The Bristol 650 project marked 650 years since King Edward III granted important rights and privileges to Bristol by royal charter in 1373. Until this time, Bristol was divided geographically and administratively by the River Avon. The charter of 1373 gave Bristol and its suburbs jurisdiction independent from other county authorities, making it a county in its own right.

Bristol Ideas is always interested in anniversaries. Over recent years we have marked the anniversaries of creative genius and pioneers, of places and communities, of ideas that continue to leave their mark on the city. What is so important about Bristol 650 is that is has been an opportunity to mark all of these – it is the anniversary of Bristol, the whole city, and importantly, the histories and stories of the peoples who have lived, worked and shaped this place, both those familiar and those overlooked, suppressed or forgotten. It has been an invitation for all in the city to research and present their stories. The signing of a Royal Charter that determines legislative boundaries might not seem like an obvious point for celebration, but its radical and independent thinking of the time speaks to the nature and character that the city has been painted with, or has self-painted, ever since. This project sought to ground present-day views of the city in an understanding of the past and ambition for the future.

There is precedence for this celebration. Local archives, libraries, collections and community groups are repositories of memories of Bristol 600 in 1973. This anniversary was marked with a royal visit, with jousting on the Downs, a Miss Bristol contest and with silver goblets given to deserving citizens.

2023’s celebrations have been similarly broad. There have been two strands to the programme: the wide invitation to organisations and communities across the city; and a core, central collection of dedicated heritage activity funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund. The project has given organisations creative catalysts for programming and activity planning, and has provided Bristolians with a wide, rich and fun variety of ways to engage in heritage and the place they call home.

There have been over 400 events in the full citywide programme, from the unicorn trail around the streets of Bristol to hot air balloon trips.

The Bristol 650 activity funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund saw 14 projects, more than 14,000 participants and over 1,000 children involved with classroom sessions and activities. It has included:

  • Learning resources and school workshops inviting Bristolians to explore who they are, where they came from and where they are going, run by Bridging Histories as part of Unicornfest.
  • Essays commissioned from creative thinkers and community leaders from across Bristol exploring the city’s history and how the past can inform the changes that need to be made in the city’s future. These essays were collated into a publication, with 900 copies distributed across the city for free. They were also published as an online blog series on, and an accompanying zine was created as a guide for making change.
  • Research at the RWA exploring the story of Ellen and Rolinda Sharples, the family of women who founded Bristol’s first art gallery and the early Bristol School of Artists, and an exhibition of work by six artists whose work examines issues that relate to their city and the women’s place within the urban landscape and beyond.
  • A suite of community engagement work in wards around Bristol, telling the story of the city and how a union of unique neighbourhoods has created an overarching city identity today. The heritage of these areas was explored through shared activities and intergenerational conversations.
  • £21,00 given to communities to support activity commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Bristol Bus Boycott.
  • Key research into and conservation work on some of Bristol Museum’s oldest palaeontological collections, notably Mary Anning’s Temnodontosaurus skull, and the creation of learning resources around the Bristol 650 anniversary and the Royal Charter, a facsimile of which is on display at M Shed.
  • Archiving workshops to provide people with the skills and practical help to start their own research journeys into their communities, and the design of a new a new mobile display case which will allow historical and fragile collections be taken to community groups, libraries and schools.

Bristol 650 has given us a wonderful opportunity to reflect on Bristol’s past, as well as to see how recognition of this can shape the future. It has been formed by so many different voices and given us many routes into seeing our city with fresh eyes.

Supported by National Lottery Heritage Fund:

 National Lottery Heritage Fund Logo