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Bristol, Gloucestershire

Historical Description

Bristol, a seaport and city in the west of England, 118½ miles by G.W.R. from London, lying partly in Gloucestershire and partly in Somersetshire. The largest area lies to the N of the Avon and is in Gloucestershire, of which county Bristol contains about a third of the population. The Somersetshire portion, which includes the ward of Redcliffe and suburb of Bedminster, lies to the S of the Avon and contains a population equal to that of the largest city in that county. Bristol, which is situated in N. latitude 51º 27' 6.3", and W. longitude 2º 35' 28.6", was, however, constituted a county in itself by a charter of Edward III. The sees of Gloucester and Bristol are still united, although an act of parliament has been passed which, when the provisions are carried out, will restore to Bristol the undivided see, of which she was deprived in 1836. In the administration of justice Bristol is considered as part of the western circuit, and therefore connected with Somersetshire. The municipality is divided into ten wards, which, with certain out-parishes, including Clifton and Westbury on Trym, comprise an area of 4879 acres with a circuit of about 15 miles. The population at the census of 1891 was 221,665. The burgesses return forty-eight members to the town council, who are elected for three years. Besides these members are sixteen aldermen, whose first election was made under the provisions of the Municipal Reform Act of 1835. This election secured the majority of the Conservatives in the council, which they have ever since retained. Eight retire every three years, and the election to fill their places is made by the town council, but the eight retiring are disqualified from voting for their successors. The city is divided into thirteen wards, three of which-Bristol, Clifton, and Redcliffe-return six members, the remaining wards three each. The meetings of the council are presided over by the mayor, who is also a member of the different committees into which the council is subdivided, such as Docks Committee, Street Improvement Committee, Free Libraries Committee, &c.,all of which, with the exception of the Sanitary Committee, sit with closed doors. The town council on 9th November of each year elect one of the citizens to be mayor for the ensuing year. The mayor is the chief magistrate of the city, and by virtue of the office is styled the Right Worshipful the Mayor of Bristol, and takes precedence of everyone in the city. He has the right to take his seat on the bench of any of the common law courts. As an instance of the exercise of this right it is on record that in the year 1762, when John Noble was mayor, he being in London proceeded to the Court of Admiralty at Westminster and claimed the right. The judge then sitting was much surprised, and was about to take harsh measures, until he was informed by one of the counsel that the Mayor of Bristol was by charter thus privileged. The mayor having been accommodated with a seat by the side of the judge, rose, bowed, and said that having asserted the claims of his city he would at once withdraw. The allowance to the mayor is £1000 a year and a carriage.

Local historians are fond of attributing a Roman foundation to Bristol, though it is hard to see upon what evidence. Cleanliness and godliness were always marks of Roman colonisation, but no altar or bath, nor indeed constructive relic of any kind, has been discovered from which to infer that these people ever settled at this point of the Avon, though it is certain they occupied the rocky heights of that river at Clifton in the neighbourhood. In the days of the Caesars the valley of the future city was an unclaimed morass constantly subject to tidal overflows-a physical condition of which evidence yet survives in the names of several districts of the municipality, such as Canons' Marsh, Marsh Street, Frogmere Street, St. Philip's Marsh, &c. At what early time the ground was recovered from the heron and wild fowl and became habitable to man is uncertain; but the process must have been gradual and of many centuries' duration. So far as history gives witness the growth of the town was as silent as the uplifting of a coral reef, the earliest testimony to its existence as a centre of human life and industry being two silver pennies of Withered the Unready (978-1016). Inscribed coinage itself is history, and even written history-it tells that a place was one of traffic and of sufficient importance to be a centre of mintage of the king's money. In the present instance it not only testifies that the Danes landed but settled at Bristol. Of the pennies of Canute, Mr. Ruding says he has found four or five varieties. At any rate the local coinage confirms the statement of Polydore Vergil (1525), that the Danes had here a habitation; and the mention of Bristol in the pages of history is certainly anterior to the date (1051) assigned by Mr Freeman and Mr Hunt. Bristol until the time of Charles I. was a section of the royal manor of Barton (still called Barton Regis), the manor house, so to speak, being the strong fortress that overlorded the town. The king's head representative was in fact the constable of the castle, to whom the town in the person of the mayor was tributary. The right to choose a mayor annually was given by Henry III., who held his first parliament in his castle of Bristol after his coronation at Gloucester. As the Tower of London was without the city, so was the Castle of Bristol without the town; and as the mayor of London took office before the Constable of the Tower, so the mayor of Bristol took oath of the constable of the royal castle. For the confirmation of their charters and privileges, including the right of choosing their mayor as in London, presenting him in due form to the constable of the castle, the burgesses in 1300 paid Edward I., who held the Castle, Barton, and Town, a tribute of 300 marks. At this time the manor of Bedminster, including Redcliffe on the S side of the Avon, was held by the Lords of Berkeley, who attempted by violent measures to compel the burgesses to be answerable to their authority in the courts held within 252 their jurisdiction. Between the tyranny of the Berkeleys on one side the Avon and the domination of the castle on the other, the townsmen must have had need of patience. In 1331 (5, Edw. III.) parliament interfered on behalf o( the oppressed burgesses; the claims of the Berkeleys were annulled, and the lordship of the castle was suspended; the custody of Town and Barton being delivered to the mayor and burgesses, to be held by them for five years at the annual rent of £240. Thenceforward the mayor no longer took oath within the Castle barbican, but of his predecessor in the Guildhall before the townsmen. From the marriage of Edward I. to Eleanor of Castile, Bristol was called the Queen's Chamber, from the fact that it was generally assigned to her as part of her marriage portion. She received the renfc of the town, and usually leased it to the mayor and corporation. This lasted to the days of Henrietta Maria, by whose-request the castle was detached from the county of Gloucester and incorporated with Bristol. The rental of the city was finally redeemed in the reign of Charles I., and the burgesses became their own landlords.

