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Bristol and the USA

Bristol's top 10 links to American history

There are many connections between Bristol, England and America that may surprise visitors from abroad. From exciting voyages on the high seas, religious ties and even the naming of America—Bristol has some interesting truths to tickle your fancy.  For a taste of the States in Bristol, here are the top 10 highlights:

St Mary Redcliffe Church

 St Mary Redcliffe Bristol

The parish church of St Mary Redcliffe is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in England. On her visit in 1574, Queen Elizabeth I is said to have described it as "the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England." Although its plan dates from an earlier period, much of the church as it now stands was built between 1292 and 1370. St Mary Redcliffe's American links include The American Chapel (St. John's Chapel) which houses the tomb and armor of Admiral Sir William Penn, father of Pennsylvania's founder. Next to The American Chapel, discover the gigantic whale-bone brought back to Bristol by John Cabot in 1497 after he sailed from Bristol to discover North America. Above the North door of the church is a model of the replica of the Matthew (see below), the ship in which Cabot sailed from Bristol to discover North America. Stained glass depicting the voyage, adorns the walls. Before leaving, ask to see the bronze monument to Joanna Brook, the daughter of Richard Ameryck. Legend has it that John Cabot named America after Ameryck, who funded his voyage. Although little is known about Ameryck, a brass monument in honor of his daughter Joanna lies at St Mary Redcliffe.


The Matthew

 The Matthew

Over 500 years ago John Cabot and his crew set sail from Bristol for Asia aboard the original Matthew, hoping to trade goods and commodities with the people who lived there. Cabot finally arrived, but on the coast of Newfoundland instead, and therefore was the original discoverer of America (not Christopher Columbus as most people are led to believe). There is plenty of history wrapped up in her timbers and today, a replica of the ship is moored on Bristol's Harbourside just waiting to wisk you away on a voyage of discovery and a maritime tour of the city's historic Harbourside.


Cabot Tower

 Cabot Tower

A monument to John Cabot can be found right in Bristol's city center and boasts the best (and most romantic) views of the city, called Cabot Tower. The tower was constructed in memory of John Cabot, 400 years after he set sail in the Matthew from Bristol and discovered North America. The foundation stone was laid on June 24 1897 and the tower was completed in July 1898.


The naming of America

 John Cabot

Richard Ameryck was the Bristol businessman who funded John Cabot’s voyage to North America and many believe Cabot may have named America after him. Ameryck lived around 1445–1503 and was a wealthy English merchant, royal customs officer and sheriff. He was the principal owner of the Matthew, the ship sailed by John Cabot during his voyage of exploration to North America in 1497.  A Bristolian scholar and amateur historian, Alfred Hudd, suggested in 1908 that the name, 'America', was derived from Ameryck's surname due to his sponsorship of Cabot's expedition to Newfoundland and was used on early British maps that have since been lost. This is not the consensus view of how America was named, but has been repeated as a form of historical revisionism. It is also said that the stars and stripes of the United States flag are based on the design of the Ameryck coat of arms which boasts the same design. To learn more about this possible naming of America and decide for yourself, take a Bristol Pirate Walk and hear the tale from local historian, Pirate Pete. You can also visit a statue of John Cabot on Bristol's Harbourside in front of Arnolfini.


Bristol Port & Old Docks

 Bristol Harbourside

Bristol played an important role in England's maritime trade in tobacco, wine, cotton and other goods. The American colonies brought more opportunities for Bristol merchants including the notorious slave trade to the West Indies, which made the city a wealthy trading port. Over a thousand years ago Bristol's harbour developed around the lowest bridging point of the River Avon. As ships became larger and trade increased, the quay space became overcrowded and when the water drained away at low tide the ships lay grounded in the mud. With this dilemma, the Bristol Docks Company finally adopted a proposal to create a non-tidal harbour. The ‘Floating Harbour’, constructed between 1804 and 1809, trapped the water behind lock gates allowing ships to remain floating at all times. Eventually, the growth in the size of ships and the narrowness of the river meant the end for Bristol as an international trading port. Ocean going traffic began to use the Avonmouth Docks, developed during the 1880's and 90's which is the main port today. The Old Docks and 'Floating Harbour' are still a major Bristol attraction today and the centre of activity in Bristol.


