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A short history of the River Avon, its watermen and pilots

We can only guess at the historical age of our service to river users down the ages, but I think it is fair to assume that pilots (or as the romans called them “Gubernator”) served Avonmouth, Portus Abonae and Aqua Sulis some 2000 years ago.

It is with a very big ‘pinch of salt’, and somewhat tongue in cheek that I claim a link back that far, but perhaps the then natives of the Somerset side of the Avon in Pill saw a chance to work their magic on the river and assist the invaders and latterly their neighbours who would remain in this rich and prosperous area of Britania in exploiting its rich bounty.

How it was done, and by whom we will never know, we can guess and marvel at the strength, ingenuity and seamanship that was displayed all those centuries ago.

Back to some more conjecture and then onto some solid facts.

In 1497, a navigator and trader from Venice called Giovanni Cabotto left Bristol on the 2nd May 1497 aided, in legend by a waterman of Pill called James Ray.

Is it conjecture or legend because the records that could prove it were lost in a fire after an air raid during the last war. To the facts, we know that in 1551 the Corporation of Bristol were involved in licensing and governing navigation in the river Avon. Using an ancient charter called the ‘Ordynance for Hungrode’.

We know that the boatmen or hobblers of the river where based in Pill, about a mile up river from Avonmouth and out of this group of men, pilots mastered and practised their art.

We know from records that the jobs of both hobblers and pilots were handed down through families in the village. This continued down the centuries until the late 20th century when the families of Pill no longer supplied recruits into the Bristol Pilots service. In August 1995 the first two non-apprenticed pilots with no previous knowledge or experience other than their qualification as Master mariners and considerable seagoing experience were made Bristol Pilots and were welcomed into the village of Pill. The last two descendants of James Ray retired just before the turn of the century. There can’t be many pilot services that had such an unbroken line down the centuries.


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