One of England’s greatest ever mechanical and civil engineers was Portsmouth-born Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was responsible for designing and constructing the Royal Albert Bridge in the mid-19th century. Remarkable as a result of its unique design, the bridge is still regarded as an engineering miracle that spans the 1,100ft-wide River Tamar at a height of 100 feet.
Plans for a bridge were approved in 1846, as a result of the Cornwall Railway Act – it was stipulated that a rail service should replace the ferry at Saltash. The development was aimed at providing a train link between Cornwall and the rest of the UK. Its completion helped the Great Western Railway to develop into the successful transport system it is today.
Brunel was a 40-year-old, highly-regarded civil engineer at the time. His father, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, had been a successful French civil engineer, who had moved the family to the UK due to his work. As a four-year-old, Isambard was a child prodigy, whose father taught him observational and drawing techniques. By the age of eight, he had learned Euclidean geometry and basic engineering principles.
His career as a civil engineer was therefore assured and he had been working on construction projects since 1822, when he completed his education and his apprenticeship at the age of 16. He took his first job as assistant engineer on a project to build the Thames Tunnel under the River Thames.
He also designed Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, spanning more than 702ft above the River Avon. It was the world’s longest bridge at the time, with construction beginning in 1831.
Despite his solid engineering background, the logistics of building the Royal Albert Bridge were complex, not only because of the width of the River Tamar, but also because there was no suitable bedrock to lay the foundations.
Initial plans to construct a single-span bridge were scrapped because of its required height of 100 feet. This condition was imposed by the Admiralty, as it was necessary for the river to remain operational for the Navy to accommodate tall ships.
A second plan to build a bridge with four separate spans was also discontinued, after it was discovered the bedrock was unsuitable for building the required three piers to accommodate the design. Finally, Brunel decided upon a plan which included a single pier in the centre of the river which would support two spans, each measuring 455ft in length.
The railway track was to be supported by 10 approach spans on the Cornwall side of the Tamar and seven on the Devon side. As there wasn’t a suitable place to secure any tension chains, Brunel had to design a unique bridge with self-supporting trusses.
The project’s estimated cost in 1846 was approximately £500,000 – equating to around £44.4 million today. Construction began with the erection of the centre stone pillar. It was built into a massive cylinder on the Devon shoreline, where it was constructed in two halves and then floated to the centre of the Tamar.
Stonework was built to 12ft high above the water to form the base for the octagonal support columns in the centre of the bridge. At the same time, the two support trusses were being constructed, also on the Devon shore. Each one was made up of an oval wrought iron tube. Suspension chains were added, before the decking to carry the track bed was suspended from the chains.
The foundations for the first Cornish pier were laid on 4th July 1853. After the central pier was capped in 1856, construction of the four octagonal support columns was completed. On 1st September 1857, the first truss was manoeuvred into place at the centre of the river. It took five Navy vessels and 500 men some two hours to complete the move. Around 20,000 spectators arrived to watch the spectacular feat of engineering.
The truss was gradually built higher using hydraulic jacks, reaching completion on 1st July 1858. It stood 100 feet high above the river. A similar procedure took place on 10th July 1858 for the second span. This time, word had spread and more spectators arrived from London by special trains that had been provided for the public.
The first train (a test locomotive) crossed the new bridge on 11th April 1859. The bridge was officially opened on 2nd May by His Royal Highness Prince Albert, who walked across the bridge from Saltash Station and declared it open.
Sadly, Brunel was suffering ill health by this time and was unable to attend the grand opening to see his labours come to fruition. Two days later, he crossed the bridge himself in an open wagon.
The great civil engineer died after suffering a stroke on 5th September 1859. He had been diagnosed with Bright’s Disease (now known as nephritis) and had suffered kidney inflammation in his later years, making him increasingly unwell.
However, his legacy lives on in the shape of the Royal Albert Bridge, which still attracts hundreds of visitors to this day, who marvel at its splendour.
The bridge has been the subject of many paintings and photographs and has appeared in countless guidebooks, on the UK £2 coin and on postage stamps. Celebrations took place on its centenary in 1959 and again in 2009 to mark 150 years since its opening.
Today, the Tamar River remains an important part of the natural landscape, as The Tamar Valley contains a World Heritage Site and is also a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It stretches 60 miles, reaching Cornwall and Devon, providing 116 million litres of water for people to use. Its many banks and tributaries are popular beauty spots where visitors relax, and children play.
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