The Transatlantic Slave Trade

 Pero's Bridge, Credit Andrew Varcoe

Bristol also has a darker side that many Americans aren’t aware of. There were very strong trade links between Bristol and the USA, with a large amount of slave grown and harvested tobacco that came into the city. From the late 1600s to the early 1800s, Bristol was involved in a massive slave shipping industry, serving as the main slave port in Europe at times. Between 1698 and 1807, around 2100 slaving related ship voyages sailed out of the port of Bristol and most of them were involved in trading with the American colonies. Visitors to Bristol can discover this dark history at the city's new Harbourside museum, M Shed or on a Bristol Pirate Walk. Pero’s Bridge on Bristol's Harbourside, is named after Pero Jones, who was the African servant of a plantation owner. There is also a slave trade walking trail which explores Bristol's historical associations with the slave trade in detail.


Blackbeard the pirate

 Bristol Pirate Walks

After a day of sightseeing, stop by the Llandoger Trow for a quiet pint of Westcountry cider. Pirate Captain, Blackbeard (Edward Teach) frequented this oldest pub in Bristol. He later went on to terrorize the eastern coast of the US before meeting his match (and demise) in America. An anchor from Blackbeard's ship, Queen Anne's Revenge, was recently discovered off the coast of North Carolina. The infamous pirate captain once had a hideaway cave under St Mary Redcliffe church and his original birthplace and childhood home still stands on Bristol's Harbourside. To learn more about Bristol's unique ties to America and its pirating past, take a Pirate Walk with the city's own swashbuckling 'Pirate Pete' for some interesting truths and tales about Bristol and pirates.


Brunel’s ss Great Britain

 Brunel's ss Great Britain

Brunel's ss Great Britain was an advanced passenger steamship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel for transatlantic service between Bristol and New York. The ship was a world first when she was launched in Bristol in 1843, being the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic and the largest vessel at the time. She transformed travel to America and brought together new technologies in a way which transformed world travel. Brunel, the most daring of the great Victorian engineers, conceived the groundbreaking combination of a screw propeller, an iron hull, and a massive 1000-horsepower steam engine. The ss Great Britain was immediately successful and on her maiden voyage to America, easily broke previous speed records. Although effectively a prototype, she continued sailing until 1886 and travelled thirty-two times around the world and nearly one million miles at sea. She was finally abandoned in the Falkland Islands in 1937, after more than forty years use as a floating warehouse. In 1970 an ambitious salvage effort brought her home to Bristol, where today she is conserved in the dry dock where she was originally built. The vessel is a multi award-winning attraction, welcoming 150,000–170,000 visitors annually who can experience life as a Victorian on board.


John Wesley and Methodism

 The New Room Bristol

The world’s first Methodist chapel in Bristol is also a popular tourist attraction, drawing thousands of Americans annually to the city. The New Room, also known as John Wesley’s Chapel is located right in the heart of Bristol’s main shopping district and is a sacred gem. John Wesley came to Bristol in 1739 at the invitation of George Whitefield, who asked him to take over his work of preaching to the open air crowds, many of which were poor Bristolians. Wesley preached his first open air sermon on April 2nd and by May 9th the religious societies had grown so much that Wesley bought land and laid the foundation stone of what he called "our New Room in the Horsefair." A plaque near the pulpit tells how Wesley in 1784 ordained Thomas Coke, who went to America and ordained Francis Asbury. They became Bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America. After touring The New Room, visitors looking for an adventurous experience can cycle along the Portishead path from Bristol to view the American Monument in Pill where Asbury and Coke sailed from Pill to America, spreading the Methodist Religion. The New Room is open daily for guests and visitors can also see the Charles Wesley House nearby.


Queen Square

 Queen Square Bristol

Visit Queen Square and stroll by number 37 to see where the first American Embassy was established in September 1792 after the American Revolution. Queen Square was completed in 1727 and named in honor of Queen Anne. The north side and much of the west were destroyed in the Bristol Riots of 1831 and rebuilt. Many of the buildings now have listed building status and the square is a favorite outdoor location among visitors and Bristolians on warm summer days.

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