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Port of Bristol. Design for the accommodation of the largest class of ocean steam-ships, by dockising the river Avon, and for new quays and opening into the float; also, as an alternative, the construction of a large dock at its mouth: to which are added remarks of deepening and widening the river from Kingroad to Bristol.
London, 1860

Brunel’s Great Western Steamship, then the biggest vessel ever constructed, was built in Bristol during the 1830s to tremendous acclaim, followed by the even larger Great Britain in the 1840s.

Alas, the immediate and long-lasting result of Brunel’s achievements was to highlight the grave drawbacks of the Port of Bristol, which could only be accessed from the River Severn up the tortuous and winding River Avon and whose locks were built to accommodate ships no bigger than 800 tons (the Great Western was 1340 tons).

By the 1850s, serious consideration was being given to how dock accommodation might be increased and the river improved. Thornton seems to have been the first to come up with the drastic and radical scheme for converting the whole of the Avon below Bristol into a gigantic floating harbour by closing off its mouth at the Severn end.

Apart from building a dam 1,000 feet in length, Thornton also envisaged the provision of a half-tide basin, entrance locks, graving docks, a new entrance to the existing floating harbour and so on. Of particular interest is the fact that he bases the sizes of the various new works specifically on Brunel’s Great Britain and, more crucially, his gigantic Great Eastern of 22,000 tons, confidently expected by Brunel to be the ship of the future.

As an alternative to the enormous scale of works, which would be entailed by dockising the river, Thornton proposes the construction of a large dock to accommodate ocean-going vessels, as well as a graving dock on the Severn, together with a railway into Bristol and some thoughts for improving the existing course of the Avon.

In this latter section, Thornton compares and contrasts his views with those of a rival scheme by the engineer, William Parkes. Although nothing came of Thornton’s design, his idea of dockising the Avon took hold and continued to be discussed as a possibility until the end of the century.


Folio (vi) + 35 + (39)pp, 3 folding litho plates, hand coloured. Quarter calf, original wrappers bound in. Bookplate of the engineer, Francis Frederick Fox, and of Donald Parsons. A lovely copy.



Catalogue No: 2489