Towns in Bristol City
Bristol is a city, unitary authority area and county in South West England with an estimated population of 449,300 in 2016. It is England’s sixth and the United Kingdom’s eighth most populous city, and the most populous city in Southern England after London. The city borders the Unitary Authority areas of North Somerset and South Gloucestershire, with the historic cities of Bath and Gloucester to the south-east and northeast, respectively.
Iron Age hill forts and Roman villas were built near the confluence of the rivers Frome and Avon, and around the beginning of the 11th century the settlement was known as Brycgstow (Old English “the place at the bridge”). Bristol received a royal charter in 1155 and was in Gloucestershire until 1373, when it became a county. From the 13th to the 18th century, Bristol was among the top three English cities after London (with York and Norwich) in tax receipts. Bristol was surpassed by the rapid rise of Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham during the Industrial Revolution.
Bristol was a starting place for early voyages of exploration to the New World. On a ship out of Bristol in 1497 John Cabot, a Venetian, became the first European since the Vikings to land on mainland North America. In 1499 William Weston, a Bristol merchant, was the first Englishman to lead an exploration to North America. The Port of Bristol has since moved from Bristol Harbour in the city centre to the Severn Estuary at Avonmouth and Royal Portbury Dock.
Bristol’s modern economy is built on the creative media, electronics and aerospace industries, and the city-centre docks have been redeveloped as centres of heritage and culture. The city has two universities, the University of the West of England and the University of Bristol and a variety of artistic and sporting organisations and venues including the Royal West of England Academy, the Arnolfini, Spike Island, Ashton Gate and the Memorial Stadium. It is connected to London and other major UK cities by road, rail, sea and air by the M5 and M4 (which connect to the city centre by the Portway and M32), Bristol Temple Meads and Bristol Parkway mainline rail stations, and Bristol Airport.
One of the UK’s most popular tourist destinations, Bristol was selected in 2009 as one of the world’s top ten cities by international travel publishers Dorling Kindersley in their Eyewitness series of travel guides. In 2014 The Sunday Times named it as the best city in Britain in which to live, and Bristol also won the EU’s European Green Capital Award in 2015.
The most ancient recorded name for Bristol is the archaic Welsh Caer Odor (the fort on the chasm), which is consistent with modern understanding that early Bristol developed between the River Frome and Avon Gorge. It is most commonly stated that the Saxon name Bricstow was a simple calque of the existing Celtic name, with Bric (meaning a break) a literal translation of Odor, and the common Saxon suffix Stow replacing Caer. Alternative etymologies supported with the numerous orthographic variations in Medieval documents with Samuel Seyer enumerating 47 alternative forms.
The Old English form Brycgstow is commonly used to derive the meaning place at the bridge. Utilizing another form, Brastuile, Rev. Dr. Shaw derived the name from the Celtic words bras (quick, rapid), or braos (a gap, chasm,) and tuile (a stream). The poet Thomas Chatterton popularised a derivation from Brictricstow linking the town to Brictric, the last king of Wessex. It appears that the form Bricstow prevailed until 1204, and the Bristolian ‘L’ (the tendency for the local accent to add a letter L to the end of some words) is what eventually changed the name to Bristol.
History of Bristol City
Archaeological finds, including flint tools believed to be between 300,000 and 126,000 years old made with the Levallois technique, indicate the presence of Neanderthals in the Shirehampton and St Annes areas of Bristol during the Middle Palaeolithic. Iron Age hill forts near the city are at Leigh Woods and Clifton Down, on the side of the Avon Gorge, and on Kings Weston Hill near Henbury. A Roman settlement, Abona, existed at what is now Sea Mills (connected to Bath by a Roman road); another was at the present-day Inns Court. Isolated Roman villas and small forts and settlements were also scattered throughout the area.
Bristol was founded by 1000; by about 1020, it was a trading centre with a mint producing silver pennies bearing its name. By 1067 Brycgstow was a well-fortified burh, and that year the townsmen beat off a raiding party from Ireland led by three of Harold Godwinson’s sons. Under Norman rule, the town had one of the strongest castles in southern England. Bristol was the place of exile for Diarmait Mac Murchada, the Irish king of Leinster, after being overthrown. The Bristol merchants subsequently played a prominent role in funding Richard Strongbow de Clare and the Norman invasion of Ireland.
