has been a centre for sea going trade since pre-Roman times. The Romans
built a port called Abona, at what we now call Sea Mills. We
pass the site on our Avon Gorge and
Abona was a centre for trading and troop movements across the Severn.
Coins were being minted in Bristol by 1000AD, and by the time of the
Norman Conquest there was a well defended town, port and market. There
was a lively overseas trade mostly with Ireland. By the 13th Century
it was reported that this trade included the sale of men, women and children
from England to Ireland as slaves.
Bristol’s original quays were built up the River Avon below the
castle walls. In the 13th Century the famous Bristol Bridge became a
barrier to all but the smallest boats, and quays were built downstream
at Welsh Back and Redcliffe Back – still alive with boat traffic
and boat building today. At the same time the River Frome was diverted
to join the Avon further downstream.
By the 15th Century
Bristol was important enough as a port to sponsor John Cabot’s
1497 expedition of discovery to America. A replica of his ship, the
MATTHEW is based in Bristol.
In 1552 Edward VI
granted a Royal Charter to Bristol’s Society
of Merchant Venturers. The members of the Society played an important
part in the Great Age of Exploration, for example equipping the
1631 expedition to look for the North-West Passage and developing the
of Newfoundland. The Society also fitted out privateers for war
with France. Ships of war were based in Bristol to convoy the West
fleets as trade with the Levant, Indies and African colonies grew.
By the 18th Century
Bristol’s most famous trade was slavery, bringing
great wealth to the city but also discredit. More on the trade and
those who supported and opposed it is to be found in the COMMONWEALTH
Bristol. Less well known but now more visible was the tobacco trade.
Tobacco from the American colonies was imported to Bristol – the
warehouses and factories the trade supported are visible from the
However by the end
of the 18th Century it was clear that Bristol’s
shallow harbour was not ideal for transatlantic trading ships that
were increasing in size. Twice daily drying out in the tidal mud
was a great
inconvenience for a busy port. The civil engineer William Jessop
was consulted on plans for a harbour in Bristol with permanent high
In 1809 the River Avon was redirected into the New Cut with a feeder
into the Floating Harbour we can see today.
Boatbuilding in Bristol
continued, most famously with the construction of Isambard Kingdom
Brunel’s SS GREAT BRITAIN, launched
in 1843 and then the largest ship afloat. Brunel planned to use Bristol
as the starting point for trans-Atlantic travel.
However the SS Great
Britain struggled to fit through the Floating Harbour lock! Other ports
were more convenient for services to America and Australia.
The Floating Harbour and new wharves could not compensate for the
inconvenience of the 10 mile journey up the River Avon from the Bristol
whilst Bristol Harbour survived commercially, it’s glory days
were over. New docks were built at Avonmouth and Portishead. You
can see these
on our Avon Gorge and Portishead
In the Floating Harbour today you can still see goods sheds, bond
warehouses and steam cranes on the harbour wall. Bristol’s
history from mediaeval times to the present day is represented in
our wharves, buildings
and bridges. However, busy restaurants, art centres and bars have
replaced the industrial bustle.
Tangaroa is much like the ships that plied their trade in the Bristol
Channel in the 18th and 19th Centuries. A trip on Tangaroa gives a great
introduction to the great days of sail.