The History of the Harbour

On the weekend of the 19th July Harbourfest will return for its 47th instalment! Over 250,000 people are expected to descend upon the Harbour to celebrate its rich maritime history and enjoy a whole host of music, displays and entertainment. The Harbourside as we know it now, however, has come a long way since its beginnings in the 13th century. Here, the city centre BID has put together a brief timeline of the history of the Harbourside…

Creation and Early History

In the 1300’s Bristol was the second largest port in England, after London, trading mostly in the export of woollen cloth but large quantities of wine were also being imported! Major civil engineering work to divert the river Frome and create a wide and deep artificial channel made the building of the quay (now Narrow Quay) possible, and Bristol built up around it as the most convenient crossing place where the rivers Frome and Avon met furthest inland. 

By the end of the 1400’s the wool trade had rapidly declined, leading merchants in Bristol to seek cargo elsewhere. Good trade links were established with Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean and North Africa, but merchants failed to break into the highly lucrative spice trade with the East. Because of this there was a search for a new route to the Far East, by sailing westward, which resulted in John Cabot’s 1497 voyage and discovery of Newfoundland and mainland America. 

The Slave Trade

By the end of the 1600’s Bristol’s merchants had broken into the African trade – transporting trade goods to West Africa in exchange for slaves whom they would carry to the West Indies and America. For much of the century Bristol was the main port in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, with a known 2,108 ships leaving Bristol for Africa between 1698 and 1807. 

The direct impact of the Transatlantic Slave Trade on Bristol made it a very wealthy place in the 1700’s. A lot of the trade goods that were taken to Africa to be exchanged for slaves were made locally, including gunpowder, glass, pottery and brass pans, boosting the cities economy hugely, particularly in the brass and copper industries.


The Floating Harbour

Because of the industrial revolution taking place largely in the north of England, Bristol’s importance declined in the 1800’s. Increased competition for the tobacco trade, from cities such as Liverpool, and the limitations of Bristol’s docks lead to William Jessop proposing a scheme to create a harbour in 1802. The Floating Harbour was officially opened on May 1st 1809.

With the harbour came an increase in the number of shipyards in Bristol. Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Western and SS Great Britain were both built in Patterson’s yard in Bristol during the 1800’s, and were both the largest ships of their kind at the time. The SS Great Britain can still be found docked at the Harbour today and is open for tourism. 

Redundancy and Decline

In the late 1800’s much larger docks were built in the surrounding Avonmouth and Portishead to accommodate bigger ocean-going ships, rendering the Bristol City Docks redundant as a freight dock. Avonmouth was expanded greatly throughout the 1900’s and became the main centre of the port of Bristol.

The Floating Harbour remained an important port until it’s commercial closure in 1975. The last shipyard in the harbour, Charles Hill & Sons, was closed in 1977 after delivering its final ship – a 1,541 tonne beer tanker called Miranda Guinness. 


Resurgence and Regeneration

Millions of pounds have been spent since the 1980’s to regenerate the Harbourside area. Museums, galleries and exhibition centres such as the M-Shed, We The Curious, Underfall Yard and Arnolfini are all situated around the harbour alongside bars, restaurants and clubs, bringing in plenty of tourism and providing an entertainment hub for the city. 

The most recent development of the Harbour is at Wapping Wharf where the Cargo shipping container complex is home to an ever-growing selection of fantastic restaurants, bars, shops and studios. There is also a huge spread of apartments at Wapping Wharf, providing beautiful views of the river on both sides for those lucky enough to live there.


As well as the iconic Harbourfest, the Harbourside has played host to festivals, gigs and events throughout the years including Bristol Sounds, VegFest, Grillstock, The Festival of Nature and more!