With regard to the ancient munition of the place, from Brandon Mount, between the City and Clifton, might have been counted as many as twenty-three strong towers upon the lines of embattled walls that encompassed the town, besides nine over the principal gates. The inner of these double walls sustained in its circuit five parish churches, of which St John's, with its spired tower springing from the crest of a. 14th century portcullised gateway, yet exists. To the east were the embrasured walls and seven towers of the feudal castle, of which the donjon keep was like in form and dimensions to the White Tower of London. Within the area. thus guarded there were no less than eighty towers, besides crosses, conduits, holy wells, and the numberless gabled houses and Gothic public buildings, every one of which was more or less a study for a painter when no one painted.

No single episode of the Civil War affected Charles more deeply, or proved more decisive of the entire struggle, than, the disloyalty of Bristol and its final deliverance into the hands of the Parliament, "We had not killed of ours in the storm," says Cromwell, "nor in all this siege 200 men. He who runs may read that this is none other than the work of God. He must be a very Atheist that doth not acknowledge it." Soon after this the "Committee for Establishing a Godly and Pious Ministry" was appointed, and Cromwell rejoices that " Presbyterians, Independents, all have here-(Bristol) the same spirit of faith and prayer, the same presence and answer: that they agree here, have no names-of difference; pity it should be otherwise anywhere."

Since the Great Rebellion local events have been of domestic rather than of national importance, and the energies. of the citizen have been characterised by devotion to the expansion of trade and commerce, and to works of philanthropy, with buildings related to which latter the city abounds; the general quiet being occasionally disturbed by outbreaks on the part of the ruder population of the place, the Reform Bill Riots of 1831 being the most considerable of these events. Owing to the temporary paralysis, or possibly humane forbearance, of both civil and military dictatorship, an important section of the city was laid in ashes by the dregs of the populace. Forty-one spacious houses in Queen Square were consumed, besides four toll houses, the Bridewell, Gaol, and Lawford's Gate Prison, and the Bishop's Palace. The delirium of destruction lasted three days, when afc last peremptory request was sent from the mayor to the chief officer of the 14th Dragoons, who had been summoned to the scene, to quell the riots at any cost. The troops thereupon spread across Queen Square, the focus of the devilish revels, and picked out the rioters, ten or twelve of whom they immediately cut down. Four of the leaders were subsequently hanged. The compensation for damages fixed. by the Parliamentary Commissioners and assessed on the citizens amounted to £68,208.

The position of Bristol at the head of the great estuary, the Bristol Channel, which runs up towards the middle of the southern half of England, obviously gives the port enormous advantages, as the centre from which sea-borne commodities. can be most cheaply distributed to the Midland districts, and from which shipments from these districts can be most cheaply made. The direct course which can be taken by vessels to and from the American continents, and to and from the south, are advantages to shipowners, to which is added, now that the Severn Tunnel is complete, a supply of coal almost as cheap as at the coal shipping port of South Wales. An old traveller describes the place as appearing to float upon the waters, and to Pope the poet's eye the streets seemed full of ships, for the Avon and Frome with their tall masts and busy wharves meet us in almost every direction.

