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British Industrial History

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Homersfield Bridge

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Homersfield bridge 17-04-F from SE 17mar1997a.jpg
Homersfield bridge 17-04-F from S 17mar1997a.jpg
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on the Norfolk/Suffolk border

Built in 1870 to cross the River Waveney, it is believed to be the oldest surviving concrete bridge in Britain. It incorporates wrought iron framework, and has attractive cast iron railings.

Information and images provided by Ian Anderson, November 2017:-

The bridge has a segmental arch of 50ft clear span, with a rise of 4ft 10in.

Monolithic structure of two variable depth wrought iron lattice trusses (comprising 6in. x 4in. angles bottom, 5½in. x 4in. angles top) 12ft apart, with wrought iron I sections between the bottom members of the trusses at 2ft centres. Between these are small wrought iron T sections arranged in a herringbone fashion at 5in. centres. This framework supports insitu concrete poured to the depth of the trusses at the edges and to a variable depth over the cross members, varying from approx. 20 inches at the centre to 36 inches at the springing. The outside faces of the concrete and ironwork were then rendered with about ¾in. of cement mortar, leaving the top and bottom truss members exposed and painted. The spandrels have reeded panels. The superstructure is 6ft 4in. deep at haunches, 2ft 3in deep at the crown. 12ft 3in wide between parapets widening to 15ft at end brick pilasters. Brick abutments with stone bearing slabs. Very ornate cast iron balustrades of open panels 3ft high, posts at 6ft 3in centres, with monogrammed bosses and finial capped posts. Six inch wide handrail with cast mark H.M. EYTON ARCHITECT (see photo). The armorial crest of the Adair family comprising four red hands (of Ulster) can be seen at the centre of the superstructure at the centre of the span each side. The bridge is now closed to vehicles. Tarmac surfacing with beige stone finish, and flush stone slabs at edges of deck. The county boundary of Suffolk/Norfolk is at the centre of the river.

From a 17 Dec 1956 letter from Ipswich & East Suffolk Record Office, the earliest mention of a crossing is in 1342/3 when a sum of 113s 4d was received for the farm of the mill and the ‘passage’ of Homersfield. ‘Passage’ could mean a charge or custom levied on passengers or a toll or as a place at which a river may be crossed, be it ford, ferry or bridge. The earliest mention of a bridge is 1355/6 relating to two sawyers employed in sawing planks for mending the bridge at Homersfield, presumed to be of timber construction. There is a 1597 record of a toll being payable to go over Homersfield Bridge or through the stream, i.e. ford. At that stage tolls included 2d for every shod cart, ½ d for every horse or gelding, 2d for every score of cattle and 1d for every score of small cattle. However foot passengers were not subject to a toll. From pre-Conquest times the lordship of the manor of Southelmham was held by the Bishop of Norwich, and there it remained until 1535 when the King seized it in exchange for other lands, all authorised by Act of Parliament. In 1510 the manor was granted by the King to Edward North, Treasurer of the Court of Augmentations, and continued in the North family until 1613 when Dudley, Lord North sold the manor to Sir John Tasburgh. In 1719 the heir to the Tasburgh etates was a daughter, Lettiuce, married to John Wyborne and in 1735 she and her husband sold the manor to William Adair. The manor remained with the Adair family at least until the sale of the Flixton estate in 1948.

The previous Homersfield bridge, presumed to be late medieval and known as Wortwell Bridge (the nearest parish on the Norfolk side), was a three (or five) arch brick construction on brick piers, inclined each side up to a central apex in the middle. Sir Robert Alexander Shafto Adair, also Lord Waveney and owner of Flixton Hall Estates, commissioned Henry Medgett Eyton (1833-1900), an Ipswich architect and the Surveyor of Bridges for the Suffolk Eastern Division, in 1869 to design the new bridge. Sir Shafto Adair had also given notice of his intention to provide a new raised road each side of the bridge of total length 2776 yds in the Ipswich Journal for 21 Aug 1869. Henry Eyton had been appointed Surveyor of Bridges in 1865 and Sir Shafto Adair would have known him from his dealings with the Quarter Sessions.

