“Ship-Shape and Bristol fashion”

“Ship-Shape and Bristol fashion”

'Ship-shape and Bristol fashion' isn't known around the world, and even less so than in earlier times. As Bristol is the home and inspiration for BagsandBriefcases, this got me thinking about the saying so l decided to have a little look into its history.

Bristol has been an important English seaport for more than a thousand years. The city is actually several miles from the sea and stands on the estuary of the River Avon. Bristol's harbour has one of the most variable tidal flows anywhere in the world and the water level can vary by more than 30 feet between tides. This can cause the ships that were moored there were beached at each low tide. Consequently, they had to be of sturdy construction and the goods in their holds needed to be securely stowed. I was surprised to find out that this problem was only sorted in 1803 with the construction of the Floating Harbour.

Whilst doing my research I stumbled upon that fact that Bristol has another claim to fame, a linguistic one. In earlier days the town was called Bristowe (or Brigstow). A quirk of the local spoken dialect is to add els to the end of words, hence Bristowe became Bristol. Another example of this is the name for the laminate sheeting used on worktops. You might call this Formica; in Bristol it is Formical.

'Ship-shape and Bristol fashion' is actually two phrases merged into one. Ship-shape came first and has been used since the 17th century. It is recorded in Sir Henry Manwayring's The sea-mans dictionary, 1644:

"It [the rake] being of no use for the Ship, but only for to make her Ship shapen, as they call it."

Bristol fashion was added later and is first seen in print during Bristol's heyday as a trading port, in the early 19th century; for example, this extract from John Davis' Travels of four years and a half in the United States of America, 1803:

‘...says I to the girl, "this is neither ship-shape, nor Bristol fashion."’

Admiral William Henry Smyth's 1865 Sailor's Word-book - an alphabetical digest of nautical terms, which is a treasure trove of nautically inspired phrases, has a definition of the phrase:

"Said when Bristol was in its palmy commercial days - and its shipping was all in proper good order."


From my digging into this old Bristol saying I have found many different details that I did not know before, from the age of the floating harbour to some of the boats that would have been seen in early day ‘Bristowe’. My love for this city has only grown since my research and I’m sure Bristol will never stop disappointing me with its hidden secrets.

Until next time.