Wapping Wharf is nestled in a part of Bristol with a fascinating history.
When Bristol’s merchants developed Queen Square around 1700, its shipyards were displaced to Wapping Wharf, marking the start of the area’s long association with ship building. By 1742 there was a dry dock on the site of today’s M Shed museum.
During extensive archaeological investigations, after the site was acquired by Umberslade in 2003, some foundations associated with shipbuilding from the 18th century were uncovered. Historic map evidence, illustrations and other documentation point to the presence of a rope walk, timber yards and other associated buildings, some of which are thought to have been homes.
Evidence also suggests a graving dock, where ships would have been repaired, was located nearby, now beneath the east end of the M Shed, where Brunel’s first steam ship the ss Great Western was built and launched in 1837.
In 1804 work started on the Floating Harbour and the tidal River Avon was diverted into the New Cut, an artificial waterway built to send the river through south and east Bristol, south of the original river course. With this, the shipyard flourished to become the most important in the city.
The New Gaol, elements of which are still apparent on the Wapping Wharf site and will be retained as part of the development, was commissioned in 1816 and took its first inmates in 1820. The Old City Gaol gatehouse, which will be used as an entrance to Wapping Wharf and is set to be restored during phase two of the development, was used for public executions. The first execution took place in 1821 when John Horwood was hanged three days after his 18th birthday for the murder of Eliza Balsum, with whom he had become infatuated.
The doors of the gaol were famously smashed down – and its prisoners released - during the Bristol riots of 1831. The rioters burned the prison records and then set fire to the prison itself, causing extensive damage. It was re-built soon afterwards.
The gaol closed in 1883, the site sold to Great Western Railway and the prisoners moved to the city’s new prison at Horfield. The gaol ruins were gradually removed and the ground levelled for rail yards and buildings. The gatehouse is all that remains.
In 1875 the Fairbairn steam crane was erected and the Prince Street hydraulic swing bridge was constructed in 1878, both of which are still in working order today. The GWR extended the railway line into Wapping Wharf and constructed several warehouse buildings, but most of these were destroyed by the Blitz of 1941.
After World War Two, the Port of Bristol Authority built the new cargo berth and the ‘L’ and ‘M’ sheds, which became part of the Industrial Museum. Dockyard commerce gradually declined during the 1950s and 1960s and the area became home to the Arnolfini gallery and the Industrial Museum, whilst other parts of the site were used as a garage and reclamation centre.
In 2006, the Industrial Museum closed to be redeveloped into the new M Shed, which opened in 2011 and is owned by Bristol City Council.