2. Bristol's early nineteenth century staple industries.

How much damage was done to the economy of Bristol by mistakes and vacillation on the part of the port authorities cannot be determined with any degree of precision. Some local industries must have suffered from the high port dues, and some manufacturers no doubt fled the region for districts where goods could be imported and exported more cheaply. Yet, the Bristol port-based industries which showed a capacity to innovate and move with the times managed not only to survive but also to prosper. Two notable examples were J.S. Fry (cocoa and chocolate) and Wills & Watkins (tobacco). The latter firm was established in 1786, at an auspicious time for the tobacco industry. Demand for tobacco was growing throughout the country, and indeed doubled over the next 20 years, despite the economic difficulties caused by the interminable war with France. The firm began with a payroll of about 40 and no particular advantages over its numerous competitors, but showed what could be achieved with skilled management, aggressive marketing, and receptivity to technical innovations. After a series of name changes, takeovers and amalgamations, it became the biggest tobacco company in the area with the familiar name of W.D. & H.O. Wills. When the Imperial Tobacco Co. was formed in 1901, Wills, with a workforce of 3,000, was by far the largest and most profitable of the merging firms. It had developed the U.K. market for machine-made cigarettes after acquiring the revolutionary Bonsack machine rolling patent, and accounted for more than half of all sales.#5

Similar success attended J.S. Fry & Sons. The founder, Joseph Fry, had started in business in the mid-eighteenth century as an apothecary. He sold chocolate as a medicinal drink, and it soon became a very fashionable delicacy. Chocolate manufacturing came to dominate his business, and the concern inherited by his widow and later his son (J.S. Fry I) was among the first to make chocolate by steam power. Demand for cocoa and chocolate soared in the nineteenth century, and, as did Wills, Frys moved to a position of market leadership. The advent of more sophisticated manufacturing methods, coupled with lower raw materials costs, enabled the firm to develop products aimed at the less affluent, and its expansion was particularly rapid in the second half of the century, when a growing population and rising real incomes brought a widening market for consumer products. In the 1850s, Frys began making eating chocolate as well as cocoa and drinking chocolate. Its celebrated Chocolate Creams appeared in 1855. Total sales rose in value from 144,000 in 1870 to 1,643,000 in 1910, and Frys, which employed 11 people in 1819, built eight new factories, accommodating a workforce which numbered 2,000 in 1893, and 4,600 in 1908. This success encouraged others to try their hand at chocolate making, but none ever matched Frys for size or profitability. Amongst these concerns was Stanton & Champion's Steam Confectionery Works, established in Lewin's Mead in 1864, which employed about 300 people (mostly girls) in 1883, and the largest was Edward Packer's Easton factory, opened in the 1880s by a former employee of Frys. The business prospered, and moved to a large new factory at Eastville around the turn of the century.#6

Of the other activities generated by the port of Bristol, mention may be made of sugar refining and shipbuilding. Sugar, like tobacco and cocoa, formed an important part of the West Indies trade, and by 1801should have had a promising future. In that year, a record 19,000 hogsheads of sugar were unloaded at the docks, and some 20 refineries were ready to deal with it. But their owners produced no Wills or Fry to usher them into the machine age, and within about 30 years the old-fashioned, expensive refineries were virtually all gone. A worthy attempt to re-establish the industry was made by a Prussian immigrant, Konrad Finzel, who set up a steam refinery in the city in 1836. This, with some 500workers, was then one of the largest in England, and it continued to operate until 1881. Two smaller concerns which followed Finzel's lead continued for a few more years, but with the closure of the Bristol Sugar Refinery in 1908 the industry effectively died. The main reason was the strength of competition from London, Liverpool, and Glasgow, with their lower unloading charges, though managerial failings may also have contributed something to the decline.#7

Shipbuilding and repairing fared rather better than sugar refining in nineteenth-century Bristol. The industry had risen to an important place in the local economy by medieval times, and its fortunes continued to improve during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Bristol ship-owners liked to build locally because different trades had different needs. The height between decks, for instance, varied according to the type of cargo carried and its method of storage. Building in Bristol made it easier for owners to ensure that a ship had precisely the features needed for a particular trade. Many owners actually built ships for themselves or invested large sums of money in one of the yards situated on the marshy open ground along the banks of the River Avon. Several of these disappeared with the construction of the Floating Harbour, to be replaced by more substantial yards within the new docks complex. The largest was the Chatham Yard (renamed the Albion Yard in 1848), constructed for the Hilhouse family, who founded the most important and longest lasting of all Bristol shipbuilding enterprises.

