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Bristol & The USA

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

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.

St-Mary-Redcliffe

Image - St Mary Redcliffe Church

The Matthew

Over 500 years ago in 1497, 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.

The-Matthew_CREDIT_Destination-Bristol

Image - The Matthew, Bristol 

Cabot Tower

A monument to John Cabot can be found right in Bristol's city centre and boasts the best (and most romantic) view 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. A second Cabot Tower exists in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, on Signal Hill. It was built in 1898 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Cabot's discovery and Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.

Cabot-Tower_CREDIT_Destination-Bristol

Image - Cabot Tower, Bristol

The naming of America

Richard Ameryck/Amerike 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. Go and see for yourself - the coat of arms can be found in the Lord Mayor's Chapel on College Green. 

Cary Grant - Bristol's Hollywood Film Star

Archibald Leach, otherwise known as Cary Grant, was born and raised in Bristol. A blue plaque recognises the house he lived in on Hughenden Road in Horfield before he left for the USA and gained US citizenship there in 1942. Grab theatre tickets from Bristol Hippodrome and see where Grant began his career as a backstage boy, visit a statue honouring the actor in Millennium Square and look out for the biannual Cary Grant Festival, celebrating this remarkable actor's journey from Bristol to Hollywood.

Cary-Grant-Statue

Image - Cary Grant on College Green, Bristol, credit Bristol Evening Post

Bristol Port & Old Docks

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

Bristol played a significant role in England's maritime trade in tobacco, wine, cotton and other goods and there were very strong trade links between Bristol and the USA and its colonies. From the late 1600s to the early 1800s, many slave-related voyages sailed out of Bristol and there are nods to this past around the city - Pero’s Bridge on Bristol's Harbourside, is named after Pero Jones, the African servant of a plantation owner. Incidentally you can visit his master's house, now The Georgian House Museum, to see how an 18th century plantation owner would have lived. Visitors to Bristol can also discover more about the city's slave trade history at M Shed or the slave trade walking trail.

Peros-Bridge

Image - Pero's bridge

Blackbeard the pirate

According to legend, The Llandoger Trow - Bristol's oldest pub - was Pirate Captain, Blackbeard's drinking hole. Previously known as Edward Teach, the infamous Bristol-born buccaneer terrorised the West Indies and eastern coast of the US before meeting his demise in America in 1718, when he was captured and killed by the Governor of Virginia and his soldiers.  An anchor from Blackbeard's ship, Queen Anne's Revenge, was recently discovered off the coast of North Carolina.

Blackbeard once had a hideaway cave under St Mary Redcliffe church and his birthplace and childhood home still stands on Bristol's Harbourside. Take a Bristol Pirate Walk for more facts about the city’s pirating history.

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.

Brunels-ss-Great-Britain

Image - Brunel's SS Great Britain

John Wesley and Methodism

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.

John Wesley's chapel

Image - John Wesley's Chapel 'The New Room', credit Huntley Hedworth

Berkeley Castle

Berkeley Castle, near Bristol, has been home to the Berkeley family for over 900 years. This long-living and prolific family consequently has Berkeley connections all over the world. 'Friends' star, Courteney Cox visited the castle in an American ancestry series after 700-year old documents allowed her to trace her roots back to 1327. It turns out her 18-times great-grandfather Thomas III Lord Berkeley, third baron of Berkeley was the owner of Berkeley Castle. It was during this time that the castle was used to imprison (and allegedly kill) the deposed king Edward II.

Berkeley Cadtle also has an extremely significant connection with an American celebration - the first American Thanksgiving was held by Berkeley men. The Berkeley Company ship, The Margaret, departed Bristol and landed in Virginia, USA in 1619, where they gave thanks for their ship's safe arrival – the original thanksgiving. This was a year earlier than the Pilgrim Fathers’ Mayflower voyage (1620), widely considered to be the first celebration.

Berkeley Castle

Image - Berkeley Castle, credit Angharad Paull

Queen Square

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. A plaque on the wall states Elias Vanderhorst of South Carolina was appointed by George Washington as the first US Consul. 

Queen Square

Image - Queen Square

The American Museum in Britain

The American Museum in Britain near Bristol is the only museum of Americana outside the United States. Visitors are taken on a journey through the history of America, from its early settlers to the twentieth century and its remarkable collection of folk and decorative arts show the diverse nature of American traditions. Based at the beautiful Claverton Manor, there are also extensive grounds, which include an arboretum of American trees. The museum is currently undergoing a restoration project on its replica of George Washington’s Upper Garden, Mount Vernon, Virginia so that it represents the Upper Garden as it would have appeared in 1799, the year Washington died.

American museum in Britain

Image - The American Museum in Britain

Bits of Bristol in New York

During World War Two, American supply ships needed ballast to make the return trip to the USA. There was plenty of rubble for them to fill their ships with in Bristol as much of the city had been destroyed by bombing. On arrival in New York, they dumped these bits of Bristol in East River, now known as the ‘Bristol Basin’ and built on top of it, so essentially, New York is constucted on fragments of Bristol. A plaque in each city commemorates the unusual connection, you can find their locations here.

Bristols around the globe

 The first other 'Bristol' was founded in Massachusetts in 1632 by Bristolian, Robert Aldworth. There are 35 populated places in the world called Bristol, of which 29 are in the United States. Come and visit the original in the UK!

Bristol politician turned New York Senator

Henry Cruger (whose portrait hangs in the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House, Clifton) was MP for Bristol in 1774, Mayor of Bristol in 1781 and subsequently became a Senator for the State of New York.

The annual Bristol Renaissance Faire, Wisconsin

Queen Elizabeth I came to Bristol in 1574, an event not often thought about here, but celebrated in style in the Wisconsin city of Kenosha every summer since the late 1980s. A rollicking romp through Elizabethan England, visitors can expect 16th century games, rides, arts, crafts, food, music, and pub crawls, plus one-of-a-kind encounters with a spectacular cast of characters. Read more about it here.

Ancestral links

Were your ancestors from Bristol, England? Find out if you have any family links with Bristol on England101

Getting here: 

If you're coming from the US, you're in luck... You can also hop across the Atlantic via Dublin with Aer Lingus. Bristol is well-served by all the major european hub airports, such as Amsterdam Schiphol, Paris CDG, Frankfurt and Munich. Bristol is approximately two hours by train from London Heathrow.

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