Bristol History

Famous people

Bristol has plenty to boast about when it comes to famous people, places and stories. Have a look at just some of the claims to fame below, and if you know of any that we might have missed, then please get in touch and we’ll be happy to add it to the list.

Famous residents of Bristol (past and present)

  • Derren Brown
  • Tony Robinson
  • Ewan Blair (Son of Tony Blair)
  • Adam Hart Davies
  • Thomas Chatterton
  • Sophie Anderton (Model)
  • Tony Benn (MP)
  • Tony Bullimore (Mariner)
  • Robin Cousins
  • J K Rowling
  • Beryl Cook
  • Damien Hirst
  • Keith Floyd
  • Robert Southey
  • Nick Park
  • Colin Pillinger
  • Johnny Ball
  • Carol Vorderman
  • Sir Humphry Davy
  • Blackbeard the Pirate (Edward Teach)
  • Banksy
  • Ben Collins aka The white stig
  • Black beard
  • Cary Grant
  • Cathy Barry
  • David Prowse
  • Derren Brown
  • Fred Wedlock
  • Gareth Chilcott
  • Gary Mabbutt
  • Ian Holloway
  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel
  • James May
  • John Cabot
  • John Atyeo
  • Johnny Ball
  • Josie Gibson
  • Judd Trump
  • Julie Burchill
  • Justin Lee Collins
  • Lee Evans
  • Massive Attack Paul Adrien
  • Maurice Dirac Robin Cousins
  • Roger Cook
  • Roni Size
  • Stephen Merchant
  • Terry ‘The odd job man’
  • Tricky Wallace and Gromit (& creator Nick Park)
  • Wurzels

Actors and Comedians

  • Cary Grant
  • Jeremy Irons
  • Paul McGann
  • James Redmond
  • Mark Watson
  • Stephanie Cole
  • Anthony Head
  • Dave prowse (Darth Vader)
  • Hugo Weaving
  • Justin Lee Collins
  • Lee Evans
  • Bill Bailey
  • Matt Lucas and David Walliams (Little Britain)
  • John Cleese


  • Massive Attack
  • Tricky
  • Roni Size
  • Portishead
  • Kosheen
  • Bananarama
  • Sean Moore (Manic Street Preachers)
  • Elizabeth Frasier (Cocteau Twins)
  • Russ Conway
  • Neneh Cherry
  • Dame Clara Butt
  • Beth Rowley
  • Andy Shepherd (Saxophonist)
  • Alison Goldfrapp
  • Arthur Milton
  • The Wurzels

Through the ages

John Cabot (1450 – 1498)
Italian-born explorer who sailed from Bristol to Newfoundland on the Matthew in 1497. Local historians believe him to have lived in St Nicholas Street in Bristol’s Old City. To commemorate the 400th anniversary of his voyage, the Cabot Tower was erected on Brandon Hill in 1897 and still stands today.

John Wesley (1703 – 1791)
Founder of the Methodist Church, Wesley worked and preached in Bristol. His statue can be seen outside the New Room in Broadmead – the first Methodist Chapel ever to have been built.

Hannah More (1745-1833)
Writer and social campaigner, Hannah More was born and raised in Bristol.

John Loudon McAdam (1746-1836)
Scottish engineer John McAdam moved to Berkeley Square, Bristol in 1801 to help build and develop a new road system for the city. During his time with the Bristol Turnpike Trust, he developed a new process of road construction, which involved layering different types of crushed stone and gravel on top of one another, followed by a final layer of tar to make the road surface more durable. This method soon became known as tarmacadam (tar + McAdam), and was eventually shortened to Tarmac, which is still used on roads throughout the world today.

Sir Humphrey Davy (1778-1829)
Famous for discovering laughing gas and inventing the miners’ safety lamp, Sir Humphrey Davy had a laboratory in Dowry Square, Hotwells.

Princess Caraboo (1791 – 1864)
Princess Caraboo appeared in Almondsbury, near Bristol in 1817, speaking a strange and foreign language. The quest to identify her became a local sensation. A mystery visitor claimed she had identified herself as Princess Caraboo of Javasu, and had escaped from a ship to whose captain she had been sold by pirates. She was later exposed as being Mary Willcocks of Devon, a cobbler’s daughter, and her life story was made into a major feature film, not surprisingly titled ‘Princess Caraboo’.

