Undoubtedly Bristol Docks have been constantly changing over time but, what the significant changes were and, how many ages there were, is a matter of conjecture and opinion. So the following is a gross simplification trying to portray the evolution over history.
1st Age. X Million Years Ago – There is a river plunging to the sea.
It is cutting a gorge through a ridge mainly of limestone, with some sandstone which will eventually become the Avon Gorge (“Avon” is is from the Welsh word afon, “river”).
“Probably the most remarkable thing which is noticed by anyone studying a relief map of the Bristol district for the first time is the way in which the river Avon and one of its tributaries, the Trym, seem to defy natural laws. Both seem to refuse to take the natural way to the sea, and instead of following the lower ground, break through great masses of limestone, carving remarkable gorges for themselves in the process.”
(HG Brown and PJ Harris Bristol England – City of a Thousand Years 1971)
The gorge cuts through a ridge mainly of limestone, with some sandstone. This particular ridge runs from Clifton to Clevedon, 10 miles away on the Bristol Channel coast. The fossil shells and corals indicate that the limestone formed in shallow tropical seas 350 million years ago.
2nd Age. X Thousand Years Ago – England became inhabited by people who make boats for transport and fishing.
Coracles used for fishing may date back to the Bronze Age or 3000 BC
In October 2018 it was reported that a 23-metre ship had been discovered in the Black Sea that archaeologists said had lain undisturbed for more than 2,400 years.
King Alfred built ships to repulse the Danes and encouraged the development of fortified towns. Alfred the Great was King of Wessex from 871 to 899. He also styled himself “King of the Anglo-Saxons”.
“It is very probable that Bristol was one of the towns founded about the time of Alfred the Great.”
(HG Brown and PJ Harris Bristol England – City of a Thousand Years 1971)
3rd Age. 1200 to 1700 – Development of the Port of Bristol.
Although Bristol was a port beforehand, the first major development was between 1240 to 1247 when the course of The River Frome (Froom) was substantially altered to improve the amount of wharves available. The trench required was nearly half a mile long, about 40 yards wide and 18 feet deep, carrying the Frome out to join the Avon at Canons Marsh.
Although it was not until the late 16th century that the slave trade with West Africa developed, it is worth noting that there was a much older history of slave trading with Ireland. In The Port of Bristol in the Middle Ages by JW Sherborne – 1971 – Bristol Historical Association he says:
‘One aspect of Bristol’s trade with Ireland during the eleventh century was a traffic in slaves, which aroused the opposition of Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester (1062-95). According to Wulfstan’s biographer the men of Bristol often sailed to Ireland and their trade in slaves was ‘a very ancient custom’ which they were reluctant to abandon. After a long campaign of preaching, however, Wulfstan brought it to an end.’
Redcliffe and Bedminster were incorporated into the city in 1373. Edward 111 proclaimed “that the town of Bristol with its suburbs and precincts shall henceforth be separate from the counties of Gloucester and Somerset and be in all things exempt both by land by sea, and that it should be a county by itself, to be called the county of Bristol in perpetuity”.
This joined together the separate ports into the jurisdiction of Bristol City.
The Port of Bristol by Andy King says Bristol was the most important port after London by the 1400s.
Merchant Venturers of Bristol in the 15th Century by Professor EM Carus-Wilson opined:
“The Cinque Ports must have envied Bristol the seclusion which gave it immunity from foreign invasion and constant assault by pirates. And while this tortuous gorge guarded against violation by sea, protection from attack by land was easily secured between the encircling Avon and its tributary the “lusty Frome.” Where the two rivers met lay Bristol, and to this natural moat was added a turreted wall, pierced by four gateways each crowned by a stately church. From them four streets led to the central market cross, round which stood three more venerable churches and the ancient Tolsey Court*. By the fifteenth century, however, Bristol had grown far beyond the circle of those city walls. Across the picturesque bridge over the Avon, with its shops and gabled houses, lay a busy industrial suburb.”
*The Tolsey Court, meeting in the Tolsey (a word meaning ‘toll house’) built at the side of St Ewen’s church near the High Cross, had particular jurisdiction over commercial matters.
‘In England, and later the United Kingdom, the ubiquity of wars and the island nation’s reliance on maritime trade enabled the use of privateers to great effect. England also suffered much from other nations’ privateering. During the 15th century, the country “lacked an institutional structure and coordinated finance”. When piracy became an increasing problem, merchant communities such as Bristol began to resort to self-help, arming and equipping ships at their own expense to protect commerce. The licensing of these privately owned merchant ships by the Crown enabled them to legitimately capture vessels that were deemed pirates. This constituted a “revolution in naval strategy” and helped fill the need for protection that the Crown was unable to provide.’
