The Maritime District of Bristol in the West of England was once the centre of Britain’s largest port and today is a wonderful centre for visiting and understanding how some of your ancestors MAY have been connected to or influenced by some of the events occurring here. For example Isambard Kingdom Brunel lived and worked here and John Cabot sailed from here discovering America/Newfoundland.
“Located six miles inland from where the River Avon flows into the Severn Estuary, the City of Bristol developed where it was most convenient to cross the Avon and where ships could be carried to the harbour on the tidal current. In 1239 the first quays were built along the River Frome near where it joins the River Avon in what is now the centre of Bristol. By the 14th Century Bristol was trading with countries such as Spain, Portugal & Iceland. John Cabot set sail from Bristol in 1497 hoping to find the passage to Eastern Indonesia but discovered America/Newfoundland instead. A replica of his ship The Matthew was built in 1996 and in 1997 she followed the same course as John Cabot and sailed across to Newfoundland to recreate this historic voyage. The Matthew is often moored alongside the other iconic Bristol built ship open to visitors today – Brunel’s SS Great Britain the world’s first screw propelled, ocean-going, iron ship.”
I visited Bristol as part of my Industrial Rides quest in which I am visiting historical sites and museums connected strongly to life in England from around 1750-1950 and this therefore includes the Industrial Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution and of course two World Wars. So why would I visit the Maritime District at Bristol, or any other such site?
- Because the site itself is significantly related to the “time” your ancestor(s) lived and some examples in my case would be a Cornish Tin/Copper mine from the 1700s at Geevor, the original iron-making furnace of Abraham Darby at Coalbrookdale, plus of course the huge ship building dock at Bristol.
- Because the site contains specific “artefacts” invented, designed, and built by someone that significantly changed the lives of your ancestors or even the whole world and some examples include the Cornish Beam Engine at the Levant Mine, built by John Harvey whose daughter Jane married Richard Trevithick the great designer of Beam Engines, John Harrison’s “clocks” which finally measured longitude and are on display at Greenwich in London, and Stevenson’s Rocket built in 1829 and currently on display at The Science & Industry Museum in Manchester.
- Because the site is a DEFINITE place of work or living for your ancestors, which could be a mill, a factory, a farm, an inn, a mine. In my case this includes two tin/copper mines in Cornwall, an inn in Kent, one in Bristol and one in Sunderland, and docks at Barrow-in-Furness.
In my case it’s the first of these that provide the reasons for my visit: Specifically, I had ancestors who sailed across the Atlantic in the late 1800s in ships similar to SS Great Britain and seeing one up close would help me to understand better their experiences. Also Brunel was an engineer who designed railways, bridges and tunnels as well as ships which were worked on by my ancestors who were navvies. The Bristol Maritime District has the Living With Brunel Museum as well as the SS Great Britain and so a great deal of history can be covered easily.
I spent about three hours here dividing my time between the ship itself, the Being Brunel Museum, the Brunel Institute (archives), and the river walk towards M Shed. In that time I experienced a wide range of “imaginations” comparing the cramped accommodation of steerage class to the spacious first class, smells included! Just being down here without the ship rolling felt as claustrophobic as a Cornish tin mine! The “dining” rooms are poles apart too, one to linger in and enjoy, the other to fulfill your needs then get out for some fresh air.
The Being Brunel Museum is split into two parts, the first with displays describing Brunel’s areas of focus ….. Ships, Railways, Bridges, Tunnels, and the second a series of small connected rooms being replicas of his offices in Bristol and in London and includes documents and drawings on display. This was my favourite part today as it is a relatively new museum and wasn’t built on my previous visits.
The Brunel Institute is essentially a research centre and archive of thousands of Brunel’s drawings, plans, letters, diaries. I had booked a short tour and one of the archivists met me at the entrance and walked me around the main areas with an explanation of their work. It’s difficult to get “excited” on such a general introduction, but the lady gave me a phone number and assured me that if I wanted to see ANY drawing, document, diary …. all I had to do was phone and book a time! This is quite an opportunity really, even if your not an industry nerd like myself, and I intend to return asking to view drawings and records of Brunel “fighting” to convince his financial investors that his new design of screw propeller was the future for all ocean going ships. He was right, and this was a historic decision.
I finally took a short walk of about half a mile along the waterfront, nowadays a well blended mix of the old and the new. I think they have done a good job here, on the one hand preserving warehouses, cranes, engines, whilst at the same time developing apartments and restaurants making it an extremely attractive area to live in as well as visit.