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Gloucestershire and Somerset
Bristol city centre from bottom of park street arp.jpg
Bristol city centre
Grid reference: ST589729
Location: 51°27’15"N, 2°35’33"W
Population: 587,400
Post town: Bristol
Postcode: BS
Local Government
Council: Bristol
Bristol East
Bristol North West
Bristol South
Bristol West

Bristol is the major city of the West Country. It stands on the boundary of Gloucestershire and Somerset, 105 miles west of London and 24 miles east of Cardiff. With an estimated population of 433,100 for the city's civic area in 2009 and over a million in the surrounding urban zone, Bristol is the United Kingdom's eighth most populous city and by far the most populous city in south-western England.

Bristol received a royal charter in 1155 and was granted independence of the county authorities in 1373. From the 13th century, for half a millennium, it ranked amongst the top three English cities after London, alongside York and Norwich, on the basis of tax receipts,[1] until the rapid rise of Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester during the Industrial Revolution in the latter part of the 18th century.

Bristol is the largest centre of culture, employment and education in the region. Its prosperity has been linked with the sea since its earliest days. The commercial Port of Bristol was originally in the city centre before being moved to the Severn Estuary at Avonmouth; Royal Portbury Dock is on the western edge of the city boundary. In more recent years the economy has depended on the creative media, electronics and aerospace industries, and the city centre docks have been regenerated as a centre of heritage and culture.[2] There are 34 other towns or villages named Bristol, most in the United States, but also in Peru, Canada, Jamaica and Costa Rica, all presumably commemorating the original.[3][4]

The county boundary

Part of the Floating Harbour

Bristol has long been considered to be a city in two counties; Gloucestershire and Somerset, but few cartographers have sought definitively to mark the boundary between the two within the city. To the east and the west the boundary is marked by the River Avon and indeed through the city the boundary follows the river's original course, which is consistent with all known precedents. The town was founded in Gloucestershire, entirely north of Avon, while south of the Avon was the vill of Redcliffe, containing the Somerset parishes of St Thomas, St Mary Redcliffe and Temple. The two were united in 1247.

The Avon once flowed through the heart of Bristol, and was its main conduit for the trade which brought the city prosperity. However the flow of the river was diverted at the beginning of the nineteenth century in order to create the Floating Harbour in the city centre, and its waters now run in a channel far to the south. The Floating Harbour was created to eliminate the tides at the city docks and it is simply a stretch of the River Avon shut off with locks.

The Gloucestershire portion of the city is the most populous, with 283,116 residents at the 2011 census, with the Somerset portion having 145,177.

Name of the city

The name "Bristol" is from Old English. Its earliest form is Brycgstow, meaning "bridge place"[5] From this the name became "Bristol".


Bristol Cathedral

Some main notable churches in Bristol are

  • Church of England:
    • Bristol Cathedral
    • St Mary Redcliffe
    • Numerous parish churches
  • Baptist: Buckingham Baptist Chapel
  • Methodist: John Wesley's New Room in Broadmead The New Room Bristol
  • Roman Catholic: Clifton Cathedral

Other religions

The mixed population Bristol, as a major city and a port town, has given it a diverse population in race and religion.

Geography and environment

The Avon Gorge from the Clifton Suspension Bridge

Bristol is in a limestone area, which runs from the Mendip Hills to the south and the Cotswolds to the north-east.[8] The rivers Avon and Frome cut through this limestone to the underlying clays, creating Bristol's characteristic hilly landscape. The Avon flows from Bath in the east, through flood plains and areas which were marshy before the growth of the city. To the west the Avon has cut through the limestone to form the Avon Gorge, partly aided by glacial meltwater after the last ice age. The gorge helped to protect Bristol Harbour, and has been quarried for stone to build the city.

The land surrounding the gorge has been protected from development, as The Downs and Leigh Woods. The gorge and estuary of the Avon form the county boundary between Gloucestershire and Somerset, and the river flows into the Severn Estuary at Avonmouth. There is another gorge in the city, in the Blaise Castle estate to the north.


