Bristol Chronicles 1930 - 1933
1930 - Official opening in May of Bristol Airport at Whitchurch by Prince George.Whitchurch is only the third civil airport in the country.
Bristol trade & industry
In 1933 J.B. Priestley found Bristol a lively, bustling city, ‘earning its living and spending its own money . . achieving a new prosperity by selling us Gold Flake and Fry’s chocolate and soap and clothes and a hundred other things’. The range of Bristol industries was indeed quite remarkable and rooted in the city’s early medieval origins, when the woollen industry, soap manufacture, ship building and a wide range of wood, leather and metal trades were sustained by maritime trade.
Raw materials, essential for many of the city’s industries, were brought in by sea: tallow, leather hides, metals and metal ores, cocoa beans, tobacco leaf and wines and sherry. The variety of industrial activity in the city was further stimulated by Bristol’s pre-eminence in the south-west: Bristol traditionally dominated trade over much of the region, and as one of the largest cities in the country (seventh largest in 1940)
it contained a large urban market stimulating a demand for almost everything.
In 1940 the Bristol Development Board claimed that there were 2,248 factories and workshops in Bristol representing some 300 different industries. A few of these dominated the city, the manufacture of tobacco products, for example, and chocolate, which made the name Bristol famous world wide.
In 1928 the City Council’s publication Bristol Commercially Considered stated that there were 11 ,000 people employed in the food, drink and tobacco industries; the paper and printing trades employed nearly as many, accounting for 9,000 jobs in the city; while engineering and allied trades provided 13,592 jobs.
The larger factories belonging to companies such as WD. & H.O. Wills formed major city landmarks. The Wills factories on East Street and Raleigh Road in Bedminster towered over the neighbouring streets of terraced houses. Until they relocated to Keynsham, Fry’s factories, eight of them in total, dominated a cramped site around the Pithay, and their factory chimneys were as conspicuous a city-centre landmark as the nearby church towers.
There were several other large works in or close to the centre: breweries, flour mills on Redcliffe Back, an electricity generating station (belonging to the Bristol Tramway & Carriage Company) and Llewellin & James’s brass foundry on Castle Green. East of the centre at Broad Plain was the impressive factory of Christopher Thomas & Brothers, soap and candle makers, modelled on a Florentine palace, and next to it the Midland Iron Works of Gardiner Sons & Co.; they specialised in the manufacture of architectural iron and brass-work which adorned many important shops, offices and public buildings in the city.
Many other major industries were located in the eastern districts of the city. Beyond Temple Meads barges towed raw materials up river to Barton Hill and St Philip’s Marsh, lying either side of the Feeder Canal, where chemical works, glue and paint factories, potteries ,gas works and railway engine sheds filled the air with smoke.
Barges carried wood pulp transferred from foreign vessels in the City Docks to the large board mills at St Anne‘s, established in 1912 by Imperial Tobacco, where it was converted into cardboard packaging for tobacco, chocolates, cereals and other foodstuffs. At Crew's Hole there were more chemical works, while south of the Avon at Brislington the Bristol Tramways and Carriage Company had their works for bus construction.
The spread of industry continued eastwards beyond the city’s boundaries into Kingswood and Hanham in Gloucestershire, where clothing, footwear and brush-making were carried on: the Kleen-e-ze Brush Company started the manufacture of brushes in Hanham in the 1920s. In the early twentieth century Fishponds became established as a new engineering centre of Bristol.
While the larger firms dominated the local economy there were also many smaller workshop-based industries and trades employing skilled labour: typically these were small family concerns chiefly making household and personal consumer goods. Some had quite a rural flavour and perpetuated traditional handcrafts, for example basket makers or saddler's, such as Shattock & Hunter in Frogmore Street.
Until 1953 Sale & Sons continued to make clogs in West Street: these were worn by workers at George’s brewery, Fry’s and other local factories. The making of shoes and leather trunks were two other important leather trades; there were also hatters, tailors and dressmakers and wood and furniture trades including upholstery. Many small businesses were found in or close to the city centre: thus furniture makers and upholsterers were concentrated in St Pauls.
As it didn’t rely too heavily on one particular industry, Bristol’s economy proved resilient in difficult times such as the early 1920s, when trade was disrupted following the end of the First World War. Bristol also escaped the worst effects of the depression of the early 1930s, although the city did suffer hardship: unemployment reached 10 per cent in these years, and in February 1932 a march by 10,000 demonstrators protesting against unemployment flared into violence in Old Market, and thirty people were injured.
The 1920s saw the demise of several formerly important industries. The last glass cones in the city — at Powell and Ricketts bottle works in Avon Street — were fired for the final time in 1923, and in 1925 the Great Western Cotton Works, which bad been a major source of employment in Barton Hill since 1838, closed.
Coal mining had been in steady decline in the city since the late nineteenth century and the last collieries in the city closed around this time; with them went the brickworks which had used the clay found with the coal seams.
