Bristol harbour

Bristol owes its size and wealth to its importance as a trading hub.

Trading within the British Isles

Bristol was a trading hub from its beginnings in about AD 1000. The position of its port, in a protected river but with easy access to the sea and to inland river transport, gave it advantages over other ports in the region. By about 1250, it was the second most important port in the country after London, trading locally, nationally and internationally.


Trading with the north and the Midlands


The River Severn gave Bristol's merchants a route inland to the Midlands and the north. Bristol was the distribution centre, taking imported goods up the river to sell and bringing back woollen cloth and agricultural produce. Some items went both ways.

Woad was a blue dye imported from France and sold to Coventry. In

Coventry, it was used to dye woollen cloth, which was then sold back to Bristol merchants, who exported it to Europe.

Alabaster panels were among the items carried down the Severn and exported from Bristol by local merchants such as Robert Thorne, who was based in Seville, in Spain, in the 1520s. Carved in Nottingham, they illustrated scenes from the Bible.

Trading with Cornwall


Bristol was home to the early brass industry in Britain, which began in the 1690s.

Brass is made from copper and zinc. The local coal-fields supplied the fuel needed to smelt the copper ore, which came by sea from Cornwall, Devon and America. The Baptist Mills brassworks was using 200 tons of ore a year by 1712.

Bristol brassware supplied the domestic market and provided trade goods for the slave ships sailing out of Bristol. This was despite the fact that many of the brass industrialists were Quakers, and the Quaker faith disapproved of the slave trade.

Trading with Ireland

One thousand years ago, when slavery was an accepted part of Anglo-Saxon life, Bristol’s merchants were selling enslaved white people to Viking settlers in Ireland. Some of the poorest accepted slavery voluntarily, hoping for a better life as a farm worker or house servant in Ireland. Some were prisoners of war. Sometimes a family sold a child to avoid starvation. But merchants would also kidnap beggars, orphans or someone who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, to supply the demand. This ‘ancient custom’ was banned by law in 1102.


Trading with Ireland after 1102

The banning of the slave trade in 1102 did not end trade between Bristol and Ireland, nor did it immediately end the slave trade. Bristol was in a good position to dominate trade with Ireland for several hundred years. As the second-biggest port after London, Bristol on the west coast could bring together goods to trade to Ireland, mainly woollen cloth and ‘exotic’ luxuries such as pepper and raisins, and distribute the commodities brought from Ireland such as fish, hides, linen, and feathers for mattresses.


Trade with Wales

Bristol was the regional trade centre from about 1200, and merchants as well as merchandise came to the city. Bristol merchants took many apprentices from Wales, and by about 1400 many of the city’s merchants had Welsh roots, including Hugh Jones (sheriff in 1497 and mayor in 1503), Thomas Vaghan (bailiff in 1497), Richard Vaghan (sheriff in 1498 and mayor in 1501), Richard Americk (sheriff in 1504) and John Edwardes (sheriff in 1508). Leather and woollen cloth were the main imports to Bristol from Wales, and Bristol merchants traded them on into Europe.

Trading with Europe

The merchants of Bristol were trading with European ports from at least 1180.  Although politics and war affected trade and could lead to the loss of a market, Bristol merchants were always on the watch for new opportunities.

Over time, Bristol's European trade changed according to the political and economic circumstances. For a while in the 1400s and 1500s, Bristol merchants were the middlemen in trade between northern and southern Europe.

Trade with France became increasingly less important because of war and political changes, while trade with Spain and Portugal increased.

Woollen cloth and wine were the staples of trade. In addition, merchants exported woollen cloth, hides, tin, fish, coal and, later, tobacco and imported wine, port, sherry, salt, olive oil, grain, woad, cork and timber.

A huge wooden sherry butt, from about 1800, is displayed in the case in front of you.

As political and economic changes affected Bristol's trade with France after the loss of English territories in 1453, her merchants looked elsewhere for trading opportunities. French wine was replaced with Spanish sherry, a drink that became so closely linked to Bristol that it was called 'Bristol Milk'.

