Bristol harbour was formed in 1809 by the conversion of the Avon and a branch of the Frome into "the Float," by the cutting of a new channel for the Avon and the formation of two basins. Altogether the water area, at fixed level, is about 85 acres. Four dry docks open into the floating harbour. In 1884 the Avonmouth and Portishead docks at the river entrance were bought up by the city; and the port extends from Hanham Mills on the Avon to the mouth of the river, and for some distance down the estuary of the Severn. The city docks have a depth of 22 ft., while those at Avonmouth are accessible to the largest vessels. In 1902 the construction of the extensive Royal Edward dock at Avonmouth was put in hand by the corporation, and the dock was opened by King Edward VII. in 1908. It is entered by a lock 875 ft. long and 100 ft. wide, with a depth of water on the sill of 46 ft. at ordinary spring, and 36 ft. at ordinary neap tides. The dock itself has a mean length of 1120 ft. and a breadth of 1000 ft., and there is a branch and passage connecting with the old dock. The water area is about 30 acres, and the dock is so constructed as to be easily capable of extension. Portishead dock, on the Somerset shore, has an area of 12 acres.
The port has a large trade with America, the West Indies and elsewhere, the principal imports being grain, fruit, oils, ore, timber, hides, cattle and general merchandise; while the exports include machinery, manufactured oils, cotton goods, tin and salt. The Elder Dempster, Dominion and other large steamship companies trade at the port.
The principal industries are shipbuilding, ropewalks, chocolate factories, sugar refineries, tobacco mills and pipe-making, glass works, potteries, soaperies, shoe factories, leather works and tanneries, chemical works, saw mills, breweries, copper, lead and shot works, iron works, machine works, stained-paper works, anchors, chain cables, sail-cloth, buttons. A coalfield extending 16 m. south-east to Radstock avails much for Bristol manufactures.
The parliamentary borough is divided into four divisions, each returning one member. The government of the city is in the hands of a lord mayor, 22 aldermen and 66 councillors. The area in 1901 was 11,705 acres; but in 1904 it was increased to 17,004 acres.
Bristol (Brigstow, Bristou, Bristow, Bristole) is one of the best examples of a town that has owed its greatness entirely to trade. It was never a shire town or the site of a great religious house, and it owed little to its position as the head of a feudal lordship, or as a military post. Though it is near both British and Roman camps, there is no evidence of a British or Roman settlement. It was the western limit of the Saxon invasion of Britain, and about the year 1000 a Saxon settlement began to grow up at the junction of the rivers Frome and Avon, the natural advantages of the situation favouring the growth of the township. Bristol owed much to Danish rule, and during the reign of Canute, when the wool trade with Ireland began, it became the market for English slaves. In the reign of Edward the Confessor the town was included in the earldom of Sweyn Godwinsson, and at the date of the Domesday survey it was already a royal borough governed by a reeve appointed by the king as overlord, the king's geld being assessed at 110 marks. There was a mint at the time of the Conquest, which proves that Bristol must have been already a place of some size, though the fact that the town was a member of the royal manor of Baston shows that its importance was still of recent growth.
One-third of the geld was paid to Geoffrey de Coutances, bishop of Exeter, who threw up the earthworks of the castle. He joined in a rebellion against William II., and after his death the king granted the town and castle, as part of the honour of Gloucester, to Robert FitzHamon, whose daughter Mabel, marrying Earl Robert of Gloucester in 1119, brought him Bristol as her dowry. Earl Robert still further strengthened the castle, probably with masonry, and involved Bristol in the rebellion against Stephen. From the castle he harried the whole neighbourhood, threatened Bath, and sold his prisoners as slaves to Ireland. A contemporary chronicler describes Bristol castle as "seated on a mighty mound, and garrisoned with knights and foot soldiers or rather robbers and raiders," and he calls Bristol the stepmother of England.
The history of the charters granted to Bristol begins about this time. A charter granted by Henry II. in 1172 exempted the burgesses of Bristol from certain tolls throughout the kingdom, and confirmed existing liberties. Another charter of the same year granted the city of Dublin to the men of Bristol as a colony with the same liberties as their own town.
As a result probably of the close connexion between Bristol and Ireland the growth of the wool trade was maintained. Many Bristol men settled in Dublin, which for a long time was a Bristol beyond the seas, its charters being almost duplicates of those granted to Bristol. About this time Bristol began to export wool to the Baltic, and had developed a wine trade with the south of France, while soap-making and tanning were flourishing industries. Bristol was still organized manorially rather than municipally. Its chief courts were the weekly hundred court and the court leet held three times a year, and presided over by the reeve appointed by the earl of Gloucester. By the marriage of Earl John with the heiress of Earl William of Gloucester, Bristol became part of the royal demesne, the rent payable to the king being fixed, and the town shook off the feudal yoke. The charter granted by John in 1190 was an epoch in the history of the borough. It provided that no burgess should be impleaded without the walls, that no non-burgess should sell wine, cloth, wool, leather or corn in Bristol, that all should hold by burgage tenure, that corn need not be ground at the lord's mill, and that the burgesses should have all their reasonable gilds.