Bristol City Docks, Waterfront Cranes. Vintage inspired poster by Stephen Millership

Product code: S-15017 MILL
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Vintage inspired poster showing the Cargo cranes at Bristol Waterfront by Stephen Millership.

Bristol city docks
Far from the cultural and leisure destination it is today, the Harbourside of the 1950s was a bustling port trading with the world. At its peak, the floating harbour was home to almost 40 cranes.

The M Shed cargo cranes were built in 1951 as part of a group of eight (numbered 25 to 32) to serve ‘L’ and ‘M’ transit sheds. During the Second World War the old corporation granary on the site was blitzed, making space for a brand new general cargo wharf, built to the most up to date standards of the 1950s.

Ships’ cargo could be swiftly unloaded and loaded and stored in the transit sheds, or put directly onto railway wagons or road transport, very evident in this photo of M Shed and Princes Wharf in 1953. Typical cargoes on this quayside were boxes of butter, barrels and tanks of Guinness and Harp lager, tractors, rolls of newsprint, paper pulp and timber.

The cranes were built by Stothert & Pitt of Bath, internationally known for their dockside cranes. They built the first electric dockside crane in Britain in 1893, for Southampton, and continued to make thousands for ports all over the world until closure in 1989. At one time, almost every port in the world had Stothert & Pitt cranes.

The cranes unloaded their first cargo in April 1952. Seven of the cranes could lift 2 tons (later upgraded to 3) but No 32 could cope with ten tons.

On any day, up to 2000 men were employed on a casual basis, unloading the ships in the city and at Avonmouth. The availability of that huge, flexible pool of dockers was a vital element of the system that operated in ports throughout the country until the advent of containers in the 1970. They moved cargo that had been stowed by hand at the port of departure in packages small enough to be manhandled.

This also influenced the design of the cranes – they lift a relatively small maximum load, because that’s as much as a gang of men can move in the time it takes for the crane to deliver a load and return for the next – no need for them to be able to carry more. Speed was of the essence and that was where the driver came in.

The life of a crane driver
Crane drivers worked an eight hour day with breaks every hour and a half. After seven weeks training, crane drivers were left to hone their skills at operating the hoist, luffing and slewing of the crane with real cargoes. The best ones would become almost balletic at the way they could move the cranes around. They served three gangs of six dockers working in the ship’s hold. Speed was important, as the dockers were often paid according to how much they moved, and a slow driver meant less money at the end of the day.

There were perks to the job – the driver was always sent to the front of queues at dinner time, to ensure they were back in the cab when the dockers were ready to start again. But it meant standing at the controls for eight hours, concentrating on the swing of the hook and the position of the jib to ensure you didn’t hit a neighbouring crane or injure the men toiling in the hold below.

Saving the cranes
By the 1960s most of Bristol’s cargo was going through the port down the river at Avonmouth and the city docks were in decline. In 1969, Bristol city council announced plans to close the docks. M Shed’s cranes were the last to work with regular cargo before the closure of the city docks to commercial traffic. They helped to offload the very last Baltic trader which visited the port in November 1974. Shortly after, the power to them was cut and they became industrial relics.

Many of the remaining cranes were sold for scrap, including four of the eight that served M Shed. A group of local people recognised that the cranes were an important link to Bristol’s past and set up the pressure group City Docks Ventures in order to save those that remained. It was a very close thing, but City Docks Ventures managed to buy back two of the cranes from the scrap merchant they had been sold to, and Bristol City Council bought the remaining two.

Restoration of the cranes
The cranes were painted shortly after this but little else happened to them for over 20 years. All four cranes passed into the care of Bristol Museums in 1989. The team of volunteers working at the Industrial Museum already had their work cut out restoring and maintaining the railway, steam crane and three boats, so little was done to the cranes during this time (

This vintage inspired travel poster is printed using only genuine inks on premium heavy weight photo paper with a satin finish. A truly quality poster that will look stunning when framed and is sure to enhance any surrounding

Please select your size from the drop down menu.

Any poster size of 70x100cm or smaller will fit many popular frames that can be purchased in framers and shops such as Ikea.

Technical specifications

Brand Travel Posters Online
Product Code S-15017 MILL
Weight 1kg