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How Bristol Got Here and Some (Possible) Lessons from History 

Bristol 650

Written by Eugene Byrne

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A river, a bridge and a port

‘Bristol is well-nigh the most opulent city in the country; admitting merchandise by shipping both from the neighbouring and foreign parts; seated in a very fertile part of England, and, in point of situation, the most impregnable of all the English cities.’

– Gesta Stephani, Anon., twelfth century

Stating the obvious here, but … the port is the key to Bristol’s history. That’s how Bristol got here, and how it grew. It was a place of trade with the wider world and, equally important (but usually ignored), it was also a place of trade with the rest of the British Isles.

No port, no Bristol. That’s it.

Until proper roads came along (Scots engineer John Loudon McAdam pioneered the best ones since Roman times around Bristol in the early 1800s), travel on land was difficult, time-consuming and often dangerous. Ships and boats could move people and things around faster than land travel. Piracy and bad weather notwithstanding, ships, boats and barges were a safer mode of travel than muddy/dusty tracks through bandit-infested Badlands. The sea is not a moat keeping people out. The sea is a highway. Rivers are highways, too.

Bristol started around 1,000 years ago as a bridge over the Avon, deriving its name from the Old English for ‘Bridge Place’. The harbour that grew up around this settlement started out trading with neighbouring areas and with Ireland.

By 1400 it was the second (or third) biggest and most important town in England after London and maybe Norwich. Its population was less than 15,000 and its business can be summarised as ‘cloth for wine’ – woollen cloth was manufactured here and exported in return for wine from France, Spain and Portugal.

Bristol was run by a merchant class which guarded its privileges jealously and which, in 1373, got a charter from the king granting it county status. For the greater part of its history, Bristol was run not by the church or aristocracy, but by an oligarchy of businessmen, which significantly shaped its character.

In the 1490s, geographer Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) set out from Bristol to cross the ‘Ocean Sea’ and made landfall in a new-found-land which got called Newfoundland. In the coming centuries, trade would develop between Bristol and North America and the Caribbean. This would, by the later 1600s and well into the 1700s, include dealing in human beings, bought from Africa with Bristol-made trade goods and shipped across the Atlantic to be forced to work, particularly on sugar plantations in the Caribbean, often also owned by Bristol merchant families.

The tidal harbour was converted, at great expense and after a great deal of civic indecision, into a ‘floating’ one in 1809 – in which there was water all the time – and overseas trade continued expanding into the nineteenth century.

Until Victorian times, ships coming into Bristol were no bigger than many of the white plastic gin palaces moored in the harbour today. As they grew larger, though, the long and winding river approach to the docks became a problem. Vessels frequently grounded on the banks of the Avon, constipating the city’s commerce.

Once more, crimson-robed oligarchs debated at great length, looking at the possibility of ‘dockising’ the river – putting a barrier at or near the Bristol Channel coast to turn the Avon from the city centre to its mouth into an enormous floating harbour. In the end, though, it was judged better to build new docks at the Channel coast, hence Avonmouth and the later additions to the docks complex there.

The city docks in the middle of town were closed to commercial traffic in the later twentieth century and now form the backdrop to housing, pubs, bars, cafés, restaurants, museums and leisure attractions.

Bristol is still a major port; it’s just less obvious to most unless you drive over the A5 bridge at Avonmouth and see the acres and acres of imported vehicles waiting there to be sold.

Even in medieval times, Bristol was a cosmopolitan, outward-looking place, a melting pot of cultures and ideas. Also a melting pot of disease and crime, but so it goes …


For most of its history, Bristol was bad for your health. Never mind accidents, murders and wars; sickness was always the biggest killer. Disease killed many annually, and tore great lumps out of the population during major epidemics. The Black Death of 1348-50 probably wiped out well over half the inhabitants. Other visitations of plague between then and the later 1600s occasionally carried off a quarter or more of Bristol’s people.

By the early 1800s, Bristol numbered around 60,000 souls, and the medieval infrastructure in everything from water supply to housing and even parish graveyards could not cope. This was probably when it was its least healthy; clean water supplies, new sewers and public health measures did much to solve the problem by the 1870s.

Bristol’s population and prosperity could only be sustained through immigration to replace the dead and to enable economic expansion. A steady flow of people arriving in search of work is a constant in Bristol’s history. Not all newcomers wanted to be there; it seems that there were even enslaved children from Iceland in the Middle Ages.

