Today, a train journey into London crossing over Blackfriars Railway Bridge provides the curious sight of a series of bright red bridge columns stretching out across the Thames. A clue to the origin of these columns lies at the South side of the river; a splendidly restored abutment displaying the insignia of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LC&DR).
The columns mark the position of the first Blackfriars railway bridge designed by James Cubitt. Cubitt was also the designer of the Blackfriars road bridge which was being rebuilt at the time the railway bridge was constructed. In 1860 the LC&DR gained permission to construct an extension from Kent into Ludgate Hill and work on the bridge started in 1862. Blackfriars Station, known until the 1930s as St Paul’s, was opened in 1864.
As the years passed the railways grew and it was soon necessary to build new lines. A second bridge was constructed in 1886, designed by W. Mills, assisted by John Wolfe Barry and Henri Marc Brunel, the second son of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel followed in his father’s footsteps as a civil engineer and went on to work on other projects with Wolfe Barry for example, the Creagan Bridge in Scotland. The two bridges were used to carry trains into St Paul’s Station but a century after the first bridge was built it was considered too weak to continue carrying a high volume of modern trains. In 1971 all railway services were concentrated on the second bridge and by 1984 the bridge was obsolete and finally dismantled.
Whilst Cubitt’s railway bridge eventually fell into disuse, the road bridge still stands as a striking example of late Victorian bridge design. Designs to rebuild Blackfriars Bridge were submitted to the Corporation of the City of London in 1860-1861 and the foundations laid in May 1863. The road bridge was completed in 1869 to replace the old bridge which had been in place for a hundred years. The foundations of the first bridge were giving way and Cubitt’s design of a wrought-iron rib bridge was chosen to build a bridge that would remain steadfast across the river. The engineer for the contractors, P&A Thorn, was F.W. Bryant (Member of IMechE and President of the Society of Engineers). Contemporaries credited Bryant with overcoming many difficulties during the course of construction, in particular working with limited space for construction. The contractors had no space at either of the shore ends of the works for putting up shops or smithies, so instead they worked in carpenter’s shops and sawpits standing on large staging’s supported by piles. Photographs in the Archive at IMechE (now online) show the workers, the engineers are marked out by their smart dress. In one image, a diver can be seen in Victorian diving gear – his job involved sinking the caissons for the foundations.
The construction of the bridge took longer than anticipated due to the difficulty of sinking the iron caissons for the foundations. This process involved divers (as noted), and steam engines which were used to pump out the water from the interior of the caissons. The final cost of the bridge was £400,000 and 6,000 tons of wrought and cast iron was used in the construction. In 2005, it is estimated, this would be worth £18,280,000.00.
Images of deconstructing the old bridge, preparing for the new and of workers are available on our Virtual Archive.