The Story of Bristol’s Eponymous Bridge

This is from a paper I presented at the Regional History Centre’s Symposium in 2010.

For the full story of the Bridge, ‘Death and the Bridge – The Georgian Rebuilding of Bristol Bridge’ is available from me via Amazon.
The kindle version is ‘Civil Engineering & Civic Apathy’

Bristol Bridge: Barometer of Bristol’s Prosperity

The settlement of Bristol was born towards the end of the Saxon period. It was not conceived by Rome, or  by a great family. It was  not raised by a famous cleric or religious house, nor brought to fame by a major event of history. Instead, the city’s life has been largely dictated by its unique geography.

It began   beside the wide River Avon, far enough inland to be safe from attack. As late as 1592 Adams Chronicle records that a porpoise was caught in ‘the haven’ between the bridge and the castle. The first settlement was on a rocky outcrop encircled by the River Frome and marshes, so was easily defended. Its position on the west coast made it  well placed to trade with  Viking settlements in Ireland during their golden age. When the Hanseatic ports rose to prominence, trade moved to Britain’s east coast, so Bristol’s focus shifted to  trading wool for French wines. When the New World opened up, Bristol was again well placed for trade.

Bristol was probably walled from its earliest days, and by the 12th century they still enclosed the town. They ran north from the castle to the River Frome, to circle round to meet the Avon downstream from the modern bridge. Bristol and the manor of Redcliffe were separate entities with separate markets, fairs and judicial arrangements. Bloody feuds between them were infamous.  Even now, their accents are different. But from the 1230s they became united and embarked on massive civil engineering works which transformed Bristol from one of the smallest to one of the largest towns of the realm.

From 1230 the Port Wall was built to protect the southern parish of Thomas and of Temple fee. By 1240 the men of Bristol had purchased part of Canon’s Marsh and begun digging a trench to extend their quays,  as described by Leyland: “The ships of old time came only up by Avon to a place, called the Bek where was and is depth enough of water, but the bottom is very stony and rough. …they trenched …the old key on Avon anno 1247; and in continuance bringing the course of Froom river that way hath made soft and oozy harbour for great ships.”

Bristol’s Avon is famous for its huge tidal swings; it  drove ships rapidly into port, but also tore them loose from their moorings colliding with each other, the quays, and even houses on the bridge. The building of The Cut  coincided with ships becoming larger and more cumbersome, so each rocky encounter with a hull became more expensive, and moving the quay downstream, out of the surging Avon tide made them safer. This was why  the second Mud Dock, where the Thekla is now moored, was built in the mid 18th century.

The River Frome, now mostly covered over, is largely ignored today,  but  it used to  receive more attention than the Avon. North of the castle it sent a branch which divided to follow the castle walls and drive the city mill, perhaps the first industrial site in the region. The main river swung north, then outside of the city walls, forming part of the town defences. Some or all of it ran  along Baldwin Street, driving yet another mill, to meet the Avon.

This  route along Baldwin Street  is generally accepted as the original one, but it is clearly unnatural. It may have been similar to the High St of Cheltenham or The Chequers of Salisbury.  Here main streets were also streams, crossed by stepping stones, which allowed them to be flushed clean. Queen Square and  Canon’s Marsh  were ‘The Marsh’ ie  the Frome’s estuary, so there were probably several routes to its junction with the Avon.  Seyer quotes from a calendar of 1245 : “there running through Channon’s marsh but a small streame before;”  He also  mentions an ancient stone house on Baldwin St which could only be reached by bridge, suggesting yet another diversion of the stream,  that survived into modern times. And ships had moored at St Stephens church so some route was navigable there, which was not possible along Baldwin Street with the mill obstructing its path. Thus  The Cut was an earlier route of the Frome and the digging of it the enlargement of an existing stream.

This digging of The Cut seemed to initiate a Bristol tradition of starting an ambitious and expensive project, then running out of funds and needing help to complete it. Tradition claims the men of Redcliffe willingly co-operated with Bristol but this is not quite true. The trench was already being dug in 1240 when  Henry III issued a mandate to the men of ‘La Redeclive in the suburbs of Bristol’, calling on them to bear their share of the expense, claiming it would be as beneficial to them as to their neighbours.  In return, they  were offered the same trading rights as the Bristolians, so they had to be nudged a little.

Seyer claims the 9 silver marks paid to the abbey for the land was below the real value so the Abbey must have had some other reason, which he attributes to the presence of local born Thomas Lord Berkely, patron of the abbey, son of the founder, and holder of land on Baldwin St. He may have convinced the abbey of the benefits  of the scheme, and their fears of the new channel eroding their land were countered by the town offering to reinstate any losses, but the channel may  have helped drain their marsh, and improved access to their own landing stages. Rising wealth in the adjoining city would also help them.