Most newcomers were from neighbouring counties, or from Ireland or South Wales. There were major waves of immigration from Ireland, Europe and from the former empire and Commonwealth countries after the Second World War and, more recently, from EU countries, especially Eastern Europe.

Bristol has also welcomed asylum seekers, from French Huguenots (Protestants fleeing religious persecution) in the seventeenth century to Belgian refugees in the First World War, and, in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, from many other places, from Vietnam to Iran and Iraq and the Horn of Africa. In the last few years, the largest numbers arriving in Bristol and elsewhere in the UK have come from Hong Kong and Ukraine.

Immigrants and refugees bring new ideas and enterprise. The medieval cloth industry was at least in some degree thanks to Flemish immigrants, while Bristol’s glass industry may have been started by Jews, and the cultural and artistic complexion of modern Bristol would have been unthinkable without immigration.

But it was never just about people from overseas. Just as most ‘new’ Bristolians came from neighbouring counties in previous centuries, most new arrivals now are from elsewhere in the UK, often students who decide to stay after graduating, or because they think Bristol’s a cool place to live. It is unusual to hear a Bristol accent among the city’s managerial classes; you barely hear it in the council chamber anymore.

Make a list of 50 or 100 ‘famous Bristolians’ in whatever fields you like – business, engineering, academia, the arts, showbiz, sport, politics, whatever – and then dig into their backgrounds. You’ll find that over half were either born elsewhere, or that their parents were.

The two truly global ‘Bristol’ historical celebrities are probably John Cabot (Italian) and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel’s father had fled revolutionary France for his own safety. Brunel, who designed the city’s Suspension Bridge, made the railway line to London and built the ss Great Britain, was the son of an asylum seeker.

Faith, radicalism and culture wars

One of the hardest things to grasp in our secular age is how utterly all-encompassing the Christian religion was to our forebears. Even as recently as 100 years ago, it was a brave man or woman who stood up to declare themselves an atheist.

In the Middle Ages, the church, headed by the Pope in Rome, was all-powerful and very wealthy. Henry VIII’s split with Rome in the 1530s – the English Reformation – had profound consequences in economics and politics as well as religion. Meanwhile, Henry closed down the religious houses and the abbey church of St Augustine became Bristol Cathedral, and so Bristol became a proper city.

Henry and his successors all the way to Charles III were heads of the Church of England. But increasingly, there were other Protestant sects as well. Religion was a key element in the civil wars, the ousting of the Catholic King James II and the arrival of William and Mary in 1688 and, later, the Hanoverian dynasty. Political differences underpinned by religion threatened to spill the country into civil war once more on several occasions in the later 1600s and well into the following century. In Bristol, this factionalism was passionate and often violent.

Bristol became home to a number of ‘nonconformist’ (because they didn’t conform to the Church of England) churches – Quakers, Baptists, Unitarians and others, including the Methodist church founded by the Wesley brothers in the 1700s. Bristol was basically where Methodism began.

Nonconformist churches usually started out with working-class or lower middle-class followers and so, almost by definition, were political dissidents. They all squabbled with one another and often split into sub-groups because of doctrinal differences, but most were united in their dislike and distrust of the Church of England. You can draw a theoretical line connecting, say, the local seventeenth-century puritan troublemaker Dorothy Hazzard (a Baptist) through Quaker campaigners against slavery through First World War conscientious objectors (almost all of whom refused to fight on religious grounds) to today’s Bristolian radicals.

Dissenters from any time in the city’s past would easily understand what we mean nowadays by ‘culture wars’, except that their activism was all rooted in their interpretation of the Bible.

Religious nonconformists also founded many of Bristol’s biggest business dynasties. Because they were excluded from many conventional professions, some would go on to start successful companies, or become leading innovators, often (in Bristol’s case) in medicine and healthcare.

Furthermore, nonconformists were almost all political and/or social activists in their various ways, from abolitionism to the early trade union and labour movements. There also grew a strong tradition of middle-class social activism among many wealthier nonconformist families and churches. Much of this had a strongly religious flavour.

You could also argue that Bristol’s former reputation as a rather philistine place which was uninterested in the arts also stemmed from nonconformism’s mistrust of pleasure. Because then, as now, radicalism in whatever form can give way to dogma and intolerance.

To understand the differences between the Anglicans and dissenters, visit the Methodist New Room in Broadmead and see how stark and plain it is. Then look at, say, the Anglican Christ Church with St Ewen nearby and see how fabulously ornate and rich it is. Yes, it was about religious belief, but money and politics came into it as well, and some Anglican places of worship were never for the poor.