Harvey’s Bristol Cream
John Harvey started a wine importing business in Bristol in the 19th Century, before creating a new blend of sherry, Harvey’s Bristol Cream, available today across the world.

Elizabeth Blackwell
The first female doctor was born in Bristol and lived there for most of her life.

Samuel Plimsoll (1824 – 1898)
Plimsoll was born in Colston Parade, Bristol. He campaigned against overloading ships with cargo, resulting in the introduction of the Plimsoll line on every ship to show its maximum load capacity.

Billy Butlin
Butlin lived in Bristol as a small boy and attended St Mary Redcliffe school. He returned to Bristol as an adult and had his first taste of entertainment for the masses when he opened a hoop-la stall in Lock’s Yard, Bedminster.

Paul Dirac (1902 – 1984)
Born in Bishopston, Bristol in 1902, Paul Dirac was considered to be one of the greatest and most influential theoretical physicists of his time. He formulated the Dirac Equation, and was responsible for leading the way towards the discovery of antimatter. He was a close friend of Albert Einstein’s, and during his life won a shared Nobel Prize in physics with Erwin Schrödinger.

Cary Grant (1904 – 1986)
Born Archibald Leach in Horfield, Bristol, Grant’s first role in theatre was working at the Bristol Hippodrome. He made over 70 films and became one of the best-loved actors of all time. He remained a regular visitor to Bristol, usually staying in the Royal Hotel, now known as the Bristol Marriott Royal. In 2001, to mark the 70th anniversary of Grant’s arrival in Hollywood, Bristol unveiled a new Cary Grant statue in Millennium Square by the harbourside.

Controversial local grafitti artist famed throughout the world for his street art. Some of his pieces have sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds, with Hollywood A-listers and celebrities being some of the top collectors of his work.

The rich and eventful history of Bristol as a port stretches back over many centuries. The original town was listed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1051 as a port trading regularly with Ireland. Bristol played an extremely important role in sea trade for hundreds of years following this, but as the scale of business and trade grew in the city, so did the need to develop the narrow and relatively small harbour.

Bristol's maritime historyThe geography of the land and the huge tidal range of the Avon had always caused problems for ships docking in Bristol. As the water in the river ebbed back towards the sea, the ships anchored in the harbour would rest on the river bed and be subject to immense pressure from the weight onboard, often causing considerable damage to the timbers. As a result, Bristol-built ships were constructed using the finest materials and most skilled techniques, and quickly became famous for their sturdy craftsmanship. Sailors visiting the port would comment on this, spawning the famous saying ‘shipshape and Bristol fashion’.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was one of Bristol’s most famous sons, and his feats of engineering soon stretched to the city’s waterways. It was Brunel who played a major role in the cutting-edge design and construction of the floating harbour, which is still in use today. This new lock system trapped water in the city’s central harbour and allowed ships and boats to stay afloat without being affected by the changing tides.

Brunel’s Great Western steamship was built in the city harbour and launched in 1837. It was on this launch that she became the first of Brunel’s passenger ships to travel between England and New York.

The launch of Brunel's ss Great Britain in 1843

Another of Brunel’s famous steamships was the majestic SS Great Britain the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven ship to cross the Atlantic. Built in Bristol and launched in 1843, this magnificent ship made voyages to New York and Australia and was used as a freight and cargo ship during the Crimean war.

After being abandoned in the Falkland Islands, she became a store ship and was left severely damaged by the effects of the weather and the crashing waves. She was eventually rescued and brought back to Bristol in 1970, where she was restored and transformed back into her original state as a 19th Century passenger ship. The ss Great Britain now rests in the original dry dock in which she was built, and is open to the public as one of Bristol’s major visitor attractions.

Pirates and Privateers

Walking along Bristol’s ancient harbour, it’s easy to imagine the tall ships with their sails whipping in the wind and the shouts and cries of sailors preparing to head out to sea. Bristol’s strong links with the ocean, and its key role in the profitable trade of slavery and tobacco, inevitably lead to the city’s involvement with piracy. Laws at the time stated that piracy was illegal – however the practice of privateering was not. Privateers were meant to have a ‘letter of Marque’ from their government allowing them to attack and steal from merchant ships of certain countries.

Bristol’s most famous pirate, Blackbeard, was allegedly born in the city, near the old harbour. Also known as Edward Teach, the infamous sailor led a reign of terror over the Caribbean Sea and the islands that inhabit it.

