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Isle of Anglesey County Council

Archives' document of the month

Document of the Month: May, 2020

Document of the Month: Print, Britannia Bridge, 19th Century

Reference Number: WSF/280 

The Britannia Bridge was the last piece of the jigsaw for the Chester to Holyhead Railway, crossing the Menai Strait by rail meant an uninterrupted rail connection between Chester and Holyhead. It was a grave undertaking, a massive engineering project fraught with difficulties. A rail crossing for the Menai Strait had been discussed as early as 1826, but the proposal faced major objections from the Admirality. They objected to arches, had height restrictions and were concerned about the effect of a bridge on the wind – thus affecting the shipping traffic. 

Robert Stephenson, was the engineer who took on this task, and designed a unique bridge consisting of 2 box section wrought iron tubes that would carry the railway between 3 towers across the strait. The proposal was approved by an act of Parliament in 1845, shipping clearance was met, and each tower was to be no more than 50 feet square as not to have to much effect on the wind, and in turn the shipping traffic. Construction took 4 years and the bridge opened on 5th March 1850.

This month’s document is a print of the Britannia Bridge from the 19th Century. The iron tubes can be clearly seen, as can the importance of the height of the design, as there is significant shipping traffic on the strait including a tall ship. A steam locomotive can be seen on the left, entering Anglesey, and notice the lion next to the train. There is a pair of lions on each end of the bridge. These were designed by the Victorian Sculptor John Thomas, who was the architect for the new Houses of Parliament. The lions were made from Limestone from Penmon quarry.

In May 1970, 50 years ago Britannia Bridge was damaged by fire. The damage was such that the bridge was left structurally unsound and unable to carry the railway. This resulted in another colossal engineering project. Not only was the bridge repaired, but it was a complete redesign, the tubes were gone, a road deck was added, iron arches were constructed between the towers to hold the extra weight, the openings in the towers were significantly opened to accommodate the road and the result is what is there to this day.  The Britannia Bridge came back bigger, better and stronger and now carries the A55 and the main railway line between Chester and Holyhead. The Lions? They are still there but on the rail level and can’t be seen from the road.

To see the document in more detail please see the attachment below.

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