From warships to pioneering iron hulls, our city saw it all
It's pretty safe to say that shipbuilding in Bristol, where the River Avon meets the Frome, dates back to late Saxon times, when the town was founded. But, as yet, there is no written or archaeological evidence of those early boats, which must have been robust enough to trade with Wales, Ireland and beyond.
If not in Bristol, with its sheltered harbour, one wonders where these vessels could have been built.
In 1294, the annals tell us, King Edward I ordered the building of 20 galleys to strengthen his fleet for the war with France.
Instructions were sent out to the port towns, with orders to build him either one or two vessels – in Bristol's case, a pair.
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In 1346, when King Edward III appealed for aid with his French wars, Bristol replied with 22 ships and 600 men.
As a result, Bristol obtained its City and County Charter, which gave it a measure of independence, from a grateful king in 1373.
Sixteen years later, in 1389, there is a reference to a vessel heading for Bristol laden with pitch, tar, wax and boards – all necessary goods for shipbuilding.
In the 15th century, after the River Frome had been diverted and a new, safe harbour, St Augustine's Reach, constructed, ships were being built alongside The Marsh, now Queen Square.
This was protected from flooding (the river was still tidal) by earth embankments held in place by faggots. Once complete, the boats were launched from the muddy docks through temporary gaps cut in bundles of reeds which were held in place by stakes.
This caused problems and, in 1475/6, a local Act was passed forbidding anyone without a licence to "break any ground in and about Bristol to make any ship".
By the mid 16th century, a type of dry dock, with wooden boards and stone piers to keep out the high tides, had been constructed here.
One dock, close to the city wall, was named St Clement's because it was close to the Sailor's Chapel belonging to the Merchant Venturers.
In the 15th century, when King Edward IV was on the throne, bounties were introduced to encourage shipbuilding, including concessions promised to Bristol in 1474 on a visit by the monarch himself.
The following year, Willam de la Founde, having built a ship of 200 tons, was licensed to make a customs-free voyage. In 1481, Bristol merchant John Forster obtained a license for building a ship, with other licences granted to the owners of the ships Mary Redclyf, Mary Grace, Trinity and James.
These concessions, we are told, were for "the continuance and increase of shipping in the Port of Bristol".
By the 17th century, The Marsh had been virtually enclosed by a stone quay, leaving a few ferry (passage) slips, a couple of mud docks and a "graving place" where ships could lie, between tides, for repairs and "breaming" – the burning off of marine growths.
Shipbuilding now moved to Wapping and to Dean's Marsh, on the Canons' Marsh side of St Augustine's Reach.
The shipyard belonging to Francis Bailey, at the south west corner of The Marsh, in an area known as Gib Taylor, was probably the last in the area.
We have the names of some of the bigger boats built in Bristol between 1618 (the Jonathan of 200 tons, built at "the Key") and 1695 (the 60-gun Gloucester of 896 tons and the rather special 72-gun Edgar of 1,199 tons).
Local chroniclers say that the Edgar, which was visited by the diarist Samuel Pepys on a family trip to the city in June 1668, was bigger than any other naval vessel previously built in Bristol.
In 1626, a mud dock (later a dry dock) was created where the stream then flowing down what is now Jacob's Wells Road (Woodwell valley) met the River Avon. This shipbuilding and repairing site only disappeared when the Docks Railway was constructed in the early 1900s.
The 17th century saw a problem with the supply of timber, especially from the Forest of Dean, which caused the price of oak to rocket.
It was estimated that 60 acres of century-old oaks were needed to build a first-rate ship.
Despite petitions, nothing was done until 1668, when an Act was passed for 11,000 acres of waste land in the Forest to be re-planted with young oaks.
In the 1760s, a floating dock, a forerunner of the Floating Harbour proper of 1809, was built by Bristol businessman William Champion at Rownham Mead.
But, rather than for shipbuilding, this very expensive wet dock was for the discharge of cargoes after the tide had ebbed.
Meanwhile, other shipbuilders, such as Noble, Farr and Champion (later just Farr's) and James Hilhouse, were expanding their horizons.
Hilhouse's Red Clift yard was, in fact, some way down the river, near to where the tannery at Ashton is today, a situation which enabled bigger ships to be built and launched. Other shipbuilding yards sprang up at Sea Banks and at the Mardyke.
The French wars, perhaps surprisingly, only produced one order for Bristol, which went to Hilhouse in 1804.
But after the battle of Waterloo (1815) things started picking up, leading to many fine vessels being launched, mostly conventional craft built to replace those lost in the wars.
After the opening of the Floating Harbour in 1809, one name stands out, Hilhouse, Sons and Company, which established a yard on Spike Island in 1820. In 1848, it would become known as the Albion Yard.
First to be launched from the new yard was the Weare, a 446-ton West- Indiaman, closely followed by the Irish packets, the George IV and the Palmeston, Bristol's first sea-going steamships.
Between 1778 and 1786, the company had built a dozen war ships and, in 1813, the Charlotte and the Hope, Bristol's very first steamships.
The site would later become home to Charles Hill, who stayed in the harbour, building and repairing ships, until the 1970s.
William Paterson's yard, which was nearby, became famous for the pioneer Atlantic paddle steamer, the Great Western, launched in 1837.
Brunel's iron masterpiece, the ss Great Britain, which was screw propelled, was launched from her own Wapping dock (the same in which she lies today) in 1843.
Acraman's Yard (later Payne's) was opened in 1840 at the end of the New Cut, slightly upstream from Red Clift.
The Bristol historian Latimer, in his annals, was of the opinion that shipbuilding in the city declined after 1864, but in reality this was very much a year-by-year, up-and-down industry, depending on orders.
There was now an increasing demand for iron, rather than wooden, vessels, which meant access to iron plates and girders. Shipyards in the north found it easier to source these items than those in the south.
Charles Hill and Sons, now Bristol's most important yard, didn't begin building in iron until the 1880s.
The company's last wooden sailing ship, a 1,363-ton barque named Favell, was launched in 1895.
Bristol's boat-building tradition continues, albeit on a small scale, in the harbour today.