Clifton Suspension Bridge

Clifton Suspension Bridge (1864)

The idea of building a bridge across the Avon Gorge originated in 1754, with a bequest in the will of Bristolian merchant William Vick, who left £1,000 invested with instructions that when the interest had accumulated to £10,000 it should be used for the purpose of building a stone bridge between Clifton Down (which was in Gloucestershire, outside the City of Bristol, until the 1830s) and Leigh Woods (then in Somerset), both of which were barely populated at the time.

By the 1820s Vick’s bequest was nearing £8,000, but it was estimated that a stone bridge would cost over ten times that amount. An Act of Parliament was passed to allow a wrought-iron suspension bridge to be built instead, and tolls levied to recoup the cost. In 1829 a competition was held to find a design for the bridge. The judge, Thomas Telford, rejected all designs and tried to insist on a hugely expensive design of his own. A second competition held with new judges was won by Brunel’s design for a suspension bridge with fashionably Egyptian-influenced towers.

An attempt to build Brunel’s design in 1831 was stopped by the Bristol Riots, which severely dented commercial confidence in Bristol. Work was not started again until 1836, and thereafter the capital from Vick’s bequest and subsequent investment proved woefully inadequate. By 1843 the towers had been built in unfinished stone, but funds were exhausted. In 1851 the ironwork was sold and used to build the Brunel-designed Royal Albert Bridge on the railway between Plymouth and Saltash.

Brunel died in 1859, without seeing the completion of the bridge. Brunel’s colleagues in the Institution of Civil Engineers felt that completion of the Bridge would be a fitting memorial, and started to raise new funds. In 1860 Brunel’s Hungerford suspension bridge over the Thames in London was demolished to make way for a new railway bridge to Charing Cross railway station and its chains were purchased for use at Clifton. A slightly revised design was made by William Henry Barlow and Sir John Hawkshaw; it has a wider, higher and sturdier deck than Brunel intended, triple chains instead of double, and the towers were left as rough stone rather than being finished in Egyptian style. Work on the bridge was restarted in 1862, and was complete by 1864. The bridge has been open continuously since then.

The bridge has long had a reputation as a suicide spot. Because of this, dedicated telephones with a direct line to The Samaritans have now been placed beside the bridge and a road running beneath the bridge has a concrete cover above the traffic protecting it from impact. In 1885 a 22 year old woman called Sarah Ann Henley survived a jump from the bridge when her billowing skirts acted as a parachute, and subsequently lived into her eighties.

The bridge is now managed by a trust set up by Act of Parliament in 1952. Tolls are levied on vehicles but not on cyclists or pedestrians. The bridge is usually illuminated at night, but the lighting system is currently being replaced, with the new lights due to be ready for Brunel’s bicentenary in 2006.

In 2002 it was discovered that the large red sandstone abutment on the Leigh Woods side is not (as had been thought for many years) solid stone, but has twelve vaulted chambers up to 35 ft (11 m) high within it. In 2003 the weight of crowds returning from the Ashton Court festival and Bristol International Balloon Fiesta put such great strain on the bridge that it was decided to close the bridge to all traffic, including pedestrians, during the whole of the Ashton Court Festival and part of the Balloon Fiesta in 2004.