The clothing trades contracted from the 1920s, while the footwear industry — one of the largest employers in the early twentieth century suffered a major decline between 1920 and 1969. Other old-established industries, however, continued to thrive, and there were many firms, such as Fry’s, Harvey’s and Wills, which had been in business in the city since the eighteenth century.
Lead shot continued to be made using the tower on Redcliff Hill that William Watts, the inventor of the process, had built in about 1782. Ferris & Co., manufacturers of pharmaceutical products in Union Street, had been established in 1754, and E.A. & W Greenslade, brush and plane manufacturers, in 1727.
By the 1920s several new industries were emerging which were to become vital to the city’s prosperity in the mid-twentieth century. Most spectacular was the expansion of the aircraft industry following the creation of the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company at Filton by Sir George White in 1910.
In 1920 the company changed its name to the Bristol Aeroplane Company, and alongside the manufacture of aeroplanes began the production of aero-engines. After a period of retrenchment up to 1934 production increased in response to the government’s rearmament programme, which placed a strong emphasis on air power, and by 1939 the company was the largest single employer in the city, providing jobs to over 18,000 people.
During the war the company manufactured the Blenheim, the Beaufighter and other military aircraft and also produced 101,000 engines. After the war the company developed the Bristol Brabazon as a long-haul passenger aircraft. The prototype made its maiden flight in 1949 among much local optimism: at the time this handsome eight-engined aircraft was the largest passenger aircraft in the world.
The optimism, sadly, was misplaced and even before a second prototype could be completed it was evident that the future lay with jet airliners; the project was abandoned and the Brabazon scrapped. The Britannia, another graceful aeroplane, soon followed. Powered by four turbo prop-engines, it enjoyed limited success, but it was the small, ugly, but useful Bristol Freighter which brought commercial success to the company in the field of civil aviation in the 1950s.
By the late 1950s it was apparent that the day of the independent aircraft manufacturer was over, and the Bristol Aeroplane Company merged with other leading manufacturers to form the British Aircraft Corporation; in the 1960s the aircraft division was responsible for the British development of Concorde.
Still within the field of transport, the early twentieth century had seen the rise of new firms drawing on the potential of the internal combustion engine. The mid-twentieth century saw their consolidation into important local industries which ensured that, besides aeroplanes, the name Bristol was to become firmly established with cars and motorbikes, buses and lorries.
The first motor car had been built in Bristol in 1900 and its builder, Joseph Barter, went on to develop the Douglas motorcycle, which continued in production in Kingswood until the 1950s. Regular car production in the city had to wait until the formation of the car division of the Bristol Aeroplane Company at the end of the Second World War.
Drawing from the in-house expertise in aircraft manufacture and from drawings belonging to the German car maker BMW, confiscated after the war, the company entered the field of luxury car production.
The first model, the 400, made its debut in 1947 and established the company’s reputation for expensive cars which embodied good detailed design, painstaking hand craftsmanship, speed, power, performance, excellent handling and luxury.
Buses had been made in Bristol since 1908 when the Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company started their production at Filton for their own use.
In 1912 the BT & CC established new works at Brislington and from the 1920s began the production of bus chassis and lorries for sale nationwide. In the late 1930s the company produced nearly 200 new double-decker buses to replace the trains which finally disappeared in 1941. As part of the Tilling Group, the BT & CC was nationalised in 1948, and the following year the Bristol works introduced the Lodekka, a low-height double-decker which enjoyed widespread use with other nationalised bus companies.
Bristol has a long association with the non-ferrous metal industries, particularly lead working and the making of brass. While brass making finally ended in 1927 with the closure of the works at Keynsham, a new industry — zinc smelting — had started ten years earlier at Avonmouth.
The works had been established during the First World War to manufacture poisonous gas but had not been completed before the end of hostilities, and in peacetime they were taken over by the National Smelting Company who commenced zinc smelting and the production of sulphuric acid. Subsequently controlled by the Imperial Smelting Corporation and the Consolidated Zinc Corporation, the undertaking experienced continuous growth throughout the mid-twentieth century, including a programme of modernisation and expansion launched in 1965 in collaboration with Imperial Chemical Industries and Fisons.
The rise of new industries was accompanied by the creation of new industrial zones on the edge of the city. The Bristol Aeroplane Company made Filton an industrial area, while the establishment of the BT & CC’s works at Brislington in 1912 was followed by the development of an industrial estate along the Bath Road in the 1920s.
An industrial estate was developed in Fishponds and after the war the City Council created a trading estate for light industry in Bedminster. These new industrial zones reflected the diminishing influence of the port in determining the location of new factories. Aeroplane production, for example, existed independently of the port; what was important, however, was the availability of cheap land and the presence of good communications by road and rail.
