Home News Bristol’s docks where fortunes were made and lost

Bristol’s docks where fortunes were made and lost

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For centuries, life in Bristol centred around the point where the River Frome met the River Avon and formed a wide and sheltered harbour.

Bristol’s fortunes were made and lost on maritime trade, first with our near neighbours in Ireland, France, Holland and Germany, then with Spain and Portugal, and then as one of the key ports in Britain’s takeover of pretty much most of the world.

But while many history books will tell of Bristol’s trade in sugar and tobacco, chocolate and cotton and, sickeningly, the trade in people, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, there is a much more recent story to be told of the second half of the 20th century.

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After the Second World War, Bristol recovered from the destruction of the Luftwaffe slowly, but its docks were still a vital part of the city’s life and economy.

That only declined gradually. Back in 1908, when the Royal Edward Dock was built at Avonmouth, the harbour’s importance as a place where big ships would come to unload diminished, and was ultimately finished by the opening of the large, deep water dock at Portbury in 1972.

That made the city docks redundant for freight – why navigate up the treacherous Avon Gorge to Bristol when you could offload a bigger ship at Portbury, with its own railway line and motorway next door?

The final big shipbuilder, Charles Hill & Sons, closed in 1977, although part of it reopened building smaller vessels a few years later.

Now, 40 years on, the floating harbour is effectively a tourist and leisure destination – somewhere to go paddleboarding, walking and admiring the picturesque views. But those strolling around the water may not realise it wasn’t that long ago that it was still a working harbour. It was only 1991 – just 30 years ago – that Poole’s Wharf in Hotwells still had sand dredgers operating, and only 20 years since the opening of the first buildings at Canon’s Marsh.

Since the 1980s, and especially at the turn of the Millennium, huge amounts of money were poured into regenerating the Floating Harbour, turning it from a redundant dockside wasteland into the luxury apartment-lined waterfront we see today.

But what of those last years, from the end of the war to the final death and rebirth? Here’s a snapshot of those times.

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