Another pirate with Bristolian links was Bartholomew Roberts, who roamed the seas in the 18th century. He sailed from Bristol on merchant ships and was forced to join a band of pirates after his own ship was captured. He soon earned respect onboard and eventually became captain of the ship, and went on to become the most successful pirate in history, capturing 456 vessels in four years. He was killed in a battle against HMS Swallow, which had been specially commissioned to capture pirates. He was granted his dying wish to be buried at sea so his body would never be captured.

Bristol also played a great role in the demise of piracy. Governor Woodes Rogers, a famous privateer, was born in Bristol in 1679. He circumnavigated the globe between 1708 and 1711, and is most famous for rescuing Alexander Selkirk from Juan Fernandez Island, who had been marooned there for over five years. Rogers was later made General and Governor in Chief over the Bahama Islands, where he took steps to suppress piracy, successfully ousting Blackbeard as Magistrate of the “Privateers Republic”. A plaque commemorating Woodes Rogers can be seen on one of the fine Georgian houses in Queen Square.

Llandoger TrowThe story goes that after Alexander Selkirk was rescued by Rogers’ crew and taken back to Bristol, he met the author Daniel Defoe inThe Landoger Trow a salty old pub on Bristol’s King Street, which still stands today and is well worth a visit. Selkirk later became inspiration for Defoe’s character Robinson Crusoe in the famous book of the same name. The character Benn Gunn in Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ was also based on Selkirk. Stevenson is said to have visited the Hole in the Wall pub just off Queen Square in Bristol, which bares striking resemblance to the Spyglass Tavern in Treasure Island.

Many of the buildings in Bristol are closely linked with both pirating and privateering. Queen Square, situated near the harbour, remains much as it was hundreds of years ago, and many of the city’s leading businesses have offices there. The Customs House in Queen Square is where the taxes and duties were collected from the ships that came into the city’s harbour. Much of the wealth and prosperity brought into this area came from pirating, and many of the buildings around the harbour are said to have been funded by this maritime crime.

Made in Bristol

Bristol has a global reputation for innovation, with many science and technology organisations based here. But did you know that Bristol is also the home of Ribena and the plimsoll line?Wallace & Gromit (Aardman Animations)

Wallace and Gromit – Bristol-based Aardman Animations created the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit films, along with Creature Comforts, Chicken Run and Morph.

Plimsoll Line – Samuel Plimsoll was born in Bristol in 1824 at 9 Colston Parade. He successfully fought for a compulsory maximum load line on passenger and freight ships which became known as the Plimsoll line.

Lead Shot – Redcliffe plumber, William Watts, invented the manufacture of lead shot by dropping molten lead from a height into water. He built a shot tower on Redcliffe Hill.

Tarmac – Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam was appointed to the position of General Surveyor of Bristol Roads. He instructed that stones should be graded and laid in three levels, with the smallest stones crushed and laid as a top surface. These roads were said to be ‘macadamised’. Later, tar was laid over the top of the crushed stones, giving an even more durable surface known as tarmacadam, subsequently abbreviated to tarmac. McAdam lived at 23 Berkeley Square from 1805 to 1808. He later lived at 6 Sion Hill from 1815.

Concorde – The world’s first commercial supersonic jet was designed and built in Filton, North Bristol.

Airbus A380 – The wings of the world’s largest double-decker passenger plane are made at Airbus in Bristol.

Bristol Cars – Luxury car manufacturer that began in Bristol in 1910, famous worldwide for outstanding quality. Now the only luxury car manufacturer still under British ownership.

Motorcycle and Detachable Sidecar – P.J. Kerswell was the inventor of the motorcycle (1901) and detachable sidecar (1904). In 1887 he opened his riding school on Cheltenham Road making cycles for special order.

Bollom Dry Cleaning – The Bollom brothers of Philip Street, Bedminster, were the founders of the Bollom dry cleaning empire.

Ribena – the much-loved blackcurrant drink was invented in Bristol at the National Fruit and Cider Institute, originally as a vitamin C supplement. Scientists at the institute turned blackcurrants into a concentrated syrup which could easily be mixed with water to make a healthy drink. Ribena was subsequently produced in Bristol for many years.

Harvey’s Bristol Cream – this world famous sherry was created by John Harvey and Sons in Bristol in 1796.

