How Brunel’s bridge in Bris­tol got built

The Bris­tol land­mark stands among Isam­bard King­dom Brunel’s might­i­est cre­ations, but the gi­ant of en­gi­neer­ing didn’t live to see his “first love” reach com­ple­tion

History Revealed - - CONTENTS -

Be­fore he died in 1754, Bris­tol wine mer­chant William Vick be­queathed £1,000 (around £140,000 to­day) in his will for one spe­cific pur­pose: it should be used to build a stone bridge over the Avon Gorge, link­ing the vil­lage of Clifton with Leigh Woods. It was a grand am­bi­tion, yet Vick knew the project would have to wait un­til the tech­nol­ogy of the day matched his vi­sion – un­til that time, he stip­u­lated that the money should be left to gather in­ter­est.

Other cross­ings of the River Avon were con­sid­ered, but any bridge had to be high enough above the wa­ter to al­low the Royal Navy’s tall­ships to pass un­der­neath on their way to Bris­tol har­bour. So Vick’s legacy sat wait­ing un­til 1829, when it had grown to £8,000. Though that was still nowhere near enough, a com­pe­ti­tion was launched to find de­signs for an “iron sus­pen­sion bridge”, with 100 guineas go­ing to the win­ner. The en­ter­prise was a farce. The judge, no­table en­gi­neer Thomas Telford, re­jected all the en­tries and put for­ward his own in their place, only to be dis­missed too.

A sec­ond com­pe­ti­tion had to be run be­fore a win­ner could be cho­sen, and that win­ner was Isam­bard King­dom Brunel, who had sub­mit­ted four de­signs. Then just 24 years old, he had al­ready shown his gifts and a tenac­ity to suc­ceed - he’d worked as as­sis­tant en­gi­neer on the Thames Tun­nel in pre­vi­ous years.

Brunel orig­i­nally in­tended his bridge to be elab­o­rately dec­o­rated, with the two tow­ers fea­tur­ing sculpted iron pan­els and sphinxes on top. Though these artis­tic flour­ishes had to be aban­doned, the cal­cu­la­tions Brunel made were near flaw­less. On 21 June 1831, at the cer­e­mony for the

“It was ar­gued the bridge be com­pleted as a memo­rial”

lay­ing of the foun­da­tion stone on the Clifton side, the bridge was pre-emp­tively de­clared by one of its in­vestors as “the or­na­ment of Bris­tol and the won­der of the age”.


The op­ti­mism didn’t last long. Con­struc­tion came to splut­ter­ing halt just a few months later when ri­ots (dur­ing which Brunel acted as a spe­cial con­sta­ble) de­stroyed con­fi­dence in Bris­tol busi­nesses. Work only got go­ing again in 1836, which gave Brunel plenty of time to fear that the bridge – “my first love, my dar­ling”, as he de­scribed it – would never get built. And so it seemed des­tined to be. In 1843, funds ran out and work had to be ut­terly aban­doned.

In fact, if not for Brunel’s death, his cre­ation may never have been fin­ished. Con­struc­tion fi­nally re­sumed in 1862 af­ter the In­sti­tu­tion of Civil En­gi­neers ar­gued that the bridge should be com­pleted as a memo­rial to their col­league. Un­der the su­per­vi­sion (and re­vised de­signs) of Sir John Hawk­shaw and William Henry Bar­low, work con­cluded in 1864, some 33 years af­ter the first stones were laid and 110 years af­ter Vick’s do­na­tion.

Around 150,000 peo­ple turned out for the bridge’s grand open­ing on 8 De­cem­ber, which in­cluded a pro­ces­sion, mil­i­tary dis­play and a lively car­ni­val at­mos­phere. More im­por­tantly, Mary Grif­fiths bagged the ti­tle of be­ing the first mem­ber of the pub­lic to cross it af­ter she hiked up her skirts and raced a young man from one end of the 214-me­tre span to the other.

From that in­au­gu­ral cross­ing, the 1,500-ton bridge has re­mained in use, de­spite the horse-drawn carts giv­ing way to mo­torised ve­hi­cles. To­day, some four mil­lion driv­ers ev­ery year pay the £1 toll.

The best way to ex­pe­ri­ence the bridge, though, is on foot – that way it’s free, and you can stop at any point to ad­mire the view, from 76 me­tres above the river. Then be sure to head to the visi­tor cen­tre (also free) and dis­cover more about how Brunel’s sus­pended mas­ter­piece be­came a sym­bol for the city of Bris­tol.

LOOK­ING GORGE-OUS Brunel’s bridge, now an iconic part of the Bris­tol sky­line, was also the site of the first mod­ern bungee jump, in 1979

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