Bristol (/ˈbrɪstəl/) is a city, unitary authority area and ceremonial county in South West England.
Bristol is home to Bristol Cathedral, and was prominent in the now lapsed proposal for a Great Western Railway World Heritage Site. The leaning tower and walls of the large late medieval Temple Church, which survived bombing during the Second World War, is now open to the public and in the care of English Heritage. The graveyard is now a public garden.
Bristol has an estimated population of 433,100 for the unitary authority in 2009, and a surrounding Larger Urban Zone (LUZ) with an estimated 1,070,000 residents in 2007. It is England’s sixth and the United Kingdom’s eighth most populous city, one of the group of English Core Cities and the most populous city in South West England.
Historically within Gloucestershire, the city received a Royal Charter in 1155 and was granted County status 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, until the rapid rise of Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester during the Industrial Revolution in the latter part of the 18th century. It borders the counties of Somerset and Gloucestershire, and is also located near the historic cities of Bath to the south east and Gloucester to the north. The city is built around the River Avon, and it also has a short coastline on the Severn Estuary, which flows into the Bristol Channel.
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. There are 34 other populated places on Earth named Bristol, most in the United States, but also in Peru, Canada, Jamaica, Barbados, and Costa Rica, all presumably commemorating the original.
People from Bristol are termed Bristolians
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. Iron Age hill forts near the city are at Leigh Woods and Clifton Down on the side of the Avon Gorge, and on Kingsweston Hill, near Henbury. During the Roman era there was a settlement, Abona,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.
The town of Brycgstow (Old English, “the place at the bridge”) appears to have been founded in c.1000 and by c.1020 was an important enough trading centre to possess its own mint, producing silver pennies bearing the town’s name. By 1067 the town was clearly a well fortified burh that proved capable of resisting an invasion force sent from Ireland by Harold’s sons. Under Norman rule the town acquired one of the strongest castles in southern England.
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. 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, 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 one of England’s three largest medieval towns after London, along with York and Norwich, and it has been suggested that between a third and half of the population were lost during the Black Death of 1348–49. 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.
In the 15th century, Bristol was certainly the second most important port in the country, trading to Ireland, Iceland, and Gascony. Bristol was the starting point for many important voyages, including that led by Robert Sturmy (1457/8) to try to break the Italian monopoly over trade to the Eastern Mediterranean. Having been rebuffed in the east, Bristol merchants turned west, being involved in expeditions into the Atlantic, in search of the Isle of Hy-Brazil, by at least 1480. These Atlantic voyages were to culminate in John Cabot’s 1497 voyage of exploration to North America and the subsequent expeditions undertaken by Bristol merchants to the new world up to 1508. These include one led by William Weston of Bristol in 1499, which was the first English-led expedition to North America. In the sixteenth century, however, Bristol merchants concentrated on developing their trade to Spain and its American colonies. This included the smuggling of ‘prohibited’ wares, such as foodstuffs and iron ordnance, to Iberia, even during the Anglo-Spanish war of 1585–1604.
The Diocese of Bristol was founded in 1542, with the former Abbey of St. Augustine, founded by Robert Fitzharding in 1140, becoming Bristol Cathedral. Traditionally this is equivalent to the town being granted city status. During the 1640s English Civil War the city was occupied by Royalist military, and they built the Royal Fort on the site of a earlier Parliamentarian stronghold.
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 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, in the second stage or middle passage, transported across the Atlantic in brutal conditions. The third leg of the triangle brought plantation goods such as sugar, tobacco, rum, rice and cotton and also a small number of slaves who were sold to the aristocracy as house servants, some eventually buying their freedom. 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. The Seven Stars public house, where abolitionist Thomas Clarkson collected information on the slave trade, still exists.
Fishermen from Bristol had fished the Grand Banks of Newfoundland since the 15th century 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.
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 West 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. 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 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. The Great Western Railway from Bristol to Paddington, via the Swindon Railway Village, has been proposed as a World Heritage Site.
John Wesley founded the very first Methodist Chapel, called the New Room, in Bristol in 1739. Riots occurred in 1793 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.
Bristol’s city centre suffered severe damage from Luftwaffe bombing during the Bristol Blitz of World War II. 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 the high altar of 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.
By 1901, some 330,000 people were living in Bristol and the city would grow steadily as the 20th century progressed. The city’s docklands were enhanced in the early 1900s with the opening of Royal Edward Dock. Another new dock – Royal Portbury Dock – was opened in the 1970s.
Its education system received a major boost in 1909 with the formation of the University of Bristol,though it really took off in 1925 when its main building was opened. A polytechnic was opened in 1969 to give the city a second higher education institute, which would become the University of the West of England in 1992. With the advent of air travel, aircraft manufacturers set up base at new factories in the city during the first half of the 20th century.
Bristol suffered badly from Luftwaffe air raids in World War II, claiming some 1,300 lives of people living and working in the city, with nearly 100,000 buildings being damaged, at least 3,000 of them beyond repair.
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.
Bristol’s road infrastructure was altered dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s with the development of the M4 and M5 motorways, which meet at an interchange just north of the city and give the city direct motorway links with London (M4 eastbound), Cardiff (M4 westbound across the Estuary of the River Severn), Exeter (M5 southbound) and Birmingham (M5 northbound).
The removal of the docks to Avonmouth Docks and Royal Portbury Dock, 7 miles (11.3 km) 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.