|Severn Railway Bridge|
Severn Railway Bridge in July 1948
|Locale||Lydney – Sharpness|
|Preceded by||Severn Tunnel|
|Total length||4,162 feet (1,269 m)|
|Clearance above||70 feet (21 m)|
|Designer||George Baker Keeling|
|Collapsed||25 October 1960|
|Severn Bridge Railway|
The Severn Railway Bridge, or the Severn Bridge as it was known at the time, was a bridge carrying the railway across the River Severn between Sharpness and Lydney, Gloucestershire. It was built in the 1870s by the Severn Bridge Railway Company, principally to carry coal from the Forest of Dean to the docks at Sharpness. The company was taken over in 1893 by the Great Western Railway and the Midland Railway Companies when it got into financial difficulties. The bridge continued to be used for freight and passenger services until 1960, and saw temporary extra traffic when the Severn Tunnel was closed for engineering work.
The bridge was constructed by Hamilston's Windsor Ironworks Company Limited of Garston, Liverpool. It was approached from the north via a masonry viaduct and had twenty-two spans. The pier columns were formed of circular sections, bolted together and filled with concrete. The twenty-one regular wrought iron spans, each 134 ft (41 m) long, were then put in place, as well as the southernmost span, the swinging bridge over the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. The bridge was 4,162 ft (1,269 m) long and 70 ft (21 m) above high water, a total of 6,800 tons of iron being used in its construction.
A number of accidents took place at the bridge over the years, with vessels colliding with the piers due to the hazardous nature of the waterway. The most serious collision was when the bridge was badly damaged by two river barges that hit a pier in fog in 1960, causing two spans to collapse into the river. Repair work was under consideration when a further collision occurred the following year causing damage to a pier, after which it was decided that it would be uneconomic to repair the bridge. It was demolished between 1967 and 1970, with few traces remaining.
The Severn Railway Bridge was built by the Severn Bridge Railway Company in the 1870s to transport coal from the Forest of Dean on the Severn and Wye Railway. Work began in 1875 and was completed in 1879. The wrought iron bridge, which was 4,162 feet (1,269 m) long and 70 feet (21 m) above high water, had twenty-two spans and had stone abutments made from local limestone. The span across the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal operated as a swing bridge. The bridge incorporated 6,800 tons of iron. It was approached from the north via a masonry viaduct about 70 ft (21 m) high with twelve arches.
The river with its large tidal range and strong currents made construction a hazardous undertaking. The pier columns were formed of 4 ft (1.2 m) cylindrical sections, some 10 ft (3.0 m) in diameter. Near the west bank, the bedrock was a long way below the shifting sands. Staging was used through which the cylinders were lowered by chains, and when in place, filled with concrete. Near the east bank, a primitive piling machine was used to drive the sections through a ridge of clay. The staging was extended upwards for use while assembling the spans.
The spans were assembled on site. Staging was laid and rails put in place to carry a travelling crane. The long members were hoisted in place first, followed by the vertical bracings, and then the outer and inner plates of the top chordal trusses and the diagonals. The whole was bolted together at first and then riveted by blacksmiths using hand-operated forges. Some spans were completed within a week, with the contractors being complimented on the efficiency of their work.
The main contractor was Hamilston's Windsor Ironworks Company Limited of Garston, Liverpool. They were tasked with the founding and erection of the pier cylinders on the riverbed, and the erection and riveting of the twenty-one bowstring spans and the swing bridge over the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. They were also responsible for another swing bridge on the North Docks Branch of the line close to the New Docks at Sharpness. The company manufactured the castings and the wrought iron structures for the bridge. George Earle was the manager of the project, and at its successful conclusion was given a watch inscribed "Presented to George Earle, by the Directors of the Severn Bridge Railway Company in recognition of his zeal and ability and uniform cheerfulness in carrying out the work of the Severn Bridge, under exceptional difficulties for the Hamiltons Windsor Iron Works Co." The engineers for the project were George Wells Owen and George William Keeling.
The bridge was single track, and when it was built, it took approximately 30 miles (48 km) off the journey from Bristol to Cardiff, with trains no longer having to pass through Gloucester. At the time of its construction, it was anticipated that the Severn Bridge Railway would mainly receive its revenue from carrying coal from the Forest of Dean. The bridge predated the construction of the Severn Tunnel, a dozen miles or so downstream, by seven years. The opening ceremony took place on 17 October 1879. Nearly four hundred dignitaries embarked in twenty-three first class carriages and were carried across the bridge, and back again, accompanied on the return journey by fog signals exploding on each of the spans. A banquet followed at the Pleasure Grounds near Sharpness Station.