The port developed in the 11th century around the confluence of the Rivers Frome and Avon, adjacent to Bristol Bridge just outside the town walls. By the 12th century Bristol was an important port, handling much of England’s trade with Ireland, including slaves. The stone bridge built in 1247 was replaced by the current bridge during the 1760s. The town incorporated neighbouring suburbs and became a county in 1373, the first town in England to be given this status. During this period, Bristol became a shipbuilding and manufacturing centre. By the 14th century Bristol, York and Norwich were England’s largest medieval towns after London. One-third to one-half the population died in the Black Death of 1348–49, which checked population growth, and its population remained between 10,000 and 12,000 for most of the 15th and 16th centuries.
15th and 16th centuries
During the 15th century Bristol was the second most important port in the country, trading with Ireland, Iceland and Gascony. It was the starting point for many voyages, including Robert Sturmy’s (1457–58) unsuccessful attempt to break the Italian monopoly of Eastern Mediterranean trade. The depletion of Icelandic fish banks was a hard blow to the local economy. Bristol merchants then turned west, launching unsuccessful voyages of exploration in the Atlantic by 1480 in search of the phantom island of Hy-Brazil. In 1487, when king Henry VII visited the city, the inhabitants complained about their economic decline. The situation only improved when, a few years later, Iberian fishermen (mainly Azoreans and Basques) were hired to lead the Bristol fleet to new banks off Newfoundland. New exploration voyages were launched by Venetian John Cabot, who in 1497 made landfall in some unknown spot of North America, and subsequently by sailors underwritten by Bristol merchants Walter & his son Robert Colley (Cowley) who moved to Dublin in abt. 1500 and King Henry VII until 1508. A 1499 voyage, led by merchant William Weston of Bristol, was the first expedition commanded by an Englishman to North America.
During the 16th century, Bristol merchants concentrated on developing trade with Spain and its American colonies. This included the smuggling of prohibited goods, such as food and guns, to Iberia during the Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604). Bristol’s illicit trade grew enormously after 1558, becoming integral to its economy.
A stone built Victorian Gothic building with two square towers and a central arched entrance underneath a circular ornate window. A Victorian street lamp stands in front of the building and on the right part of a leafless tree, with blue skies behind.
The original Diocese of Bristol was founded in 1542, when the former Abbey of St. Augustine (founded by Robert Fitzharding four hundred years earlier) became Bristol Cathedral. Bristol also gained city status that year. During the English Civil War in the 1640s the city was occupied by Royalists, who built the Royal Fort House on the site of an earlier Parliamentarian stronghold.
17th and 18th centuries
Growth of the city and trade came with the rise of England’s American colonies in the 17th century. Bristol’s location on the west side of Great Britain gave its ships an advantage in sailing to and from the New World, and the city’s merchants made the most of it. The 18th century saw an expansion of England’s role in the Atlantic trade in Africans taken for slavery to the Americas. Bristol and Liverpool became centres of the triangular trade. In the first side of the slavery triangle, manufactured goods were shipped to West Africa and exchanged for Africans; the enslaved captives were transported across the Atlantic to the Americas in the Middle Passage under brutal conditions. In the third side of the triangle, plantation goods such as sugar, tobacco, rum, rice, cotton and a few slaves (sold to the aristocracy as house servants) returned across the Atlantic. Some household slaves were baptised in the hope this would mean their freedom in England. The Somersett Case of 1772 clarified that slavery was illegal in England. At the height of the Bristol slave trade from 1700 to 1807, more than 2,000 slave ships carried a conservatively estimated 500,000 people from Africa to slavery in the Americas. The Seven Stars public house, where abolitionist Thomas Clarkson collected information on the slave trade, is still operating.
An engraving showing at the top a sailing ship and paddle steamer in a harbour, with sheds and a church spire. On either side arched gateways, all above a scroll with the word “Bristol”. Below a street scene showing pedestrians and a horse-drawn carriage outside a large ornate building with a colonnade and arched windows above. A grand staircase with two figures ascending and other figures on a balcony. A caption reading “Exterior, Colston Hall” and Staircase, Colston Hall”. Below, two street scenes and a view of a large stone building with flying buttresses and a square tower, with the caption “Bristol cathedral”. At the bottom views of a church interior, a cloister with a man mowing grass and archways with two men in conversation.
Fishermen from Bristol (who had fished the Grand Banks of Newfoundland since the 15th century) began settling Newfoundland permanently in larger numbers during the 17th century, establishing colonies at Bristol’s Hope and Cuper’s Cove. Because of Bristol’s nautical environment, maritime safety was an important issue in the city. During the 19th century, Samuel Plimsoll (known as “the sailor’s friend”) campaigned to make the seas safer; shocked by overloaded vessels, he successfully fought for a compulsory load line on ships.
