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Mr. Telford’s Decision as Umpire—Mr. Telford’s Design—The Second Competition—Mr. Brunel appointed Engineer, March 1831—Commencement of the Works, August 1836

The committee of the Society of Merchants had, not unnaturally, found themselves unable to decide upon the merits of designs for a suspension bridge, and had asked Mr. Telford to act as their adviser in the matter. Unfortunately for Mr. Brunel, Mr. Telford was of opinion that the maximum span admissible was that of the Menai bridge, i.e. under 600 feet, and that Mr. Brunel’s proposed bridge, though very pretty and ingenious, would most certainly tumble down in a high wind.

This decision was, of course, fatal to the success of any design which substituted one large span for two or more smaller ones, and dispensed with pillars. Mr. Brunel therefore obtained permission to withdraw his plans from the competition.

Mr. Telford then reported to the committee that none of the remaining designs were suitable for adoption without the introduction of such material alterations as would, in fact, constitute a new design. Whereupon the committee took the only course which, under the circumstances, was open to them, and requested Mr. Telford to prepare a design himself.

Mr. Brunel was not a little disappointed at the turn matters had taken; but, having, as he said,’smoked away his anger,’ he took leave of his friends at Bristol, and went for a visit to some of the principal manufacturing towns in the north.

Meanwhile Mr. Telford prepared his design, and it was exhibited in Bristol in January 1830. It consisted of a suspension bridge of three spans (the centre span 360 feet, and the side ones 180 feet each), the chains being supported at the intermediate points by tall stone piers rising from the river’s banks at just sufficient distance apart to avoid interfering with the roadways on either side of the stream. The style of architecture was a florid Gothic; and, in order to display the peculiar features of that style, the faces of the piers were covered with elaborate panelling, and the chains ornamented with fret-work.

This design was received with a flourish of trumpets; numerous engravings were published, exhibiting the bridge from various points of view, and ‘thousands of copies were disposed of;’ but, after a time, it would appear that the captivating effect of the Gothic belfries wore off, and that the more the citizens of Bristol looked at Mr. Telford’s plan, the less they were satisfied with it; for, although it was deposited in the Private Bill Office, on application being made for an Act of Parliament, the trustees who were appointed under the Act determined to invite a second competition.

On this occasion, Mr. Telford appeared as a competitor and not as a referee, that office being filled by Mr. Davies Gilbert, sometime President of the Royal Society.

The site of the bridge was fixed, being that selected by Mr. Telford; but the trustees expressly left it to the judgment of the competitors to decide whether there should be intermediate piers or one unbroken span.

Of the thirteen designs sent in, five, including those submitted by Mr. Telford and Mr. Brunel, were reserved for further examination. On March 17, 1831, Mr. Davies Gilbert (who had been assisted by Mr. Seward) made his report. Mr. Telford’s design was put aside, ‘on account of the inadequacy of the funds requisite for meeting the cost of such high and massive towers as were essential to the plan which that distinguished individual had proposed.’

Mr. Brunel’s design was placed second. [1] Although Mr. Gilbert reported that it presented every desirable strength and security, he saw objections to many of the details, and therefore did not recommend it for adoption. However, on the following day, March 18, he stated to the trustees that he had seen Mr. Brunel, and that it gave him much pleasure to state that the explanations made by Mr. Brunel had materially altered his views as to the details of the plans, which he (Mr. Gilbert) was now satisfied were quite equal to those which he had placed first, and that, considering the superiority of Mr. Brunel’s design in the essential particular of strength, he should judge it preferable to any of the others.

Thereupon the trustees, ‘having considered Mr. Davies Gilbert’s report, and referred to all the plans, including Mr. Telford’s, unanimously gave the preference to Mr. Brunel’s,’ and appointed him their engineer.

Subscriptions came in but slowly, and it was not till 1836 that the works were commenced.

The first stone of the abutment on the Leigh woods or Somersetshire side of the river was laid on August 27 by the Marquis of Northampton, President of the British Association, which was then holding its meeting in Bristol. [2]

[1] The dimensions proposed in this design were as follows:—

Distance between points of suspension 600 feet.
Versed sine 60
Width of roadway 32
[2] A few days before this ceremony, an iron bar, 1½ inch diameter, and about 1,000 feet in length, was hung across the valley from Clifton Rocks to Leigh Down, to facilitate the works. It was traversed by a basket pulled by ropes. The first few journeys of this machine were somewhat perilous. It was intended that Mr. and Mrs. Brunel should be the first passengers; but, when all was ready, one of Mr. Brunel’s assistants started on a clandestine trial trip, and owing to a bend in the bar, the basket stuck half way, and the mast of a passing steamer caught in the rope. The rope was however cut, and he was drawn back. When the apparatus had been put to rights, on another occasion, when Mr. Brunel was in the basket, it got jammed, and he had to climb up the connecting link and get upon the bar, before he could release the basket.

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