Early history

Archaeological finds believed to be 60,000 years old, discovered at Shirehampton and St Annes, provide "evidence of human activity" in the Bristol area from the Palaeolithic era.[9] There are Iron Age hill forts near the city, at Leigh Woods and Clifton Down on the side of the Avon Gorge, and on Kingsweston Hill, near Henbury.[10] During the Roman era there was a settlement, Abona,[11] at what is now Sea Mills, connected to Bath by a Roman road, and another at the present-day Inns Court. There were also isolated Roman villas and small Roman forts and settlements throughout the area.[12]

Bristol takes it name though from its foundation in the Anglo-Saxon period. It existed at least by the tenth century. Under Norman rule acquired one of the strongest castles in southern England.[13]

Bristol Bridge seen across the harbour

The area around the original junction of the River Frome with the River Avon, adjacent to the original Bristol Bridge and just outside the town walls, was where the port began to develop in the 11th century.[14] By the 12th century Bristol was an important port, handling much of England's trade with Ireland. In 1247 a new stone bridge was built, which was replaced by the current Bristol Bridge in the 1760s,[15] and the town was extended to incorporate neighbouring suburbs, and in 1373 the city was given independence from the authorities of its two counties as a "county corporate".

The Nails, at which deals were made

During the Middle Ages, Bristol became a centre of shipbuilding and manufacturing. Bristol was the starting point for many important voyages, notably John Cabot's 1497 voyage of exploration to North America.[16]

The west front of Bristol Cathedral

By the 14th century Bristol was one of England's three largest mediaeval towns after London, along with York and Norwich, with perhaps 15,000–20,000 inhabitants on the eve of the Black Death of 1348–49.[17] The plague resulted in a prolonged pause in the growth of Bristol's population, with numbers remaining at 10,000–12,000 through most of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Early modern period

The Diocese of Bristol was founded in 1542,[18] Taking as its cathedral the former Abbey of St Augustine, founded by Robert Fitzharding in 1140,[19] and dissolved just a few years before.

During the English Civil War in the 1640s, the city was occupied by Royalist military, after they overran Royal Fort, the last Parliamentarian stronghold in the city.[20]

Slave trade

The first recorded reference to the trade in slaves out of Bristol was in a complaint by Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester, in the eleventh century. It was several centuries later though that Bristol would become involved in a much larger trade in humanity.

Renewed growth came with the 17th century rise of England's American colonies and the rapid 18th century expansion of England's part in the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the Americas. Bristol, along with Liverpool, became a centre for the Triangular trade; in the first stage of this trade manufactured goods were taken to West Africa and exchanged for Africans who were then, transported across the Atlantic in brutal conditions.[21] The third leg of the triangle brought plantation goods such as sugar, tobacco, rum, rice and cotton.[21]

During the height of the slave trade, from 1700 to 1807, more than 2,000 slaving ships were fitted out at Bristol, carrying a (conservatively) estimated half a million people from Africa to the Americas and slavery.[22] The Seven Stars public house,[23] where abolitionist Thomas Clarkson collected information on the slave trade, still exists.

The gateway of the Atlantic

Fishermen from Bristol had fished the Grand Banks of Newfoundland since the 15th century[24] and began settling Newfoundland permanently in larger numbers in the 17th century establishing colonies at Bristol's Hope and Cuper's Cove. Bristol's strong nautical ties meant that maritime safety was an important issue in the city. During the 19th century Samuel Plimsoll, "the sailor's friend", campaigned to make the seas safer; he was shocked by the overloaded cargoes, and successfully fought for a compulsory load line on ships.[25]


The Clifton Suspension Bridge

Competition from Liverpool from c. 1760, the disruption of maritime commerce caused by wars 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 of England and the Midlands.

