'that the workmen might lay the foundations with perfect ease and security, they laid the whole bed of the river dry by turning the current into a temporary channel dug for that purpose'
A Short History of the Port of Bristol by Charles Wells, 1909.
It was essential for fostering trade as the main crossing point into the town and, being built of timber, was fine for light traffic. As Bristol grew, however, a stronger bridge was required. London had replaced its wooden bridge around 1200 with one of stone, and in the 1240s Bristol followed suit. Stone bridges could support greater loads in transit, were less vulnerable to fire and flood, and could even support other buildings.
This was part of Bristol's first major redevelopment and helped to incorporate the area south of the river into the town. Over the space of a few years Bristol would see enormous investment go into the building of a new harbour, the construction of the stone bridge, and strengthening of the town walls.
The completed bridge was a sturdy structure on four arches, with columns so thick they impeded the flow of water and created small waterfalls. It was rapidly lined with small shops and although less than 6m wide, this narrow strip was very much in demand.
Bristol Bridge was rebuilt for the second time in the 1760s. A fire had destroyed many of the timber-framed houses it supported in 1647 and the level of traffic it carried had increased to dangerous levels. The houses on London Bridge had been cleared away and Bristol followed suit. Demolition began in 1760 and architect James Bridges was commissioned to design its replacement, which had three arches instead of four. A new quay wall was built on the north side and the Redcliffe wall on the south enlarged so that the new bridge was much shorter than its predecessor. Bridges used 'caissons' to create a temporary wooden structure to allow masonry work to go on in the river - this may well have been the first time this was attempted outside the capital. The new bridge opened in 1768 and led to many of the roads leading to it also having to be improved and a ripple of redevelopment that gradually spread across the city.
Unfortunately Bridges didn't see the work completed - he wasn't well looked after by the Council and his rivals schemed against him so successfully that he resigned and left for the West Indies.