A History of Bristol

By Tim Lambert

Saxon Bristol

Bristol began life as a village called Brigg stow, which means the meeting place at the bridge in the old Saxon language. At some point, a wooden bridge was erected across the Avon. (Avon is a Celtic word meaning ‘water’). The bridge was used as a meeting place and a village grew up by it. In time the name Brigg Stow changed to Bristol.

By the 10th century, Bristol had grown into a town. Bristol was probably a burgh or fortified settlement. Bristol was probably surrounded by a ditch and earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top.

By the early 11th century, there was a mint in Bristol so it was already a place of some importance. There would have been a weekly market in Bristol. Because of its position in the West Bristol was well-placed to trade with Dublin, Somerset, and North Devon. Wool and leather were exported from Bristol.

Bristol in the Middle Ages

The population of Bristol in 1066 is not known for certain but it may have been about 4,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large and important town. Bristol submitted to William the Conqueror without a fight. In 1067 two of King Harold’s sons landed nearby and tried to capture Bristol but the Bristolians fought them off. William the Conqueror built a wooden fort in Bristol. In the early 12th century it was replaced by a stone castle.

In 1155 Bristol was given a charter (a document confirming certain rights held by the townspeople). In 1171 after the English conquered Ireland the people of Bristol were given Dublin as a colony by the king and many Bristolians settled there.

Bristol also benefited when Henry II became King in 1154. As well as being king of England Henry was the ruler of part of South West France. Vast quantities of wine were imported from there into Bristol in the Middle Ages. By the 13th century, wine was the main import in Bristol. In the later Middle Ages wine was imported from Spain and Portugal as well as France. (Wine Street is a corruption of Wynch Street). Another important import was woad which was used for dyeing.

In Medieval Bristol, wool was woven and dyed then exported. Other exports from Bristol included rope sailcloth and lead. In the town, wool was woven and dyed and leather was made. In Bristol, there were also the same craftsmen found in any town such as carpenters, blacksmiths, brewers, bakers, butchers, tailors, and shoemakers.

In the years 1239-1247 the course of the Frome, a tributary of the Avon, was diverted to make navigation easier. The new channel was more than 700 meters long and it cost 5,000 pounds to build (a huge fortune in those days).

In the late Middle Ages, ships from Bristol went fishing off Iceland but in 1497 John Cabot made his famous voyage to Newfoundland and after that, the fishing grounds changed to the coast of North America.

In 1373 the boundaries of Bristol were extended to include Redcliffe. Bristol was made a county of its own separate from Gloucestershire and Somerset. Also in 1373 High Cross was erected.

The Priory of St James was built in Bristol in about 1129. An Augustinian Abbey followed in about 1142. In the 13th century, the friars arrived in Bristol. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. In Bristol, there were Franciscan friars (called grey friars because of the color of their costumes) and Carmelite or white friars.

In the Middle Ages, the church ran the only ‘hospitals’. There were several in Bristol including St John’s Hospital, St Catherine’s, St Mark’s, and St Bartholomew’s. There were also leper hostels outside the town.

In the Middle Ages, many people went on long journeys called Pilgrimages to Jerusalem. In 1118 an order of fighting monks called the Knights Templar was founded to defend them. They owned a great deal of land in England including Temple Meads (meadows) at Bristol. They built the Temple Church.

In the Middle Ages, merchants brought a red flower called the scarlet lychnis (lychnis chalcedonica) from the eastern Mediterranean (it is also called the Maltese Cross or the nonsuch). It became the emblem of Bristol.

Bristol in the 16th century

A grammar school was founded in Bristol in 1532. In 1538 Henry VIII closed the friaries and the priory. In 1542 Bristol was made a city and was given a bishop.

In the mid-16th century, England became a Protestant country. Then Queen Mary 1553-58 tried to restore Catholicism. In the years 1555-57, five Protestants were martyred in Bristol.

In the late 15th century the merchants of Bristol began to join together to protect their interests. Their organisation, the Merchant Adventurers was incorporated in 1552.

The main exports from Tudor Bristol were tin, lead, hides, fish, butter, and cheese. However, the cloth industry in Bristol declined.

Meanwhile, Tudor Bristol suffered from outbreaks of plague. There were severe outbreaks in 1575 and 1602-04.

Queen Elizabeth Hospital School was founded in 1590. Red Maids Girls School was founded in 1634 (it was called that because of the color of the school uniforms). Red Lodge was built about 1590.

Bristol in the 17th century

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. In December 1642 a parliamentary army occupied Bristol and earthwork defenses were created around the town. In July 1643 the Royalists lay siege to Bristol and soon captured the town. The Royalists held Bristol for more than 2 years. While they occupied the town in 1644-45 there was another outbreak of plague in Bristol.

In September 1645 a parliamentary army attacked Bristol. By this time the king was losing the war and the Royalists soon surrendered Bristol. In 1656 Cromwell ordered that Bristol castle be destroyed to prevent it from ever falling into Royalists’ hands.

Bristol boomed in the late 17th century as new colonies were founded in the West Indies and North America. Bristol was, obviously, well placed to trade with them because of its position in the West. Tobacco was imported from North America and sugar from the West Indies.

In the later 17th century a glass industry prospered in Bristol. So did the shipbuilding industry.

Meanwhile, Llandoger Trow Inn was built in 1664. Then in 1669, a merchant paid for the Christmas Steps to be built on a steeply sloping street.