If you believe that Bristol has a uniquely radical tradition, religious nonconformism is at the root of it.

If you believe that Bristol has an equal and corresponding tradition of conservatism, and complacency, the Church of England is at the root of it. (Not any more; the Church of England nowadays is positively woke by comparison with former times.)

The Victorian explosion

By the time Brunel arrived and work started on his Suspension Bridge in 1831 (the bridge wouldn’t be completed until after his death), Bristol was being overtaken in size and economic importance by the great industrial cities of the Midlands and North.

Nonetheless, the city changed beyond all recognition between then and the First World War. Railways and steamships meant commerce grew hugely in scale. Industry expanded, everything from coal mining to engineering, chocolate, tobacco and many other things. Neighbouring Kingswood boasted a huge boot- and shoe-making industry.

By 1901 the population had more than quadrupled to over 320,000. Aside from improved drinking water and sewers, much of this was due to reliable supplies of affordable food, much of it imported.

Whole new suburbs were built. People could live miles from their workplaces and travel to them on trains, or horse-drawn omnibuses and, more usually, trams. The trams were electrified in the 1890s, and on the eve of the First World War, Bristol was building aircraft, and had a fully-fledged university.

We are living through a time of immense change now, but so far it’s nothing like the dizzying progress in Bristol in the 50 years before the First World War, which turned the place from a medieval town of wood and stone to a sprawling city of brick and glass.

Technical, social and economic developments created a city we would recognise today, and with all the essential facets of everyday life in place, from commuting to mass-communications. The creation of the modern city, in everything from water and sewers to housing, rail and tram lines, gas and electricity supplies and a sophisticated local government infrastructure, had been a massive challenge, successfully met, though it came at a heavy price in poverty and social dislocation.


If you were going to be poor in any city in England before the welfare state, Bristol was a pretty good place to be. In the Middle Ages, generations of affluent Bristolians took it as given that they had a religious obligation to help others and gave vast amounts of money to the church and to the poor. Merchant William Canynges (c.1399-1474), one of the richest men in the country, gave up all his wealth to end his days as a priest.

After the Reformation, the rich still gave to charities, much of which benefited the poor, or spent it on philanthropic causes. This compelling sense of obligation continued well into the twentieth century with locally owned companies as well as rich individuals giving back to the community.

While some in recent decades have defended the reputation of slave trader Edward Colston by saying ‘how much he did for Bristol’, he doesn’t stand up to comparison with a lot of others. Aside from his atrocious business dealings, he was a religious bigot who was keen to ensure his bequests only benefited Anglicans.

There are less egregious examples – the Frys, who made their money in chocolate and cocoa, and who were Quakers, gave a great deal. Various members of the Wills dynasty, who got fabulously rich from tobacco, gave away millions to everything from old people’s homes to the University of Bristol. Victorian mining magnate Handel Cossham (1824-1890) built an entire hospital.

(All of which assumes you can square away the fact that many businesses benefited directly or indirectly from enslaved labour or exploited their workforces or, as in the Wills case, got millions addicted to a killer drug. Behind every great fortune is a great crime, and all that.)

Globalism has severed ties between commerce and community, though the Society of Merchant Venturers, a commercial lobby group founded in Tudor times which now claims to be purely philanthropic, might argue that it leads the way locally in charity – running schools in deprived areas, for example.

Part of the reason behind the bizarre ‘cult of Colston’ espoused both by Liberals (whom he would have despised) and by Tories in the nineteenth century was that he was supposed to show how the kindness of rich men was better than socialism.

While increasing prosperity and a growing diversity of industries created a large middle class, it created an even bigger working class whose lives were often precarious, and who sought to improve pay and working conditions by forming or joining trade unions. Towards the late 1800s and early 1900s there were a number of increasingly bitter and sometimes violent industrial disputes. Bristol spawned two of the giants of the early Labour movement, Ben Tillett (1860-1943) and Ernest Bevin (1881-1951).

There was also a large underclass living in appalling slum conditions, most of them in central areas of the city, and whose lives were often blighted by alcoholism. Bristol was a bastion of the temperance movement, which tried to get people to swear off drink.

