Since the creation of the Floating Harbour in 1809, Underfall Yard has been crucial to its operation and maintenance. Before this time, much of the site was under water: the original course of the River Avon ran through Underfall Yard.

Overfall…

The water of the River Avon carries lots of silt (mud). The water enters the Floating Harbour, slows down and isn’t able to carry the silt any longer. The silt settles in the harbour, which eventually builds up and reduces the depth making it difficult for ships to navigate. In 1809, as part of the creation of the Floating Harbour system, William Jessop developed the Overfall dam across the River Avon allowing surplus water from the harbour to flow into the New Cut. The Overfall Dam had sluices next to it, which could be used to remove silt. However, the main method was to empty the harbour and dig it out.

…to Underfall

Digging the mud out was hugely disruptive to shipping and trade. In the 1830s, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was asked to propose a solution. He suggested further developing the original sluices and recommended the use of dredgers, a type of boat, to remove the silt. The sluices have been changed and renewed several times since and today’s system was installed in the 1880s.

In the 1880s, under Docks Engineer John Ward Girdlestone, the whole yard was rebuilt to provide a single site for the workforce who maintained the city docks including: plumbers, electricians, blacksmiths, divers, engineers, fitters, shipwrights and many more. It is one of the only surviving Victorian dock workshops in the world.
Now our Visitor Centre, the Power House was completed in 1887 and converted from steam to electricity in 1907. It was operational until 2010. Three large pumps draw water from the harbour and pressurise it before distributing it around the harbour, via the accumulator. The hydraulic network supplied power to cranes, swing bridges, lock gates, sluices and other functions around the docks.
There has been a slipway here since at least the 1850s, when boatbuilders Ross and Sage built one. In 1890, Docks Engineer John Ward Girdlestone ordered the current slipway to be built. It fell into disuse in the 1980s and was one of the first refurbishments by the Underfall Yard Trust in the 1990s.

This sort of slipway, known as a ‘Heave-up Slip’, was patented in 1819 by shipbuilder Thomas Morton of Leith, Scotland.

Underfall Yard is home to maritime businesses involved in boatbuilding, marine engineering, metal working and training. Both the Harbour Master and the Docks Engineer are based here. Our Visitor Centre opened in March 2016 with support from Heritage Lottery Fund, AIM Biffa Award National Heritage Landmark Partnership Scheme, Wolfson Foundation, Garfield Weston Foundation, Headley Trust, Pilgrim Trust, J Paul Getty Foundation and many more.

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Images courtesy of Bristol Museums and Bristol Records Office