Beautiful Bristol – Based on Smuggling , Sugar, Smoking and Slaves

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A shorter version of  this article appeared in the June issue of Echelon magazine.

Much of Bristol’s wealth historically came from dodgy dealing.


The London Sunday Times recently named Bristol number one in its Best Places to Live in Britain poll. Bristol, it said, has “one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, varied and beautiful housing stock, decent schools, buzzy culture and night life and access to some fantastic countryside”. The city also has strong transport links, and by 2017, even faster rail networks will cut journey times to London to just 80 minutes.


I was interested to read this news, as I know Bristol well. I was born only 30 miles away in Gloucester. When I was a child, my parents took me to Bristol Zoo to ride on Rosie the Elephant. I took my first plane flight from Bristol Airport. Bristol was the go-to place for we yokels to enjoy nightlife and daytime shopping. The city’s Colston Hall played host to big name artists like Bob Dylan and this month presents Jeff Beck and Don Williams among many others. Bristol has a vibrant musical culture – Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky.

Warp and Woof

In order to get a sense of the warp and woof of Bristol life in 2014, I have been undertaking an exhaustive study of the local press, mainly the Bristol Post and the BBC’s local Bristol radio station. Here are some of the exciting things that I found.

Woof. A police inquiry is to begin into an incident in which a police dog bit a man as he was being arrested.

Warp. A man from Mexico who murdered his former girlfriend at her home in Bristol has been jailed for life.

There were 2,028 burglaries in Bristol between April and March this year – 430 fewer than the previous year.

Bristol is now a major housing hotspot. With demand far outstripping supply in the some of the most popular parts of the city, many properties are being sold within a matter of days.

Bishopston Fish Bar, based on Gloucester Road, owned by Nick Lomvardos, has made it into a list of the top 50 fish and chip shops across the UK compiled by Fry magazine. Nick said: “I work very hard and do a lot of hours. We have a slogan here – Cooked with Passion, Served with Pride – and that says it all. I’m so passionate about what I do and try to give the customer the best experience possible.”

Famous Bristolians

cary grant

Cary Grant was born Archibald Leach in Horfield, Bristol, Grant’s first role in theatre was working at the Bristol Hippodrome. Bristol unveiled a new Cary Grant statue in Millennium Square.

Dave Prowse (Darth Vader) was brought up on the Southmead housing estate in Bristol, winning a scholarship to Bristol Grammar School. His voice was not used because of his Bristol accent.

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor was born in Bristol and lived there for most of her life.

Samuel Plimsoll (1824 – 1898) was born in Colston Parade, Bristol. He campaigned against overloading ships with cargo, resulting in the introduction of the Plimsoll line on every ship to show its maximum load capacity.

Billy Butlin lived in Bristol as a small boy and attended St Mary Redcliffe School. He returned to Bristol as an adult and had his first taste of entertainment for the masses when he opened a hoop-la stall in Lock’s Yard, Bedminster.

Paul Dirac (1902 – 1984) was born in Bishopston, Bristol in 1902. He was considered to be one of the greatest and most influential theoretical physicists of his time. He formulated the Dirac Equation, and was responsible for leading the way towards the discovery of antimatter. He was a close friend of Albert Einstein’s, and during his life won a shared Nobel Prize in physics with Erwin Schrödinger.

Banksy, controversial local graffiti artist famed throughout the world for his street art. Some of his pieces have sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Blackbeard the Pirate (Edward Teach)

My Facebook friend, the brilliant writer Julie Burchill, was born in Bristol and educated at Brislington Comprehensive School. Her father was a Communist union activist who worked in a distillery. Her mother had a job in a cardboard box factory.

Bristol’s musical output has been varied:


Acker Bilk.


Massive Attack


Russ Conway

The Cougars – they played at our school dance.

Adge Cutler and the Wurzels

Roger Greenaway

Nellee Hooper

Nik Kershaw

Roland Orzabal

Rip, Rig and Panic

Andy Sheppard – brilliant jazz sax player whom I have seen many times.

Fred Wedlock


Speaking Bristol

Bristol natives speak with a rhotic accent, in which the post-vocalic r in words like car and card is still pronounced, having been lost from many other dialects of English, notably BBC English, or “received pronunciation”. The unusual feature of this accent, unique to Bristol, is the so-called Bristol L (or terminal L), in which an L sound appears to be appended to words that end in an ‘a’ or ‘o’. “Area” becomes “areal” or “areaw”.

Current Economy

The economy of Bristol fared comparatively well during the Great Recession of 2008-10 and continued to grow while most cities shrank. Compared with other major cities, Bristol enjoys the fifth highest GVA in the UK (Gross value added is a measure in economics of the value of goods and services produced in an area, industry or sector of an economy).

Bristol is the largest centre of employment, culture and education in the South West region. The city’s economy is reliant on the aerospace industry, defence, information technology, financial services, tourism and the media. Financial services employ 50,000 people in the city and the high tech sector has 50 micro-electronics and silicon design companies which employ around 5,000 people. The city houses the regional headquarters of BBC West, the BBC Natural History Unit and Aardman Animations.


