I don’t think too many Bristolians would disagree that the city’s focal point is ‘The Centre’. It’s where people have traditionally met up, maybe for a ‘Blind Date’ outside the Hippodrome or somewhere. It’s a good location for that sort of thing because if your intended partner for the evening didn’t quite live up to your expectations, then you could always dodge the traffic, disappear into the woodwork, and try your luck elsewhere – or so I’m told.
London has Piccadilly Circus; Glasgow has St. George’s Square and Bristol has The Centre! Not the most innovative name for a focal point I’m sure you would agree, but before you start thinking that it’s just an easy way to name Bristol’s city centre, the name is actually an abbreviation of the Tramway Centre that used to operate from St. Augustine’s Parade, and it’s not the centre of the city anyway.
To get a fuller appreciation of what I’m going to talk about next, it might be worth reading my post From Brycgstowe to Bristol. This explains how the River Frome limited the city’s growth as a port, and there are a couple of maps to illustrate the course of the river before and after it was decided to divert it.
The river originally followed a course around the Old City roughly in line with St Stephens Street and Baldwin Street until it entered the Avon just below where Bristol Bridge is now, but as merchant trade increased, then there was a need to create more quays and wharves.
Between 1239 and 1247 – using spades and wheelbarrows – a 2,400 ft long, 18 ft deep, and 120 ft wide channel was dug to divert the river away from the course mentioned above and through marshland belonging to St. Augustine’s Abbey (now Bristol Cathedral) into the Avon.
To visualise this from today’s landscape, it meant the new channel was dug from Stone Bridge (near to where the Cenotaph is now), through the Centre, past the Waterfront, and into the Avon at the Arnolfini. This new channel was initially called St. Augustine’s Trench but eventually became known as St. Augustine’s Reach
It has to be remembered this was a long time before the Floating Harbour was built when ships were dependent on the tide, but the increased capacity enabled trade to flourish. With the expansion of trade came the desire to open up new markets, and explorers had already left Bristol searching for new possibilities across the Atlantic even before John Cabot turned up.
There’s a school of thought these days that European explorers never discovered anywhere, as these lands were already in existence with natives already living there. That may be so, but for this post at least, I’m sticking to the conventional idea that people like Christopher Columbus and John Cabot opened up a whole New World to those who lived in the ‘Old’ one.
On the Narrow Quay side of St. Augustine’s Reach where the Frome met up with the Avon (it doesn’t now which I’ll explain later) is a statue of John Cabot outside the Arnolfini. I can’t say for sure, but I would imagine that the explorer must have left from somewhere near this spot on his voyage of discovery in 1497.
Giovanni Caboto was born in Genoa c1450 and came to Bristol around 1480. Bristol by now had become the second largest port in the country after London, and in order to pay off some serious debts, Cabot decided he would use his maritime experience to smooth-talk his way into convincing King Henry VII that he could do both of them a big favour if the king supported his quest to find a quicker route to the Orient.
China was a rich source of silks and spices, and large sums of money could be made by merchants who provided those who had the money, with the commodities that they desired. On top of this was Cabot’s belief that new colonies could be found along the way, and so Henry didn’t need much persuading. The agreement between the king, Cabot, and the Bristol based financiers included an acceptance that all expeditions were to sail out of Bristol – and all the goods that were brought home had to be imported back into Bristol.
Cabot’s first attempt in 1496 was aborted, probably by bad weather, but he set sail again the following May on his ship The Matthew and headed out across the Atlantic, landing on the North American coast on 24th June. The precise location has been hotly contested, but Cape Bonavista on Newfoundland is now officially recognised as the spot where he made landfall.
He didn’t find a quicker route to the Orient because America got in the way, but Henry VII was impressed enough to finance another voyage in 1498. This time though his investment never paid off because after leaving Bristol one more time John Cabot was never heard of again.
The people who funded John Cabot’s expeditions were known as the Merchant Venturers, a 13th century guild who not only gained a monopoly in Bristol’s seafaring trade, but also became inextricably linked with governing the city.
This powerful society also played a big part in the running of Bristol Harbour, and was instrumental in bringing about Bristol’s involvement in the unsavoury Slave Trade from the late 17th to early 19th centuries. I included a brief account of the city’s connection with this business in Pirates, Slaves and Riots, which I wrote just before the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in June.
When the dust has settled on this highly emotive subject, I would like to try and explain who the Merchant Venturers are, what they did, and how their influence was of such importance to the city of Bristol – and if that post doesn’t ruffle too many feathers, I’ll also write a separate one about Bristol’s involvement in the Slave Trade.
In 1804 work began on constructing the Floating Harbour which enabled ships to stay afloat even when the tide was out, but for ships to access the narrower northern end of St. Augustine’s Reach a drawbridge had to be opened to allow them through (hence the name of the pub next to the Hippodrome).
This bridge had several incarnations and was located at the end of Clare Street (where present-day Baldwin Street was built in 1881). The fourth and final drawbridge was built in 1868 but was replaced in 1893 by St. Augustine’s Bridge, a fixed stone structure which allowed for freer movement of traffic, including trams, across the waterway.
By the time St. Augustine’s Bridge was built, it was obvious that the northern end of St. Augustine’s Reach was becoming impractical and so it was decided to fill it in.
Flanked by Colston Avenue, the Frome was culverted from Stone Bridge to St. Augustine’s Bridge and called Magpie Park after the Bristol Magpie newspaper whose offices were on the western side of Colston Avenue. Today it’s just called Colston Avenue, but not for much longer if recent events are anything to go by.
