On this day in history : 5th March 1850 – The completion of the Britannia Bridge – linking the island of Anglesey and mainland Wales across the Menai Strait….

Original box section bridge circa 1852 – Public domain

The Menai Strait is a narrow stretch of tidal water, approximately 16 miles long separating Anglesey from the mainland…. Access across it had been solely provided by a road bridge – the Menai Bridge – a mile to the east and which had opened in 1826…. However, with the rise of rail travel a direct link to London was required – particularly to ease the journeys of MPs travelling from Ireland to Westminster, so a second bridge became necessary….

Postcard of the bridge circa 1902 – from the private collection of Jochem Hollestelle – Public domain

Initially consideration was given to using the existing bridge but it was the opinion of George Stephenson – ‘Father of Railways’ – that this particular type of suspension bridge would be unsuitable for locomotive use…. Consent for the new Britannia Bridge was granted on the 30th of June 1845…. Stephenson’s son, Robert Stephenson, was appointed Chief Engineer for the project, his design team included William Fairbairn and Eaton Hodgkinson…. They came up with a revolutionary tubular design; giant wrought iron tubes – two central main spans 140m long and two more spans at each end of 70m long…. It was thought initially that suspension chains would be needed but after careful consideration it was realised that this was not the case…. Compression force and tension would be dissipated as a train travelled across the tubes, enabling a heavy load to travel across the distance of the span….

1868 engraving showing Robert Stephenson with his team of engineers who designed the bridge – which can be seen in the background – Engraver James Scott – Public domain

Construction started on the 10th of April 1846 when the foundation stone was laid – the bridge was completed within four years…. On the 5th of March 1850 Stephenson himself fitted the last rivet into place, officially marking completion of the bridge…. On the 18th of March a single tube opened to rail traffic and by the 21st of October it was fully operational….

The bridge was decorated by four large limestone lion sculptures by John Thomas – two at each end…. Local poet John Evans wrote “Four fat lions, Without any hair, Two on this side, And two over there”…. And for 120 years those four lions oversaw the save passage of travellers across the Menai Strait….

One of the four stone lions – Image : Velela – own work – Public domain

On the evening of the 23rd of May 1970 a group of boys were playing inside the tube structure when they dropped a burning torch…. The wooden, tar coated roof caught fire and because of the nature of the construction of the bridge it was impossible for the emergency services to bring the blaze under control…. It spread from the mainland side all the way across to Anglesey before eventually burning itself out…. The structure was still standing but declared unsafe – tubes were visibly sagging and some had split open….

Section of the original wrought iron tubular bridge – which now stands by the modern crossing – Image : Velela – own work – Public domain

Four years later the bridge came back into use having been reconstructed – but it looked very different…. The tubes had gone and arches spanning between the retained original towers now provided support for the rail deck…. In 1980 a further road deck was added above the railway to carry the main A55 across….

The modern-day bridge – Image : Velela – own work – Public domain

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