The 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 1804–9 failed to overcome, as the great cost of the scheme led to excessive harbour dues.[26] Nevertheless, Bristol's population (66,000 in 1801) quintupled during the 19th century, supported by new industries and growing commerce.[27]

The city was particularly associated with the noted Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed the Great Western Railway between Bristol and London Paddington, two pioneering Bristol-built ocean going steamships, the SS Great Britain and SS Great Western, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. John Wesley founded the very first Methodist Chapel, called the New Room, in Bristol in 1739. Riots occurred in 1793[28] and 1831, the first beginning as a protest at renewal of an act levying tolls on Bristol Bridge, and the latter after the rejection of the second Reform Bill.[29]

The war and beyond

Bristol's city centre suffered severe damage from Luftwaffe bombing during the Bristol Blitz of Second World War.[30] The original central shopping area, near the bridge and castle, is now a park containing two bombed out churches and some fragments of the castle. A third bombed church nearby, St Nicholas, has been restored and has been made into a museum which houses a triptych by William Hogarth, painted for St Mary Redcliffe in 1756. The museum also contains statues moved from Arno's Court Triumphal Arch, of King Edward I and King Edward III taken from Lawfords' Gate of the city walls when they were demolished around 1760, and 13th century figures from Bristol's Newgate representing Robert, the builder of Bristol Castle, and Geoffrey de Montbray, Bishop of Coutances, builder of the fortified walls of the city.[31]

The rebuilding of Bristol city centre was characterised by large, cheap 1960s tower blocks, brutalist architecture and expansion of roads. Since the 1980s another trend has emerged with the closure of some main roads, the restoration of the Georgian period Queen Square and Portland Square, the regeneration of the Broadmead shopping area, and the demolition of one of the city centre's tallest post-war blocks.[32]

The removal of the docks to Avonmouth Docks and Royal Portbury Dock, 7 miles downstream from the city centre during the 20th century has also allowed redevelopment of the old central dock area (the "Floating Harbour") in recent decades, although at one time the continued existence of the docks was in jeopardy as it was viewed as a derelict industrial site rather than an asset. However the holding, in 1996, of the first International Festival of the Sea in and around the docks, affirmed the dockside area in its new leisure role as a key feature of the city.[33]


The Llandoger Trow, an ancient public house in the heart of Bristol

Bristol has 51 Grade I listed buildings, 500 Grade II* and over 3,800 Grade II buildings,[34] in a wide variety of architectural styles, ranging from the mediaeval to the 21st century. In the mid-19th century, Bristol Byzantine, an architectural style unique to the city, was developed, of which several examples have survived. Buildings from most of the architectural periods of the United Kingdom can be seen throughout the city. Surviving elements of the fortified city and castle date back to the mediaeval era,[35] also some churches dating from the 12th century onwards.[36]

Outside the historical city centre there are several large Tudor mansions built for wealthy merchants.[37] Almshouses[38] and public houses of the same period still exist,[39] intermingled with modern development. Several Georgian-era squares were laid out for the enjoyment of the middle class as prosperity increased in the 18th century.[40]

During Second World War, the city centre suffered from extensive bombing during the Bristol Blitz.[41] The redevelopment of shopping centres, office buildings, and the harbourside continues apace.