The construction of the Floating Harbour had allowed the port to grow, but increased competition from ports in the industrial north saw Bristol’s importance decline, and so in the early part of the 20th century the Royal Edward Dock at Avonmouth was built to handle larger ships in order to compete.
This may have been a good move for the Port of Bristol in general, but it wasn’t such good news for the city docks, and in 1938 it was decided to culvert the Frome from St. Augustine’s Bridge down to the bottom of Broad Quay – where Cascade Steps are today.
This didn’t do anything to stave off the inevitable, but it did allow traffic to tear around The Centre a bit faster. By 1975 St. Augustine’s Reach and the rest of the city docks closed down, and for several years after became pretty desolate.
The 1980s started to see the regeneration of the harbour, and as far as St. Augustine’s Reach was concerned, it’s really a tale of two sides. On Narrow Quay most of the original buildings have disappeared (including the landmark CWS Building which was demolished in 1973), and replaced with modern buildings that hardly do justice to the location. One building that has survived is the Arnolfini, a former tea warehouse, and now a renowned Arts Centre.
To get over to Bordeaux Quay and The Waterfront is the pedestrian Pero’s Bridge, which is named after a slave, who was actually brought from the Caribbean to Bristol rather than the other way around. To allow tall boats through, the design includes a counterweight system that doesn’t look unlike a pair of horns, and I’m not surprised that some people call it Shrek’s Bridge.
The Bordeaux Quay/Waterfront side of the harbour thankfully retains many of the original dock sheds that have been restored and turned mainly into bars and restaurants, which you would expect in a location like this. If you want to try something a bit different though give the Watershed a try. It’s advertised as a multi-arts venue and includes an arthouse cinema and café bar.
For quite a number of years now, the harbour has played host to a whole load of events, the most popular being the Bristol Harbour Festival which started out in 1971 and still attracts huge numbers of visitors every July.
As far as the River Frome is concerned, and I did touch on this earlier, it no longer meets the Avon at St. Augustine’s Reach. When the Floating Harbour was created, the river, not being tidal anymore, virtually became an open sewer, and so at the site of the former Stone Bridge the main flow was channelled through Mylnes Culvert. This follows the course of Marsh Street, Prince Street and Wapping Road, and joins the New Cut close to Gaol Ferry Bridge.
The culverted section between Stone Bridge and St Augustine’s Reach is now a flood relief channel that emerges next to Cascade Steps.
Generally speaking, apart from fishing victims of Friday night excesses out of the harbour, the transformation from docks to leisure facilities has been pretty successful I reckon, but the same can’t be said about attempts to transform The Centre if you listen to what most people have to say about it.
Manicured flower beds have been replaced by a hard landscape with mini fountains, which one Lord Mayor described as “like a bunch of old men peeing”, a phrase I’ve never been able to get out of my head every time I walk past.
Where Cascade Steps are now, was where Neptune’s Statue used to be and another meeting point, but he’s been moved around a fair bit over the years: At the moment you can find him at the other end of the fountain installation opposite the Hippodrome.
Most city centres have a statue or two of local dignitaries and there’s one just across the road from where the Drawbridge would have been. I suspect most people pass him by without a second glance, because although Edmund Burke was MP for Bristol between 1774 and 1780, he was recognised more for his political achievements on a national level more than anything he did for his constituency.
There’s another statue that most people passed by without too much notice – most, but not all. For most Bristolians the statue of Edward Colston was one of those things that had always been there, but for some it shouldn’t have been there at all.
People outside of Bristol had probably never heard of him until recently, but Edward Colston was both a slave trader and a philanthropist. I said earlier that I would like to discuss the Merchant Venturers (of which Colston was a member) and Bristol’s involvement in the Slave Trade in future posts, and so I don’t intend to expand on that here, but suffice it to say that the statue was erected and paid for by the Merchant Venturers in 1895.
Back then of course, Bristol wasn’t a multi-cultural city, but things have changed, and in recent times the presence of Edward Colston looking down from his plinth in Colston Avenue opposite Colston Tower and the Colston Hall have annoyed an increasing number of people.
From a personal point of view, I’ve thought for quite a while that the statue should have been taken down, moved to the M Shed Museum and placed alongside the Slavery exhibition there. That way, people could have found out more about the man, the business he was involved in, and this part of Bristol’s history (which is what I think is going to happen now anyway). That said, I’m sure there would have been people who didn’t want him taken down at all.
Council leaders (and the Merchant Venturers Association) have been dithering over what to do for some time, and although the Colston Hall (Bristol’s premier concert hall) had agreed a change of name, still nothing had happened. I don’t believe that if the decision to take the statue down and taken to a proper home had been agreed, it would have upset the majority of Bristolians too much. As it turned out, events in the United States overtook that decision.
After police in America were involved in the death of George Floyd (there have been no convictions yet as I’m writing this), protests spread around the world, headed by a group calling themselves Black Lives Matter (BLM). The BLM protest in Bristol ended with the statue of Edward Colston being toppled, daubed with paint, dragged across The Centre and unceremoniously dumped into the harbour next to Cascade Steps. Some people were ecstatic, but many Bristolians weren’t.
The way they saw it was that a part of the city’s history (and don’t forget Edward Colston was a great benefactor to Bristol) was hijacked by ‘Rent a Mob’ while the police stood by and did nothing. What made matters worse was that Marvin Rees, the current (black) mayor appeared to endorse what had happened.
I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but whatever you may think, a lot of water has certainly gone under the bridge since the River Frome was diverted back in the thirteenth century.