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Bristol City Docks (post 1830s)
Bristol Docks, Bristol, UK
Bristol City Docks (post 1830s)
associated engineer
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Thomas Evans Blackwell
Thomas Howard
John Ward Girdlestone
date  February 1833 - 1849
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Docks/Slipway  |  reference  ST573724
ICE reference number  HEW 861
photo  Jane Joyce
The docks complex at Bristol that we can see today was originally the work of engineer William Jessop (1745-1814), and opened in 1809. The various dock company engineers that succeeded Jessop made improvements and enlargements, including works undertaken by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), who was closely associated with the industrialists and businessmen of Bristol. The docks are now a dedicated conservation area.
Jessop's non-tidal Floating Harbour, as the complex is known, consists of a 3.2km broad channel running eastwards from the River Avon at Rownham to Temple Meads upstream, and includes two basins and a number of locks. It was created by isolating a natural stretch if the river, which was diverted into the New Cut created to the south (see separate article).
The Floating Harbour provides dock facilities that remain in water in all states of the tide ó the tidal range at Bristol can be as much as 12m. The harbour is supplied with water by the River Frome, which flowed into it directly, and a feeder canal from the Avon constructed to the east.
Over time, the water supply was found to be insufficient, and the Frome brought silt and sewage into the Floating Harbour. This was compounded by waste dumping and the emptying of ship's bilges. Although by 1828 the sewage inflow had been diminished by the redirection of the Frome, the silt issue was still a problem. The lack of tidal scouring led to the formation of mud shoals hazardous to navigation. Periodically digging out the mud proved costly and led to the charging of high fees to harbour users.
In August 1832, Brunel inspected Bristol City Docks and made a report to the authorities. Work was delayed by the political situation (the Bristol Riots had taken place in 1831) but his recommendations were put into action from February 1833, under his supervision as the Bristol Docks Company's engineer.
During 1833-4, Jessopís overfall dam and sluices at the Rownham end of the system were converted into an underfall dam (ST572720) by the installation of four new sluices designed by Brunel, three shallow and one deep. These regulate the water level and facilitate silt scouring in the harbour. At the other end of the system, the weir dam (ST616726) over the Avon at Netham was raised (1842-4) to further improve the flow of water.
In 1843, Brunel designed a steam-powered drag boat constructed in riveted iron plate. It had winches for warping itself across the harbour, scraping the floor and walls as it went. This boat was in use right up until 1961. It is thought to have been similar in design to Bertha, the drag boat Brunel designed in 1844 for the Bridgewater Canal and now at Eyemouth Maritime Centre in Berwickshire.
Two of Brunel's groundbreaking steam ships were constructed at Bristol City Docks. The SS Great Western, a timber-hulled paddle steamer, was constructed in Patterson's Yard (now Prince's Wharf) and launched in 1837. Between 1839 and 1843, the SS Great Britain was constructed in a dry dock (ST578724) also designed by Brunel. She is the worldís first iron passenger liner and was launched on 19th July 1843. She returned to her dry dock 1970 for restoration, where she can be seen today.
From 1844, Brunel was working on the design for a replacement for the smaller of Jessop's two entrance locks: the South Entrance Lock (ST568723) leading from the Avon to Cumberland Basin. Bristol Docks was in a slow decline compared with other ports such as Liverpool. Her facilities were increasing unable to cope with the larger ships now in use, and two entrance locks were decaying, as well as too narrow.
The replacement lock is a barrel-shaped masonry chamber, 79.9m long and 21.3m wide, narrowing to 16.5m wide at the gates. It featured the first-ever buoyant wrought iron gates ó each a single hinged leaf supported on roller wheels. The gates are now removed, though some structure remains. Brunel also designed a wrought iron swing girder bridge to span the lock. The bridge is notable for its use of iron plate tubes, later to feature on other Brunel bridges, and is still in place on the lockside, though not in use.
Bridge and lock were operational in 1849. The works were supervised by resident engineers John Wallis Hammond (c1800-47) and William Bell (1818-92) with ironwork by George Hennet (1799-1857).
On 23rd August 1848, in a move to force down harbour levies, ownership of the docks was transferred from Bristol Docks Company to Bristol Corporation under the Bristol Dock Transfer Act (the dock company ceased to exist in 1882). The docks were managed subsequently by committee, and works overseen by Joseph Dand Green, the Superintendent of Works from 1843.
