The club was founded in 1883 as Black Arabs F.C., and were also known as Eastville Rovers and Bristol Eastville Rovers before finally changing its name to Bristol Rovers in 1899. The club's official nickname is The Pirates, reflecting the maritime history of Bristol. The local nickname of the club is The Gas, from the gasworks next to their former home Eastville Stadium, which started as a derogatory term used by fans of their main rival Bristol City but was affectionately adopted by the team. According to a survey conducted in December 2003, Cardiff City and Swindon Town are considered their second and third biggest rivals. Rovers contest the Bristol derby against Bristol City and the Severnside derby against Cardiff.
Rovers were admitted to the Football League in 1920 and maintained their league status until relegation in 2014. They previously came close to losing their league status in 1939, when they were re-elected after finishing bottom of Division Three (South), and in 2002 when the team finished one league position away from relegation to the Football Conference. Their highest finishing positions were in 1956 and 1959, on both occasions ending the season in 6th place in Division Two, then the second tier of English football.