a glimpse into what Bristol might have been like at this time.
Central to Bristol’s development in the 18th century was the slave trade. Insatiable demand for cheap labour on the plantations of the Americas made parliament realise that it could no longer justify the monopoly granted to London merchants in the trade of Africans and thus legalised the trade out of Bristol in 1698. Between 1698 and 1807 around 2,108 slaving ships were fitted out in Bristol. Such ships left Bristol for western Africa with manufactured goods such as muskets, gunpowder, brass, copper (whose demand was often a byproduct of the slave trade) which were sold to buy slaves. The slaves were taken to the Caribbean or North America and sold to buy sugar, tobacco, rum or cocoa which was brought back to Bristol and sold in domestic markets or re-exported to the continent. Until Liverpool started to dominate the trade in 1738, Bristol was the major slave trading port in England. Nonetheless, it has been estimated that over half a million Africans were sold legally by Bristol’s merchants between 1698 and abolition in 1807 and their healthy profits were at the core of Bristol’s development during this period and for a long time after the trade ceased.
The 19th century was a period of enormous change in Bristol. As a port Bristol was in decline, but the town was slowly industrialising. When the Tory dominated House of Lords rejected the Reform Bill in 1831, which would have extended suffrage to some of Bristol’s disenfranchised population, there was widespread rioting in Bristol and running battles with the Dragoons, which left hundreds dead and many more injured. This was the bloodiest battle on mainland Britain since Culloden and led directly to the eventual success of electoral reform.
In the same year Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed chief engineer of Bristol docks, and instigated a project which expanded the docks for larger more modern vessels. Two years later he was appointed as chief engineer of the Great Western Railway and was instrumental in bringing about the rail link between London and Bristol, which established his name internationally as perhaps the world’s finest engineer. Brunel’s legacy to Bristol includes the Temple Meads Old Station, the SS Great Britain (now an award winning museum) and of course the emblematic Clifton Suspension Bridge across the Avon Gorge, all designing feats of international renown. Perhaps most important is the legacy of the railway which has more than any other factor integrated Bristol with the successful economy of the south east of England. Today Bristol is an important base for the British aerospace industry, a centre for new technology and the media (the award winning Wallace and Gromit is filmed here). Bristol is also one of the most popular destinations for business relocation in the UK, due in part to the draw of this historically fascinating and beautiful waterfront city.