Henry Eyton had noted that those iron girders removed from buildings, and previously embedded in concrete, were quite free from rust. He had previously endeavoured to take advantage of this discovery by embedding all the girders in concrete in the bridges designed by him at Wickham Market, Heveningham etc, thus not only preserving the iron from decay but also giving greater resistance to compressive strain. Also, the concrete, forming one homogeneous mass, distributes the weight more equally over the bridge. However those bridges had the defect of having all the outer iron casing exposed to the atmosphere. In designing the bridge for Beccles (rebuilt later to a different design), advantage had been taken in using Messrs T & W Phillips patent fire-proof construction where all ironwork is embedded in concrete.

There are few remaining examples of early attempts to combine iron and concrete in bridge construction before the era of true reinforced concrete, but Homersfield is a remarkable survivor. Designed by Henry M. Eyton, his original drawing shows an elevation of a 48ft clear span between abutment faces with cast iron arched spandrels. As explained above, this was altered to a wrought iron arched truss design encased in concrete of similar span by W. & Thos. Phillips, 29 and 30, Coal Exchange, London, who erected their bridge at a cost of £344. The 16 December 1869 letter with quote from Phillips states that the bridge would be designed for 200 tons safe distributed load or 1200 tons ultimate strength. It also states that the spandrels would be from solid diapered plate as shown on Eyton’s drawing, which evidently was not proceeded with. The bridge was built in 1870 on (what are believed to be) the old bridge abutments. There is drawing of another bridge by John Botwright of Bungay dated 15 Nov 1869, which shows a brick bridge of overall length 79ft 6in and 11ft 7in wide roadway with three arches, 12ft-15ft-12ft, which may have been an alternative, later rejected in favour of Eyton’s design.

The Suffolk Chronicle for Sat 22 October 1870 records how the bridge was tested on Tuesday 18 October, soon after construction. Present were Sir Shafto Adair, Revds F W Cubitt and R C Denny, Mr Richard Mann, Mr Robert Dashwood, Captain Cartwright, the Mayor of Beccles and the Borough Surveyor of Beccles. The first test was a five ton road roller drawn by four horses with not the least deflection perceptible. Afterwards a heavy wagon loaded with sacks of flour, weighing six tons total, was passed over with still no noticeable deflection. The article notes that this was not surprising as the bridge had a calculated strength of 200 tons distributed load, greatly in excess of anything likely to be required.

A letter was published a week later in the 29 Oct 1870 edition of the Suffolk Chronicle from J E Hargrove, agent for the road and substructure contractors, clarifying that the taking down of the old three arch brick structure was done without centring being erected or the slightest accident to men engaged on the work. He notes that, after the old piles had been drawn, coffer dams were constructed and excavations made to fifteen feet below water level on to the gravel. The whole was then infilled with concrete on to which the new bridge and wing walls rest. Pumps were kept going night and day to prevent spring water rising.

Suffolk Record Office has two sketches showing the bridge, one headed ‘measured by H Miller 9 Sept 1907’ and headed ‘Homersfield Bridge over R Waveney. Erected for Sir Shafto Adair 187- ?’. The dimensions are as above. showing 48ft clear between abutment faces, 4ft 10in rise, minimum crown depth 2ft 3in, 12ft 3in between parapets, widens over abutments to 15ft. with the description ‘There is a lattice girder on each side with iron joists across 2ft apart, small T iron lacing between the joints 4¾ in apart and the whole filled with concrete’.

The bridge once carried the busy B 1062 off the A143, but the road was diverted on a new route to the north over a new prestressed concrete beam bridge in 1971, the old one now remaining open to pedestrians only. In 1907 the bridge was surveyed by H Miller who noted that on one day a year, between sunrise and sunset, a Flixton Estate employee hung a chain between the flamboyantly decorated balustrades at the centre of the bridge. Invariably a day was chosen when the river was in flood to prevent those wanting to cross the Waveney directly, thus avoiding the toll. For many years vehicles were charged a toll of a penny per wheel, increased later to twopence a wheel. Pedestrians could step over the chain and cross free of charge. With rises in local rates and heavier traffic including lorries and charabancs, which contributed little to the local community, Sir Robert Shafto Adair was unwilling to continue maintaining the bridge and offered it as a gift to the Norfolk & Suffolk County Councils. The county councils evidently saw it as a district council responsibility, and vice versa, with the result that maintenance costs remained with Sir Robert. In 1948 the Flixton Estate was sold, leaving the bridge ownership unclear. Although the bridge itself was not sold, the land each side was. It may have been overlooked in the sale and quietly forgotten.

