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Sights & Scenes of the British Isles

Photo Focus: River Avon Industrial Relics, Bristol

by Peter Kessler, 1 October 2022

 

River Avon industrial relics
Photo © P L Kessler

Bristol has been prominent since the eleventh century, and was for a long time England's second largest city.

The River Avon has one of the greatest tidal ranges in the world, a difference of over fifteen metres, which aided medieval ships in making the tortuous fifteen kilometre journey between Bristol and the sea.

The first human habitation in the area was at Clifton Downs, where Iron Age remains have been found. The first permanent settlement grew up around AD 1000, at the junction of the River Frome with the Bristol Avon. The site had easy access to the Bristol Channel.

River Avon industrial relics
Photo © P L Kessler

Bristol's first mention in history came in 1051, when it appeared in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a port which traded regularly with Ireland.

Goods were shipped regularly from Severnside, a few kilometres to the west. Bristol boomed, becoming one of England's leading towns, second in size only to London, and the prosperous centre of the industrial, social, and political life of the West Country.

River Avon industrial relics
Photo © P L Kessler

By the eighteenth century the city had acquired a commanding place in trade across the Atlantic, including the slave trade. Industries sprang up in the valleys of the Frome and the Avon, but the Avon's tidal range became a disadvantage when heavily-laden vessels found themselves beached twice a day, their heavy hulls creaking under the strain.

River Avon industrial relics
Photo © P L Kessler

In 1804-1809 the 'Floating Harbour' was built to allow more reliable dockside activities. The 'New Cut' was also dug on the southern side of the Floating Harbour to take the tidal River Avon, while locks at Cumberland Basin and Bathurst Basin protected and maintained the water levels inside the freshwater harbour.

River Avon industrial relics
Photo © P L Kessler

Construction of Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge (see photo above) began in 1831, with it looming over the newer Avon harbour berths shown on this page.

Brunel also designed a type of dragboat to scrape mud from the sides of locks and basins as part of ongoing efforts to combat the problem of silting.

River Avon industrial relics
Photo © P L Kessler

The size of merchant ships had not stopped growing since the Floating Harbour had been built, however. When the era of large steam ships began in the middle of the nineteenth century the port of Bristol once more became inadequate to deal with this new class of vessel.

The construction of docks at Avonmouth and Portishead spelled the eventual end of Bristol's days as a working harbour.

Decline set in, only beginning to be relieved from the very end of the twentieth century.

 

All photos by P L Kessler, taken in June 2014.

Main Sources

Bristol Aquarium

Bristol City Council

Bristol Past

Visit Bristol

 

Images and text copyright © P L Kessler except where stated. An original feature for the History Files.