Is the Economic History of the Bristol Region between 1780 and 1850 a Story of Relative Decline?

by John Penny

(Bath Spa University College, April 1997)

The first problem encountered when attempting to study the area of influence of any town or city is to define exactly how far this extended, but unfortunately to this there can be no clear cut answer. As a geographical term the Bristol Region has little real meaning and so local authors have at different times interpreted it in various ways to suit their own purposes. However, as Buchanan & Cossons pointed out in 1969 the area extending at the most to a 25 mile radius of Bristol, with the River Severn as its westward boundary, is the region in which the city's dominance is felt in almost all spheres of economic activity, and this would appear to be a reasonable definition for our purposes (1). The area of study can therefore be said to extend northwards into Gloucestershire far enough to include Dursley, Nailsworth and Tetbury, while to the west the Wiltshire towns of Malmesbury, Chippenham, Melksham and Westbury all come within the area, which also spreads south into Somerset to encompass Frome, Shepton Mallet, Street and Burnham-on-Sea.

Bristol's geographical position at the confluence of the rivers Avon and Frome gave it easy access to the Atlantic allowing trade to be carried out initally with Ireland, France and the Iberian Peninsular, and later with America, West Africa and the West Indies. To the landward side of the city the excellent pastures afforded by the limestone scarplands provided an abundance of wool, and lead to the establishment of flourishing industries based around this commodity, while from early times minerals were also extracted in the area. Initially lead mined on the Mendips was the chief product, but later calamine, a zinc ore, and coal became the most important locally exploited minerals . Indeed, it is probably right to say that it was the coal measures, lying in a great band from Cromhall in Gloucestershire south into the Mendip area and beyond, coupled with the easy import of goods into the port of Bristol, that provided the two chief factors in the local industrial growth from the seventeenth century onwards (2).

Of these two factors the port, with its thriving merchant community, was certainly the most important and from the time of its establishment was central to the city's evolution. As well as trade many Bristolians also participated in industrial ventures, such as sugar refining, tobacco and confectionary production, glassmaking, brewing, distilling and glassmaking, many of these associated with raw materials brought into the port and the readily available supply of local coal. Bristol merchants and shipowners also invested in copper and brass works and gunpowder mills outside the city and after about 1750 the city became a significant provincial banking centre (3). Many of Bristol's industries, however, were restricted by the limited size of the harbour which in turn set limits on the development of a large scale urban infrastructure, but so important was the port that the fluctuations in its fortunes can said to have been reflected in the affairs of the city and in the position it has occupied in the life of the nation.

Bristol at the start of the eighteenth century was a city of about 20,000 inhabitants, and the third largest in England after London and Norwich, in addition its port was ranked second only to London in terms of vessels tonnage and men. However, by 1801 it was merely the sixth largest British city while its port had, by 1841, fallen to eighth place in terms of foreign-going vessels entering and tenth clearing (4). There were a number of reasons for this, one of the most important being the failure to modernize the port's facilities. Ships entering the River Avon from the Bristol Channel had to contend with seven miles of winding river with fast currents and an exceptionally high tidal range before they reached the quays in the city centre. As the volume of trade increased along with the size of the vessels involved the difficulties became more acute, but due to a lack of investment no serious improvements were carried out before the beginning of the nineteenth century. Finally between 1804 and 1809 a Floating Harbour was created in the centre of Bristol, but the whole project took longer to construct and cost more than originally anticipated (5). Though ships in the Float were now able to stay upright in all states of the tide, the harbour was costly to maintain because it tended to silt up, while it still failed to solve the problems of port congestion (6).

