View of St. Augustine’s Reach 1929
The same low, September sunshine illuminated that scene as it does this afternoon. As the photographer took this shot, was some other person inside the Corporation granary then occupying this site, observing the same view I observe today?
Part of this project involves connecting the two pieces of land seen in the image; on the right, the fine early-18th century Queen Square, and Canon's Marsh to the left of the water, now the site of Millennium Square and the new @t Bristol complex.
ago, these two were one tract of land, for St. Augustine's Reach is man-made.
There are two
rivers in this view. On the right, the river Avon flows from the Cotswolds
through Bath, under Bristol Bridge (at the very top-right corner) and
out at bottom left, west towards the Bristol channel.
Thus, the present sites of Queen Square and Canon's Marsh were an uninterrupted stretch of marsh-land to the south and west of the city. In 1240 the people of Bristol, their volume of trade presumably having outstripped the capacity of the harbour, diverted the Frome by digging the channel seen here. It is 120 feet wide, 18 feet deep, and 2400 feet long. This huge undertaking, using shovels, barrows and carts, took seven years to complete. The spoil from the channel was spread along the marshy banks of the Frome, raising the ground level by a metre or more, thus enabling building to take place for the first time in areas such as Lewin's Mead. These rafts of clayey rock are still being uncovered by archaeological excavation. When it was complete, the channel divided the marsh in two – that on the left, with St. Augustines Abbey at its north edge, was known as Canon's marsh, and was used by the abbey canons for gardens and orchards. Eventually small-scale manufacture developed at its fringes. The east end of the abbey (now Bristol Cathedral) can just be seen at the centre left. On the right, the Town Marsh was used as a place of recreation, for archery practise at the Butts, and as a rubbish tip for the surrounding streets. The Frome diversion created The Quay, which virtually doubled the available moorings. Being wider and deeper than the old Avon moorings, it tended to be used for the larger vessels which traded with the Mediterranean, Spain, Gascony and Ireland. Coastal trade with South Wales and the inland waterways giving access to Gloucester and the Midlands, moored at The Back (the waterfront at the far right edge of the image).
The new channel had another impact; it eliminated Bristol's reliance on its old port - the deep pool north of the bridge, on the stretch of the Avon next to the churches of St. Peter and St. Mary-le-Port. This in turn meant that Bristol bridge (in 1240 it was wooden, probably with a central drawbridge) could be rebuilt in stone without a drawbridge, since large ships had no need to go beyond it. The new bridge opened up access to the growing suburbs of Temple and Redcliffe, and a curtain wall was built across their south side to bring them into the defensible city. Having created the new harbour, the City has made successive attempts to get round the problems it posed. For as the city expanded in the 18th century up Park Street towards Clifton, St. Augustine’s Reach ceased to be the western boundary of the city, becoming instead a barrier to traffic. So the Frome was culverted in and bridged over, controlled and buried, in successive stages, from the 1890s. In the photograph one can see (top centre) the island of trees planted on Colston's Avenue, created by the first phase of culverting in 1892. The later phase, which extended the Centre to where the upper of the two large ships is moored, was completed in 1938. Canons' Marsh in 1929 was an industrial area of transit sheds and railway sidings, with timber yards, and in the foreground (where the Lloyds arena now is) a stone and marble works. The monolithic bonded tobacco warehouses just behind were then newly built, and illustrate well the utilitarian concrete architecture of such structures. They have the same admirable and irrefutable logic as their earlier counterparts at Cumberland Basin. Also by William Cowlin & Sons, they have not survived, suffering a spectacular demolition by dynamite in the 1980s.
The stone-built lead works with the tall chimney at its left is now subsumed in the @t Bristol complex, a token of the areas past. The contrast with the eastern arm of the Marsh could not be greater. Across the Reach, the landscape is dominated by the open space of Queen Square. It was first laid out by the Corporation in 1699 as a conscious attempt to attract wealthy merchants seeking convenient and prestigious town houses. To ensure the new square had the desired appeal, the Corporation imposed restrictive covenants on their leases, many still in force and being re-imposed after lapses. The houses had to be of uniform height, brick fronted with stone quoins (the first recorded use of brick for Bristol facades), with newly-fashionable sash windows and wooden modillion cornices. There was to be a ten foot walled area before each house, and commercial uses such as warehousing were forbidden except at the rear of the houses. By the 1730s, all the leases had been taken up, and building was completed in a variety of designs although the desired uniformity was achieved. More than seven acres were enclosed and surrounded by a double row of trees, the whole crowned in 1736 by RysbrackÕs great equestrian statue of King William III, still the focal point today. Shortly after this photograph was taken, in 1936, the square was sliced diagonally in two by Redcliffe Way, leaving William of Orange marooned on a traffic island. Thankfully this particular brutality has been atoned for by the square's recent restoration with the original star pattern of paths converging at the monument.
