Bristol Port & Shipping

Because of Bristol's position on the River Avon, it has been a valuable location for marine trade for centuries.

The market town of Brycgstow first developed into a port during the 11th century, when it also became a major centre for the Anglo-Saxon slave trade.

By the 12th century the town was a dominant port, enjoying extensive trade with Iceland, Ireland, France and Spain. Exports included woollen cloth and wheat, while chief imports were wine from Gascony and Bordeaux, Spanish sherry and Toledo steel.

By the mid 14th century Bristol is considered to have been England's third-largest town, and around this time it became a centre for shipbuilding and manufacturing. The town was subsequently the origin of many important voyages, notable examples including John Cabot's 1497 voyage of exploration to North America, three ships sent into the Royal Navy fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the maiden voyage of the SS Great Western in 1838.

After the Hundred Years War ended in 1453, Bristol (along with the rest of Britain) lost its access to Gascon wines, meaning imports of Spanish and Portuguese wines increased. Irish imports included fish, hides and cloth, while exports to Ireland included broadcloth, foodstuffs, clothing and metals.

Trade continued to grow, and by the mid-16th century Bristol's port was the second largest in England after London, trading all types of goods with countries such as France, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and North Africa's Barbary Coast. Bristol's main export was woollen cloth, while others included cotton, coal, lead and animal hides. Imports from Europe included, wine, olive oil, iron, figs and other dried fruits, grain, slate and timber.

Following British colonization in the Caribbean and Americas during the 17th century, trade with these colonies flourished. During the 18th century England's rapidly increasing role in the Transatlantic Triangular Trade caused yet further growth in Bristol, much of which involved the slave trade.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bristol began to struggle to keep up with the newer manufacturing centres of the North of England and the West Midlands. This was due to a number of factors, including competition from Liverpool (from around 1760), the disruption of maritime commerce caused by wars with France (1793), the abolition of the slave trade (1807), and the fact that the heavily tidal Avon Gorge, which had always been something of a navigational challenge, was now a liability for the increasing size and number of ships travelling up the River Avon.

In 1804-9, reconstruction of the central dock area attempted to help matters by installing lock gates on a tidal stretch of the river to provide a tidal by-pass for the water. Although this created the "Floating Harbour" - where the water level remains constant and unaffected by the tide - it failed to overcome all the docks' problems. As a result, towards the end of the 19th century, the port facilities began migrating downstream to Avonmouth, and slowly continued to do so throughout the 20th century.

The original Bristol Harbour has now largely been replaced by Avonmouth Docks and Royal Portbury Docks, which lie on the Severn Estuary on opposite sides of the mouth of the River Avon. These form the commercial part of the Port Of Bristol, with Avonmouth Docks being one of the UK's main ports for chilled foods (especially fruit and vegetables), and the Royal Portbury Dock a major port for importing motor vehicles.

This progression of the docks has also allowed redevelopment of the Floating Harbour - which, despite its future at one time being in jeopardy, is now the focus of many leisure, residential and retail developments, and in 1996 held the first International Festival of the Sea.