The bridge was considered an outstanding example and was listed in 1981 as Grade II, later upgraded to II*, and in 1991 came under the conservation area of Homersfield. The question of ownership remained for several years until the bridge had deteriorated to such a degree that the local authorities were pressured into doing something. At that time with some of the ornate parapet and two pilasters missing, a steel tube post and rail parapet was erected both sides as a safety measure.

Norfolk County Council carried out an investigation on the construction in March 1989, drawing 7/6/402/1/1. It shows the basic iron framework with the I beam joist cross beams at 2ft centres with T section iron lacing laid in a herringbone fashion at 6in centres along the span. A cross section at midspan shows the concrete fill (described as poor concrete with bricks and flint as aggregate) as full height along the spandrels and 4in in each side, then tapering down to 20in/500mm thick from the soffit. Above the concrete was 1 ½ in/40mm sand asphalt, then 15in/390mm of hoggin fill with 4in/100mm surfacing. A second section approx 17ft/5.3m from midspan shows the concrete fill to be 33in/835mm thick above the soffit, 1 ½ in/40mm sand asphalt, 20in/500mm hoggin and 4in/100mm surfacing.

A scheme to restore the bridge to its former glory was estimated in July 1989 at £45,000 plus fees, and there the situation remained until two people offered to accept ownership so that the county councils could compulsorily purchase the bridge, which was bought for £1 in 1994(?). Also relevant was the yellow plastic gas main attached to one side during the period of unknown ownership.

Two trusts offered to share responsibility for the repairs, Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust and the Suffolk Preservation Society, funded by grants if possible. In the event, Suffolk Preservation Society withdrew. Norfolk County Council passed the bridge on to Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust in 1994, who continued with the project. Grants to cover the £85,000 restoration were obtained from English Heritage, Norfolk County Council, Suffolk County Council, South Norfolk District Council and Waveney District Council, the Upper Waveney Project, Homersfield Parish Council and Blue Circle Cement. For the restoration, carried out by contractors Makers, old rubble fill was removed, the exposed ironwork was shot blasted and protected with three coats of zinc-rich paint, and a waterproof membrane laid above the concrete arch before backfilling with lightweight concrete. Extensive repairs were carried out to the concrete arch, spandrels and the pilasters. The cast iron balustrades were refurbished, with replacements to match as necessary. The decorative render panels were bonded with epoxy resin or repaired with polymer-modified cementitious mortar. The most significant cracks were injected with low-viscosity epoxy resin and repaired with mortar as for the panels, and a nominal 15mm thick render was applied to the soffit. The gas main previously fixed to the south face was relocated within the span.

The restoration was completed between July and November 1995. On 11 January 1996 an opening ceremony was held, in the presence of the chairmen of the seven councils involved in the restoration (Homersfield, Alburgh and Wortwell Parish Councils, Waveney and South Norfolk District Councils, Suffolk and Norfolk County Councils). The seven representatives cut the ribbon with seven pairs of scissors, each part being kept by their respective councils. A horse-drawn carriage crossed the bridge at midday with Lady Darell, one of the last of the Adair family, with her husband Sir Jeffrey and the High Sheriff of Norfolk. Following the ceremony, a long list of invited guests including representatives of English heritage, the seven councils, Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust, MPs, British Gas, the Upper Waveney Project and engineering companies and others then retired to the Black Swan for a celebratory lunch.

A commemorative plaque was placed on one abutment of the bridge by ICE in May 1996. It says, from the top: 'THE INSTITUTION OF CIVIL ENGINEERS / THE OLDEST CONCRETE BRIDGE / IN GREAT BRITAIN / HOMERSFIELD BRIDGE / BUILT IN 1870 / RESTORED IN 1995 / BY THE NORFOLK HISTORIC / BUILDINGS TRUST'

See Also


Sources of Information

County Surveyor, Suffolk CC
Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich
Suffolk Chronicle (22 Oct 1870) Testing Homersfield Bridge
Mary Bosticco (1970) 'Early concrete bridges in Britain' Concrete, Sep 1970, 363
G.P. Mallet (1994), Repair of Concrete Bridges, Thomas Telford Ltd, London
Ken Palmer (2007) The Book of Homersfield, Village in a Valley, Halsgrove