What’s in a name
Bristol is a city with a population of nearly half a million people in the heart of South West England. It has been amongst the country's largest and most economically and culturally important cities for eight centuries. The Bristol area has been settled since the Stone Age and there is evidence of Roman occupation. A mint was established in the Saxon borough of Brycgstow by the 10th century and the town rose to prominence in the Norman era, gaining a charter and county status in 1373. The change in the form of the name 'Bristol' is due to the local pronunciation of 'ow' as 'ol'.
The birth of a city
Bristol was made a city in 1542, with the former Abbey of St Augustine becoming Bristol Cathedral, following Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Dissolution also saw the surrender to the King of all of Bristol's friaries and monastic hospitals, together with St James' Priory, St Mary Magdalen Nunnery, a Cistercian Abbey at Kingswood and the College at Westbury on Trym. In the case of the friaries at Greyfriars and Whitefriars, the priors had fled before the arrival of the Royal Commissioners, and at Whitefriars a succession of departing priors had plundered the friary of its valuables.
Although the commissioners had not been able to point to as much religious malpractice in Bristol as elsewhere, there is no record of Bristolians raising any objections to the royal seizures. In 1541 Bristol's civic leaders took the opportunity of buying up lands and properties formerly belonging to St Mark's Hospital, St Mary Magdalen, Greyfriars and Whitefriars for a total of a thousand pounds. Bristol thereby became the only municipality in the country which had its own chapel, at St Mark's.
Trade continued to grow and by the mid-sixteenth century imports from Europe included wine, olive oil, iron, figs and other dried fruits and dyes. Exports included cloth (both cotton and wool), lead and hides. In 1574 Elizabeth I visited the city during her Royal Progress through the western counties. Bristol sent three ships to the Royal Navy fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588, and also supplied two levies of men to the defending land forces. Despite appeals to the Privy Council no reimbursement was made for these supplies. The corporation also had to repair the walls and gates of the city. The castle had fallen into disuse in the late Tudor era, but the City authorities had no control over royal property and the precincts became a refuge for lawbreakers.
In 1630 the city corporation bought the castle and when the First English Civil War broke out in 1642, the city took the Parliamentary side and partly restored the fortifications. However Royalist troops under the command of Prince Rupert captured Bristol on 26 July 1643, in the process causing extensive damage to both town and castle. The Royalist forces captured large amounts of booty and also eight armed merchant vessels which became the nucleus of the Royalist fleet. Workshops in the city became arms factories, providing muskets for the Royalist army.
In the summer of 1645, Royalist forces were defeated by the New Model Army at the Battle of Langport, in Somerset. Following further victories at Bridgwater and Sherborne, Sir Thomas Fairfax marched on Bristol. Prince Rupert returned to organise the defence of the city. The Parliamentary forces besieged the city and after three weeks attacked, eventually forcing Rupert to surrender on 10 September. The First Civil War ended the following year. There were no further military actions in Bristol during the second and third civil wars. In 1656, Oliver Cromwell ordered the destruction of the castle.
The “Triangular Trade”
Renewed growth came with the 17th century rise of England's American colonies and the rapid 18th century expansion of Bristol's part in the "Triangular Trade" in Africans taken for slavery in the Americas. Over 2,000 slaving voyages were made by Bristol ships between the late 17th century and abolition in 1807, carrying an estimated half a million people from Africa to the Americas in brutal conditions. Average profits per voyage were seventy percent and more than fifteen per cent of the Africans transported died or were murdered on the Middle Passage. Some slaves were brought to Bristol from the Caribbean. Notable amongst these were Scipio Africanus, buried at Henbury, and Pero Jones brought to Bristol by slave trader and plantation owner John Pinney.
The slave trade and the consequent demand for cheap brassware for export to Africa caused a boom in the copper and brass manufacturing industries of the Avon valley, which in turn encouraged the progress of the Industrial Revolution in the area. Prominent manufacturers such as Abraham Darby and William Champion developed extensive works between Conham and Keynsham which used ores from the Mendips and coal from the North Somerset coalfield. Water power from tributaries of the Avon drove the hammers in the brass batteries, until the development of steam power in the later eighteenth century. Glass, soap, sugar, paper and chemical industries also developed along the Avon valley.
Edmund Burke was elected as Whig Member of Parliament for Bristol in 1774 and campaigned for free trade, Catholic emancipation and the rights of the American colonists, but he angered his merchant sponsors with his detestation of the slave trade and lost the seat in 1780.
Anti-slavery campaigners, inspired by Non-conformist preachers such as John Wesley, started some of the earliest campaigns against the practice. The Bristol Corporation of the Poor was established at the end of the seventeenth century and a workhouse, to provide work for the poor and shelter for those needing charity, was established, adjacent to the Bridewell. John Wesley founded the very first Methodist Chapel, The New Room in Broadmead in 1739, which is still in use in the 21st century. Wesley had come to Bristol at the invitation of George Whitfield. He preached in the open air to miners and brick-workers in Kingswood and Hanham.
Bristol Bridge, the only way of crossing the river without using a ferry, was rebuilt between 1764 and 1768. The earlier medieval bridge was too narrow and congested to cope with the amount of traffic that needed to use it. A toll was charged to pay for the works, and when, in 1793, the toll was extended for a further period of time the Bristol Bridge Riot ensued. 11 people were killed and 45 injured, making it one of the worst riots of the 18th century.
Competition from Liverpool from 1760, the disruption of maritime commerce through war with France (1793) and the abolition of the slave trade (1807) contributed to the city's failure to keep pace with the newer manufacturing centres of the North and Midlands. The cotton industry failed to develop in the city; sugar, brass and glass production went into decline.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
The long passage up the heavily tidal Avon Gorge, which had made the port highly secure during the Middle Ages, had become a liability which the construction of a new "Floating Harbour" (designed by William Jessop) in 1804-09 failed to overcome. Nevertheless, Bristol's population (66,000 in 1801) grew fivefold during the 19th century, supported by growing commerce. It was particularly associated with the leading engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed the Great Western Railway between Bristol and London, two pioneering Bristol-built steamships (the SS Great Western and the SS Great Britain), and the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
The new middle class, led by those who agitated against the slave trade, in the city began to engage in charitable works. Notable were Mary Carpenter, who founded ragged schools and reformatories and George Müller who founded an orphanage in 1836. Badminton School was started in Badminton House, Clifton in 1858 and Clifton College was established in 1862. University College, the predecessor of the University of Bristol, was founded in 1876 and the former Merchant Venturers Navigation School became the Merchant Venturers College in 1894. This later formed the nucleus of Bristol Polytechnic, which in turn became the University of the West of England.
The Bristol Riots of 1831 took place after the House of Lords rejected the second Reform Bill. Local magistrate Sir Charles Wetherall, a strong opponent of the Bill, visited Bristol to open the new Assize Courts and an angry mob chased him to the Mansion House in Queen Square. The Reform Act was passed in 1832 and the city boundaries were expanded for the first time since 1373 to include Clifton, the parishes of St. James, St. Paul, St. Philip, and parts of the parishes of Bedminster and Westbury.