The significance  of The Cut was immense.. Seyer claims “It was the first improvement of the port, the foundation of all others in succeeding ages; it was the first attempt at changing the natural form of two rivers, and accommodating them to the purposes of a commercial people.”  He may find a few ancient Greeks and Romans prepared to argue this one, and many European ports had to expand their facilities at the time, but the combination of The Cut, the new walls and the stone bridge was then probably one of the largest engineering projects in Europe, so of huge national importance.

As David Harrison explained, ‘Between the 8th and 13th centuries, road travel in England was transformed. There was a shift from a road system focused on fords to be based on a vast network of bridges and causeways’   This period coincided with the great age of cathedral building, and used the same high levels of skills. ‘Bridges.. mirrored the remarkable feats of medieval cathedral builders…. This required not only engineering skills but also the ability to work masonry with great precision.’  The high quality of Bristol Bridge’s construction is shown by its ability to withstand the surging Avon tides, the weight of the many houses built upon it and that  it survives beneath the waterline of the present bridge.

Many early bridges were thus built by Cathedrals, with the engineering skills and the finance. Bristol lacked a Cathedral, but it had a powerful merchant body to organise the scheme. The first building on the bridge housed a chapel and a room for corporate functions. William of Worcester, the local born first antiquarian described the chapel as having stained glass windows showing its leading benefactors and their wives,  rather than saints to protect travellers.  Barrett quotes an ancient manuscript  about the bridge:  “they [the burgesses] and their ancestors built [it] new from the brinke or stream of water at their own charges together with the alms of the faithful and have supported until this day”

Once The Cut was dug, the old route of the Frome was blocked up and allowed the town to expand  so new walls needed to be built. With the newly enclosed southern area, the urban area  grew to about 136 acres. The  new quay reduced shipping in the old port, making construction of the bridge less an obstruction  to boats. When buildings appeared on the bridge, their line continued along the quays showing how the quays had declined. The two parts of the city were drawn closer together, so increased the road traffic, making the bridge more necessary.

When the chapel and then houses were built on it, this dramatically changed its role. The first inhabited bridge was the Grand Pont in Paris when money changers were urged by the king to move their businesses in 1141, so was prime real estate. In the following centuries, bridges incorporated mills, defensive gates and a wide range of businesses, especially shops. ‘In contrast to a  purely vehicular bridge, the inhabited bridge provides a continuity within the urban fabric that is not only social and economic but also cultural, emotional and symbolic at a point where a natural break would otherwise exist.  Properties on Bristol’s bridge commanded high  rents up till the very end. .

The name Bristol is said to mean in Saxon, ‘the place of the bridge’, which is assumed to be  the present site across the Avon, but it is unclear if there was  a bridge there before1240.  Seyer quotes from the city’s Calendars : “1246. Unto this time there was noe bridge over the Avon, but a ferry.”    Adams, writing in about 1350 is quite clear: ‘1247 : This year the bridge at Bristol began to be founded and the inhabitants of Redcliffe and Temple  were incorporated and combined with the town of Bristol’. It makes sense that all these projects coincided with the joining together of the settlements on opposite sides of the river. But if so, how can a town be named after something which did not exist until centuries later?

In my book on the Georgian rebuilding of Bristol Bridge, I suggested there was a misreading of the word brig or bric. Carus & Wilson claim that ‘bridge’ is not a common first element in a name,  and that it was a cognate of the Norse ‘brygge’ for quay or jetty. This suggests to me a very ancient origin and given the town’s Viking age origins, this makes sense. In addition to the usual sense, the word also meant ‘a gangway for boats and a landing stage, jetty or pier.’   In Lincolnshire, Bridge End means the end of the causeway and in London from the 14th century or earlier, it was a landing stage for boats, often stone jetties or quays with a floating stage to allow the arrival of royalty.

Seyer  claims there is no evidence of any pre-medieaval bridge, so perhaps there was none. But he also states that lack of documents at the time mean this silence  is therefore explicable. He adds that, given Bristol’s passion for copying London, it is likely they had a wooden bridge some time after the capital, and  “particularly if intended only for foot passengers, was a work of no great difficulty or expence; and the passing being naturally frequent, it cannot be supposed that Bristol could ever enjoy ten years of peace and prosperity without some building of that kind.”  He was clearly no engineer.

Bridge building requires a high level of technical skill and lots of money – the latter often a problem in Bristol. The often mentioned earlier wooden bridge would have been cheaper than stone, but more prone to decay, boat collisions and flood damage. Bridge construction occurred mostly in the summer months when water levels were low, but when it difficult to ship heavy wood or stone to the site, as was shown by the problems of supplying the Georgian bridge with stone from the Wye valley.  It  would only have been done if there was a major need for it.