In 1552 King Edward V1 granted a Royal Charter to the Merchant Venturers to manage the port.
In answer the king granted a charter, incorporating the old fellowship with the title of the Merchant Venturers of Bristol, giving the company self-government, providing that no artificer or any other person should engage in commerce beyond seas, unless he was admitted into the company, and that right to admission should only be obtained by apprenticeship to the mistery of the merchants. One effect of this grant was, to shut out men of small means from making little ventures on their own account. From henceforth the foreign trade of the city was to be under the control of a society, which naturally opened its doors to few save the rich and the sons of its members.
Historic Towns Bristol – William Hunt – 1889
Trade with the Americas and West Indies
Meanwhile, as early as 1625, two Bristol merchants, Robert Aldworth and Giles Elbridge, both, probably, men of puritan views, had an agent in the Pemaquid* country, and in 1632 they received a grant from the council of New England Of 1,200 acres near the Pemaquid river, with 100 additional acres for every person they brought over, on condition that they built a town and maintained a colony. The connexion of our city with the coast of Maine, which was strengthened by the grant of New Somersetshire to Sir Ferdinando Gorges, is commemorated by a Bristol in the Pemaquid peninsula; and a county in Massachusetts, and towns in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and other States also bear its name. Before the end of the century, Bristol was doing a large business in the importation of sugar and tobacco from the Southern colonies. A trade of the same character with the West Indies was opened to us by the colonisation of Barbados, the conquest of Jamaica by Cromwell, and the decline of the Spanish power. The Western plantations were cultivated by slave labour, and Bristol ships were largely engaged in the trade in negro slaves. Not content with this, towards the end of the seventeenth century, When, according to Roger North, all persons, even the common shopkeepers, more or less traded to the American plantations,’ the aldermen and justices of the city used to transport criminals, and even slight offenders, and sell them as slaves, or put them to work in their plantations in the West Indies.
Historic Towns Bristol – William Hunt – 1889
4th Age. 1700 to 1800 – Peak Port.
At the end of the 1600s, Bristol merchants broke into the lucrative Africa trade, transporting trade goods, including cooking pots and guns, to West Africa, exchanging these for enslaved African people and carrying them to the West Indies and America. There they were sold to buy sugar, tobacco and other luxury goods grown on plantations.
“Bristol trade was carried on in ships built in the port
and manned from the city. The chief course of trade
was the export of home productions to Africa, where
they were used in the purchase of Negroes. The value.
of each slave was expressed in bars of iron, the average
price on the Calabar coast in 1727 being no more than
about 17 bars at 3s. 3d. a bar. After it had got rid of
its cargo of goods and taken in a human cargo, the ship
sailed for the West Indies. The horrors of that passage
need not be descanted on here: the hold was crammed
to suffocation, and sickness and cruelty thinned the
numbers during the voyage. Cheaply bought, a few
slaves more or less at the end was no great matter,
and no other consideration than money entered into
the minds of the traders. At the West Indies the
slaves were sold, and the ship returned laden with the
produce of the islands and the American colonies, sugar,
tobacco, indigo, cotton, and ginger, which were dispersed
through the kingdom or exported to Ireland and foreign
parts in Bristol ships.”
Historic Towns Bristol – William Hunt – 1889 (Page 172)
In 1737 Bristol overtook London as the number one slaving port with 37 voyages in the year. In 1747 Liverpool with 49 voyages overtook Bristol with about 20.
A statue to one of the leading slave traders, Sir Edward Colston ( 1636-1721) was erected in bronze on a Portland stone plinth, in the centre of Bristol in 1895. It was designated a grade two structure in 1977. On June 7th 2020 it was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters, reflecting the changed attitude to the slave trade.
By the 1750s most merchants traded directly with the Caribbean rather than transporting African people as there were fewer risks. At this time, too, Bristol regained its place as second port in the kingdom, but was quickly overtaken by Liverpool and other new ports before the end of the century.
5th Age. 1800 to 1960 – Declining Port?
By 1800 Bristol’s Port was on the wane compared to others around the country. The slave trade was abolished by Act of Parliament in 1807.
A main driver for this decline was the increasing size of ships. They had to contend with seven miles of winding river with strong currents and a very high tidal range. When the ships reached the quays and wharves they got beached in the mud by the tide and loading and unloading was very difficult. Many ideas on how to solve these problems were considered.
