Features: 20 ways Brand Bristol has made city famous

Tony Benjamin, November 19, 2015

It started life as a place name, of course, thought to have been adapted from the original Saxon Brycgstow by the local habit of sticking an ‘l’ sound on the end of words. But for centuries now the name of Bristol has reverberated around the world for all kinds of other reasons.

Here are 20 of the top ways that Brand Bristol has made our city famous:

1. Bristol Fashion

As in “ship shape and Bristol fashion”. As far as sailors are concerned Bristol’s been a by-word for neatness and tidiness since the early 19th century. It’s all down to the remarkable tides of the River Avon, apparently: back in the old days before they dug out the bypass river (aka the New Cut) any boat moored up in Bristol Harbour was liable to rise and fall some 30 feet twice a day. As the tide ran out they would settle in the mud and ‘keel over’, so anything not properly stowed away or tied down would soon come to grief, hence the need to get things in good order before docking.

 

2.Bristol Stool Chart 

As in “shit shape and Bristol fashion”. As far as the world’s medical profession is concerned, Bristol’s been a by-word for bottom products since 1997 when Dr Ken Heaton from the BRI and Bristol University published his excremental classification scale. Dr Heaton’s Bristol Stool Chart identifies seven sorts of poo from Type 1 (separate hard lumps, hard to pass) to Type 7 (watery, no solid pieces) and is used by researchers evaluating the effectiveness of treatments for bowel ailments. Wonderfully, there is actually a wipe’n’swipe mobile phone app you can get which “brings the famous Bristol Stool Scale to your fingertips.” What were they thinking?

 

3. Bristol Blue Glass

Making glass used to be big thing in Bristol – they reckon that in the 18th century the city produced nearly half the glass used for windows and bottles in England – but it was an attempt to cash in on the market for Chinese porcelain that led to another Bristol brand. In 1753, Bristolian chemist William Cookworthy managed to buy up the exclusive rights to a German mine producing Cobalt Oxide, the dye responsible for the distinctive blue decoration on willow pattern plates. Enterprising glass makers discovered that it also added a fine rich colour to their products and the new blue glass became even more desirable than porcelain. As the craze spread, glass makers across the country took up the process but for twenty years Cookworthy’s Bristol business was the only source of the blue dye, hence it became known as Bristol Blue Glass wherever it was made. Bristol’s blue glass tradition eventually died (dyed?) out in the early 20th century but was revived on a small scale in the 1980s and in 2010 the city council decreed all Bristol taxis had to be painted in the distinctive Cobalt shade.

 

4. Bristol Cream Sherry

 

What with having so much glass making and a handy harbour it was hardly surprising that Bristol developed a thriving wine trade by the 19th century, with the sweet Oloroso sherry known as Bristol Milk a big seller. Bristolian wine merchants the Harvey brothers began experimenting with richer blends and registered Harvey’s Bristol Cream as a trademark in 1882, bottling the increasingly popular stuff in their Denmark Street cellars for the next 75 years. Sales really started booming in the 1950s, however, and Harvey’s moved out to a brand new bottling plant in Hengrove, then in 1970 the business left Bristol for Jerez in Spain, where Bodegas Harveys own around 10% of the local vineyards. Ironically it was only once Bristol Cream was bottled in Spain that Harveys began selling it in Bristol Blue Glass. The abandoned bottle yard has, however, gone on to become a highly successful TV studio producing top class drama like the BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. They also make Deal or No Deal there, mind. (see Bristol stool chart, above).

 

5. Bristol Time

Ever wondered why everybody in this laid back city seems to be 10 minutes late for things? It could be because we’re running on Bristol Time, an officially recognised time zone caused by our location 2.5 degrees West of the Greenwich Meridian in London. This means the sun is at its highest here at 12.10pm Greenwich Mean Time. You can see the proof of this on the clock over the door of the old Corn Exchange (now St Nicholas Market): installed in 1822 it was naturally set to run on Bristol Time. The 1852 arrival of the Great Western Railway, however, meant the need for a standardised time system for the purposes of writing train timetables. They could, of course, have simply moved the clock forward but no! – heroically holding out against this high-handed incursion from That Lunnun the doughty Bristolians decided instead to add another minute hand, painted black and running ten minutes fast, just in case anyone was mad enough to get on one of the trains. Brilliant!

