Bristol is a unitary authority area and ceremonial county city in Southwest England, located approximately 105 miles west of London and 24 miles east of Cardiff. In 2008, its population was estimated at 421,300 inhabitants in the city proper and an estimate 1,006,600 residents in its surrounding larger Urban zone. It is England’s 6th most populated city. It received its Royal Charter in 1155 and granted County status in 1373. Bristol borders the counties of Somerset and Gloucestershire being located near the historic cities of Bath to the southeast and Gloucester to the north. It is built around the River Avon, has a short coastline on the Severn Estuary flowing into the Bristol Channel.
Bristol is also known to be one of the largest centres of culture, employment, and education in the region with prosperity linked to the sea since its early days. Bristol’s economy recently has depended on the creative media, electronics and aerospace industries, and the city centre docks have been regenerated as a centre of heritage and culture.
The earliest evidence of humans in the area are believed to be 60,000 years old, discovered at Shirehampton and St Annes from the Palaeolithic era. In Leigh Woods and Clifton Down have Iron Age hill forts near the city. The Roman settlement of Abona (now Sea Mills) is in the area that connected it to Bath and present-day Inns Court. Isolated Roman villas, forts, and settlements can be found throughout the area. The town of Brycgstow (“the place at the bridge”) since 11th century under Norman rule was one of the strongest castles in southern England. By 12th century, Bristol became one of England’s most important ports handling much of England’s trade with Ireland. 1247 saw a new stone bridge built into the city, which in 1790 was replaced by the current Bristol Bridge. Bristol was extended to include neighboring suburbs, in 1373 making Bristol its own county. By this time Bristol became a center for shipbuilding and manufacture, and became the starting point for many expeditions and adventures including John Cabot’s 1497 voyage of exploration to North America. By the 14th century, Bristol became one of England’s three largest medieval towns next to London, York, and Norwich. In 1348-49 during the Black Death, Bristol only had a population of about 10-12,000 people left. The area was hit hard. The 15th century saw a boom in the fishing industry especially as Bristol Fishermen began fishing the Grand Bankes of Newfoundland and settling Newfoundland permanently in larger numbers up through the 17th century with colonies at Bristol’s Hope and Cuper’s Cove. 1542 the Diocese of Bristol was founded with Robert Fitzharding’s 1140 Abbey of St. Augustine becoming the Bristol Cathedral elevating it to the equivalent of city status. 1640’s English Civil War saw occupation by the Royalist military in Bristol. 17th century during the rise of England’s American colonies and rapid 18th century expansion of England’s part of the Atlantic trade in African slavery, Bristol along with Liverpool became a center for the Triangular trade where the first stage of the trade manufactured good were taken to West Africa and exchanged for Africans who were then in the second or middle passage transported across the Atlantic under brutal conditions leading into the third leg that brought plantation goods such as sugar, tobacco, rum, rice, and cotton back to England. 1700-1807 in the height of the slave trade, more than 2,000 slaving ships were fitted out at Bristol carrying a half a million people from Africa to the Americas for slavery. Bristol still hosts the Seven Stars public house where abolitionist Thomas Clarkson collected information on the slave trade. 1760 the maritime commerce was disrupted with attention relocated to the ongoing wars with France through 1793 and the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 causing collapse with keeping up with newer manufacture centers in North England and the West Midlands. The construction of the new “Floating Harbour” became hindered by the high tidal Avon Gorge affecting more disruption with growth from 1804-1809 causing excessive harbour dues. 19th century saw a population boom beginning in 1801 at this time bringing numbers upwards of 66,000 inhabitants. This was affected greatly by the design of the Great Western Railway between Bristol and London Paddington, two pioneering Bristol-built ocean going steamships – the SS Great Western and the SS Great Britain, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Bristol from the 15th-19th became a city of maritime safety. 19th century Samuel Plimsoll aka “The Sailor’s Friend” campaigned to make the seas safer, as he became aware and shocked at the overloaded cargoes had fought for a compulsory load line on ships. 1793 and 1831 saw numerous riots fighting against renewal of acts levying tolls on the Bristol Bridge and the latter after the rejection of the second Reform Bill.
World War II took its toll on Bristol during the Bristol Blitz which devastated the original central shopping area near the bridge and castle as well as the St. Nicholas Church. 1960’s rebuilding of Bristol involved large, cheap tower blocks, brutalist architecture, and massive road expansion. The 1980s saw another trend closing main roads and restoring the Georgian Queen Square and Portland Square, regeneration of the Broadmead shopping area, and demolition of the city center’s tallest post-war blocks. The Docks were moved to Avonmouth Docks and Royal Portbury Dock 7 miles downstream so that redevelopment of the old central dock area (The Floating Harbour) could be achieved. 1996’s First International Festival of Sea was held in and around the docks affirming the dockside area into a leisure and tourist center point of the city.
Bristol is well known for a tradition of local political activism and is home to many important political figures such as Edmund Burke, the women’s rights campaigner Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867–1954); Tony Benn (1950-1983), and others. 1963 saw a boycott of the city’s buses after the Bristol Omnibus Company refused to employ black drivers and conductors which influenced the creation of the UK’s Race Relations Act in 1965. The city was the scene of the first of the 1980s riots against racism, police harassment and mounting dissatisfaction with the social and economic circumstances of the area. 2005 made Bristol a Fairtrade City center. Bristol has always been an unusual city with country status because of its setup and expansion.
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