The entrance ‘chamber’ would have been at Canon’s Marsh rather than the Hotwells site eventualy chosen for the Cumberland Basin.
Eventually the solution to these problems was seen as the digging of the cut for the new route of the River Avon between Ashton and Totterdown and the creation of The Floating Harbour from Rownham around to Totterdown Basin. The work began in 1804 and was completed in 1809 following a plan by Jessop. This made a huge difference to the loading and unloading but did nothing to improve the journey along the Avon to the sea.
In July 1843 the SS Great Britain was launched as the largest ship made in Bristol Docks but it could not get out of the docks for fitting out as the lock gates at Cumberland Basin were too small. The SS Great Britain spent seventeen months moored at Mardyke Wharf while this was rectified before going for fitting out. It was then a further five months before she made her maiden voyage to New York in 1845.
The Merchant Venturers were generally regarded as making a hash of running the docks and in 1848 Bristol Corporation took over in a bid to halt the decline.
This engraving depicts the ship Glenbervie on a mission to pick up coal from South Wales to take to Cuba. Trying to save money on pilots he took the wrong route leaving the harbour via Bathurst Basin and got stranded on the ebbing tide a half mile down river.
The SS Demerara was the second largest ship launched in Bristol Docks in 1851. On November 10th, 1851, the Demerara was wrecked in the Avon through careless navigation. She was late on the tide, which had begun to ebb. The tug was started at the dangerously high speed of seven or eight miles an hour, in the hope of making up for lost time. She ended up on the rocks at Sea Walls.
In 1877 Avonmouth Docks opened with its access direct to the Bristol Channel.
She was towed down the River Avon by the tug Sea King but shortly after passing under Clifton Suspension Bridge she struck rocks and mud on the Bristol bank. She listed over and blocked the river.
The Avon at Sea Mills – West and East – at low tide.
In 1879 Portishead Docks opened also with its access direct to the Bristol Channel.
In 1884 the writing was clearly on the wall with regard to Bristol City Docks and large ships and the Corporation took over Avonmouth and Portishead Docks so they could be run in conjunction.
In 1907 The Royal Edward Dock was built at Avonmouth giving even better facilities directly on the Bristol Channel.
PBAN662 1955Aerial view of City Docks from Temple Meads west to Baltic Wharf
PBAN622 view of Bristol City Docks taken from eastern side, from Bathurst Basin to Cumberland Basin in distance. Handbook 1957 and 1958. Ship Shape March 1960.
6th Age. 1960 to 1980 – Industrial Wasteland.
On 26 April 1956, Malcolm McLean’s converted World War II tanker, the Ideal X, made its maiden voyage from Port Newark to Houston in the USA. It had 58 steel containers on deck and is regarded as the start of containerisation. By the 1960s it was becoming the norm for goods to be transported in containers which were much more economical to load and unload. The larger container ships were just too big to navigate the Horse Shoe Bend on the Avon further undermining Bristol City Docks as a major port. It went into steep decline.
Ian Bell’s Dockers Lament captures the spirit of the time:
You can listen to other Docker reminiscences at this web site:
Important stages in the docks decline were:
In 1965 Merchants Dock was blocked off and filled in 1967.
In 1972 to 1977 The Royal Portbury Dock was built.
In 1976 Miranda Guinness was the last new ship launched from Charles Hill Albion yard.
In 1969, Bristol city council announced plans to close the docks.
Having once been the lifeline for trade in and out of the city, by the 1960s most of Bristol’s cargo was instead going through the port down the river at Avonmouth. The city centre docks were losing a great deal of money, so the council planned to fill in a section the size of 83 football pitches. This was to be used for roads and offices galore.
With the closure of the docks they became derelict and empty of life. The M32 roundabout would be situated over St Augustines Reach with other large traffic intersections surrounding the Great Western Dockyard, the Gas Works and M-Shed. These plans were thankfully blocked following widespread public protests.
Local groups took up the fight to save the docks, and an early weapon in their armoury was the first Harbour Festival in 1971.The event grew in size and importance as the years passed, and even when plans to tamper with the docks were shelved, the festival carried on.
In 1996 the festival hosted the first International Festival of the Sea, bringing in tall ships from international waters. That tradition continued with two visiting vessels in 2018 from the Netherlands and France.
Powerboat Racing was an important leisure activity between 1972 and 1990 when it was deemed too dangerous.
The Bush Warehouse was shortly to be converted for use as the Arnolfini arts centre, which opened the following year.