 

6. The Bristol Bus

They built famous buses in Bristol from 1908 right up until the 1980s, thanks to the redoubtable Sir George White who originally needed them for his growing Bristol Tramways Company operation. Ultimately, however, they were widely sold, and the company’s scrolly logo became a familiar sight at bus stops all over the country. You can still see the bus-sized door for newly-built vehicles at the old tram depot building at Arnos Court on the Bath Road, and the company’s famous Lodekka model (it had low decks, geddit?) is commemorated by a Hungry Horse pub a bit further up the Bath Road. Notwithstanding the logo, sadly, the biggest legacy of the Bristol Bus has to be the Bristol Bus Boycott valiantly led by black Bristolians in 1963 when the company freely admitted to not employing black people on principle. Throughout the summer the West indian community and supportive white and Asian people (including local MP Tony Benn) refused to use the buses and organised marches and protests until the company finally backed down and employed the first non-white workers in September.

 

7. Bristol aircraft

Inspired by the success of his buses and trams, Sir George White began building aircraft before the first world war. Based up at Filton, his Bristol Aircraft Company produced a string of highly successful military and civilian planes and helicopters through both wars including the Bulldog, Beaufort, Beaufighter and others. At the Government’s behest the company was eventually merged into the British Aircraft Corporation in 1960 which would itself later be nationalised into British Aerospace in 1977. Though intended to revive its civil aviation profile after WWII the Bristol Brabazon was the company’s spectacular one-off failure. A giant of a passenger plane, the mighty Brabazon was ahead of its time technically while also kitted out with jazz age decadence for the rich elite: an ocean liner for the air complete with cocktail bars, a cinema and luxury dining room. The prototype first flew in 1949 to great acclaim but in times of global austerity nobody actually wanted to order it and it was scrapped in 1953. Depressing for the company, but by then the irrepressible Sir George had already put his defining stamp (and scrolly logo) onto…

 

8. Bristol Cars

If there’s one thing that gives the Bristol brand properly classy connotations it has to be Bristol Cars. These eyewateringly expensive, handbuilt, limited edition luxury motors can sneer at the everyday vulgarities of Rolls Royce and Bentley or the jumped up pretensions of Ferrari and Lamborghini. It was the prescient George White (yes, him again) who realised that aircraft production would drop after the war so prepared his factory to enter the motor car market once peace broke out. Opportunistically grabbing the post-war rights to German BMW engines White mounted them into lightweight aluminium bodies built for speed to aircraft construction standards. With their aerodynamic looks and high performance – Bristol 450 cars took all three top places at Le Mans in both 1953 and 1954 – the cars became essential for super-rich boy racers, a status that remains assured thanks to their latest model: the gull-wing doored Bristol Fighter T packs over 1000hp from its 8-litre V10 engine. It’s not made in Bristol however, as the company was rescued from administration in 2011 by Surrey-based Kamkorp Autokraft.

 

9. Hotel Bristol

Travel around the world, especially in Europe, and at some point you’ll inevitably bump into one of the 200-plus independent hotels named after Bristol. In Paris, Rome, Warsaw and Vienna they are particularly grand places with illustrious histories – PG Wodehouse was interned by the Germans in the Hotel Le Bristol Paris and Edward VIII found the Vienna establishment ideal for a bit of nookie with Mrs Simpson – though many of the more illustrious places have closed over the years. It is generally thought that the popularity of the name reflects the 18th century wanderings of Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol, whose controversial religious and political views caused him to leave the country but whose considerable wealth enabled him to stay at the finest places. Naturally, as is the way with aristocrats, the Earl of Bristol had nothing to do with our city whatever, his family pile being in Suffolk. (NB it is important not to confuse Hotel Bristol with the Bristol Hotel [“in Jamaica, Queens”] whose sleazy nightlife was immortalised on LL Cool J’s 1987 Bigger & Deffer album)

 

10. Bristol Island

Admiral Augustus Hervey, 3rd Earl of Bristol and brother of Frederick (see Hotel Bristol above) was both a famed sailor and a notorious ladies man, gaining the nickname The English Casanova. It was his marine endeavours, however, that most impressed celebrated explorer and cartographer Captain James Cook and in recognition of these he named several bits of hitherto uncharted territory after him. Thus a chunk of Queensland, Australia became Hervey Bay and a salmon-rich area of the coast of Alaska was dubbed Bristol Bay. Quite what inspired Cook to connect the 3rd Earl with a five-mile chain of uninhabitable ice-covered earthquake prone volcanoes south of the Falkland Islands is not clear but in 1775 they became Bristol Island. Like Frederick, however, Augustus Hervey, 3rd Earl of Bristol, does not seem to have ever actually lived in Bristol.