In an attempt to recoup some of the money spent on the Floating Harbour project the Bristol Dock Company were forced to introduce extra dues on ships and foreign goods as well as feeder canal tolls. This in turn placed Bristol in an unfavourable position when compared with her rivals elsewhere in the country, and in 1823 a survey conducted by the Bristol Chamber of Commerce revealed that on certain selected imports the charges at Bristol would be just over twice that of Liverpool, about two and a half times more than at London and three and a half times that at Hull. The problems of harbour dues and restrictions on the size of vessels able to use the Floating Harbour had in the 1840's driven the passenger steamers, the S.S. Great Britain and the S.S. Great Western to Liverpool and the difficulties continued even after the city docks were transferred to the Corporation in 1848, by which time Bristol was the most expensive port in Britain. By contrast the position at Liverpool and Glasgow, Bristol's two main rival on the West Coast, was very different and between 1811 and 1825 dock water space on the Mersey increased by 80 per cent. This situation was also mirrored on the Clyde where from the late seventeenth century considerable expenditure and civic initiative had transformed the Port of Glasgow (7). Although it was probably not realised at the time at the end of the eighteenth century the overseas trade of Bristol had become dangerously specialized and though some Bristol merchants were still engaged in the Newfoundland fish trade, and others were beginning to develop commercial connections with Canada, the sugar trade with Jamaica, the Leeward and Windward Islands was then worth twice as much as all the city's other overseas business combined. This was Bristol's most lucrative traffic and one in which the greatest accumulation of wealth occurred, so it was upon the sugar refining industry that such trades as provisioning and confectionary, as well as the greater part of her shipping, depended (8). Although the amount of sugar brought into the port rose significantly during the eighteenth century, in 1799 Liverpool had overtaken Bristol in terms of sugar imports. The Lancashire city, which by now was specializing in the slave trade, also had the advantage of being able to send its ships out into the Atlantic to the north of Ireland thereby avoiding the Bristol Channel and English Channel where enemy privateers were more active (9). In spite of the Anti-Slave Trade campaign it was, however, impossible in 1800 for Bristol's merchants to forsee the utter ruin of the sugar industry in the West Indies which was to occur during the next fifty years, and the city continued to concentrate on trade with the West Indies where many of her most important citizens had large capital investments, and so it was that Bristol's prosperity declined along with that of the Islands (10).

This down turn in West Indian fortunes took place in stages during the first half of the nineteenth century, starting with the long campaign against the slave trade which culminatied in the abolition of slavery in British colonies in 1833. This was followed by the freeing of indentured apprentices in 1838, the removal of the special privileges in the British market previously enjoyed under the old Colonial System in 1846 and, in 1849, by the repeal of the Navigation Acts. Irretrievable ruin finally came with the passing of the Sugar Equalization Duties Act of 1851 which finally placed West Indian sugar on an equal footing in the British market with European beet sugar and the slave produced products of Cuba, Brazil and other foreign plantations (11).

Bristol's sugar refining industry also drifted into relative recession after about 1780 when there were still some 20 sugar refineries in the city. The following ten years saw that number drop by seven, owing to a shortage of supply, and although there was something of a revival during the French Wars an increase in world production and a fall in price coupled with increased import duties during the second decade of the nineteenth century had reduced the number of refineries in Bristol to fourteen by 1818 (12). By this time Bristol sugar merchants had lost much of their competitive edge and although the number of refineries nationally also declined Bristol's failure to introduce modern technology ensured that the city possessed only three refineries by 1850, although one of these, Conrad Finzel's, was about to revolutionize sugar production by the use of vacuum pans and centrifugal driers (13).

Notwithstanding, Bristol had also been a major slave port during the early eighteenth century it had been overtaken by Liverpool in the 1740's after which the city's share of the volume of the English slave trade, in terms of total tonnage, declined from 42 per cent in 1738 to a mere 1 per cent by about 1803. By this time Bristol's involvement in the Guinea traffic was virtually over and was, infact, partially replaced after 1807 by the movement of palm oil from West Africa. Bristol slave ships had operated the so called 'Triangular Trade', which involved sailing from the city to the slave coast of West Africa, which ran from the River Gambia to Angola, where manufactured goods were exchanged for slaves, which in turn were taken on to the West Indies and North America. Here the slaves were off loaded and replaced with raw materials such as sugar, molasses, cotton and tobacco which were brought back to Bristol to feed its manufacturing industries and for onward dispatch. However, by the end of the eighteenth century the high risks of the slave trade and its growing unpopularity among merchants and sailors alike, coupled with keen competition from Liverpoool, which paid the ship's crews less, adopted more agressive marketing strategies, undercut the price of Bristol slaves and engaged in smuggling slaves from the Caribbean Islands to Spanish America, had rendered that branch of commerce increasingly less attractive (14).