Bristol in the 18th century

In the 18th century, Bristol was heavily involved in the slave trade. Manufactured goods from Bristol such as woolen cloth and brass and iron goods were given to the Africans in return for slaves. The slaves were then transported to the West Indies of North America and sold. The ships then took tobacco, sugar, and rum back to Bristol. So the trade formed a triangle. Also in the 18th century, timber was imported into Bristol from Scandinavia, mainly for shipbuilding.

Glass and shipbuilding thrived in Georgian Bristol. So did a chocolate industry. Some of the tobacco imported from North America was made into snuff in windmills. The metal industry made cannons, chains, and anchors. There was also a large brewing industry in Bristol. In the 18th century, coal was mined within the boundaries of Bristol.

In the 18th century, Bristol grew rapidly. The population was probably about 25,000 in 1700. It rose to about 50,000 by the middle of the century. By 1801 Bristol had a population of 68,000.

Many new streets were laid out in Bristol. Queen Square was built in 1702 to commemorate the visit of Queen Anne to Bristol. Prince Street followed it. So were James Square and Orchard Street. Later Unity Street, College Green, Cornwallis Crescent, Hotwells Crescent, Windsor Terrace, Portland Square, and Berkeley Square were all built. However in this century the rich moved out of central Bristol and went to live in Clifton. Meanwhile, Bristol Royal Infirmary was built in 1737.

Several other important buildings were erected in Bristol in the 18th century. In 1739 John Wesley built the world’s first Methodist chapel in Horsefair. The Exchange in Corn Street was built in 1743. The first bank in Bristol opened in 1750. The Theatre Royal was built in 1766.

A new bridge was built in 1768. Tolls were charged for using the bridge. The council promised these tolls would be scrapped in 1793. When they were not the result was rioting which left several people dead and many more wounded.

Bristol in the 19th century

In 1801 the population of Bristol was 68,800. It continued to rise rapidly in the 19th century and reached 266,000 in 1881.

However, more riots took place in Bristol in 1831. At that time the House of Commons passed a Great Reform Bill. It would give rapidly growing cities in Bristol more MPs. However, the House of Lords rejected the bill. One of the most outspoken critics of the bill was Charles Wetherall, Recorder of Bristol. He returned to Bristol on 29 October and crowds stoned his coach.

The next day a full-scale riot began. The riot ended the following day, 31 October, when troops were ordered to crush the riots. The Bristol riots left several hundred people dead.

In 1835 Clifton was made part of Bristol. Meanwhile, amenities in Bristol were improved. In 1806 an act of parliament formed a body of men with powers to pave, clean, and light the streets of Bristol (at first oil lamps were used to light them but after 1818 gas was used).

Like all 19th century towns, Bristol was unsanitary. As a result, there were epidemics of cholera in 1832, 1848/49, and 1866.

However, there were many improvements in 19th century Bristol. The Guildhall was built in 1843. A waterworks was built in 1846 and over the next 20 years, a piped water supply was extended to the whole of Bristol. In the 1850s a network of sewers was dug in Bristol.

Meanwhile Bristol port continued to flourish. In 1804-09 a floating or tideless harbor was built where the water was kept at a constant depth. It was connected to the Avon by the dock. In 1848 the council took over the docks. In 1877 new docks were built at Avonmouth. More were built at Portishead in 1879.

Bristol was connected to London by rail in 1841. It was connected to Exeter in 1844 and Plymouth in 1848. Clifton Suspension Bridge was built in 1864. After 1874 horse-drawn trams ran through the streets of Bristol. In 1895 the first electric trams began running.

Two famous ships were built in Bristol in the early 19th century. The Great Western was launched in 1837 and the Great Britain was launched in 1844. The Cabot Tower was built in 1897 and in 1899 the mayor of Bristol was made a Lord Mayor.

In the 19th century, the copper, brass, and glass industries in Bristol went into decline. On the other hand, shipbuilding boomed in Bristol. So did the chocolate industry and soap making. The tobacco industry in Bristol also thrived. In the late 19th century there was also a cotton industry in Bristol.

Bristol in the 20th century

By 1901 Bristol had a population of 330,000 and it continued to rise steadily. Meanwhile, the Royal Edward Dock was built in 1908.

Bristol University was founded in 1909 and its main building was erected in 1925.

In the 20th century aircraft manufacture became the greatest industry in Bristol. Other industries in Bristol were chocolate, tobacco, engineering, chemicals, zinc, furniture, and pottery. Moreover, Bristol continued to be an important port in the 20th century. Royal Portbury Dock was built in 1977.

During the Second World War, 1,299 people in Bristol were killed by the German bombing. About 3,000 buildings were destroyed and 90,000 were damaged.

After 1945 the council built many new houses on the outskirts of Bristol to replace them. Furthermore, the Council House was built in 1956. Arnolfini Art Gallery opened in 1957. The Robinson Building was erected in 1966.

A polytechnic opened in Bristol in 1969. In 1992 it became the West of England University. Meanwhile, Clifton Roman Catholic Cathedral was built in 1973.

The Georgian House opened as a museum in 1939 and Harveys Wine Museum opened in 1965. In 1970 the Great Britain was brought back to Bristol and work began on refurbishing it. Bristol Industrial Museum opened in 1978.

At the end of the 20th century, Bristol continued to develop. Watershed Media Centre opened in 1982. In 1985 a statue of John Cabot was erected on Narrow Quay. The Galleries was built in 1991. A new bridge was erected over St Augustine’s Reach in 1998.

Bristol in the 21st century

In the 21st century, Bristol continued to flourish. Today tourism is a major industry in Bristol. Cabot Circus opened in Bristol in 2008.

A view of Bristol
A view of Bristol

In 2023 the population of Bristol was 471,000.