While Bristol was a regional stronghold of the political left, it was also a significant centre of middle-class social activism, of people going into deprived communities and slums to try and improve people’s lives, whether through education or religion. Women were at the forefront of this movement. Some were preachy and evangelical, but others, such as Mabel Tothill (1869-1964), Hilda Cashmore (1876-1943) or Marian Pease (1859-1954) – founders of the University Settlement at Barton Hill – made a real difference to people’s lives. Some, you might argue, such as Hannah More (1745-1833) or Mary Carpenter (1807-1877), fell somewhere in between ….

Decades of social activism by well-connected women led to growing demands for women’s education and women’s right to vote. Bristol was one of the UK’s leading centres of agitation for women’s suffrage. With a few exceptions, the leadership locally of this movement was overwhelmingly middle class.

Much attention is paid in present-day Bristol to the suffrage campaigners, but in 1918 the less affluent third or so of the male population finally got the vote (along with women over 30 subject to various conditions). This had significant consequences.

In the febrile political atmosphere between the wars, when socialist revolution seemed a real possibility, Bristol’s Tory and Liberal councillors dissolved centuries of mutual loathing overnight, combining as the ‘Citizen Party’. By gaming the system, they kept Labour out of power in the Council House until 1938. Since then, Labour has controlled the council more often than not.

Engineering and innovation

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century industries were made possible by new technologies adapted by Bristol. The most successful entrepreneurs tended not to invent much.

You can see this in the career of Sir George White (1854-1916), who took an American invention to revolutionise his Bristol trams by electrifying them, and who then set out to build an aviation industry, rejecting experiment in favour of using proven ideas from elsewhere. The hugely successful Wills cigarette industry was based on the licensing of American manufacturing technology. The small but prestigious Bristol car company started out with designs ‘liberated’ from Germany at the end of the Second World War.

Brunel never invented much himself but adapted new ideas, though his perfectionism ended up driving almost every project over budget.

Few significant inventions came out of Victorian Bristol; there was the mass-produced hollow chocolate Easter Egg (Frys, 1873, or so it’s claimed) and self-raising flour (Welsh-born Broadmead baker Henry Jones, 1845), but in later times the city has been a home of considerable innovation, particularly in aviation and aerospace.

Bristol can also make many claims to innovation in a field that’s generally overlooked – medicine, from pioneering treatments of mental illness to more recent work on paramedics thanks in large part to Frenchay Hospital anaesthetist Peter Baskett (1934-2008). American-born neuroscientist William Grey Walter (1910-1977) built some of the world’s first robots in the 1940s, while Inmos at Aztec West developed some of the earliest semiconductors in the 1970s.

The decline of the manufacturing industry has been accompanied by the rise in Bristol’s ‘knowledge economy’ in recent decades, often linked to the universities, with developments in IT, medicine, materials technology, communications and media.

The modern Bristol brand

The First World War accounted for 7,000-8,000 Bristolian dead in the fighting services and merchant marine and in the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, which was a direct result of the war. In itself, however, the war did not dramatically change the cityscape or the economy.

The Second World War saw large areas laid waste as a result of enemy bombing. After the war, city planners wrought an immense amount of change. Castle Park was created from what had been a dense retail and residential area; the Broadmead shopping centre was built in the 1950s and numerous road schemes followed. There was also a massive council house-building programme which took thousands of families from cramped and insanitary housing out to new estates, mostly on the city’s fringes.

Most of Bristol’s trademark manufacturing industries were closing by the 1980s. Sometime around this period Bristol started to change character, going from a sober, hard-working place to a new identity as a creative, ‘alternative’, hedonistic and frequently riotous place.

All UK cities reinvented themselves in the post-industrial age, turning former docks into destinations (Manchester, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Cardiff etc.) and former industrial buildings into apartments. What is arguably different about Bristol is the growth of the importance of arts, entertainment and media – from Aardman Animations to Banksy and the ‘Bristol Sound’ – in a place which, despite a few outliers (e.g. the early nineteenth-century ‘Bristol School’ of artists) was never seen as particularly cultured.

By the 1990s the city was gaining a worldwide reputation, especially in music, clubs and free parties and street art. In more recent times, it’s possible that the hedonism has been sidelined by a more sober political/social activism.

The demographics have changed, too. Bristol is undoubtedly more diverse ethnically, but also often segregated into different neighbourhoods. There are also 40,000-plus students in Bristol in term-time, threatening to turn other areas into monocultures.

The public image, the brand peddled even by the city council, is in any event at odds with reality. For all the computer games designers, pop-up shops, the protests and the historic toppling of Colston, most of the population go about their business, many struggling to make ends meet.