The continued success of the industry down to about 1865 was ensured by an expanding local market, specialist design and construction skills, and the availability of top quality oak from the Forest of Dean. There were, of course, peaks and troughs in construction, but before that year there were enough orders for relatively small ships to sustain the industry at a healthy level. Bristol builders experienced no particular difficulty in responding to the demand for iron, and later steel, hulls, and steam-powered vessels were built in some numbers from 1813 onwards. There is no evidence to suggest that Bristol builders were wedded to outdated technologies or designs. Indeed, the achievements of engineers like Stothert, Brunel and Patterson, and the building of advanced ships like the Great Western and Great Britain suggests quite the opposite. Yet Bristol was hardly the ideal site for a modern shipyard. The largest ships that could be built had a burden of about 3,000 tons, and iron and steel could not be had as cheaply as in the northern shipbuilding towns. Invariably, as shipowners increasingly favoured large over small vessels, iron over wood, and steam over sail, Bristol lost ground as a shipbuilding centre. The late nineteenth century saw the closure of many yards. Only Charles Hill & Sons, which had taken over the Hilhouse business in 1848, survived the acute difficulties that faced shipbuilders between the wars. The Second World War gave a final boost to the firm, but thereafter only specialist vessels like tugs, dredgers and ferries were built. Repair work, however, continued to provide employment for substantial numbers of men before the final closure of the Albion Yard in 1977.#8

The nineteenth century also proved to be a critical period for several older industries less obviously dependent on the port than shipbuilding. The earliest documented of these is soap making. Soap was first made for use in the textile industry, but by the sixteenth century at least, Bristol was producing high-grade toilet soap, of which it was the nation's leading manufacturer. And though Charles I, by favouring London producers in the granting of monopolies, almost annihilated the trade (the number of soap boilers in Bristol plunged from 183 to just four), a recovery began during the eighteenth century. This was lent impetus when a firm originally set up by Samuel Fripp and Joseph Fry merged with that of Thomas Thomas in 1841 (under the name of Christopher Thomas & Brothers). Other soap firms remained in existence, but none could rival the new concern. By the 1870s, Thomas's was producing about 13,000 tons of soap a year, about 8 per cent of the national total, making it one of the largest producers in Britain. The firm also produced moulded candles, and in the 1880s it developed glycerine distilling and margarine manufacturing. This was the heyday of the firm, and its 'Puritan' soap dominated the regional market. But in the later 1880s it began, like other established manufacturers, to experience increasing competition from William Lever. His aggressive marketing methods brought him quick success, and in 1910, after a period of fierce rivalry, his firm took over Christopher Thomas & Brothers. Production continued in Bristol under the new management, but though Thomas's ornate factory - inspired by the Uffizi Palace in Florence - is still to be seen in Broad Plain, the operation in the end was too small to be viable, and production ceased in 1950.#9

A similar fate was suffered decades earlier by Bristol's glass makers. Glass had been produced in the city for almost as long as soap, mostly in the functional form of windows and bottles. In 1800, fifteen glass-houses were operating in Bristol, and two more in nearby Nailsea. Most of the Bristol houses were engaged in bottle making, but a few produced decorative glassware of very high quality, cut, engraved, tinted or deeply coloured and decorated. The best-known of these manufacturers was Isaac Jacobs, whose characteristic work was a beautiful deep-blue translucent glass, patterned with gilt paint. Another dimension was added to the industry in the mid-1820s by W. & T. Powell, originally a pottery firm, which produced attractively elegant cut glass at the Red Lane glasshouse. However, within a decade, the total number of glasshouses in Bristol had fallen to four, through a combination of mergers, takeovers and bankruptcies. And only the Phoenix house in Portwall Lane continued to make decorated glass. Its closure in 1851, after three unprofitable years, marked the end of a comparatively short but by no means inglorious episode in the history of English art and craft. The bread-and-butter trade of bottle making, however, continued for another 70 years, concentrated now into one firm, Powell & Ricketts, of Avon Street. This house achieved notable success by staying alive in competition with the dominant new factories in the Northern and Midland coalfields until after the First World War. Depressed trading conditions and a lack of cash for investment in more productive techniques brought about liquidation in 1923.#10