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150 Years of the Clifton Suspension Bridge

On 8th December 2014, the Clifton Suspension Bridge celebrated 150 years since its grand opening. Here are some of the key events which took place in that year.


Clifton Suspension Bridge 150th Anniversary Fireworks from Clifton Suspension Bridge on Vimeo.


Sunday 8th May

After almost a year of labour, the suspension chains which joined the two towers were finally completed.

In July 1863, nine cables weighing two tons each had been fixed between the two towers. Stout planks were bound to six them to form a platform which “oscillated at every breeze” and had to be heavily secured with guy ropes. Two more cables acted as both handrails and tracks for the grooved wheels of the cradles used to support the chain links. The final cable ran overhead and was used to transport chain links into position. Despite the dangerous work, only one fatality was recorded.

Three chains were assembled to support each side of the bridge deck and the last of the 4,200 links was secured in place on 8th May. Work could now begin on the construction of the road deck.


Tuesday 17th May

The work of attaching the rods and girders was now underway.

“The bridge has now become of considerable weight and its oscillation in windy weather has greatly diminished.”


Saturday 2nd July

The last of the cross girders was fixed in place, completing the framework of the bridge. In the afternoon, the resident engineer and a party of his friends travelled across the bridge in the “’traveller’ or moveable windlass apparatus amid the cheers of the crowds on the banks of the Avon, and from the decks of the vessels below.”

Work began almost immediately on the footway and roadway.


Thursday 22nd September

Prominent members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science including Sir Roderick Murchison, Lord Milton, Sir William Armstrong and the great explorer Dr. Livingstone visited Bristol. They viewed the maces, civic swords and charters in the Council Chamber, toured a number of works, factories, hospitals, colleges and churches and arrived at the suspension bridge at 2.30pm, just as it began to rain.

“The tramway across the bridge is still down and the first layer of timber is not completed in the part for foot passengers; but an excellent via media (middle of the road) was furnished in the part intended for vehicles.”

Accompanied by Mr Airey (Resident Engineer) and Mr Hawkshaw (Chief Engineer), the group inspected the bridge before moving to the Victoria Rooms for a banquet. Captain Huish, Chairman of the Suspension Bridge Company proposed a toast: ‘There is one moral to be learnt from the completion of the Suspension Bridge; a moral which underlay and is the very source of the greatness of our country… Though successive men engaged in the work have failed, fortunes lost and reputations wrecked, the work has been accomplished thanks to the pertinacity or obstinacy of the Anglo Saxon race.’


Thursday 3rd November

The Directors of the bridge held a meeting at the offices of Osborne and Ward in Broad Street and set the date for the official opening of the bridge at 8th December.  Moving the opening from September to December meant that the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) was in Denmark and unable to attend.

“It had been intended to set an earlier date, but looking into the arrangements which will have to be carried out and taking into consideration all the circumstances, the day we have named was most eligible…”


Saturday 5th November

Using a temporary tramway laid across the bridge, ‘navvies’ threw out locally quarried stone to cover the bridge deck and test the load.

“To all intents and purposes, the bridge itself is finished. For the purposes of proving the strength of the bridge, rough hewn stone from the locality has been distributed over the entire roadway, and up to yesterday some 250 tons had been laid on… the entire quantity of stone to be used being 500 tons.”

The results of load testing on the bridge were declared ‘highly satisfactory’. Work continued as the tollhouses at either end of the bridge were ‘advancing rapidly’, a new approach road on the Clifton side of the bridge was being cut and the ironwork was painted chocolate brown. Later, the nuts of the chain links were gilded “so that they are perfectly dazzling where the sun shines upon them.”


Monday 7th November

The bridge was officially examined by Sir Charles Manby on behalf of the government, accompanied by the engineers and staff of the bridge. In his report, Sir Charles concluded that “the strength of the bridge is ample and the quality of workmanship throughout the structure is very good,” but noted that the paprapet walls of the abutments were still under construction.

A meeting is held at the George Hotel, Narrow Wine Street for the delegates from trades societies and workshops to make arrangements for the ‘industrial orders of the city’ who wished to take part in the opening ceremony. 


Wednesday 7th December

“Heavy, persistent, soaking, chilling rain fell hour after hour until the streets swam like rivulets.”

With the opening of the bridge set to take place the next day, the Leigh Woods tower was yet to be fitted with its iron cap and there were several dangerous drops along the side of the gorge. In one place, the original wire ropes used to fit the chains in place were still being used as temporary railings.


Thursday 8th December

The Suspension Bridge opened “with a gorgeous ceremony quite befitting of such a noble structure” which began with a military display in Queen Square at 9.30am. At 10.30, troops began their march along Broad Quay, Park Street, Brandon Hill and the Downs. “The military procession embraced representatives from every department of the war service… Of its length, some idea may be formed that when we state that as its advanced guard of Artillerymen was entering Park Street, the company of Riflemen which brought up the rear had just emerged from Thunderbolt Street” (approximately half a mile).

Meanwhile, the procession of Trades and Friendly Societies assembled in the Old Market. It included the police, fire brigades, iron bedstead manufacturers, printers, sawyers, gold beaters, cork cutters, masons, bricklayers, plasters, painters, shoemakers, soda water manufacturers, boiler makers, iron ship builders, coach makers, druids, Oddfellows, gardeners, cabinet makers, hatters, agricultural implement makers, wheelwrights, unions and shepherds – many with their own bands. Whilst the Friendly Societies paraded with their flags, scarves and silver regalia, the trades displayed “models, pieces of machinery in motion, sections of vessels, skeleton framework of carriages, steam engines, specimens of wood graining, carving and cabinet making…”

“The procession extended a distance of two to three miles and must have numbered several thousand persons. When marching at a quick pace the whole cavalcade (of course including the military) occupied 44 minutes in passing.” Bringing up the rear was ‘Mr Ginnet’s Triumphal Car’, a float drawn by eight horses showing Britannia seated on a globe and surrounded by the figures of Europe, Asia, Africa and America.