The Society of Merchant Venturers is the one pro-Reformation guild which escaped suppression. In respect to their being a kind of feudal corporation and monopolists of foreign trade, their once enormous authority has collapsed, but they have renewed their youth in even nobler form than mercantile sway over the great world of waters by becoming the almoners of civic charities and promoters of educational institutions, in which dispensations they have proved most faithful stewards. While the powerful fellowships of weavers, of fullers, of tailors, of bakers, of brewers, and numerous others have passed away, and their halls, where each guildmaster, fenced by the ordinances and penal laws of bis fraternity, was as safe from interlopers as the neighbouring Baron of Berkeley, secured by fosse and portcullis in his castlehold, have been forsaken and desolated, the Merchant Venturers of Bristol retain their proud superiority of being a select community of leading citizens entitled to respect both by their inherited territorial wealth and chartered privileges, as well as by their interesting history and traditions and public benefactions. In the settlement of Virginia and other American colonies the merchants of Bristol took a prominent part. On 20 Feb., 1632, a patent was granted to Robert Aldworth and Giles Elbridge, merchants, of 12,000 acres of land in New England, and an additional 100 acres for every person transported by them to New England within 7 years. The 12,000 acres were to be laid out near the nver Primaquid, and were allotted in consideration of their having undertaken to build a town there, and settle inhabitants for the good of that country. A kind of freightage for which the merchant ships of Bristol were sometimes found useful consisted of Irish prisoners. In the Cromwellian settlement of Ireland a short and easy method was found of unpeopling the country to make room for English settlers by transporting cargoes of natives to the West Indian plantations. On October 7, 1652, the Council of. State wrote to the Commissioners in Ireland to deliver to Thomas Speed, merchant of Bristol, from such places as they may think fit 200 Irish rebels, to be carried to Barbadoes for the plantation; the effect of such banishment being that the lands of the exiles became the property of English settlers without the embarrassment of the neighbourhood of the Irish owners. On July 19 and 20, 1666, 23 Virginia ships came into Bristol port laden with tobacco, sugar, indigo, and cotton, and a good quantity of beaver. They had been guarded by six men of war; the customs due from them amounted to upwards of, £30,000. They were in time for St James's Fair, one of the greatest fairs in England. At the period of their arrival a splendid fifty gun frigate, the Saint Patrick, having been lately built and launched at Bristol, and waiting for a crew, 500 able seamen were pressed from the Virginia ships. Almost the only part of their charter now observed with strictness by the merchants, is the care they take to elect none into their society who are not already freemen of the city. No salary is paid to the master of the merchants, nor does any pecuniary benefit accrue to members. The Merchants' Hall, so renowned for its banqueting, is a quiet-looking Italian structure, rebuilt in 1701.

In order to remedy the evils occasioned by the rapid ebb of the Avon, and to give the city a better dock than a mere tidal river, a Dock Company was formed in 1803. This company dug a new channel for the Avon, called the New Cut, from Rownham to Totterdown, turned the Frome and the Avon into a floating harbour of 2½ miles in extent by a system of dams and locks, and, in addition, made Bathurst Basin.

Steam communication was begun between Bristol and Ireland as early as 1826; and to Bristol belongs the honour of being the first port in the kingdom that established a regular steam communication with the United States, the first voyage having been performed by the Great Western steamship. This vessel was built at Bristol at a cost of £60,000: and the Great Britain and the ill-fated Cemerara were also cradled here, the former costing £120,000. Leaving Bristol on April 8, 1838, the Great Western reached New York in 15 days and 10 hours, and the small amount of coal she consumed afforded the first proof that steam traffic with America could be conducted with advantage. The importance of the event was so fully appreciated in New York that 100,000 people gathered to see her start on her homeward voyage, which occupied 14 days. Great rejoicings were made in Bristol on her return, and the G.W.S. Company hoped to secure the permanence of the American trade. Unfortunately they made the fatal mistake of attempting to begin a line of navigation with a single ship. The Cunard Company entered into competition, building four large ships for the Transatlantic service, and, obtaining the mail contract, made Liverpool the chief port for communication with America. To regain her position Bristol has since 1877-80 established two fresh docks, one at Avonmouth, on the Gloucestershire side, and the other at Portshead, on the Somerset side of the Avon. Each dock, however, was built by a separate and private company, and their situation outside the tortuous and narrow passage of the Avon, and in ready communication with the ocean, intercepted ships to the city harbour. This dislocation of commerce was not of long duration. In 1884 the several docks were consolidated under the control of the Town Council. At the present time a large extension of dock accommodation is going on, with resolution to recover lost ground in mercantile enterprise.

Perhaps the chief manufacture is Fry's Chocolate Works, which employ 2000 hands. Tobacco is another great article of preparation. The wholesale boot and shoe trade is also an important industry. The imports of grain have much increased of late years, and now amount to 3,000,000 quarters per annum. The value of imports of all kinds in 1892 was £9,742,482, and of the exports £1,753,000. The customs revenue was £1,261,410. The number of vessels registered as belonging to the port in 1893 was: sailing, 99 (16,579 tons); steam, 77 (27,196 tons); total, 176 (43,775 tons). The entries in 1892 were: 9049 (1,343,960 tons), and the clearances 8633 (1,381,511 tons).

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5

Church Records

The parish registers for the Diocese of Bristol are available online at Ancestry, in association with Bristol Archives.

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Bristol from the following:

Land and Property

The Return of Owners of Land in 1873 for Gloucestershire is available to browse.


Online maps of Bristol are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the following newspapers covering Gloucestershire online:

Visitations Heraldic

The Visitation of the county of Gloucester, 1623 is available on the Heraldry page.

CountyCity of Bristol
RegionSouth West
Postal districtBS1
Post TownBristol