Glassmaking was also an important industry in Bristol during the eighteenth century at the start of which the city had the largest concentration of glasshouses outside London. This situation was brought about by Bristol's position as a trading centre requiring containers of various types, sizes and colours coupled with easy access the sand, limestone, red lead, and coal, all necessary for the production of glass. Although there were still some 15 glasshouses in the city in 1761 the business started to go into decline following the loss of the important North American market in the late 1770's, while towards the end of the century the introduction of heavy excise duty on glass and a tax on bottles further reduced production. By this time Bristol was finding it difficult to compete with the quantity production and commercial aggression of the west Lancashire glassmakers and lacked their other advantages in terms of local transport and a rapidly growing hinterland as a market for their products, so that by 1833 only four glasshouses remained in the Bristol area (15).

The American Revolutionary War also had an adverse effect on the trading of tobacco from the Chesapeake region of Virginia, from which Bristol's imports fell from around 4 million lbs. in 1773 to some 1.8 million lbs. by 1855. During the eighteenth century the rival ports of Glasgow, Liverpool and Whitehaven had also overtaken the city in terms of tobacco imports, this being achieved by adopting aggressive marketing strategies, the direct purchase of tobacco in America, more efficient shipping and the establishment of a re-export trade with France and Holland. Nevertheless, although Bristol's tobacco industry experienced some difficult times during the 1820's and 30's as it required no major technical changes or large supplies of coal or iron the production of tobacco products survived in the city long after the decline of the import trade. The trade, infact, went on to flourish and by 1900 the Bristol firm of W.D.& H.O.Wills had become the largest producer of tobacco goods in Britain, although most of this growth took place after 1850 (16). The cocoa and chocolate business was another, albeit somewhat delayed, success story and along with tobacco processing were, by the end of the nineteenth century, the twin pillars of Bristol's consumer industry which enjoyed world renown. Although the processing of cocoa in Bristol steadily increased during the second half of the eighteenth century its real growth only started in the late 1830's. After then, and as a result of the introduction of modern manufacturing techniques, a rise in real incomes, lower rates on duty on cocoa and falling raw material prices, J.S.Fry & Son were able to achieve a tenfold increase of trade by the late 1860's (17).

Turning now to Bristol's hinterland, the agricultural history of the region during the late eighteenth and first fifty years of the nineteeth century shows more and more emphasis being placed on dairying and largely represents the continuation of a process already well under way. The industry was also experiencing the increasing influence of nearby urban centres with the production of hay, milk and butter in north Somerset and the growing of potatoes, barley, peas and beans in Gloucestershire to feed the markets of Bristol, Bath and the concentration of textile towns on the borders of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Somerset. In spite of difficulties, such as the inadequate drainage of the heavy clays the agricultural prosperity of the Bristol Region generally increased during the first half of the nineteenth century and by 1800 the future vital importance of the London markets, to be fully exploited after the arrival of the railways some 40 years later, was foreshadowed by the regular shipment of cheese, beef and lamb from various parts of the region (18).

Although all the main roads from Bristol had been turnpiked by about 1750 and some development work carried out to build new canals and improve the navigation of existing rivers, a financial crisis in 1793 coupled to the start of war with France ensured that none of the local projects proposed during the period of canal mania in 1792, infact, came to fruition. This lack of a suitable means of transporting heavy loads around and away from the area tended to hold back the growth of the Bristol Region until the arrival of the railways, and as this situation was not echoed in the midlands and around Liverpool and Glasgow, the economic development of Bristol's hinterland, therefore, remained small in relative terms (19).

