Monday, May 21, 2012

Ship-shape and Bristol fashion

Many in North America have heard the term ship-shape in reference to high quality, but the Bristol fashion part is often not used. This phrase originates from the United Kingdom.

Bristol is a city in the U.K. that has served as a seaport for thousands of years. The city is several kilometres from the ocean and has a river where ships enter the seaport. Bristol harbour is susceptible to drastic water level changes with the tides, so much so that before the 18th century ships would be beached during low tide. This meant that ships that were not of sound construction would be destroyed in the process. Furthermore, sturdy ships needed to ensure that their cargo was secure in order to prevent their contents from shifting during the beaching process.
Bristol harbour

Ship-shape and Bristol fashion are two phrases merged into one. Ship-shape was first used in the 17th century and the Bristol fashion part was added in the early 19th century. Originally, the term was used to indicate the need to secure a ship's cargo during transport to being used today to indicate something of high quality.

Thank you Amanda for suggesting this phrase.


  1. I worked as a deck hand in the British merchant navy in the 1970s,for a time I worked for a company called houlder bros I was on 2 general cargo boats running from the UK to South America,on the way out we stripped down and serviced all the lifting gear,ropes and tackle,we used these to unload cargo in Brazil,Uruguay and Argentina and to load return cargo to bring back to the UK.On the way back across the Atlantic we painted her from top to bottom so that when we arrived back in the UK we looked "All ship shape and Bristol fashion"when the owners came down to what ever docks we were at,sometimes it was actually Avonmouth near Bristol at that time...

  2. The saying has been corrupted over time with the word "fashion" being more commanly used in relation to clothing. The correct phrase is "Bristol fashionED", which is not the same thing at all.
    In the days of sail ships would most likely return to their home port with damage that had been hastily repaired, or have temporary replacement bits made from whatever material came to hand, by the crew at sea just to keep the ship afloat and navigatable.
    Many would arrive home with torn sails that had been lashed up at strange angles, bits of superstructure missing, holes crudely patched, etc.
    Bristol was a huge centre for shipping in those days. The port was packed full of shipmakers, chandlers, sail makers, etc. So on leaving Bristol on its next voyage the ship would once again be "ship shaped and Bristol fashioned". In other words, in perfect working order with parts made (fashioned) by the actual craftsmen of Bristol, not some nameless matelot doing his best in a force 5 gale.