The Bristol Aeroplane Company’s site at Filton was huge, and after the Second World War even swallowed up the village of Charlton to make way for the new runway required for the Brabazon project.
The development of the industrial estate at Avonmouth was again stimulated by the availability of cheap land and good communications, but also reflected the ability of the port to continue to attract industry.
Factory sites adjacent to the quaysides had the advantage that bulky raw materials could be processed with the minimum of movement. As the economic role of the City Docks waned so the attraction of Avonmouth increased, and from the 1920s the Port Authority promoted the Avonmouth Docks Trading Estate at Chittening.
Flour milling was gradually concentrated in the docks at Avonmouth, while the metallurgical, chemical and petrochemical industries sustained by imported ores and petroleum were largely responsible for the expansion of the Avonmouth industrial zone north-wards along the Severn. The rawness of this industrial development, including the vast works of the National Smelting Company on St Andrew’s Road, was emphasised by the survival of small farms such as Rockingham, Chittening and Madam farms immediately outside the factory perimeters.
The city centre, meanwhile, which had traditionally had a strong industrial character owing to the presence of the docks, gradually lost some of its industry during this period.
Fry’s made the decision to leave the centre in 1922. Their factories were hemmed in on all sides preventing further expansion and there were no direct rail or water communications. They chose a 220-acre site in open country at Keynsham with good communications which they named Somerdale.
The move was completed by 1931. Some industries in the centre quietly declined and closed while others, such as Price Powell & Co., stoneware manufacturers in St Thomas Street, were destroyed by German bombing. In the post-war period the granaries and mills in the city closed as the industry consolidated its operations at Avonmouth.
In the post-war period more old-established Bristol industries closed or found their local identity greatly reduced. J.S. Fry & Sons had merged their financial interests with Cadbury’s as early as 1918 as a response to intense competition in the industry, and in 1935 became a subsidiary of Cadbury’s.
Bristol’s largest soap manufacturer, Christopher Thomas & Brothers, had been taken over by Lever Brothers in 1913; they were well known locally for the Puritan brand of soap but finally ceased production in 1953. This was not quite the end of Bristol’s soap and candle-making industry, however, as Carwardines of Sheene Road, Bedminster, remained in business until about 1961.
Locomotive building in Bristol which had always been on a modest scale compared with Manchester, Leeds or Glasgow — finally came to an end with the closure of Peckett’s Atlas works in St George in 1962. The closure of Pountney’s Bristol Pottery in Fishponds in 1969 marked the end of a centuries-old Bristol industry.
Other industries, meanwhile, thrived: Wills maintained their pre-eminence in cigarette production into the 1960s by relaunching the Embassy brand with gift coupons, which were extremely popular.
By the 1960s Robinsons, as part of the Dickinson Robinson Group, had become an international packaging and engineering group.
The Bristol Motor Car Company bucked the trend towards absorption, surviving the creation of the British Aircraft Corporation. - In 1961, when it was bought by Sir George White: production continued, with the Bristol 411 appearing in 1969, although from 1961 they were powered by Chrysler engines made in Canada.
Whatever the shifting fortunes of companies at board level, the prime consideration for thousands of ordinary Bristolians was that local industry meant employment and security. Working conditions varied: some workers endured low pay, long hours and hazardous working conditions. Wills and Fry's, on the other hand, had good reputations in spite of strict and paternalistic regimes on the factory floor.
The aim of many young people in Bedminster was to find employment with one of the large firms such as Wills, Robinsons or Mardons. At Wills women would traditionally leave the company upon marrying but there were many employees who spent their entire working lives there.
From the 1920s women increasingly found opportunities for office employment, a legacy of the First World War, when they had taken the place of men called to the Front.
The larger firms generally had good facilities for their employees: each of the Wills factories had a medical room, treatment room and recreational facilities, including athletic grounds and an evening club in Luckwell Road. Between 1920 and 1969, several major changes to Bristol's industrial structure occurred.
Several industries, including soap and glass manufacture, coal mining and potteries disappeared; ship building ended a few years later with the closure of the Albion yard in the City Docks in 1977 and the clothing and footwear industries diminished in importance.
Other industries, however, continued to maintain a strong presence in the city tobacco, printing and packaging, for example while new industries such as aircraft production and chemical processing expanded. The rise of manufacturing zones at Avonmouth and Severnside, Filton and Brislington marked the decreasing importance of industry to the city centre.
As firms merged, the local identity of the city's manufactures was reduced. By 1969, the influence of the Port on determining the siting of new factories was less important than Bristol's new links by motorway with London, South Wales, the Midlands and the South West. This was a factor in the growth of the service sector, including banking and insurance from the 1960s, a trend which continued through the 1970s and 1980s.
As the service sector increased in importance, the number of jobs in manufacturing declined. Traditional skills in engineering and other trades and industries disappeared and high-rise office blocks not factories came to dominate the Bristol skyline.
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