History of Bristol

The west front of Bristol Cathedral
The west front of Bristol Cathedral

Bristol is a city of half a million people in south west England, which has been amongst England's largest and most economically and culturally important cities in England for eight centuries. The Bristol area has been settled since the stone age, and the city rose to prominence in the Norman era. During the 17th and 18th centuries Bristol's maritime industry boomed, and despite the industries subsequent decline Bristol has remained affluent.


There is evidence of settlement in the Bristol area from the palaeolithic era, with 60,000 year old archaeological finds at Shirehampton and St Annes.[1] There are iron age hill forts near the city, at Leigh Woods and Clifton Down on the side of the Avon Gorge, and on Kingswestern Hill, near Henbury.[2] During the Roman era there was a settlement, Abona, at what is now Sea Mills, connected to Bath by Roman road, and another settlement at what is now Inns Court. There were also isolated villas and small settlements throughout the area.[3]

Middle ages

The city, recorded in the Domesday Book as Brycgstow (Old English, "the place at the bridge"), was in existence by the beginning of the 11th Century. Under Norman rule it acquired one of the strongest castles in southern England: Bristol Castle. The River Avon flowing through the city centre was used to create Bristol Harbour, making the city an important port in the 12th century, handling much of England's trade with Ireland. In 1247 a new bridge was built and the town was extended to incorporate neighbouring suburbs. The river Avon traditionally marks the border between Gloucestershire and Somerset. In 1373 Edward III proclaimed "that the said town of Bristol withall be a County by itself and called the County of Bristol for ever,"[4] but maps usually showed it as part of Gloucestershire, until the county was enlarged in the 19th century, and as the city spilled south of the river, it took the county with it. During this period Bristol also became a centre of shipbuilding and manufacturing.

By the 14th century Bristol was England's third-largest town (after London and York), with perhaps 15-20,000 inhabitants on the eve of the Black Death of 1348-49. The plague inflicted a prolonged demographic setback, however, with population remaining at most 10-12,000 through most of the 15th and 16th Centuries. Bristol was made a city in 1542, with the former Abbey of St Augustine becoming Bristol Cathedral. During the Civil War the city suffered (1643-45) through Royalist military occupation and plague.

In 1497 Bristol was the starting point for John Cabot's voyage of exploration to North America.

Early modern

Renewed growth came with the 17th century rise of England's American colonies and the rapid 18th century expansion of England's part in the Atlantic trade in Africans taken for slavery in the Americas.

Bristol Bridge seen across the Harbour
Bristol Bridge seen across the Harbour

Bristol, along with Liverpool, became a significant centre for the slave trade although few slaves were brought to Britain. During the height of the slave trade, from 1700 to 1807, more than 2000 slaving ships were fitted out at Bristol, carrying a (conservatively) estimated half a million people from Africa to the Americas and slavery.

Competition from Liverpool from c.1760, the disruption of maritime commerce through war with France (1793) and the abolition of the slave trade (1807) contributed to the city's failure to keep pace with the newer manufacturing centres of the north and midlands. The long passage up the heavily tidal Avon Gorge, which had made the port highly secure during the middle ages, had become a liability which the construction of a new "Floating Harbour" (designed by William Jessop) in 1804-9 failed to overcome. Nevertheless, Bristol's population (66,000 in 1801) grew five-fold during the 19th century, supported by new industries and growing commerce. It was particularly associated with the leading engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed the Great Western Railway between Bristol and London, two pioneering Bristol-built steamships, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

A map of Bristol published in 1866.
A map of Bristol published in 1866.

John Wesley founded the very first Methodist Chapel in Bristol in 1739, which can still be visited today.

Bristol lies on one of the UK's lesser coalfields, and from the 17th century collieries opened in Bristol, and what is now North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. Though these prompted the construction of the Somerset Coal Canal, it was difficult to make mining profitable, and the mines closed after nationalisation.[5]

Modern history

As the location of aircraft manufacture, Bristol was a target of bombing during World War II. Bristol's city centre also suffered severe damage, especially in November and December 1940, when the Broadmead area was flattened, and Hitler claimed to have destroyed the city.[6] The original central area, near the bridge and castle, is still a park featuring two bombed out churches and some tiny fragments of the castle. A third bombed church has a new lease of life as St Nicholas' Church Museum. Slightly to the north, the Broadmead shopping centre was built over bomb-damaged areas.

Like much of British post-war planning, regeneration of Bristol city centre was characterised by large, cheap tower blocks, brutalist architecture and expansion of roads. Since the 1990s this trend has been reversing, with the closure of some main roads and the regeneration of the Broadmead shopping centre. In 2006 two of the city centre's tallest post-war blocks were torn down.

The removal of the docks to Avonmouth, seven miles (11 km) downstream from the city centre, relieved congestion in the central zone of Bristol and allowed substantial redevelopment of the old central dock area (the Floating Harbour) in recent decades, although at one time the continued existence of the central docks was in jeopardy as it was seen merely as derelict industry rather than an asset to be developed for public use.

On the evening of December 18, 1974, an IRA bomb exploded on Park Street, at the time busy with shoppers, but killed none. In 1980 a police raid on a cafe in St Paul's sparked the St Pauls riot.


  1. ^ Bristol City Council, The Palaeolithic in Bristol
  2. ^ Bristol City Council, Bristol in the Iron Age.
  3. ^ Bristol City Council, Bristol in the Roman Period.
  4. ^ Charter quoted in Rayfield 1985.
  5. ^ Keith Ramsey, A Brief History of the Bristol and Somerset Coalfield.
  6. ^ Pictoral history of Bristol, bristolhistory.com.
  • Rayfield, Jack, 1985. Somerset & Avon County Companion. London: Cadogan.

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