The river was tidal, so could be crossed twice per day by foot, or by ferry, when vehicles were rare.  Seyer quotes several charters which mention ‘the Men in the Marsh by the Bridge’, and even one which names ‘Pons Comatissae’,  a bridge between the Castle and what is now Counterslip. This is evidence of a bridge but is it as we understand the word? Given the vagaries of language over time, this rather points to the brig being something other than our present meaning. A 19th century diary described Brighton pier as “a kind of bridge … hung on chains. People can get from that into the boats without going into the water at low water.”

Another level to this enigma are the 14th century city and  the mayor’s seals. If the town was really named after a bridge as we know it, why do they show the castle water gate with a large ship entering it? Why not show the city’s namesake? We know the approximate date the medieval bridge was built, but we have only hints of by whom. This silence on the bridge is echoed down through the ages, and is an intriguing and neglected part of the city’s history. Bristolians  never lost an opportunity to celebrate, as shown by the lavish celebrations of the opening of the Exchange in 1743. Yet the lack of interest in the rebuilding of the dangerous bridge and the silence on its opening in 1763 continues to intrigue me.

During the Anglo Saxon period, bridges were built and maintained by the state, but under the Normans this became an act of charity ‘New bridges were, like almshouses, funded by private bequests, some of which were huge. The link with religion was symbolised by the bridge chapel which was a feature of most major bridges.’  When the Reformation stopped the granting of such huge requests, few alternatives replaced them.

The medieval town walls were pierced by a number of gates. To the north was  Frome Gate, them moving clockwise, were Monken, and  Pithay, all of which were inhabited, so raising income for their upkeep;  Monken also housed a gaol

The castle had its Barbican and Water Gates. All of these had bridges over the Frome, but never named as such, their primary role being defence rather than transit. When the medieval bridge was being built, the Avon was diverted to the south so Temple and Redcliffe gates also included bridges over the ‘ditch’.  Several bridges over the Frome to the east are shown but not named. Barrett ‘s 12th century manuscript mentions funding from  “merchants and of the town to support 8 bridges …”

In Millerd’s maps of the late 17th century, he shows the addition of Needless and Bridewell gates with bridges, and Merchant St included a bridge.  The 18th century saw the city recovering from the Civil War, and  trade with the New World led to increasing wealth  and vehicular traffic. But civic management failed to keep pace; there were constant problems over the cleaning and upkeep of streets, and householders resented the busy traffic, even though many of them based their livings on it, and were fed by the produce brought in to town by the heavy farm carts.   New streets were laid out, especially using the 1766 Improvement Act including Union, Philadelphia and Penn Streets, which required yet more bridges across the Frome.  As the suburbs of Clifton, Kingsdown and Hotwells developed, more bridges were needed to reach the city, with the 1718 Drawbridge, Stone Bridge of 1755 (still buried beneath the centre) and St John’s bridge of 1757. Many existing wooden bridges were rebuilt in stone. So the building of new Frome bridges in the mid 18th century can be seen as a measure of increasing affluence which allowed the exodus to healthy suburbs by carriage-owning residents and visitors to the Hotwells.

When researching the chaos of the rebuilding of Bristol Bridge, I thought there was no interest in bridges, but it seems they had no choice but to be very interested as there were so many of them. In fact, they were probably all bridged out. The amount and weight of  traffic meant they were in  constant need of repairs, so a constant drain on corporate finances. It would be hard to get excited about, or to find the massive funding for yet another stone edifice. These costs were largely borne by the Gloucestershire side, which again changes my thoughts on the charging of bridge tolls. I had thought they were a tax on Somerset travelers, especially those coming  to  markets on the northern side, which they were, but they were less than the citizens were paying to maintain all the other bridges in their city.

Whilst the bridge over the Avon may have been a fine and useful addition to the city, nobody of any note was connected with it, and it was never properly funded. They may also still have been unwilling to invest following the local Turnpike riots which had led to the vandalism becoming a capital crime. The absence of the Merchant Venturers, by then concentrating on their manor of Clifton, shows how little they cared for the old city or the maintenance of it.

In many debates on the rebuilding of the bridge, was whether to have a single arch to allow shipping to continue to pass under it.  Trying to make use of merchant William Vick’s bequest, which later contributed to Brunel’s Suspension Bridge, surveyor James Bridges drew up plans for a single span. But having seen the bridge at Pontyprydd, then the widest single span in Britain and a major tourist attraction, he felt the heavy traffic in the city would cause it to collapse.  The 3 arches which resulted shows that shipping had largely moved downstream by then. The large merchant houses upstream where ships  unloaded direct to their cellars were becoming ruinous, with one becoming the city poor house, several others the butchers’ shambles. Coastal vessels, largely carrying market produce moored at the quay on  Welsh Back.. This gradation of vessels can be seen in Millerd’s maps.

