Stories from the archives

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Memories of the Bridge by Clifton Suspension Bridge on Vimeo.

 

Daredevil Pilots

In July 1927 F G Wayman, Class AA Duty Pilot Officer, flew a Bristol Fighter (two seat biplane) under the Suspension Bridge. He recorded the incident in his memoirs, passed on to us by Patricia and Glyn Morris: 

“Whilst doing Reserve Air Force training I was challenged to a bet of five shillings that I could not fly under the Clifton Suspension Bridge. I accepted the challenge without knowing the hazard.
The next day I motored to the bridge, parked the car, and walked up-stream along the left bank. Then and only then did I see the twists and turns the river takes as it approaches the bridge - making it impossible for a straight approach.
The following day I flew up-stream for two miles at about 200 feet and made an about turn, lowering to 100 ft. About half a mile downstream I reduced to near stalling speed, banking steeply, right wing down. I skimmed the precipice into mid-stream, flattened, then levelled off at twenty feet above the river level. The rest was easy! I passed under the bridge then a full throttle upward climb and away back to the aerodrome.
The five shillings, and more, went on beer in the mess. The following day I faced the Commodore receiving a Severe Reprimand for ‘a stupid and insanely reckless feat’.”
 

As faster planes were designed and built, the feat became too dangerous. There are stories that Spitfires and others were flown underneath the Bridge during WW2 but such claims have not been substantiated. The last known fixed-wing flight beneath the Bridge was in 1957 when Flying Officer Crossley of 501 Squadron, R.A.F. flew a Vampire Jet at 450 mph from east to west under the Bridge (in spite of a ban against such escapades and against all safety regulations!). He crashed into the cliffs on the Leigh Woods (south) side and was killed instantly.

Today it is illegal to fly any aircraft within 500ft. of any highway or structure.  This is a general rule not a specific bridge byelaw.  The exceptions would be when coming in to land, or when the pilot has the permission of the CAA, although the police and other emergency services have such permission for search and rescue. Police helicopters flew beneath the Bridge in 1997 and 2017 whilst conducting searches.

 

Sarah Ann Henley (8 July 1862 – 31 March 1948)

Sarah was a young barmaid who lived with her father at 48 Twinnell Road, St Phillips in Bristol.

Sarah was engaged to a Porter on the Great Western Railway. They had a turbulent relationship and argued constantly.

A couple of days before the incident, a “few words” between the pair lead to her storming into his workplace and harangued his foreman about what a rogue he was and how she had dozens of suitors, all of a higher standing than a mere porter.

As a result of her outburst, the Porter had written her a letter breaking off the engagement. When Sarah’s father learned of the letter, he punched the young man on the nose.

On Thursday 7th May 1885, neighbours noticed Sarah was “looking depressed in spirits”. She was seen in her street at 11.00am on Friday 8th May and at 12.15am, Sarah “rushed to end her life by the fearful leap from the Suspension Bridge."

Thomas Stevens, inspector for the Clifton Suspension Bridge, reported that Sarah had climbed over the railings and on to the parapet. Before anyone could reach her, she had thrown herself off. “The occurrence was witnessed by several people, including James Ball of 43 Egerton Road, Bishopston; James Lang Vesey of 14 Greenway Road, Redland; and Detective Sergeant Robertson of the Bristol Police Force, the latter of whom was near Cumberland Basin at the time.”

It was a breezy day and witnesses claimed that she turned a complete somersault so was falling feet first – when a gust of air blew beneath her crinoline skirt and slowed the pace of her fall, blowing her away from the water and toward the muddy banks of the Avon River.

“A rather high wind was blowing and the woman’s dress offered a good deal of resistance to it, it not only materially checked the rapidity of her descent, but instead of falling vertically she was carried to the Gloucestershire bank, where she fell on the mud almost in a sitting position. The mud yielded freely, and the woman, straightened out to full length, sank some distance into it.”

After she landed in the thick mud of low-tide (the river being just 21 feet 10 inches deep), two passers-by - John Williams of Ashton Gate and George Drew - rushed to her assistance, pulling her out and taking her to the refreshment rooms of the nearby railway station, where “brandy was sent for” and she was attended to by a Doctor L. M. Griffiths of Gordon Road, Clifton who insisted that she be escorted to the Bristol Infirmary.

Sarah was conscious and able to state her name and address.

Detective Robertson requested a local cabman to take her to the hospital, but he refused because she was too dirty. Robertson argued with him and even offered payment, saying Sarah would die if she wasn’t treated urgently. The cabbie replied “I don’t care – let her die.”

Men were sent to Clifton Police Station for a stretcher and “she was conveyed on the stretcher by several constables to the institution, where, after being seen by the surgeons in the casualty room, she was placed in one of the wards. The infirmiary reported late last night that she was in a weak condition, but that no bones were broken. She suffered severely from effects of the shock consequent on such a fall.”

While Sarah was slowly recovering, the story of her misfortune quickly spread and lots of proposals of marriage and fame were offered – one wealthy suitor even bribed a hospital official to ensure that Sarah received his offer of a life of luxury as his wife.

Showmen were also interested in her: one offered her a contract of £400 plus a share of profits to tour; another approached her father with an offer of £1,000.

The cab driver was widely criticised and wrote to the papers to justify his refusal to help, saying: “it was only two weeks ago I spent my little all to get my cab done up, and I am only in the possession of one cab, which makes a scantly living. Having just lost two weeks work whilst my cab was under renovation to get my licence renewed, I could hardly be expected to take a fare which would have thrown me on my beam ends for the whole of the summer. Perhaps the public are not aware that cab drivers are not supposed to take any person that is dirty, or that, from loss of blood or from drink, would render their vehicle unfit for public use… Although it appears a little inhuman, it would have been more inhuman to deprive my large family of their bread, perhaps for months, though one act of kindness… I have advocated that a fund should be raised for the purpose of reinstating cabmen for taking fares such as accidents.”

Sarah survived all of her injuries and went on to become Mrs Lane of Croydon Street, Easton. Living to be 85 years of age, she died on 31 March 1948, and was buried 6 April 1948 at Avon View Cemetery.

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