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Port of Bristol
1800 – 1899
British Sailors
Sailors’ Homes

Bristol's Sailor Quarter

Marine missions and charities in relation to Bristol's floating harbour 

The Floating Harbour, Bristol, by Charles Parsons Knight (1829-1897). Source: Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

Bristol's sailor quarter was relatively constrained when compared with larger British port cities. This was one result of the construction of the non-tidal Floating Harbour, which allowed vessels to dock right in the heart of the city.


The Floating Harbour, Bristol, by Charles Parsons Knight (1829-1897). Source: Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.


The Floating Harbour, designed by William Jessop, was completed in May 1809. This created a harbour area of 70 acres, with a series of docks running parallel to the business district, and minutes away from well-to-do residential areas, such as Queen Square. Sailors visiting the port were therefore a visible and relatively integrated feature of the city, rather than being isolated in their own wild sailor town like those of Cardiff or Liverpool (Davey 2019: 14). 


Bristol's sailor quarter in the 1860s as depicted by author artist Stan Hugill. Source: Hugill 1967: 34.

While dangerous for shipping of all kinds, the sweeping tides of the Bristol Channel had the advantage of keeping the Avon River relatively free of silt and avoiding the problems which faced other river ports. Mismanagement and its relatively small harbour and circuitous entrance through the Avon Gorge meant that Bristol was out-competed by other Atlantic ports, especially Liverpool. Things improved when the Bristol Dock Company, which had managed the port in the first half of the 19th century, was bought out by the Bristol Corporation in 1848 (Bristol Archives 2016). The Corporation encouraged improvements to the floating harbour. More important for the future of the port of Bristol was the construction new docks away from the city, at Avonmouth in 1877 and Portishead in 1879.

All the Avon River ports, including the Bristol Floating Harbour, Avonmouth and Portishead, developed a Victorian infrastructure of maritime missions, seamen's homes and churches or chapels. These supplemented the older charities, such as the Society of Merchant Venturers' Almshouses (1696) for convalescent and aging sailors in King Street.


The Seamen's Institute incorporating the Anglican Missions to Seamen, and Seamen's Church, c. 1920. Source: Johnson-Marshall and Kendon.

The Bristol sailors' quarter included the Bristol Sailors' Home (1851) in Queen Square, and the Anglican Missions to Seamen in the Seamen's Institute (1873), with the Seamen's Church (1880) above, at 53 Prince Street. The Institute was badly damaged in the Bristol blitz on 1840, and awaits an adventurous renovation and reuse (Johnson-Marshall and Kendon 2022).



Bristol Archives. 2016. Ships, Seamen and Emigrants: Sources for Research (Bristol: Bristol Archives).

Davey, Joe. 2019. 'A higher class of men?: sailors and working-class communities in Bristol 1850-1914' (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Portsmouth).

Hugill, Stan. 1967. Sailortown (London: Routledge).

Johnson-Marshall, Jeremy, and Sam Kendon. 2022. Abolition Shed Heritage Statement: Seamen's Mission (Bristol: Marshall & Kendon Architects).

Press, Jonathan. 1976. The Merchant seamen of Bristol, 1747-1789 (Bristol: Bristol Branch of The Historical Association).


Records of the Bristol Sailors’ Home, 1851-1988. 40311 Bristol Archives.

The Seven Ages of Bristol Docks.

Citation for this article

Hilary Carey, 'Bristol's Sailor Quarter' Mariners: Race, Religion and Empire in British Ports 1801-1914,
Retrieved 14 July 2024