Previous Economy

Bristol was particularly associated with the noted Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He designed the Great Western Railway between Bristol and London Paddington and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. He also designed two Bristol-built ocean going steamships, the SS Great Britain and SS Great Western.


At Filton, the Bristol Aeroplane Company built the World War I Bristol Fighter, and Second World War Blenheim and Beaufighter aircraft. In the 1950s, it was a major manufacturer of civil aircraft, with the Bristol Freighter and Britannia and the huge Brabazon airliner. In the 1960s, Filton played a key role in the Anglo-French Concorde supersonic airliner project. On 26 November 2003, Concorde 216 (G-BOAF) made the final Concorde flight, returning to Filton.

Bristol is still the headquarters of Imperial Tobacco Group, the world’s fourth largest international tobacco company. In 1901, Sir William Henry Wills et al formed Imperial Tobacco from a merger of WD & HO Wills with seven other British tobacco companies. The Wills tobacco company began as a shop in Castle Street, Bristol in 1786.

(c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Economic Foundations

Bristol’s geographical position at the confluence of the rivers Avon and Frome gave it easy access to the Atlantic. When John Cabot arrived in England from Venice, Bristol was the only English city to have had a prior history of undertaking exploration expeditions out into the Atlantic. From 1480 onwards, several expeditions had been sent out to look for Hy-Brazil, an island said to lie somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. There was a legend that Bristolians had discovered the island and then mislaid it. From Bristol, Cabot made voyages to Canada, looking for a North West Passage. Although he failed in that endeavour, John Cabot claimed North America for England, setting the course for the imperial rise to power in the 16th and 17th centuries.

john cabot

Fishermen from Bristol had fished the Grand Banks of Newfoundland since the 15th century and began settling Newfoundland permanently in larger numbers in the 17th century establishing colonies at Bristol’s Hope and Cuper’s Cove

Bristol merchants’ trade to Spain and its American colonies included the smuggling of ‘prohibited’ wares, such as foodstuffs and guns, to Iberia. The scale of the city’s illicit trade grew enormously after 1558, to become an essential component of the city’s economy.

By the 18th century, sugar was Bristol’s most lucrative traffic but sugar refining industry drifted into relative recession after about 1780. In 1800, Bristol’s merchants failed to foresee the utter ruin of the sugar industry in the West Indies that was to occur during the next fifty years. 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 West Indies.


Bristol’s hospitality industry caters for nine million visitors each year. Tourists who admire Bristol’s elegant houses should reflect on the misery behind their establishment. Guinea Street, a terrace of five-storey houses on the dockside, was home to the slave traders and owners Edmund Saunders and Joseph Holbrook. Nearby is Queen Square, with Georgian houses built by slave traders. The Sugar House hotel was one of many refineries that processed sugar harvested by slaves.

Colston Hall, Bristol’s major music venue, was named after Edward Colston, a philanthropist and merchant who paid for several schools, churches and hospitals. Much of Colston’s wealth came from the slave trade. The Bristol band, Massive Attack, pledged never to play at the venue until its name is changed.


The city’s involvement with the slave trade peaked between 1730 and 1745. Bristol, along with Liverpool, became a centre for the Triangular Trade. In the first stage of this trade, manufactured goods were exchanged for Africans. The Africans were then, in the Middle Passage, transported across the Atlantic in brutal conditions. Then plantation goods such as sugar, tobacco, rum, rice and cotton were brought to Bristol. Slaves were sold to the aristocracy as house servants.

It is estimated that Britain transported more than three million African people across the Atlantic (500,000 on Bristol ships alone), an epic trade that involved some 10,000 voyages and swelled the coffers of the owners. By the Victorian era, as many as one in six of the wealthiest Britons derived at least some of their fortunes from slavery. Few seemed to have any qualms. Quakers, for example, had been enthusiastic investors. It should not be forgotten that the notable philanthropic families – Frys, Rowntrees, and Cadburys – made their fortunes from chocolate, which depended on slave labour.

What of the Future?

The European Commission named Bristol as the European Green Capital for 2015. Bristol will receive £7 million of additional funding to deliver a range of projects that will help Bristol remain at the centre of green investment and urban sustainability. A report, commissioned by Bristol city council, found the initial investment should generate around £215 million of additional economic activity for the UK, through inward investment, additional business turnover, higher exports and tourism.


In the March 2011, Budget, Chancellor George Osborne announced the creation of 21 enterprise zones, including one in the area around Temple Meads railway station in Bristol. The idea was that relaxing planning and tax rules would attract businesses to regenerate areas. The West of England Local Enterprise Partnership has published a plan to create 17,000 jobs within the Temple Meads zone. The Engine Shed business centre opened in December 2013, following an investment of £1.7 million. A £7 million private sector investment created Temple Studios, which houses around 150 people working for architects, web designers, music producers and marketing agencies.