Mineral production around Bristol at the close of the eighteenth century is characterised by the swift decline of lead mining and calamine extraction on the Medips which was matched by the rapid development of the local coalfields. Although Mendip lead was good for the production of shot and bullets it was unsitable for sheeting and plumbing and inferior to that of Derbyshire and Flintshire. It was competition from these areas, coupled with under-capitization and a cut in duty on imported lead in 1825, which led to the extinction of the industry by 1850. The cut in duty on zinc in 1825 also caused a drop in the amount of calamine extracted for the local brass industry, where changing technology in the spelter factories and approaching exhaustion combined to speed the end of the industry (20).

The second half of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century was a period of increasing prosperity for the northern part of the Somerset coalfield, especially around Midsomer Norton, Radstock and Paulton where the population rose from around 3000 in 1801 to nearly 8000 by 1851, helped no doubt, by the opening of the Somerset Coal Canal in 1805. An important factor in this was the growth of Bath and other townships in north Somerset and west Wiltshire where there was a growing industrial and domestic market. This growth in the north, however, was not matched in the comparatively isolated southern part of the coalfield, around the villages of Mells, Vobster, Babington, Kilmersdon, Coleford, Stratton-on-the-Fosse and Holcombe, where not until after the arrival of the railway in 1854 was output able to be increased (21).

By contrast to its success in the markets of Bath and west Wiltshire, Somerset coal never did well in Bristol, the needs of which was met almost entirely from the Kingswood coalfield where by 1800 the workings had been extended out from the Kingswood Forest itself to encompass such localities as St.George, Fishponds, Stapleton, Brislington, Bedminster, Bitton, Mangotsfield, Pucklechurch, Westerleigh, Iron Acton, Yate and Cromhall. Although the output of the combined Bristol area coalfield increased steadily from the late eighteenth century, and was play an important part in the industrialization of the region it declined in relative importance when compared with such areas as South Wales the west Midlands, south Lancashire and the north-east, its share of U.K. production falling to less than one per cent by 1850. (22)

At the end of the eighteenth century, except in the city of Bristol, the wollen industry still dominated the industrial scene of the region. By this time, due to fluctuating fortunes and technical advances it had become concentrated in just two areas, around Stroudwater in the north of the region and to the east on the borders of Somerset and Wiltshire. The Gloucestershire area, which included the basins of the Little Avon and the Cam around Wotton-under-Edge, Dursley, Uley and Cam, as well as the valleys converging on Stroud, where mills stretched from Horsley, south of Nailsworth to Painswick, was the most important of these, and at this time the prosperity of this area was the envy of manufacturers not only in Somerset and Wiltshire, but also of its rivals in Yorkshire. Production tended to concentrate on high quality scarlet and blue broadcloths dyed in the piece almost half of which was sent to overseas markets as diverse as Europe, Turkey, India and Russia. Although during the eighteenth century the Gloucestershire industry came to depend on increasingly on the import of merino wool from Spain large quantities of wool were still being bought from the nearby markets of Cirencester and Tetbury (23).

By contrast, the wollen industry of Wiltshire had by 1800 undergone a revolutionary change of specialization not experienced in the Gloucestershire area. Although there was still some production of superfine broadcloths, particularly in Bradford on Avon, the prosperity of the area now depended increasingly on the manufacture of true wool-dyed Spanish medleys or fancy cloth, especially in Trowbridge where the virtual absence of water power had forced an early change to the narrower and lighter fabrics. The Wiltshire industry had, unlike that of Gloucestershire, still to mechanize and concentrate itself in the larger towns and at the end of the eighteenth century wollen manufacture still remained widespread in towns and villages of west Wiltshire from Chippenham and Calne in the north to the Westbury and Warminster areas in the south (24).