 

11. HMS Bristol

Since the first one was launched in 1653 there have been seven ships called HMS Bristol in the Royal Navy and the sixth one, a light cruiser launched in Clydebank in 1910, was the most celebrated. It was the first British ship to see action in the First World War, thanks to a ‘skirmish’ with a German cruiser in the West Indies in August 1914, and was then sent down to the South Atlantic to join the hunt for Admiral Maximilian von Spee. Von Spee had already scored a notable victory over the Royal Navy at Coronel, off the coast of Chile, and revenge was needed. The squadron headed for the Falkland Islands to refuel and fortuitously met von Spee’s ships, immediately commencing what would become a fight to the death. Unfortunately HMS Bristol was still taking on coal when battle commenced and thus, in an extreme version of Bristol Time, was two hours late for the fray, by which time all but one of the German warships had been sunk and von Spee had gone down with his ship. Happily two sluggish colliers were still afloat and HMS Bristol gallantly engaged with them instead. The ship was decommissioned and sold for scrap in 1921 and the last HMS Bristol, a destroyer, is now a training ship moored up in Portsmouth.

 

12. Bristol Knot

Keen anglers will know the Bristol Knot, despite also confusingly being named The No Name Knot, as an excellent method of joining one fishing line to another in a way that will still run smoothly through the various nooks and crannies of a fishing rod. It is especially compatible, fact fans, with the Bimini Twist and all Bristolians can take pride in the fact that, in tests conducted by the International Game Fishing Association, the Bristol Knot ‘out-tested both the Albright Special and the Double Uni’. Gives you a glow, don’t it?

 

13. Bristol Font

Gather round, children, while I tell you of The Olden Days when a font really was a font – not an ephemeral flicker of pixels – and you needed a foundry to make each letter out of boiling, molten metal. Back in the giddy, jazz-fuelled excitement of the 1920s Austrian fontmeister Rudolf Gans, exiled in Spain, designed an Art Deco typeface that so impressed London foundry company Stevens, Shanks & Sons that they bought the license to produce it in the UK. Stevens, Shanks & Sons called this font Bristol, though Gans had originally christened it Greco. He had already created another type called Grotesca Colón, mind you, so the mind boggles. In our modern hurly burly of word processing there seem to be a number of other Bristol fonts available to download, including a ridiculously squirly one and the intense Bristol Compressed Medium Regular, but it’s that Jazz Age original – now known as Bristol Adornado – that we should definitely adopt for official purposes.

 

14. Bristol Pound

Inspired by pioneering local schemes in Brixton and Stroud, Bristol launched its own currency on September 19 2012, when the Lord Mayor stood by the historic Nails in Corn Street and, at the stroke of (hopefully Bristol Time) noon, bought a loaf of bread with the first Bristol Pound. The Bristol Pound – or £B – is now bona fide money, available from ‘cash points’ around the city as well as electronically available through the TXT2PAY app for Android and Apple smartphones. International connections are being developed with other maverick communities in Sardinia, Catalonia and others, and a wide network of independent Bristol traders now recognised the £B as well as First Bus, Good Energy and Temple Meads railway station. You can even use it to pay your council tax and a special Farmland network helps food businesses make contact with those growing and rearing food as near to Bristol as possible. A new set of designs was launched in July 2015, including Luke Carter’s vigorous print celebrating Paul Stephenson, OBE, leading the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott (check it out).