In 1739 John Wesley founded the first Methodist chapel, the New Room, in Bristol. Wesley, along with his brother Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, preached to large congregations in Bristol and the neighbouring village of Kingswood, often in the open air.
The city was associated with Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed the Great Western Railway between Bristol and London Paddington, two pioneering Bristol-built ocean going steamships (SS Great Britain and SS Great Western), and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. The new railway replaced the Kennet and Avon Canal, which had fully opened in 1810 as the main route for the transport of goods between Bristol and London. Competition from Liverpool (beginning around 1760), disruptions of maritime commerce due to war with France (1793) and the abolition of the slave trade (1807) contributed to Bristol’s failure to keep pace with the newer manufacturing centres of Northern England and the West Midlands. The tidal Avon Gorge, which had secured the port during the Middle Ages, had become a liability. An 1804–09 plan to improve the city’s port with a floating harbour designed by William Jessop was a costly error, requiring high dock fees.
By 1867, ships were getting larger, and the meanders of the river Avon prevented boats over 300 feet (90 m) from reaching the harbour, resulting in falling trade. The port facilities were migrating downstream to Avonmouth, and new industrial complexes were founded there. Some of the traditional industries including copper and brass manufacture went into decline, but the import and processing of tobacco flourished with the expansion of the W.D. & H.O. Wills business.
Supported by new industry and growing commerce, Bristol’s population (66,000 in 1801), quintupled during the 19th century, resulting in the creation of new suburbs such as Clifton and Cotham. These provide architectural examples from the Georgian to the Regency style, with many fine terraces and villas facing the road, and at right angles to it. In the early 19th century, the romantic medieval gothic style appeared, partially as a reaction against the symmetry of Palladianism, and can be seen in buildings such as the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, the Royal West of England Academy, and The Victoria Rooms. Riots broke out in 1793 and 1831; the first over the renewal of tolls on Bristol Bridge, and the second against the rejection of the second Reform Bill by the House of Lords. The Diocese of Bristol had undergone several boundary changes by 1897 when it was “reconstituted” into the configuration which has lasted into the 21st century.
From a population of about 330,000 in 1901, Bristol grew steadily during the 20th century, peaking at 428,089 in 1971. Its docklands were enlarged during the early 1900s by the Royal Edward Dock. Another new dock, the Royal Portbury Dock, opened during the 1970s. As air travel grew in the first half of the century, aircraft manufacturers built factories.
Luftwaffe raids heavily damaged Bristol during World War II; about 1,300 people living or working in the city were killed and nearly 100,000 buildings were damaged, at least 3,000 beyond repair. The original central market area, near the bridge and castle, is now a park containing two bombed churches and fragments of the castle. A third bomb-damaged church nearby, St Nicholas, has been restored and is a museum housing a 1756 William Hogarth triptych painted for the high altar of St Mary Redcliffe. The museum also has statues of King Edward I (moved from Arno’s Court Triumphal Arch) and King Edward III (taken from Lawfords’ Gate in the city walls when they were demolished about 1760). Also 13th-century statues of Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester (builder of Bristol Castle) and Geoffrey de Montbray (who built the city’s walls) from Bristol’s Newgate.
The rebuilding of Bristol city centre was characterised by 1960s and 1970s skyscrapers, mid-century modern architecture and road improvements. Beginning in the 1980s some main roads were closed, the Georgian-era Queen Square and Portland Square were restored, the Broadmead shopping area regenerated, and one of the city centre’s tallest mid-century towers was demolished. Bristol’s road infrastructure changed dramatically during the 1960s and 1970s with the development of the M4 and M5 motorways, which meet at the Almondsbury Interchange just north of the city and link Bristol with London (M4 eastbound), Swansea (M4 westbound across the Severn Estuary), Exeter (M5 southbound) and Birmingham (M5 northbound).
The 20th century relocation of the docks to Avonmouth Docks and Royal Portbury Dock, 7 miles (11 km) downstream from the city centre, has allowed the redevelopment of the old dock area (the Floating Harbour). Although the docks’ existence was once in jeopardy (since the area was seen as a derelict industrial site), the inaugural 1996 International Festival of the Sea held in and around the docks affirmed the area as a leisure asset of the city.