In the 14th century Bristol was a major wool-exporting port. The port flourished for the next 400 years and as well as exporting wool and leather, imported wine, tobacco and cocoa beans. These imported goods became the basis for Bristol's manufacturing industries. By the 17th century, the port was heavily involved in the slave trade and this resulted in Bristol becoming the second most important port in England after London.

Bristol contains the first Methodist chapel, the New Room, built for John Wesley in 1739. Other important buildings that date from this period include the Corn Exchange (1741) and the Theatre Royal (1766).

The abolition of the slave trade in the 19th century created problems for the port. Bristol's harbour was fairly shallow and with a lack of industrial towns in the area, the town found it difficult to compete with other ports such as Liverpool.

In the early 19th century the docks in Bristol were rebuilt by William Jessop. Further improvements were made by Isambard Brunel in 1830. The port was given a boast when Brunel decided to build his steamships, Great Western (1837) and Great Britain (1843) in Bristol.

Isambard Brunel also helped the city by building the Great Western Railway from London to Bristol in 1841. This was followed by the Bristol & Exeter Railway (1844) and the Bristol & Gloucester Railway (1844). This stimulated further economic growth and by 1861 the population of the city had increased to 154,000.

Primary Sources

(1) Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724)

Bristol is the greatest, the richest, and the best port of trade in Great Britain, London only excepted. The Bristol merchants have a very great trade abroad. They also have always buyers at home, and no cargo is too big for them. The shopkeepers in Bristol, who in general are wholesale men, have so great an inland trade among all the western counties.