On the left T Shed still stands (demolished late 1970s), along with an old lamp standard.
7th Age. Leisure and Housing from 1980
In the 1970s an Arts Centre built by enthusiasts in King Square Bristol became the first of the British Film Institute’s Regional Film Theatres. The founders ran the venue with dedication and passion, but the building was in a state of disrepair and due to a lack of funding its future was uncertain.
In the early 1980s, the City was looking to regenerate the derelict docks area. In partnership with the British Film Institute, JT Group, and Bristol City Council, funding was secured to expand and relocate the Arts Centre into Watershed’s current home with a new focus on media – particularly film and photography.
Watershed opened its doors in 1982 and declared itself to be ‘Britain’s First Media Centre’ seeking to capture and contextualise the shift in media at the point when satellite TV and Channel 4 were starting up.
Arnolfini is Bristol’s arts house located on the harbourside in the heart of the city.
Founded in 1961, the organisation is dedicated to producing and presenting visual arts, performance, dance, film, music and events, underpinned by a commitment to a dynamic civic role in the city.
The Arnolfini was established in 1961 by Jeremy Rees, Annabel Lawson and John Osborn – above a bookshop on the Triangle in Bristol. Its purpose was to create a place where all the contemporary arts could coexist and interact in order to stimulate creativity, to provoke thought and to give pleasure to a wide range of people.
After brief periods in Queen’s Square and W-shed on Bordeaux Quay (now home to Watershed), Arnolfini moved to its current premises, Bush House, in 1975, a near-derelict Grade II listed warehouse on the quayside of Bristol’s floating harbour. With Bristol’s docks closed to commercial traffic in 1975, Arnolfini provided a catalyst in attracting other businesses to the then-neglected harbourside, which has since become a focal point for Bristol’s social and cultural life.
Industrial Museum now M Shed
Bristol Industrial Museum opened in 1978. The museum closed its doors to the public on 29 October 2006. M Shed, the new Museum of Bristol has been created on the site, keeping the same façade and many of the exhibits. It opened 17 June 2011.
The floating harbour teems with life in this telephoto shot looking down Narrow Quay towards M Shed – at that time the Bristol Industrial Museum. The nearer sailing vessel is the 1912 brig “Marques”, which was about to take part in a round-Britain race with another brig, “Inca”, whose mainmast can be seen to the left.
In the 1980s Bristol / Baltic Wharf Marina was built on the site of the old timber wharves and part of Charles Hill Yard. In the 1990s The Harbour Inlet Marina was built on the old Gas Works Site.
Reflecting the increase in leisure and pedestrian traffic a number of new crossing points were created: Pooles Bridge in 1998; Valentines and Peros Bridges in 2000; Meads Reach Bridge (The Cheese Grater) in 2008; Brocks Bridge (also for vehicles) in 2016; Castle Bridge in 2017.
At Bristol/We are the Curious
The project opened in 2000 as the successor to the Exploratory, a science museum and demonstration centre, founded by Richard Gregory in the former terminus train shed at Bristol Temple Meads railway station (later home to the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum). The Exploratory was a separate organisation and none of the exhibits or staff were transferred when Bristol’s new museum opened in a city centre site as part of the regeneration of the historical Floating Harbour.
In September 2017, At-Bristol reopened as We The Curious, with a new stated mission to “create a culture of curiosity”, in response to a consultation showing that the previous mission to “make science accessible to all” was no longer unique.
There was a significant development in 1990 when Lloyds Bank moved their headquarters to Canons Marsh.
In 1996 the Stuttgart-based architects Behnisch & Behnisch won a competition to design the Harbourside Centre, a planned state-of-the-art concert venue. Massive Attack, Portishead and the wider Bristol music scene were enjoying considerable fame, and the public-private coalition behind the plans was keen for the city capitalise.
The building was due to be completed in 2002, with a 2,300-seat auditorium and a smaller one seating 450, alongside resident orchestras and dance companies. But the project was relying on the hope that the Arts Council would grant two-thirds of the £90m budget, and for various reasons that didn’t happen.
The other main use of the former docks has been housing developments, mainly expensive.
The main developments: Baltic Wharf late 1970s; Rownham Mead (former Merchants Dock) 1980; Pooles Wharf Court 1998; Capricorn Quay, The Point and The Quays early 2000s; The Invicta blocks on Hanover Quay from 2006; Great Western Dockyard 2009; The Purifier (Gas Works) 2012; Finzels Reach and Brandon Yard 2019.