The problems encountered by the railway company were largely economic. Although coal was transported on the line, it was never carried in the volumes that had been anticipated. The miners went on strike about their low pay and poor conditions. The number of tourists wanting to visit the Forest of Dean was also disappointing. The Forest of Dean coal trade continued to be depressed and the opening of the Severn Tunnel, providing an alternative route into South Wales was a serious blow. By 1890, the company was unable to pay the interest on its debentures and bankruptcy loomed. As a result, it was taken over as a going concern by the Great Western Railway and the Midland Railway in 1893.
Over the years a number of accidents have happened at the bridge. The trow Brothers was lost after a collision with one of the piers in 1879, and the Victoria, employed in the bridge's construction, was wrecked in the 1880s. A worse accident was in 1938 when a tug and two barges got into difficulties and were carried along broadside by the tide into the bridge; a connecting hawser snagged one of the piers and the vessels capsized, with several fatalities.
Until the Severn Road Bridge was opened in 1966, the Severn Railway Bridge was often referred to as the Severn Bridge. There was a small station known as Severn Bridge on the Lydney side, adjacent to the main line from Gloucester to Chepstow, which the railway from the bridge crossed. The bridge was used as a diversionary route for the Severn Tunnel when that was closed for engineering work. The south-to-north chord at Berkeley Loop South Junction used for this route was closed when the bridge was abandoned. The remaining line from Berkeley Rd Junction to Sharpness Docks remains and on the north side of the Severn estuary, the line from the former Otters Pool Junction at Lydney to the Severn Bridge has long been lifted but a short headshunt on the trackbed exists as part of the Dean Forest Railway network.
In 1943 a flight of three Spitfires was being delivered by ATA pilots, including one woman, Ann Wood, from their Castle Bromwich factory to Whitchurch, Bristol. As it was low tide, the lead pilot Johnnie Jordan flew under the bridge. Some time later, Ann Wood repeated this underflying – without realising that this time it was high tide and there was 30 ft (9 m) less headroom. These were not the only instances of pilots buzzing the bridge, and on one occasion, a Vickers Wellington was seen to fly under it. The practice became so common at one time that RAF police were called in and tasked with the recording serial numbers of offending aircraft. After a few courts-martial, the incidents ceased.
On 25 October 1960, in thick fog and a strong tide, two barges (named the Arkendale H and Wastdale H) - which had overshot Sharpness Dock - collided with one of the columns of the bridge after being carried upstream. Two spans of the steel and cast iron bridge collapsed into the river. As they fell, parts of the structure hit the barges causing the fuel oil and petroleum they were carrying to be set on fire. Five people died in the incident.
Local people favoured repair of the bridge because following the accident, schoolchildren who had used the bridge daily had to be taken to school on a 40-mile (64 km) detour via Gloucester. An underwater survey in December 1961 found extensive damage to Pier 16. Rebuilding costs were estimated to be £312,000 as against dismantling costs of £250,000. The Western Region of British Railways planned to go ahead with reconstruction but shortly before the work was due to start, a capsized tanker caused further damage to Pier 20, and this same pier was struck again when the contractor’s crane broke adrift. These accidents added a further £20,000 to the estimated costs of repair, and in 1965, British Rail decided that the bridge was damaged beyond economic repair and opted for demolition.
Demolition began in 1967 and took until 1970. The contract was awarded to Nordman Construction after an unsuccessful tender process. They brought in an enormous floating crane with a lifting capacity of 400 tons, and by this means, all but three of the spans were removed. Six months later, another firm, Swinnerton & Miller, completed the main demolition work with the help of explosives, but clearing of the debris took another two years.
Evidence of several of the piers remains, the most notable being between the canal and river, a large circular pier that formed the base of the swinging section. Some piers are mere foundations and only visible at low tide, as are the wrecks of the petrol barges that caused the original damage. The river at this point has always been hazardous to shipping because of the strong tidal currents, the cause of the 1960 collision. During the demolition, a support vessel the Severn King, one of the old Aust Ferry boats that went out of service when the Severn Road Bridge had opened, broke its mooring in the tide, struck the remains of the bridge and sank.
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