The Changing Population

The population in Bristol grew from about 20,000 in 1700 to 64,000 in 1801. People were attracted by the growing industries. This labouring class, often poverty-stricken, lived in the slums of the old city and found work in the growing sugar, tobacco and cotton industries.

The majority of the new population probably came from the nearby rural counties of Somerset and Gloucestershire. Some would come from other places in Britain. Sailors working on the Bristol ship the Jupiter in 1790 included men from Bristol, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and the north of England, and men from the south west of England.

The need for enslaved labour was in the plantations of the Caribbean. Thus no enslaved Africans came directly to Bristol as part of the slave trade itself: they were taken from Africa to the Caribbean. Some slaves did end up in the city, though. As slaves they usually came to Bristol by one of two ways. Slaves were brought from Africa via the Americas on slaving ships. The ships’ officers were often allowed to buy an enslaved African from the cargo at a cheap price. The officers could sell this ‘privilege’ slave whilst they were in the Americas and make an immediate profit. Or, they could bring their slave home with them to Bristol. The enslaved Africans were either kept as a personal servant or sold through advertisments in the newspapers. Several ships’ captains advertised in the Bristol newspapers for their runaway slaves. Captain Nash for example, was trying to find his ‘Negro manservant’ John in September 1757. Captain Eaton of the Prince William advertised for his runaway Mingo in November 1746. Mingo had been ‘in and out of this City about eight years’, presumably accompanying his master on voyages. In the advertisement Captain Eaton placed (pictured here) he promised to forgive his slave, Mingo, if he came back.

The other way that slaves came to Bristol was as black servants who were brought to the city with their owners from the Americas. Plantation owners in the British-owned Caribbean islands often moved back to Britain. Their money gave them status, and the social and business opportunities were better in Britain than on the Caribbean islands. John Pinney came to Bristol from the island of Nevis with two black servants. The family brought Pero Jones, the manservant of John Pinney, and Fanny Coker, lady’s maid to Mrs. Jane Pinney. Pero was a slave and there is no evidence that he was ever freed. He remained a slave until he died in Bristol in 1798. Fanny Coker had been given her freedom before she came to Bristol, and so she joined the few free black people in the city.

These domestic servants were still slaves, and unlike English servants, they could be shipped back to the plantations whenever their owner decided. They were the property of their owner and could be sold against their wishes. One girl was sold in 1792, after many years in England, and shipped back to plantation work in Jamaica, in the Caribbean. She was put on board a ship in Bristol leaving for Jamaica, and it was reported that ‘her tears flowed down her face like a shower of rain’. Domestic servants could also be passed on as property. The will of Becher Fleming, from Bristol, left a black servant to his sister in 1718. His will read: ‘Item I give and bequeath unto Mary Brown Wife of John Brown of the said Citty of Bristoll my Negroe Boy named Tallow’. Then again, Henry Bright, a Bristol slave trader, left his black servant Bristol an allowance of £10 per year in his will of 1771. Was Bristol a free man? This detail from the painting Broad Quay, by Philip Vandyke, c. 1780, shows the busy dockside. It also shows a young black servant in his uniform, probably carrying a message. He is at work, a contrast with the white children playing on the seesaw behind him.

There were also free black people living in Bristol. Africans who had served in the British Navy were sometimes granted their freedom. At least one African tradesman, James Martin, amassed enough property in Bristol to leave money in a will. Some slaves bought their freedom, some simply ran away.

Over 100 years, from 1700 to 1801, the population of Bristol tripled. The cultural makeup of the population did not change much. Despite the emphasis on the black community in the paragraphs above, there was little rise in the numbers of the black population. Black residents of Bristol would have in any year probably numbered only 100 or so. Most of the new residents would have been white. The change in population size came because Bristol developed as an industrial, residential and financial centre. This created work, and people moved to where they hoped to find work. Pictured here is a painting called St James’ Fair, Bristol, painted in 1824, by Samuel Colman, it shows a bustling fair in Bristol, with various traders selling their wares.