The first recorded reference to Bristol, or Brigstowe, meaning ‘place by the bridge’, is in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle of 1021, which mentions a mint. This would suggest that the town was well established at that time. It is known that the Romans used the creek of the River Trym, three miles downstream of the present city docks, as a port, which they named Abona. This was used for the transhipment of supplies to their town of Aquae Sulis, known to us as Bath. Many prehistorians believe that the blue stones of Stonehenge came up the Avon on their journey from Preseli in West Wales. Thus there has been regular navigation on the River Avon for several millennia.

The Saxon town was in the area now known as Castle Park, on high ground between the rivers Frome and Avon. A settlement grew up near to a bridge which spanned the Avon here. It was far enough inland to escape the ravages of Vikings and pirates. The elevation was important as the tidal range of the river Avon, and other rivers of the Severn estuary, is nearly forty feet between high and low water on the biggest spring tides.

These great tides, second only to those in the Bay of Fundy, off Labrador, have ever since been both help and hindrance to the development of the port. Ships could be brought up to the quays on the flood tide with little effort. On the other hand, the loading and discharge of cargoes was impossible at low water. Ships spent most of their time stuck in the mud and leaning over at angles, thus straining their timbers.

Despite these disadvantages trade grew during the middle ages. Wine, fish, hides, corn and iron were imported. Cloth woven from Cotswold wool and manufactured goods went out in return. There were regular sailings for Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal, as well as the many small harbours of the Severn estuary. In the thirteenth century St Augustine’s Reach and a stone quay were constructed to increase the available wharfage.

After Cabot’s voyage to Newfoundland in 1497, trade with the New World grew. Many colonists left from Bristol and goods from the plantations were imported. In the seventeenth century the notorious ‘triangular trade’ was developed. Cheap manufactured goods were taken to West Africa for the purchase of African peoples. They were transported and sold into slavery in the New World. Rum, molasses and tobacco were brought back to Bristol. Merchants aimed to make a profit on each leg of the ‘triangle’.

This lucrative trade was badly hit by the wars with America and France in the late eighteenth century. Rival ports, such as Liverpool, invested in improvements to their harbour facilities, but in Bristol there was little space to moor ships, and goods often rotted before they could be unloaded. Various measures were proposed, but the indolence and avarice of the City Fathers meant that nothing was achieved. Most schemes of improvement involved constructing a ‘floating harbour’. This would be an area where the water level stayed constant so that cargoes could be rapidly discharged onto stone quays. Ships would stay afloat and be turned round quickly.

Eventually, in 1803, after thirty years of wrangling, a Bristol Docks Company was formed to construct a ‘float’ for the length of the Avon between Hotwells and Temple Meads. The engineer was William Jessop and the first sods were cut in 1804. A new channel for the Avon, the New Cut, was dug through land to the south of the developed city. A dam was thrown across the river at Red Clift, near Hotwells, and another at Temple Meads. A feeder canal was built between Netham and Temple Meads to supply water to maintain a constant level. Entrance locks and basins were constructed and the whole undertaking was completed in 1809 at a cost of £600,000, about twice the original estimate.

As was customary, a great feast was laid on for a thousand of the labourers who had worked on the scheme. After devouring “two oxen, roasted whole, a proportionate weight of potatoes and six hundredweight of plum pudding and one gallon of strong beer or ‘stingo’ per guest", fighting broke out and the press gang was called in to suppress the tumult!

The directors of the new Dock Board insisted on charging extremely high dues to try and recoup their money as quickly as possible. This drove trade away to other, more advanced, ports and a slump set in. This was partially alleviated in 1848 when the Corporation took over the docks and reduced the dues and fees.

Brunel’s SS Great Britain was launched in 1843 and managed to get out of the Entrance Lock only after the coping stones had been removed. The engineer had asked for enlargement of the locks to no avail. He also advocated building a dam at the mouth of the Avon, thus extending the ‘float’ and improving navigation up to the city. Eventually, in the late nineteenth century, new ports were constructed at Avonmouth and Portishead.

Shipbuilding carried on in the floating harbour and small coastal traders from Ireland and the Severn Channel ports continued to call in at wharves in the centre of the city. Barge traffic from Avonmouth brought up raw materials for the industries of east Bristol. There was a temporary boom during the Second World War, when all available space was needed for ships bringing supplies from America. Most trade in the Floating Harbour came to end by the early 1970’s and many of the buildings and facilities gradually fell into decline.

Bristol is unique in having a harbour right in the centre of the city. In all other ports the dock area is hidden away behind high walls and past security barriers. Here the sight of  “a street full of ships” has been part of a Bristolian’s heritage for a thousand years. The preservation and renovation of the docks sadly owes little to the foresight of the city fathers and much to the pride and stubbornness of the ordinary people of Bristol to whom this book is dedicated.

© Jeremy McNeill 1997

Extract from Bristol's Harbourside - A Guide to the City Docks, published May 1997.

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