Are we really that different from Victorian Bristol – a small upper crust, a large middle class, a precarious blue-collar class, and a large and hidden underclass?

So … some themes to argue about

‘History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.’

– Mark Twain

‘Thee’s got’n whur thee casn’t back’n, assn’t?’

– Adge Cutler

What do we have in common with Bristolians from 200 years ago, 500 years ago or more? People who lived in a place mostly built of wood and stone, travelled on horses or wooden sailing ships (but mostly on foot), who all believed in the Christian God?

Or even just the Bristolians of 100 years ago; folk who mostly worked in manufacturing and paid lip-service, at least, to the Christian God? A city where almost everyone considered meat essential to their diet, where Black people were so unusual that if mothers saw one they’d tell their children to touch them for luck? A place where the working classes spoke not just in a local accent, but a now almost-forgotten dialect?

Most of our grandparents were born somewhere else. All we have in common with previous inhabitants is that we simply occupy the same patch of Planet Earth, right?

And yet there are ghosts and resonances lurking in those old stones, bricks and timbers; themes and constants which maybe continue to shape the city today. For instance:

  • Immigration is key, whether it’s from Wales, the Home Counties or the far side of the world. Bristol has always needed to bring people in.
  • Bristolian exceptionalism. There was always a strong sense of local autonomy even in the Middle Ages, and many still feel the place is different today.
  • Rule by oligarchy. For much of its history Bristol, reasonably distant from royal control, was run by businessmen. Even twentieth-century Labour party councillors and Lord Mayors often also held office in trade unions and/or public service bodies. In the 1700s only a minority of the population were allowed to vote; in local elections in recent decades only a minority bothered to vote. This is no different from most other cities, but it suggests that the present-day radical brand is perhaps exaggerated. Bristol’s first Green Party councillor wasn’t elected until 2006.
  • Middle-class activism. Bristol produced many working-class labour leaders and giants of the labour movement but they were focussed on the immediate needs of those they represented, usually simply pay and conditions. It has also been represented in Parliament by two megastars of Labour’s left, Stafford Cripps (1889-1952) and Tony Benn (1925-2014). New immigrant communities also concentrated on immediate needs, such as the 1963 bus boycott over employment rights. But an unusually large bourgeois minority spearheaded many campaigns, from the anti-slavery movement in the 1700s/1800s to suffragism in the 1800s/1900s. How much present-day activism is predominantly middle-class in character?
  • Endless culture wars. Left and right, Anglican and nonconformist, Roundhead and Cavalier, Whig and Tory … to modern day cyclists vs motorists or Colston apologists vs statue-drowners. When the Royalists captured Bristol in 1643, they taunted the defeated Roundheads, we’re told, mimicking them by speaking in the same, sneering, high-pitched, nasal tones that we use to mock killjoys almost 400 years later.

While many like to claim Bristol has usually/always been on the progressive side of history, the city has – or used to have – a corresponding tradition of conservatism. The Tories ran the council for the entire nineteenth century and those who campaigned to keep slavery or deny women the vote only got written out of history because they lost – but there were plenty of them.

  • Dithering. Indecision and delay over major infrastructure projects is a fine old Bristolian tradition, from the floating harbour in the eighteenth century to dockisation in the nineteenth. Fast-forward to the present, and the Arena has been on the drawing board since 2003, while studying public transport plans since the 1980s is strictly for masochists, or fans of job-creation schemes for consultants. In 2023, with plans for the ‘Bristol Underground’ hitting the buffers, Mayor Rees slammed the city and wider region for ‘lack of ambition’.

And yet when Bristol has been ambitious, the results have been spectacular. The post-Second World War plans were on a vast scale and though they gave us some hideous concrete office blocks, the plan overall, implemented more slowly than the planners would have liked, gave tens of thousands decent housing and was the backdrop to major advances in living standards. The tram system in the nineteenth century smoothed the way for immense growth, and by 1900 was one of the most modern, and envied, in the world.

Some more of that would be nice.

Eugene Byrne is a Bristol-based author, historian and journalist.

This article appears in Bristol 650: Essays on the Future of Bristol, a book bringing together essays from over 30 contributors, addressing some of the challenges the city faces and sharing ideas about how we might meet them. From dealing with the past, the future of social care, culture and housing to building a city of aspiration, the book looks to promote learning about the future of Bristol and encourage new ideas to come forward.

Free copies of Bristol 650: Essays on the Future of Bristol will be available at selected Festival of the Future City events in October 2023, or you can find articles featured in the book at

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