Green resigned on 20th October 1851, and on 12th January 1852, Bristol Corporation appointed his erstwhile assistant Thomas Evans Blackwell (1819-63) as Docks Engineer. Blackwellís own deputy, Thomas Howard (1816-96), took over as Docks Engineer in 1855 and remained in post until 1882. Brunel's involvement with Bristol Docks had ended in 1848.
In September 1864, Howard proposed to replace the North Entrance Lock and add a new north junction lock between Cumberland basin and the harbour to allow in bigger vessels. His assistant George William Keeling (c1839-1913) is believed to have helped with the designs. A series of Acts passed in 1865 enabled reshaping some areas of the harbour, constructing the new locks and enlarging Cumberland Basin, plus the erection of transit sheds and quayside rail tracks for Brunel's Great Western Railway. The deep water docks constructed at Bathurst Basin and Princeís Wharf were the first major cargo wharfs with railway connections.
Contractor William Tredwell (1819-71) was awarded the contract for the new locks in 1866. Work commenced in 1867 on the new junction lock, located north of Jessopís original, and in 1868 on the replacement North Entrance Lock. The new junction lock is 18.3m wide and opened in September 1872. The entrance lock was enlarged to 18.3m wide and 106.7m long, and its depth increased by 910mm. It opened on 19th July 1873. Excavated material was removed on a purpose-built tramway (dismantled 1873) and used to infill three quarries on the Downs to the north east of the city. The total cost of the improvement works was about £360,000.
In 1878, Prince Street swing bridge opened and the Fairbairn steam crane (ST583722) on Wapping Wharf was erected by Stothert & Pitt (now restored to working order). In the 1880s, the docks committee purchased Nova Scotia Yard and housing in Avon Crescent, enabling enlargement of the engineering and shipbuilding facilities at Underfall Yard and control of the slipway (ST571721).
Docks engineer John Ward Girdlestone (1840-1911) oversaw extensive workshop rebuilding at Underfall Yard and construction of a new hydraulic pumping station on the north side of the slipway. Completed in 1887, the station powered hydraulic cranes (from 1892), swing bridges, lock gates, sluices and other dock machinery by using two steam pumps to draw water from the harbour. The water was pressurised and distributed around the harbour via an accumulator mounted on the exterior of the stationís chimney.
During the 1890s, more quays were developed on the north bank of the Floating Harbour, at Canonís Marsh (ST579724), and included another steam crane (erected 1891, now dismantled) and more warehouses. In 1906, electric cranes were introduced and in 1907 the hydraulic power house was converted to electricity. It had three electric pumps.
In the 1950s, Brunelís South Entrance Lock was permanently sealed at its western end and the lock gates removed. Trade at Bristol City Docks had continued to decline. The new docks at Avonmouth and Portbury had been constructed to accommodate the larger vessels.
In 1969, it was decided to close the city docks and, except for sand dredgers, commercial shipping ceased using the Floating Harbour in 1975. Control of the docks was transferred to Bristol City Council. However, proposals for infilling the harbour and its feeder canal were vetoed, and in September 1979 the docks were designated a conservation area.
In February 1972, Brunelís South Entrance Lock and swing bridge were Grade II* listed, as was the Fairbairn steam crane.
The pumping station next to the slipway remained in use until 2010, when it closed for refurbishment, re-opening as a visitor centre in March 2016.
Resident engineer (1842-4): Michael Lane
Resident engineer (1844-7): John Wallis Hammond
Resident engineer (1846-9): William Bell
Contractor (Brunel's entrance lock): Rennie & Co
Contractor (Howard's entrance lock): William Tredwell
Ironwork (south entrance lock caisson and bridge): George Hennet
Research: ECPK
"Brunel's Bristol" by RA Buchanan and M Williams, Redcliffe Press, Bristol, 1982
"The Port of Bristol 1848-1884" edited by David Large, Bristol Record Society, 1984
"The Annals of Bristol in the Nineteenth Century" by John Latimer, W & F Morgan, Bristol, 1887
reference sources   IKBCEH W&WBDCE2

Bristol City Docks (post 1830s)