The history of most large English cities effectively begins with the great urban expansions of the nineteenth century. This is not to deny the antiquity of the city sites themselves, but rather to assert that the essential character of places such as present-day Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham was established by industrialisation - in many cases, by a single industry or group of industries. The study of the history of Bristol, however, requires a different historical perspective. Bristol did not suddenly emerge from obscurity to become a great manufacturing centre: from medieval times until the end of the eighteenth century, the city could boast that only London ranked higher as a port and trading centre. Civic pride ran high, and, during the 'golden age' of the eighteenth century, the business community of Bristol acquired an enviable reputation for shrewdness and entrepreneurial vitality.

Economic growth and commercial prosperity were nourished by the substantial flow of raw materials from west to east across the Atlantic which resulted from the opening up of the Americas. Many new factories were built alongside the docks to process the bulky produce of colonial plantations. Tobacco, sugar refining, distilling and chocolate making were added to an already healthy list of long-established Bristol industries, including soap, glass-ware, pottery and ships. Bristol, with good links by water and road to the West Country, Midlands and south Wales, prospered at the hub of a thriving regional economy. The population of the city grew from about 27,000 in 1700 to an estimated 70,000 a century later.#1 Population growth in turn gave stimulus to a variety of trades, not least those associated with building, retailing and furniture making. The prosperity of local merchants and manufacturers, moreover, was matched by that of the bankers with whom their affairs were closely intertwined, and the existence of a strong local market for capital gave Bristol an advantage over many of its rivals. Another advantage was the ready availability of fuel from the Bristol and Somerset coalfields. Iron, lead, and later zinc, were also mined locally, and the city had many foundries noted for the production of metal wares of exceptional quality.

The whole picture is one of a clustering of highly diverse but interdependent industries in a flourishing and expanding local economy long before the pace of industrial change began to quicken in Britain as a whole. Yet, despite its early start, accumulated wealth and locational advantages, Bristol was never to experience industrial growth on the grand scale seen in the Midlands and North. Industry expanded, but no one industry came to dominate the city; the population continued to grow, but not much faster than in the period 1650-1800. It can hardly be said that urban growth was negligible in the nineteenth century. Bristol had more than 330,000 inhabitants by 1801, and, with municipal parks, well-lit streets, class-differentiated suburbs, local newspapers and an efficient transport network, it could claim to be a truly modern city. However, the process of economic growth was elsewhere more vigorous, with the result that Bristol moved progressively downward in the league table of British cities, to stand in tenth place at the dawn of the twentieth century.#2

Those who have written on the economic history of Bristol in the nineteenth century generally have taken an unadmiring view of the city's declining economic standing. It is acknowledged that the Bristol region did not have sufficient natural resources or geographical advantages to stimulate industrial specialisation to the degree found in more northerly towns and cities. Even so, it is argued that the city had enough in its favour to have made a better showing. Civic and business leaders are charged with complacency, corruption and the pursuit of short term gains at the expense of long term prospects. There was, it is said, a failure to invest and keep up with the times. Many firms and traditional industries died away in consequence, and jobs were lost to other more enterprising manufacturing districts. Furthermore, the majority of surviving industries remained tied to the methods of the workshop rather than the factory. Productivity levels therefore remained low, and so too did the wages and living standards of the working classes. Some historians see an improvement towards the end of the nineteenth century; others believe that the economic rejuvenation of the city was delayed until well into the twentieth century. Neither case has ever been supported by anything more than a handful of detailed case studies of individual firms or industries. Occupational, demographic and institutional studies have predominated in the debate.#3