. Lots of towns have a bridge or two, but few include them in their names, so there must have been something noteworthy about the ‘bridgeness’ of Bristol’s bridge. It is unlikely that the debate about a wooden bridge over the Avon will ever be settled, but  I believe the meaning of the town’s name is a problem not with meaning, but a slight misreading of grammar. Bristol is not the place of ‘the’ bridge, but of  ‘bridges’. This also explains the city’s seal: the water gate was also a road gate, one of many, so it does actually show the town and one of  its earliest bridges.

The Georgian bridge was a victim of its own success, with shops encroaching on the roadway at the same time that vehicles became more common, so from the 1730s calls were being made to widen it, and from 1750 Felix Farley’s Journal was pleading for action to stop the pedestrian deaths and injuries. Yet in a city which was still generous towards its own and to national and international good causes, little interest was shown to remedy the situation, in the name of humanity,  or for the costs to the parishes in caring for the widows and orphans thus produced. Money was pouring in from overseas trade, and the busy port was causing part of the traffic problem; this money should have provided the solution, but clearly failed to do so.

It took a local shopkeeper to commission the aptly named James Bridges to design the classical structure which survives today. Unlike London, when building Westminster Bridge, Bristol had no large group of watermen whose livelihoods would be ruined by a new bridge, but it also lacked an informed powerful promoter such as the Earl of Pembroke, so the affair descended into a farce of astronomical proportions. Bridges was appointed surveyor, but sniping by several locals meant he was, after repeated stormy meetings downgraded to joint surveyor, before he fled Bristol.

Almost immediately, the under-attended trustees’ meetings drew significant numbers of the great and the good and the bridge was completed by Thomas Paty.   The people building it were banned from being  the investors. This was  to prevent corruption but  there was no incentive to either complete or pay it off in the predicted 5 years. Instead, tolls  dragged out for decades, only ending with a riot in 1793, the first genuinely local riot, which prefigured the more famous one of 1831.

The southern region went into decline after the death of the medieval wool trade. Following the Napoleonic wars, the region was a warren of decaying Tudor buildings, factories and slums.  19th century Bristol fell behind northern ports, especially Liverpool, but  a wide range of small businesses had been established to supply the colonies and they continued to develop, such as  foundries, pottery and glass making.  Shipyards continued, and the port railway meant the city continued as a major centre of overseas trade, so road traffic continued to grow.

In 1845 the Council Improvement Committee condemned the “narrow, inconvenient and dangerous streets between Bristol Bridge and the railway station and recommended the construction of a new thoroughfare to be called Victoria Street” . They recommended a huge number of radical improvements across the city, including the widening of the bridge for £8,000 as well as “arching over the malodorous Frome” which had long been a dumping ground for sewage and other waste. The bill to authorise this was passed in 1847, allowing the council to raise rates to fund it. But the purchase of the docks to create a free port consumed their finances for many years so the act expired.

In 1861 the bridge widening scheme was revived, streets being  congested from the new tram system when several monuments such as Neptune  were moved as obstructions on Victoria Street and High St, near the bridge. The scheme was to remove the stone balustrade, cutwaters and former toll houses long used as shops, and adding iron columns to support  about 12 foot to the eastern side as a cantilevered pavement  with iron railings. But instead of following the curve of the bridge, it was level with its highest point, so reached by steps from the main road. Complaints were made of “striking disregard of architectural propriety and reckless indifference to picturesqueness of effect”  From March 1873 to June 1874 the west side was similarly widened, demolishing the last toll houses so countering the lopsidedness, but ruining its classical appearance.

Thus the bridge that survives today represents the three ages when Bristol was flourishing from overseas trade. Beneath the waterline, the medieval foundations survive. The main structure is Georgian, originally with Portland stone balustrades, the bulk of the stone apparently from the Courtfield estate on the Wye. The road extensions and iron pillars are Victorian, but the present metal railings date from the 1960s, yet another period of economic prosperity, when the car was becoming the major form of transport.

In 2006 when an attempt was made to build on nearby Castle Park, a scheme was proposed to pedestrianise High Street, reinstate the High Cross at the main crossroads and replace the bridge’s metal railings  with copies of the original stone Balustrade,  a sign  of the approaching age of the bicycle and pedestrian. As the post-war exodus to the suburbs is being reversed and people are again living in the centre of the city, the bridge may again be at the heart of the city.


3,909 words








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