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
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