Trading with the wider world

Bristol was built on the proceeds of international trade. It was England’s second largest city from around 1300 to the mid-19th century. Until 1700, most of the trade was with Europe, but from 1700 to around 1840, it was geared towards the Americas and West Indies via slavery and sugar. After 1840, Bristol’s trade expanded worldwide.

Cod and a new world

When the English lost their French lands in 1453, Bristol merchants looked further afield for trade. Robert Sturmy led an expedition to the eastern Mediterranean in 1457 to try to break the monopoly of Italian merchants in the spice trade. On their way back, the Genoese sent out pirates to attack the Bristol ships, resulting in the death of 128 men and the loss of all three ships, with their valuable cargoes. This disaster caused a major diplomatic incident which prompted Bristol merchants to look westward for trading opportunities with the New World that we now know as America.

In 1497, John Cabot sailed west from Bristol in the Matthew, in search of the spice islands of the east. He came across America and claimed Newfoundland for King Henry VII. In 1610, a group of merchants, led by Bristolians John and Philip Guy and William Colston, established the first lasting colony in English Canada. With this colony, Newfoundland became an important trading destination for Bristol merchants throughout the 1600s.

Bristol and North America

Viking sailors from Scandinavia occupied Newfoundland in about AD 1000. Bristol's first connection with this area was in 1497, when sailors on John Cabot's voyage of exploration established the first English claim on Canadian land, leading to a Bristol-led settlement in 1610.

Trade expanded as colonial settlement spread, and in the late 1800s, imports of Canadian wheat into Bristol increased hugely. Bristol and Eastern Canada established a special trade relationship after the celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of Cabot's voyage in 1897.


The banana trade between Jamaica and Bristol

Dockers at Avonmouth unloaded the first cargo of bananas sent to Britain from Jamaica in 1901, a trade that was to continue for nearly 70 years. Almost overnight, the exotic banana became an everyday food. The trade

re established Bristol's links with Jamaica and the Caribbean following declining trade in the years after the ending of slavery on the Caribbean plantations.

Elders & Fyffes were the first company to build ships especially for bananas, with refrigerated holds for the unripe fruit. Their elegant white ships were regular visitors to Avonmouth every six weeks from 1902 until 1969. They carried almost no cargo outward, but brought back about 180,000 bunches of bananas. The company became Fyffes & Co. in 1969. </p> <p class="MsoPlainText"></p> <p class="MsoPlainText">Tea from China</p> <p class="MsoPlainText">When tea was first imported from China in the 1700s, it was fashionable and</p> <p class="MsoPlainText">expensive: the equivalent today of about £15 for a 125 g packet. Much of this was tax, and when the government cut the tax in 1785, the lower price meant that more people could afford it, and the very English habit of tea-drinking spread through all the social classes. Enterprising Bristol merchants were quick to open up tea dealerships to sell wholesale and retail to the Bristol area.</p> <p class="MsoPlainText">The Chinese used tea bricks, made from compressed black tea leaves, as currency to trade with neighbouring states. A brick could be broken into 16 squares for small payments.</p> <p class="MsoNormal" style="mso-layout-grid-align:none;text-autospace:none"> </p>

Trading locally

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<p class="MsoNormal">Since the Roman period, shops have opened in Bristol to meet the changing needs of customers. They were mostly small, local businesses until the development of the chain store in the 1850s. Today international supermarkets and chains dominate sales, but local, individual shops still survive, and traders in, for example, the Gloucester Road are fighting to keep their local character.</p>

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<p class="MsoNormal">Trading informally</p>

<p class="MsoNormal" style="mso-layout-grid-align:none;text-autospace:none"> Shops and markets have always been where most people went shopping. But itinerant peddlers, pawnbrokers and jumble sales were part of the mix, especially for the poor or the bargain hunter. Today, when shopping is a major leisure activity, the internet and car-boot sales increase the opportunities for spending money.</p>

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