Settlements Along The River Avon In 1940

Bristol local history; vintage film and old photos of Bristol
“Western Waterway: Bristol Avon – 1941 – CharlieDeanArchives / British Council Archival Footage” from YouTube channel Charlie Dean Archives

This short film takes us on a journey in time and place. From the source of the Avon where pretty cottages sit in a rural idyll, through historic towns and villages where the river grows in size and power, to the point where the mighty waters meet the open sea and the docks are the centre of Bristol’s significant international trade, this was life along the River Avon in the early years of the Second World War.

Although the British Council Film Department Catalogue classifies this as a 1941 film, the Bristol locations were clearly filmed before the first raid of the Bristol Blitz on 24 November 1940.

During the 1940s, the British Council made 120 short documentaries. Their aim was to capture British life on film. This one looked at the path of the River Avon, from its quiet rural source through to the busy industrial port at Bristol.

Who Made This Film About The River Avon?

The commentary for this short film was credited to Alvar Liddel. They actually meant the famous BBC broadcaster and newsreader, Alvar Lidell.

The film was devised by Paul Barralet, and the script was written by Alfred Leyton. An additional credit tells us the sound recordist was W Bland.

The Source Of The River Avon

In this 10 minute footage, we see horses and carts trotting through rustic lanes. Historic cottages of Tetbury and the fields beyond form an attractive backdrop.

Nearby is the start of both the River Avon and the Thames.

The small Avon runs through the historic village of Malmesbury, which is so old the narrative quite rightly focuses on its history.

A Glimpse Of Bath

The imposing buildings of Bath sit alongside the Avon, which makes for a beautiful backdrop. 

“Here the river is delightful. Soon, its clear waters will be sullied by the grime of the great Avonmouth Docks”.

The River Avon From the City Of Bristol

Next, the camera spans the wide expanse of the Avon at Bristol. In 1941 it was the country’s 7th largest city. In addition to the port, the film lists key industries as food stuffs, motor accessories, rubber, tobacco and chocolate. 

“The war has caused many new trades to be developed, making the city even busier than before”. 

There are many panoramic views of Bristol, from different locations.

The Dutch House

The old Dutch house, erected on top of medieval vaulted stone cellars in 1676 and once the home of the poet Wordsworth, is examined close up. 

Thank goodness it was, capturing the house shortly before it was destroyed in the Bristol Blitz.

The building at numbers 1 and 2 High Street had already had the lower storey cut back by 8.5 feet (2.6 m) in 1908. That was to accommodate the pavement at a medieval crossroads already struggling with city traffic.

Then on Sunday, 24 November 1940 the Dutch House was caught up in the Bristol Blitz. A 5-hour air raid of over 135 German bombers destroyed much of Bristol’s pre-war shopping area, with the incendiary bombs causing extensive fire damage to the Dutch House. 

The Dutch House was demolished three days later on 27 November 1940, to make the important road junction safe.

Cabot Tower

The monument to John and Sebastian Cabot also appears. The Venitian explorers discovered the North American continent during a journey commissioned by Henry VII. Their ship launched from Bristol for this remarkable – but often overlooked – adventure. 

You can still visit the Grade II listed Cabot Tower today.  It’s situated in a public park on Brandon Hill, between the city centre, Clifton and Hotwells. 

Bristol University

Many street scenes of Bristol appear during a commentary which lists British colonial trades without once mentioning the slave trade.

Bristol’s university tower is referred to as an example of modern architecture. 

“It is said that this tower is built with the smoke of a million cigarettes, for it was founded and presented to the city by Mr H.O. Wills.” 

The narrator tells us Bristol university is one of the best equipped universities in the world. At the time, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill was also the university’s Chancellor.

A Glimpse Of Clifton Suspension Bridge

The museum and art gallery appear, before we move to the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

On this stretch of the Avon, Jonathan Hulls tried out the first steamboat. The experiment failed, but the principles led to Foulton, an American inventor, designing a successful steamboat.

Bristol Docks

Seven miles downstream, the camera records activity at Avonmouth, where the Bristol municipality has built their extensive docks. Warehouses, dry docks and berthing spaces for hundreds of vessels clearly offer a lot of employment. Men are filmed at work in a range of jobs, some of which look unnecessarily dangerous and others involve a lot of standing about.

“Covering an area of over 6 square miles, they are one of the most modern docks in the world.”

Near the end is a great shot of a steam engine being loaded onto a ship!

Finally, we see the River Avon streaming out into the open sea. It’s time for the commentary to remind us of the trickle of water that started this mighty river.

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