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Key to the City™, Bristol.

A Brief History of Bristol

Bristol Bridge
Bristol Bridge

Bristol is an ancient city, built at the junction of the rivers Avon and Frome. It is unknown when it was founded but we know that by the reign of Ethelred Unrede (978-1016), Bricgstowe - the place of the bridge - was a town of some importance having silver coins minted here.

It probably grew up about the time of Alfred the Great, being situated on a mound of land almost enclosed by water and rising forty feet above the level of the immediate neighbourhood. At about eight miles up the River Avon, it was far enough from its mouth to be secure from surprise attack from the sea. It was well drained, easily fortified and controlled a navigable waterway at a time when roads were rare. Bristol Bridge, leading to High Street, still stands at this site. By the time of the Conquest, Bristol was a prosperous trading centre, responsible to the King through its own 'Reeve'. This official was appointed by the King to govern the town and to collect the rents and dues.

Castle Green, Bristol
Castle Green, Bristol

The building of a great castle to the east of the bridge in the 10th century, with an eastern wall and moat joining the Frome and the Avon, converted the combined town and castle into an island. A little later Robert of Gloucester erected the great Keep in the inner bailey with walls twenty feet in thickness.

London had special trading privileges of which provincial towns were jealous. Bristol was one of the first to secure similar privileges, freeing it from all tolls and customs throughout England, Normandy and Wales. Fish, wine, timber, corn, cloth, wool, silk and hides were all key trades.

Pero's Bridge, Bristol
Pero's Bridge, Bristol

The growth of trade which followed the Norman Conquest soon put Bristol in the forefront of ports outside London. The wharves near the bridge were overcrowded, so a better harbour and quays were provided by diverting the Frome through Canon's Marsh. The new channel was wide enough and deep enough to allow ships to reach the town on the north side. As trade increased, Bristol became richer and more important to the life of the nation and an important charter was granted in 1373. The town was partly in the County of Gloucester and partly in Somerset; this charter raised the town to the dignity of a County and made it more independent.

By the 15th century, Bristol merchants had become wealthy and influential and lived in princely style. Overseas trade had greatly developed and merchants were ready to invest their fortunes in voyages of discovery which promised new markets. The discoveries of Columbus in 1492 only served to increase their faith in this and when John Cabot came to Bristol he found ready support, sailing in 1497 in the Matthew to discover 'Newfoundland'.

You can view Hoefnagle's map of the city made in 1568 by William Smith who visited the city for two days in that year by clicking here, or James Millerd's map of Bristol in 1673 by clicking here.

Tramway Centre, Bristol
Tramway Centre, Bristol

The middle of the 18th century saw Bristol at the height of her prosperity as a port and trading centre. Slavery was still a profitable trade. The 'Golden Triangle' of exporting cloth and trinkets to West Africa, transporting slaves to work in the Caribbean or American colonies and finally importing sugar, rum and tobacco back to Bristol brought huge rewards. The centre of the city was largely rebuilt which changed the character of the town. Queen Square was begun in about 1702 and Orchard Street, built about 1716, is another fine example of Georgian planning.

The 19th century saw new roads and the Great Western Railway reached Bristol in 1840. The Great Western steamship sailed to New York marking the start of transatlantic travel. But as the size of ships grew, Bristol's tidal harbour lacked the facilities needed. Even though the River Avon was diverted to create a 'Floating Harbour' in the city, new docks at Avonmouth and Portishead proved more popular. Population started to grow rapidly in this new industrial era and the city sprawled outwards.

The two World Wars brought both opportunities and destruction to the city. Much of the historic old town was destroyed by bombs, and what remained fared even worst at the hands of the city council. A new inner ring road and shopping centre wiped out further gems of the city. The Frome was covered over to produce 'The Centre', marking the end of the city's great harbour.

Last Updated Friday 25 March 2022

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