The textile industry in north Somerset was centred around Bath, Shepton Mallet and Frome, where about a third of the population depended upon it. By 1800, however, local specialization was already taking place and this process was responsible for the mixed character of the Somerset textile industry as it developed during the nineteenth century. The towns and villages on the Bristol Avon and its tributaries shared to a large extent the characteristics of the nearby Wiltshire industry. Although high quality broadcloths were still being manufactured there in 1800 fine Spanish medley cloths had, by this time, assumed greater importance, while Shepton Mallet, by contrast, had specialized in the making of wollen stokings, many of which were exported to Spain. Bath, although not as important a textile centre as Frome, also acted as a focal point for local wollen manufacture which was concentrated in villages along the River Avon from Keynsham to Twerton, Bathampton, Limpley Stoke and Freshford and on its tributaries as far south as Norton St.Philip. Here, too, Spanish medleys were made but superfine broadcloth was still being manufactured by three mills at Twerton (25).

In the Bristol Region at the end of the eighteenth century the textile industry can certainly said to have been successful and this prosperity continued well into the nineteenth, while long established trading links with Spain resulted in the Port of Bristol handling much of the wool trade. Nevertheless, by 1800 the West of England wollen industry had passed its peak, its emphasis on high quality products combined with the failure to convert to power driven mills quickly enough due in part to an underdeveloped transport infrastructure impeding the movement of coal, meant that the wollen industry, especially in Somerset and Wiltshire, was unable to compete successfully with other regions. These, notably the West Riding of Yorkshire, were better organised and concentrated on the production of cheaper wollens and worsteds so much in demand on the domestic market during the Industrial Revolution (26).

Whilst it is true that Bristol had no commercial or industrial rivals in the West of England in 1800, its sister city of Bath had in other respects the greater prestige of an exceptionally important social centre. In spite of a bank failure in July 1792, and the added financial strain of the outbreak of war with France in 1793 which brought public and private building to an abrupt halt and plunged the city into a deep depression, in 1800 Bath was still a prosperous and expanding city. Nevertheless, the boom and crisis of 1788-92 marked a watershed in Bath's history after which the city suffered a stagnation in demand, and declined as a place of resort. As A.B.Grenville wrote in 1841 the rising cost of Bath's doctors coupled with a growing preference for private as opposed to public entertainments, which had been Bath's speciality, worked against the city as did its size, which had increased dramatically in the boom years of 1788-92. This had the effect of making Bath just too large and bustling to attract the exclusive company who now increasingly made for newer and more fashionable resorts such as Cheltenham and Brighton. However, as the city declined as a pleasure resort it became a place of permanent residence and retirement for an affluent upper-middle class, its population rising from about 29,000 in 1801 to some 45,000 in 1851. Despite the fact that Bath still had some connections with the textile trade there were no longer fortunes to be made in building and its associated quarrying industry forcing the city's entrepreneurs increasingly to engage themselves in commerce and trade, while industries based around drapery, hat making, shoe making and iron founding also developed (27).

Although during both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Bristol WAS a magnet for much of the surrounding area its merchants appear to have become increasingly conservative, engaging themselves in a trading pattern which proved to be too specialized and relied too heavily on imports rather than exports while the port, located in the centre of Bristol, had become ovecrowded and totally inadequate for modern ships. By having its trade and industry so geared towards imports, Bristol, unlike its west coast competitors developed more as a consumption centre rather than as an entrep"t with a surplus of mass produced industrial goods for export. The relatively small quantity and poor quality of local coal and lack of a fully developed canal system around Bristol also impeded the process of mechanization based on steam power. This ensured that the shift of industry towards Britain's major coalfields, which transformed the fortunes of the Liverpool, south Lancashire, Cardiff, Newcastle, and Sunderland area, was not mirrored in the Bristol Region where the small scattered agricultural settlements were unable to provide the labour force necessary for large scale industrialisation.