 

15.Bristol Sound

Though the 1991 release of Massive Attack’s Blue Lines was not unnoticed, it was the triple whammy of their follow-up Protection, Portishead’s Dummy and Tricky’s Maxinquaye in 94/95 (not to mention ex-Wild Bunch member Nellee Hooper’s collaborations with Bjork and Soul II Soul) that really got the London journalists excited. What was this new musical genre coming out of Bristol, with its surreal mix of samples and beats in a slack, bass-heavy way? Surely there must be a special scene going on? The idea of a Bristol Sound began to be bandied about, echoing the groundbreaking Mersey Sound of the early 60s, with this new genre dubbed ’trip-hop’. Naturally the creative musicians of Bristol took exception to being labelled from the other end of the M4, with Portishead’s Geoff Barrow famously repudiating the idea of a Bristol scene (though he had himself been an assistant at the Coach House Studios just around the corner from Bristol Uni students union in Clifton throughout the lengthy recording of Blue Lines at which Tricky had been occasionally present). Whatever the truth of the ‘scene’ notion there is no doubt that Bristol has continued to be widely recognised as an exceptional centre for original music production, especially in dance music genres like drum and bass, dubstep and grime.

 

16. Bristol Cigarettes

In 1871 the tobacco-dealing WD & HO Wills business launched their first ready-made cigarettes from a shop in Redcliffe Street. They were called Bristols, and they marked the beginning of a behemoth business that would grow to be one of the city’s biggest industries, covering Bedminster with giant factories and making the Wills family immensely rich. Though the Bristol cigarette brand was later to be eclipsed in the UK by Wills’ massively popular Woodbines and Embassy it continued to be a big seller around the world, notably in India, with an American version produced by Philip Morris. According to the CigarettesPedia (yes, there is such a thing!) “Bristol cigarettes are produced in Australia & India,Trinidad & Guyana,England, USA” and “In 1997 Bristol Menthol was added and… Bristol was the most popular brand of cigarette smoked by 7.7% of students.” The Wills business moved out of Bedminster in the 80s, first to Hartcliffe and thence to Nottingham. The Tobacco Factory bar and theatre on North Street in Southville is the last vestige of this founding pillar of Bristol’s industrial heritage.

 

17. Bristol Onion

The sheltered micro-climate of the Avon Gorge has apparently sustained a number of ancient plant species unique to the area. One of these is the Bristol Onion, a flourishing plant found nowhere else in the UK (though apparently also widespread throughout the Iberian peninsula). If you don’t fancy clambering up the rock face to find the Gorge’s ‘sun-baked niches’ that foster the plant -(and conservationists are known to do just that, weeding out invading non-native species) you can see official specimens in Bristol Zoo and the Bristol University Botanic Garden in Stoke Bishop. No-one seems to know what it tastes like, though being many generations removed from the cultivated stuff we put on our hot-dogs it’s unlikely to be that toothsome. It does have a lovely purple flower, however.

 

18. Bristol Palin

Remember her? The lively teenage high school student whose unplanned (and unmarried) pregnancy proved spectacularly ill-timed, being announced just as her Republican mother Sarah was running for the Vice-Presidency of the United States in 2009 on a hard-line, moralistic, I-blame-the-parents ticket? Her name was apparently picked by her (married) parents because mum Sarah was working in the Bristol Inn in Wassilla, Alaska while dad Todd had been raised in the state’s Bristol Bay area. Obvious reasons for them to have fond associations with the name, really. Bristol called her celebrated sprog Tripp, no doubt for similar reasons. These days she’s an ambassador for teenage pregnancy prevention.

 

19. Bristols/Bristol Pistol/Nice Bristols

Yes – those hilarious things women used to have on their fronts back in the 60s! It’s not clear quite why the originators of Cockney rhyming slang decided that Bristol was the obvious city to rhyme with titty – you’d have thought the double-entendre value of ‘Chesters’ might have made that more appealing. But Bristol it was, and ever since the mid-19th century, the plural term Bristols has been widely understood as a euphemism for boobs. Happily, changing attitudes means that this usage is rarely heard any more, though according to the dubious online authority of The Urban Dictionary it has spawned the genuinely distasteful slang term ‘bristol pistols’ (defined as ‘ejactulating (sic) over a womens (sic) breasts’). Whether this was known to the Bristol Pistols female basketball team is not clear, being as they are from Bristol, Virginia.

 

20. Bristol

Which brings us onto the most straightforward expropriation of the Bristol brand, namely the fact that 35 other places around the world have adopted the name Bristol, making it the fifth most commonly re-used British place name (oddly Richmond, Surrey is number one thanks to 55 namesakes). With getting on for half a million citizens, however, the South West England original is still the biggest Bristol in population terms by a long way, with the least populous being Bristol Wells, a ghost town in Nevada (pop 0).

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