A SERIAL arsonist has been jailed for life after starting a fire which destroyed a historic boatyard, causing millions of pounds of damage.

Robert Boyd-Stevenson, 46, had been working at the Underfall Yard in Bristol for three days as a maintenance co-ordinator when he lit the blaze.

Bristol Crown Court heard that the fire was started in the Big Shed shortly before midnight on May 6 and within minutes was well alight.

The fire was so severe it destroyed the Big Shed as well as boats moored nearby and caused dozens of residents to be evacuated from their homes.

Gregory Gordon, prosecuting, said the Grade II-listed boatyard dated from 1809 and many of the original Victorian-era buildings remain to this day.

Gazette Series: Robert Boyd-Stevenson has been jailed for life after starting a major fire at Underfall boat yard Robert Boyd-Stevenson has been jailed for life after starting a major fire at Underfall boat yard (Image: Avon and Somerset Police)

The rebuild was estimated to cost £2.6 million and would take three years to complete, adding another £200,000 in lost revenue.

Some businesses that used the yard have ceased trading while others have faced bills of tens of thousands of pounds.

Mr Gordon said forensic examiners had concluded an accelerant had been used to the start the fire and within 15 minutes it had quickly spread.

Just after midnight several people living near the yard saw the flames and dialled 999.

The fire was so severe that residents on houseboats were taken out of the area, as were those in nearby houses.

Gazette Series: The damage is expected to cost millions to repairThe damage is expected to cost millions to repair (Image: Avon and Somerset Police)

On the night of the fire, Boyd-Stevenson unlocked the yard and went to the Big Shed where he started the blaze, Mr Gordon said.

“GPS data puts him at the yard between 9.47pm and 11.48pm,” he said.

“CCTV records a person walking through the yard and CCTV from nearby streets records his vehicle in the area.”


Boyd-Stevenson watched the fire from the nearby Millennium Promenade where he took a photo and sent it by WhatsApp to Underfall Yard’s managing director.

He also carried out internet news searches for articles about the arson and contacted a woman he had been having an extramarital affair with, asking to meet her, the court was told.

The defendant returned home on the morning of May 6 and his wife noticed he was calmer – similar to when he had committed a bomb hoax at Bristol Airport in 2015.

He was arrested by police later that evening.

Investigations found Boyd-Stevenson had accessed pornography on a computer at the yard and had opened a document about the alarm system. There was also money missing.

The fire also caused a power outage in the sluice gates of Bristol Harbour, which if they had failed could have caused “catastrophic damage” to the harbour walls, Mr Gordon said.

At a previous hearing, the defendant, of Headford Road, Knowle, Bristol, admitted arson being reckless as to whether life is endangered.

An alternative, more serious charge of arson with intent to endanger life was ordered to be left on file.

The court heard that Boyd-Stevenson has previous convictions for arson and bomb hoaxes dating back to 1997 and served an 11-year sentence for similar crimes.

Jenny Tallentire, defending, said: “He is not oblivious to the consequences of his actions.

“It follows a pattern that he has followed throughout his life. In an emotional breakdown in his life, he acts in the way he has.

“It is unusual and concerning and a dangerous trait.”

"You are clearly dangerous" says judge 

Judge Martin Picton imposed a life sentence with a minimum term of six years’ imprisonment after concluding Boyd-Stevenson posed a risk to the public from further offending.

“It appears when things in your life are going wrong you react by starting fires or making bomb hoaxes,” the judge said.

“It has happened with significant frequency to give rise to the concern you are highly likely to do so again – you are clearly dangerous.

“The trauma for those whose homes were put at risk must have been considerable.

“Some businesses have been forced to close and some have had losses of tens of thousands of pounds to hundreds of thousands of pounds.

“The trauma for those people that night must have been extreme and will stay with them for a long time.”

Police statement 

Detective Sergeant Lisa Jones said: “The seriousness of the fire cannot be underestimated. On another day, Robert Boyd-Stevenson could have seriously injured or killed someone.

“A huge amount of resources had to be deployed by emergency services on the night in question to protect public safety and surrounding properties to stop the blaze spreading, all of which could have been spent tackling other incidents but for Boyd-Stevenson’s recklessness.

“We worked closely with fire investigators from the outset as well as people from Underfall and we were able to arrest the perpetrator within 24 hours, which is a testament to the hard work put in by officers during a busy bank holiday weekend.”

DS Jones added: “While today sees the criminal proceedings come to a conclusion, it would be wrong not to highlight the ongoing financial and emotional distress that is felt by those people who have had decades of hard labour snatched away from them.

"As well as the damage to historic buildings of local and national heritage, many of them have lost irreplaceable prized possessions and it is sobering to hear the impact this crime has had on them.

“I would like to take this opportunity in thanking the local community of Underfall Yard, as well as the residents of Avon Crescent, for their patience and their strength in dealing with their personal loss and that of this city.”