Brian Atkinson wrote in 1987 that changes in trading patterns and technology, rather than any conservatism on the part of the local merchants and traders, was responsible for the relative decline of the Bristol Region by 1850, but this is probably an over simplification and it would appear that a great many factors combined together to prevent the Bristol Region from regaining its former status of national economic importance (28). Nevertheless, the period 1780 to 1850 is important in that it represents a time of change in the region which saw a move away from many of the old traditional forms of commercial and industrial enterprise. Between 1801 and and 1851 the population of Bristol and its suburbs rose from some 72,000 to around 166,000 and the relatively quick expansion and subsequent success of consumer industries, engineering, printing, transport and the local financial sector, which all took place after about 1850, can be traced to the firm foundations laid in the first half of the nineteenth century.


B.J.Atkinson, An Early Example of the Decline of the Industrial Spirit?: Bristol Enterprise in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century, in Southern History, Vol.9 (1987), pp.71-89.

A.Buchanan & N.Cossons, Industrial Archaeology of the Bristol Region (Newton Abbot, 1969).

B.Little, The City & County of Bristol: A Study in Atlantic Civilisation (London, 1954)

C.M.Macinnes, Bristol: A Gateway of Empire (Newton Abbot, 2nd ed. 1968).

K.Morgan, The Economic Development of Bristol, 1700-1850, in M.Dresser & P.Ollerenshaw (ed), The Making of Modern Bristol (Bristol, 1996).

R.S.Neale, Bath: A Social History 1680-1850 (London,1981).

F.Walker, The Bristol Region (London, 1972).


1) A.Buchanan & N.Cossons, Industrial Archaeology of the Bristol Region (Newton Abbot, 1969), pp. 20-22.

2) Buchanan & Cossons, Industrial Archaeology, p.23.

3) K.Morgan, The Economic Development of Bristol, 1700-1850, in M.Dresser & P.Ollerenshaw (ed), The Making of Modern Bristol (Bristol, 1996), p.48.

4) Morgan, Economic Development, p.49.

5) B.Little, The City & County of Bristol: A Study in Atlantic Civilisation (London, 1954), pp.163-166 and F.Walker, The Bristol Region (London, 1972), pp. 240-243.

6) Morgan, Economic Development, p.52.

7) Morgan, Economic Development, pp. 53-54.

8) C.M.Macinnes, Bristol: A Gateway of Empire (Newton Abbot, 2nd ed. 1968), p.332 & 358.

9) Morgan, Economic Development, pp 58-59.

10) Macinnes, Gateway of Empire, p.358.

11) Macinnes, Gateway of Empire, p.332.

12) Morgan, Economic Development, p.60.

13) Buchanan & Cossons, Industrial Archaeology, p.68.

14) Little, City & County of Bristol, pp. 159-162 and Morgan, Economic Development, pp. 57-58.

15) Buchanan & Cossons, Industrial Archaeology, pp.145-148 and Morgan, Economic Development, pp.60-61.

16) Buchanan & Cossons, Industrial Archaeology, pp.61-65 and Morgan, Economic Development, p.62.

17) Buchanan & Cossons, Industrial Archaeology, pp.65-66 and Morgan, Economic Development, p.62.

18) Walker, The Bristol Region, pp.195-206.

19) Walker, The Bristol Region, pp.214-219 & 229-240, also Buchanan & Cossons, Industrial Archaeology, pp.176-196 and Morgan, Economic Development, p.64.

20) Morgan, Economic Development, pp.64-65, and Walker, The Bristol Region, p.212.

21) Walker, The Bristol Region, pp.212-214 & 254-255, and Morgan, Economic Development, p.65.

22) Walker, The Bristol Region, p.214 & 255, also Buchanan & Cossons, Industrial Archaeology, p.82 and Morgan, Economic Development, p.65.

23) Walker, The Bristol Region, pp.206-209.

24) Walker, The Bristol Region, pp.207-209.

25) Walker, The Bristol Region, pp.209-212.

26) Buchanan & Cossons, Industrial Archaeology, p.137 and Morgan, Economic Development, p.65.

27) R.S.Neale, Bath: A Social History 1680-1850 (London,1981), pp.259-263.

28) B.J.Atkinson, An Early Example of the Decline of the Industrial Spirit?: Bristol Enterprise in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century, in Southern History, Vol.9 (1987), pp.71-89.

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