From the first, the square attracted Bristols great and good: the Eltons, Days and Pelonquins who were the mainstays of the Corporation and the Society of Merchant Venturers. However, by the early 19th century it was suffering from the increasingly unhealthy state of the harbour. This situation worsened by the creation of the Floating Harbour in 1809, whereby two miles of river was enclosed with locks so that it no longer drained with every tide. With no tidal flow to wash away the effluent from the cities homes and factories, it became a stagnant, open sewer. By the 1840s Brunel and others had made changes which allowed sufficient water-flow to prevent the harbour silting up, but never enough to remove the smell. Clifton had by this time become the desirable location for merchants' houses, high on the hill west of the city, upwind of the stench and smoke in healthy fresh air. The square was deserted by its former residents, and was given over to boarding houses and then commercial offices, a character it retains still. West of Queen Square, Prince Street was formerly a broad and dignified street of early 18th century houses, with William Halfpenny's Assembly Rooms on the side nearest the Quay. By the late 19th century it had declined, but the houses largely remained. Now only three can be seen, next to the Arnolfini, including the Shakespeare Inn.
They echo the former status of a street now dominated by faceless offices blocks and the overbearing concrete slab of Jury's Hotel. The Arnolfini, the long-established epicentre of Bristol's arty-intellectual society, started life as the office and store of D., E. & A. Acramans, Ironfounders, Shipbuilders and Engineers. The warehouse, built in two phases in the early 1830s, was designed by Richard Shackleton Pope, and achieves an elegance poised between Regency neo-classicism and the overbearing chunkiness of the later 'Bristol Byzantine' warehouses. This photograph must be one of the few good records of its roof, lost in the 1970s conversion by the raising of an extra storey under the distinctive pyramid roof. The old roof shows how the building was built in two phases, with the earlier rectangular valley near the harbour, and four ridge and valley roofs of the later phase behind. Traffic in the docks is relatively light - although it had another 40 years of working life, it is easy to see that the quays were not crowded. Aside from the two large ships at Canon's Marsh, there are numbers of barges at Narrow Quay and Mud Dock, and a hobbler or small ferry crossing the dock from Prince's Wharf.
The Corporation Granary at centre bottom of the shot was built c.1886 on the former site of the shipyard run by the Blanning family in the 18th century. Here, in 1836-7, William Patterson built the SS. Great Western. A plaque on the Industrial Museum near Wapping Road commemorates the fact. The granary's rooftop crest with the arms of the City of Bristol dominates the view up the Reach. The building was destroyed in a Blitz raid, along with 8000 tons of grain. The replacement buildings, L and M sheds, were built in 1948-50, and were used for most of their working life to store Guinness imported from Dublin. Their conversion for use as Bristol Industrial Museum was achieved without major change to the external fabric. After the fire that destroyed the last derelict shed on Canon's Marsh last year, they are the only remaining transit sheds in Bristol to retain something of their working character.
For me, the details of historical evidence contained in this image are interesting, but the photograph as a whole is about more than that. Bristol was born of its position at the confluence of two rivers, with an inland tidal harbour protected from the open sea, an excellent trading position. 1929 represents a point of change, a time when some nine hundred years of continuous activity in the docks was about to end. Avonmouth had already taken over the city's dock trade, and a new trade in information and knowledge was to supersede the trade in goods. Bristol's power as a major centre for shipping, manufacture and mercantile activity effectively ended in the fifty years after this photograph was taken. Both factually and symbolically, St. Augustine's Reach exemplifies Bristol’s perpetual battle to master its own geography, to control and channel the waters coming down from its rivers, and in from the sea. With the re-invention of the docks as 'Harbourside', it has different concerns. The warehousing which dominated Prince Street, Narrow Quay and Prince's Wharf have been found new uses, largely cultural and media-based. The industry on Canon's'Marsh has gone, replaced by the new industry of tourism. With the construction of Pero's bridge, Bristol has continued the process of reuniting the two sides of its quay, creating and re-creating its topography to meet the needs of a different age.