Despite the rain, it was estimated that up to 150,000 people flooded the city streets to watch the procession “packed as tightly as it was possible for human beings to squeeze themselves together”. Church bells pealed and many houses and businesses were decorated with flags and banners to celebrate the occasion. “All through the line of the route the roofs of the houses and windows from attic to basement were crowded with eager sight-seers.”

The Trades and Friendly Societies made their way along Castle Street, Dolphin Street, Wine Street, Corn Street, Clare Street, St Augustine’s Parade, College Green, Park Street, Queen’s Road, Richmond Terrace, Clifton Church, Royal York Crescent, Prince’s Buildings, Caledonia Place, The Mall, Portland Place, Clifton Turnpike and down Bridge Valley Road where it halted during the ceremonial opening and then went back into the centre via Hotwells Road. On reaching the Exchange, the 20 bands involved played the National Anthem.

On the Downs, people had begun to assemble at 9.00am to get a good view of the proceedings and a few lucky ticket holders crossed the bridge. Stall holders set up shooting galleries, peep-shows and other entertainments. Acrobats performed tricks, street vendors sold spice nuts, pockets were picked and young boys hid behind the Observatory smoking penny cigars. From Cumberland Basin to the bridge, the river was filled with steam ships decked in bunting, all hoping for a good view.

The approach to the bridge had been decorated with evergreens, flags and artificial flowers and two ornate arches were erected with the flags of different nations strung at each end. A scroll displaying the names of man who had aided in the construction of the bridge was laid on the ground and a banner read ‘Concordia Crescimus Bristol’ (Bristol growing in harmony). The bridge itself was decorated in evergreens and topped with a crown and the letters ‘V.R.’ Flags and banners hung from the towers and shields representing some of the dignitaries and societies involved were displayed on the towers. At the base of the tower, as there had not yet been time to fix it in place, was the motto of the bridge, ‘Suspensa Vix via fit’.

At 11.30, the Colston Boys band and boys of Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School arrived to line the footway of the bridge and were presented with medals.

By noon the sun was shining and the Engineer Band and the fife and drum band of the Rifle Corps took up positions near the Clifton tollhouses and the military procession took up positions guarding the bridge approach.

After the parade of the Trades and Friendly Societies had started their march, the Mayor and his officers, officials connected with the Corporation and members of the Bristol Corporation of the Poor had marched from Princes Buildings to Gloucester Row and up Sion Hill. When all three processions had arrived at the bridge, a procession was formed consisting of the Suspension Bridge directors, shareholders, engineers, contractors and workers; foreign consuls; the Lord Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, the Lord Lieutenants of Gloucester and Somerset; Colonel Kingscote MP; the Mayor of Bristol and civic dignitaries; the Governor, Deputy-Governor, assistants and guardians of the poor and the Presidents and office-bearers of the Trades and Friendly Societies.

Shortly after 12 o’clock, the bridge procession began to cross, led by the Artillery Corps with four 18 pound artillery guns who had marched from their parade ground at Whiteladies Road at 9am. Met by the Clevedon Artillery Corps once across, the guns were moved into “convenient points in Leigh Woods” and fired, “blending with the music of the military band and the hearty hurrahs of the vast multitude.”

On what is now the Clifton approach road, a banner which read ‘Via vincente Vicks victa’ (‘Vicks’ victory’) was hung, and a grandstand seating 1,400 people was erected.

“After the whole of [the procession] had passed over, the order to right about face was given and the procession returned in reverse order.” Following this, the Bridge was formally declared open for foot traffic from the following morning by Earl Ducie and the Earl of Cork, who stood on an elevated platform facing the grandstand with local dignitaries, the Chair and Directors of the Suspension Bridge Company, the Lord Bishop and the Master of the Society of Merchant Venturers. A flag was raised and the artillery gave a 21 gun salute. The military presented arms and the bands play ‘God save the Queen’.

At 4.30, around 350 distinguished guests attended a “banquet” (in actuality a light meal of cold meats and preserves) at the Victoria Rooms. A number of speeches were given and a “an efficient band” serenaded the assembled guests with a classical repertoire.

“The illumination of the bridge by electric and other lights had been looked forward to as one of the most interesting and novel sights of the day” and large crowds gathered to see it. Electric lights had been placed on the top of each tower, and two others in the centre of the bridge. There were lime lights at the base of each tower and magnesium lights spaced evenly along the roadway.

Bengal fire (a firework with a steady blue light) illuminated the bridge from the Cumberland Basin but the bridge illuminations were a failure as they were bright but localised and only light up small parts of the bridge. The electric lighting proved to be intermittent and the magnesium lights were abandoned due to the wind. “At times the effect of the light was exceedingly brilliant, the rays being distinctly pencilled and elongated, and all the outlines and tracery of the bridge were rendered clearly visible, while at others the light presented a dim appearance and presented a great disappointment.”

The crowd themselves let off sparklers and squibs, one gentleman reporting the “ruthless burning of his whiskers on one side only”. By 9.00pm, most spectators had decided to return to the city.


Friday 9th December

The first member of the public to cross the bridge on its opening day was 21 year old Mary Griffiths from Hanham. Picking up her skirts, Mary raced a young man from Clifton to Leigh Woods urged on by her uncle and beat him by a few yards. Mary paid a one penny toll to cross.

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