Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
History of Bristol
The town of Bristol (Brycgstow, Old English, "the place at the bridge") was in existence by the beginning of the 11th Century, and under Norman rule acquired one of the strongest castles in southern England. The River Avon in the city centre has slowly evolved into Bristol Harbour, and since the 12th Century the place has been an important port, handling much of England's trade with Ireland. In 1247 a new bridge was built and the town was extended to incorporate neighbouring suburbs, becoming in 1373 a county in its own right. During this period Bristol also became a centre of shipbuilding and manufacturing.
By the 14th Century Bristol was England's third-largest town (after London and York), with perhaps 15-20,000 inhabitants on the eve of the Black Death of 1348-49. The plague inflicted a prolonged demographic setback, however, with population remaining in the region of at most 10-12,000 through most of the 15th and 16th Centuries. Bristol was made a city in 1542, with the former Abbey of St Augustine becoming Bristol Cathedral. During the Civil War the city suffered (1643-45) through Royalist military occupation and plague.
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 trade in Africans taken for slavery in the Americas.
Bristol, along with Liverpool, became a significant centre for the slave trade although few slaves were brought to Britain. During the height of the slave trade, from 1700 to 1807, more than 2000 slaving ships were fitted out at Bristol, carrying a (conservatively) estimated half a million people from Africa to the Americas and slavery.
Competition from Liverpool from c.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 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 1804-9 failed to overcome. Nevertheless, Bristol's population (66,000 in 1801) quintupled during the 19th Century, supported by new industries and 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, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Bristol's city centre suffered severe damage from bombing during World War II. The original central area, near the bridge and castle, is still a park featuring two bombed out churches and some tiny fragments of the castle. (A third bombed church has a new lease of life as St Nicholas' Church Museum.) Slightly to the North, the Broadmead shopping centre was built over bomb-damaged areas.
The removal of the docks to Avonmouth, seven miles (11 km) downstream from the city centre, relieved congestion in the central zone and allowed substantial 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 seen merely as derelict industry rather than a potential asset.
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