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.
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.
In 1552 King Edward V1 granted a Royal Charter to the Merchant Venturers to manage the port.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then in 1878 the schooner Gypsy May broke its back on horse shoe bend.
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.
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.
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.
With the closure of the docks they became derelict and empty of life. The Council proposed concreting over parts of the harbour and covering it with roads. 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.
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.
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.
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 2008; Great Western Dockyard 2009; The Purifier (Gas Works) 2012; Finzels Reach and Brandon Yard 2019.