  1. Manco, Jean (25 July 2009). "The Ranking of Provincial Towns in England 1066-1861". Delving into building history. Retrieved 13 January 2010. 
  2. Norwood, Graham (30 October 2007). "Bristol: seemingly unstoppable growth". The Guardian (London: Guardian News and Media). Retrieved 18 December 2007. 
  3. "Bristol on Geody". Geody. Retrieved 1 January 2009. 
  4. Malvern, Jack (29 December 2008). "Richmond, in Surrey, is the most widely copied British place name worldwide". The Times (London: News International). Retrieved 1 January 2009. 
  5. Little, Bryan (1967). The City and County of Bristol. Wakefield: S. R. Publishers. ISBN 0854095128. 
  6. Bristol mosques
  7. Bristol Sikh Temple
  8. "CotswoldS AONB". Retrieved 5 May 2007. 
  9. "The Palaeolithic in Bristol". Bristol City Council. 24 April 2007. Retrieved 6 May 2007. 
  10. "Bristol in the Iron Age". Bristol City Council. Retrieved 10 March 2007. 
  11. "Abona - Major Romano-British Settlement". Retrieved 17 December 2008. 
  12. "Bristol in the Roman Period". Bristol City Council. Retrieved 10 March 2007. 
  13. "The Impregnable City". Bristol Past. Retrieved 7 October 2007. 
  14. Brace, Keith (1996). Portrait of Bristol. London: Robert Hale. pp. 13–15. ISBN 0709154356. 
  15. "Bristol Bridge". Images of England. Retrieved 22 December 2006. 
  16. Croxton, Derek (1990-1991). "The Cabot Dilemma: John Cabot's 1497 Voyage & the Limits of Historiography". Essays in History (Virginia: Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia) 33. Retrieved 16 March 2009. 
  17. "Largest towns in England in 1334". Love my town. Retrieved 10 March 2007. 
  18. Horn, Joyce M (1996). "BRISTOL: Introduction". Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1541-1857: volume 8: Bristol, Gloucester, Oxford and Peterborough dioceses (Institute of Historical Research): 3–6. Retrieved 14 March 2009. 
  19. Bettey, Joseph (1996). St Augustine's Abbey, Bristol. Bristol: Bristol Branch of the Historical Association. pp. 1–5. ISBN 0901388726. 
  20. "Bristol". Fortified Places. Retrieved 24 March 2007. 
  21. 21.0 21.1 "Triangular trade". National Maritime Museum. Retrieved 22 March 2009. 
  22. "Lottery Fund rejects Bristol application in support of a major exhibition to commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade" (PDF). British Empire & Commonwealth Museum. Retrieved 10 March 2007. 
  23. "Seven Stars, Slavery and Freedom!". Bristol Radical History Group. Retrieved 18 December 2008. 
  24. Cathcart, Brian (19 March 1995). "Rear Window: Newfoundland: Where fishes swim, men will fight" (fee required). The Independent, archived at Nexis (Independent News and Media).,A,H&startDocNo=201&resultsUrlKey=29_T7005994368&cisb=22_T7006006002&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=8200&docNo=220. Retrieved 21 July 2009. 
  25. "Samuel Plimsoll - the seaman's friend". BBC - Bristol - History. Retrieved 16 March 2009. 
  26. Buchanan, R A; Cossons, Neil (1969). "2". The Industrial Archaeology of the Bristol Region. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. pp. 32–33. ISBN 0715343947. 
  27. "A vision of Bristol UA/City". A Vision of Britain. Retrieved 29 January 2007. 
  28. Hunt, Henry (original circa 1818). Memoirs of Henry Hunt, Esq.. 3. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 14 March 2009. 
  29. "BBC - Made in Bristol - 1831 Riot facts". BBC News. Retrieved 15 March 2009. 
  30. John Penny MA; The Luftwaffe over the Bristol area 1940-44 Retrieved: 14 July 2008
  31. "Four figures on Arno's Gateway". Public Monument and Sculpture Association National Recording Project. Retrieved 19 March 2007. 
  32. "Demolition of city tower begins". BBC News. 13 January 2006. Retrieved 10 March 2007. 
  33. Jeremy McNeill ; illustrations by Ben Wookey. (1997). Bristol's Harbourside: A Guide to the City Docks. Bristol: Hotwell Press. ISBN 978-0953027002. 
  34. "Bristol City Council: Listed buildings register: Listed buildings". Retrieved 16 March 2009. 
  35. Burrough, THB (1970). Bristol. London: Studio Vista. ISBN 0289798043. 
  36. "Church of St James". Images of England. Retrieved 15 March 2009. 
  37. "Red Lodge and attached rubble walls and entrance steps". Images of England. Retrieved 10 March 2007. 
  38. "St Nicholas' Almshouses, Nos.1-10". Images of England. Retrieved 21 February 2007. 
  39. "Llandoger Trow". Images of England. Retrieved 22 February 2007. 
  40. Andrew Foyle, Bristol, Pevsner Architectural Guides (2004) ISBN 0-300-10442-1
  41. Pictoral history of Bristol, Retrieved 14 April 2006.

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