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May 20, 2005

Shipshape and Bristol Fashion.

According to the Telegraph the latest phrase to become un PC is "shipshape and Bristol fashion".

The phrase "shipshape and Bristol fashion" should not be used because it is deemed to be politically incorrect, a group of councillors has been told.

A training firm told them that the phrase originated from the slave trade and described black people being ready for sale.

Sounds very odd to me, very odd indeed. A Bristol historian states that it comes from the city’s reputation for buildiong ships, which also sounds a little odd. But to hte slavery thing.

Bristol was involved in the slave trade, no doubt about it. But the slaves never arrived in Bristol. The trade was a triangle. Manufactured goods from Bristol to West Africa, slaves across the Atlantic, sugar/run/cotton back across the N Atlantic. So when slaves arrived in the Caribbean of America, no one actually cared that the ship came from Bristol. So such a phrase would not have arisen. (Liverpool was also heavily involved. Why not such a phrase for there as well?)

Much more likely as an origin is this (and I write as one who has sailed on the Severn Esturay, the tide and tidal race is indeed the second largest in the world after the Bay of Fundy):

Bristol: Ship-shape and Bristol fashion means that everything is neat and tidy. This saying comes from two aspects of the old Bristol docks in the days before the Floating Harbour was established in the 1830s. Bristol had, and still has, one of the largest differences of water level between ebb and flood in the World, something like 10 metres. At low tide ships in the harbour, if not really properly constructed and laden, would either break their backs or their cargoes would shift. Because of this, Bristol ships were always first class in these respects, hence the saying. The Floating Harbour was constructed by Brunel in order to overcome the tide problem.

May 20, 2005 in Idiotarians | Permalink


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"Bristol was involved in the slave trade, no doubt about it. But the slaves never arrived in Bristol." Depends on which slave trade you mean. The medieval slave trade in Bristol consisted of selling British slaves to Ireland.

Tim adds: Dark Ages, surely. St. Patrick (a Welshman) and all that? 8th/10th century, Dublin was indeed a big slave market. Thought that was all over by 12th/13th? (ie after Welsh/Norman invasion.)

Posted by: dearieme | May 20, 2005 10:26:19 AM

sounds like these councillors are trying very hard to be offended. If they have nothing else to worry about, dare I suggest that there should be fewer of them?

Posted by: Mark T | May 20, 2005 1:26:13 PM

The relation to the slave trade is that ships from Bristol were often converted into slave carriers by the construction of "shelves" in the ships hold for the slaves to be packed into. This has nothing to do with the fact that ships from Bristol were excellently constructed, leading to the phrase: "ship shape and Bristol fashion"

Posted by: Kev | May 25, 2005 3:33:49 PM

A bit late, but try http://www.regia.org/misc/earner.htm

Posted by: dearieme | Jun 30, 2005 12:35:57 PM