How Did the Harbour Work in 1809?

floatingharbourbristolAt this date, no ships had engines. They relied upon the wind to propel them with sails and the current where sailing wasn’t easy, such as in the river Avon. In addition, teams of men known as ‘hobblers’ in rowing boats were used with larger ships to help steer them around bends in the river.

A ship heading for Bristol would enter the river Avon on a rising tide, picking up a pilot who knew the river well to assist. The ship would use the tidal current and a combination of sails and assistance to work its way up the river. With good judgment, it would arrive at the entrance lock at Cumberland Basin before high tide. A rope would be taken ashore by the rowing boat and used to guide the ship into the lock.

The river lock would remain open during a rising tide, so that ships arriving could move through into the safety of the basin. The water level in the basin would steadily increase as the tide rose, until it was the same as the Harbour, but before this a ship could continue into the Harbour using the Junction Lock.

Ships leaving Bristol could meanwhile enter the basin through the Junction Lock and wait until high tide before moving into the river and allowing the ebbing tidal current to take them out. At about half tide, the lock gates were closed and any other ships needing to leave would be locked through.

Smaller vessels could continue past the main entrance locks into the New Cut and drift up as far as Bathurst Basin, where a similar procedure was followed, or to Totterdown or Netham, where there were secondary lock entrances.

Once in the Harbour, there was no current and it was not easy to sail. Ships would be moved around by towing, either by rowing boats or by horses where possible – not easy when the quaysides already had ships tied up.

Interactive map

Did you know?