Schweppes – Jacob Schweppe set up shop in Dowry Square selling his discovery soda water in 1812.

Fry’s Chocolate – Joseph Fry opened a sweet shop in Small Street, Bristol in 1756. The business was so successful that chocolate factories were built in Broadmead (now the city’s main shopping centre).

Filmed in Bristol

Wallace and Gromit

Bristol is an outstanding location, and many famous programmes and films have been made here. Below are just a few of the most famous examples.


The hugely popular Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, Creature Comforts, Robbie the Reindeer, Arthur Christmas and the new film, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists were all made by the Oscar award-winning Aardman Animations here in Bristol. Creature Comforts was inspired by Nick Park’s visits to Bristol Zoo Gardens and features voices of local Bristolians.


Bristol’s Lord Mayor officially opened BBC Bristol’s four studios at 23 Whiteladies Road on 18 September 1934. The BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) is acknowledged as the leading maker of television and radio programmes on wildlife and natural history anywhere in the world. Based in Bristol, the NHU output covers a wide range of programme subjects and formats.


An annual filmmaking competition presented by Bristol City Council, Bristol Film Office, Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival and Mshed that takes place over 5 days in May or June in Bristol. Filmmakers are challenged to write, shoot and edit a 3 minute film within 117 hours, all the films must fulfil a brief and have a connection to the three main galleries at Mshed; Bristol People, Bristol Places, Bristol Stories.

Feature Films

The Truth About Love (2007) – This romantic comedy was filmed at locations including Clifton Suspension Bridge, Park Place (Clifton), Merchants Quay/Redcliffe Wharf, Severnshed and The Paragon (Clifton).

Starter For Ten (2006) – UK feature starring James McAvoy 1980s drama/comedy about a Bristol University student determined to appear on University Challenge. Locations include Bristol University, Royal York Crescent, Redcliffe Wharf and Christmas Steps.

These Foolish Things (2004) – UK feature starring Lauren Bacall and Angelica Huston. This drama/comedy set in 1930s London was filmed at locations including King Street (doubled for Soho) and Colston Hall.

TV Programmes

Being Human (2008-) – A British television supernatural drama-comedy series, broadcast on BBC Three. It stars Lenora Crichlow, Russell Tovey and Aidan Turner as three apparent twenty-something characters sharing a house in Bristol, trying to live a normal social life, despite being a ghost, a werewolf and a vampire respectively.


Deal or No Deal – This popular quiz challenge show is filmed in Bristol at Endemol West’s studios, Deal or No Deal (courtesy of Endemol West studios)where many other shows such as Channel 5’s Brainteaser are also filmed.

Casualty (1986-2009) – BBC’s prime time Saturday night TV series was filmed in Bristol for over 20 years. Casualty was filmed in an old warehouse in St Phillips and at outdoor locations around the city.

Mistresses – Bristol’s answer to Sex & The City, Mistresses followed four 30-something women through the trials and tribulations of their lives. Filmed at locations throughout Bristol and Bath.


Don’t Die Young – Dr Alice Roberts, senior Teaching Fellow at the Department of Anatomy at Bristol University, demystifies the inner workings of the body to help our understanding of how lifestyle impacts on lifespan in this BBC series.

Afterlife – ITV’s supernatural thriller filmed its series in Bristol studios and locations including Southville (Greville Road), Welsh Back, Bristol Buttery and the Cumberland Basin.

Teachers – This comedy following a group of teachers both inside and outside the classroom was filmed in Lockleaze School, The Promenade (Clifton) and various Clifton streets.Skins (courtesy of Channel 4)

Skins – E4’s drama from the makers of Shameless follows the story of a group of Bristol teenagers, filmed at locations throughout the city.

Animal Magic – This popular children’s TV programme, filmed at Bristol Zoo Gardens, ran for a total of 21 years, eventually ending in 1984.

Shoestring – Private eye TV series filmed in Bristol.

The Young Ones – Incredibly popular 80s student sitcom starring Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, filmed in and around Redland.

House of Elliott – Filmed in Berkeley Square, just off Park Street.

Only Fools and Horses – Nelson Mandela House exteriors were filmed at a housing estate in Bedminster and the episode ‘Heroes and Villains’, where Del and Rodney run down the street dressed as Batman and Robin, was filmed in Broadmead, central Bristol.

Berkeley Square – Scenes from this show were filmed in Vyvyan Terrace, Clifton.

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