Whatever happened to Brunel's bridge?

Whatever happened to Brunel's bridge?

The famous (since 2004) bridge was dismantled and taken to Portsmouth where it currently resides at Fort Cumberland in Eastney. Few know its there. It seems the stored remains are not even labelled as Brunel’s bridge. At the time of its dismantling there was every promise it would be stored for a short while and returned to (or near) the site where it was originally found. In fact the plans were that the bridge would be rebuilt in time for the 200th birthday of Isambard Kingdon Brunel in 2006! Now there are calls for it to be re-erected in Portsmouth, for this is Brunel’s home town.

Ultimately the decision is up to Historic England. It seems neither Paddington/Westminster nor the canal authorities have requested the bridge be returned but are likely simply content for it to be dealt with in a manner that is suitable to all parties – even if it has to remain in Portsmouth. One of the problems is the nature of the Paddington area has changed and whilst it still is possible for the bridge to be rebuilt here, it may not happen. For a start its not just the bridge but other canal artefacts that too were removed, for example the roof of a building constructed in 1801 for the Grand Junction Canal. This too was removed as part of the Paddington development and despite promises it would be rebuilt in the locality, it seems to have vanished off the face of the earth!

The story of its discovery in March 2004 is as follows:

CONTRACTORS demolishing a road bridge over the Grand Union Canal at Paddington. on Wednesday 3rd March, were amazed to discover a iron structure buried inside. The contractors called in English Heritage, and Dr. Steven Brindle, inspector of ancient monuments soon confirmed the ironwork was in fact a bridge, the work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of only a few of his surviving iron bridges. The bridge being demolished, Bishops Bridge, on the Paddington Arm, of the Grand Union Canal, was to make way for a new road, but work has now been halted to allow the old iron bridge to be dismantled. Except for the handrails, which are missing, the bridge was found to have been well preserved in its hiding place under the brickwork, and so it will be eventually erected, possibly as a footbridge over the canal. Steven Brindle was able to prove authenticity of Brunel’s work from original drawings and notes concerning Paddington Station, but it was thought the bridge had long since been lost.

The ‘discovery’ was in fact a confirmation the bridge really existed and this was publicised widely to the media. Prior to that Dr. Brindle had unearthed documents in April 2003 that the bridge might possibly be of national importance. He alerted Westminster Council and the procedures were soon set in motion which led towards the preservation of the structure. Its said that after the Paddington bridge had been excavated and removed by English Heritage for safe storage with a view to a later re-build in the locality, the excitement and attention waned completely.

It was originally envisaged the bridge would be re-erected on a site under the shadow of the Westway. This would be the Stone Wharf. There was a clause in the works for Monsoons to build foundations for enabling the re-erected bridge as part of improvements agreed for the area. The council granted permission for the rebuilding of the bridge at Stone Wharf.

Dr Brindle’s 2004 notes on the bridge’s closure and its removal to Fort Cumberland.

Fort Cumberland was the recipient for the preserved structure – and it wasn’t a secret of any sort. It was just that the world had lost interest in the whole matter! The 2007 stipulations and planning permissions have however since expired. Which means if anyone intends to rebuild the bridge at Paddington planning permission would have to be sought all over again. The bridge has therefore languished in Portsmouth ever since and there’s clearly little chance of its being returned to Paddington.

Some notes on the bridge from the Paddington Area Opportunity Fact Sheet. Source: Westminster.

The proposals for the Brunel bridge to be resited at Paddington’s Stone Wharf, just a few metres away from London’s famous Little Venice. Source: Ian Lathams

Its said the bridge was originally constructed in 1838 as part of the temporary Paddington railway terminus. This isn’t absolutely certain as some pictures show the previous wooden bridge that was built over the canal rather than the actual Brunel bridge, and it may have been that this was still under construction (or even at the foundry in Deptford) when the Bishop’s Bridge terminus of the Great Western Railway opened that year. It may have been late summer when the bridge was in fact finished.

The bridge is the earliest example of Brunel’s use of cast iron and is one of just eight of his cast iron bridges left in England.

The Bishop’s Bridge Road GWR terminus in 1838. The canal can be seen on the far side of the valley. Source: Wikipedia

The bridge was unusual in that its parts interlocked. There was no need for rivets or bolts to be used in its construction. Its importance is largely because of Brunel’s innovative use of a locking design which meant it was easy to construct. The reason for this was the limited nature of the land meaning there was less scope for the substantial foundations than would have been required. Thus the bridge itself was compact and yet able to provide the necessary rise up from the railway bridge and over the canal itself and then back down to the Harrow Road on the other side.

Brunel’s letter to the Grand Junction Canal Company in May 1838 regarding the new bridge.

Pictures of the bridge and its demolition in 2004

The reason for the bridge’s demolition was it was unsuitable for modern use – a much larger and wider replacement structure was planned. This new bridge in turn would allow the taxi facilities at the station to be relocated and more space to be given for passenger facilities within the station itself.

The following pictures I took of the bridge before and during its demolition in 2004:

The Brunel bridge in relation to Paddington station. 2003.

The underneath of the bridge showing the Brunel cast iron beams. At this time in 2003 no-one knew it was of great importance!

Half of the Brunel bridge has been dismantled by May 2004, exposing the unusual cast iron interlocking beams on the other half.

Close up of the cast iron interlocking beams. No bolts or rivets were used in the construction of the bridge!

As the above picture shows dismantling of the structure involved putting each section within a framework – which could then be craned out and transported by lorry to Portsmouth – where it would then simply be slotted into place with the other beams. This specialist framework can still be seen at the site in Portsmouth – see the picture at the bottom of this page.

Photograph of the two sections of the bridge showing the curved cast iron beams once the road surface had been stripped away.

Notes on the information board at the Paddington Bridge project offices. Note the timescales for re-erection of the bridge in time for Brunel’s 2006 Centenary!

The bridge has finally gone! Taken in sections to Portsmouth. Summer 2004.

Mirror report from 2004 on the discovery of the unusual bridge.

Feature on the bridge from The Times, March 2004.

Story on the bridge from a 2004 magazine.

Here are some pictures of the structure at Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth. The remnants are behind the Portsmouth Distillery which has a shop within the fort itself. The fort overlooks the channels on the east side of the city with Hayling Island.

One of the most ironic things about this story is the structure is just a short distance across the waters from the site of the locks at Milton, which once formed part of the Portsmouth and Arundel Canal! Thus despite being so far from its original site there is still a canal element locally!

Men looking at the preserved remains of the bridge at Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth. Picture cropped from Canal World Forums.

The cast iron maker’s plate – the bridge was built locally in London – Deptford. Source: Twitter

Calls for ‘truly unique’ 19th century bridge to be restored and kept in Portsmouth