The Telescopic Bridge

The Telescopic Bridge, with the modern Chandos Bridge behind, in August 2021 © and kindly supplied by Jon Gridley

Although still standing, the Telescopic or Black Bridge is no longer able to move, as it was originally intended to allow shipping to pass up the Parrett to berth at East or West Quay.

The bridge was opened in 1871 and was based on Brunel’s 1846 telescopic bridge across the River Arun near Little Hampton in Sussex. The older example was made of wood, making Bridgwater’s the only metal telescopic bridge in the world, and one of only two of its type ever made. In early drawings it was called ‘Parrett Bridge’.

The masonry was built by Warburton Brothers Ltd. of Bristol and the cast iron and steel by Lloyds, Foster and Co. of Wednesbury.

The underworking of the bridge in August 2021. The two side rollers acted as a rail for the bridge to move back and forth, while the central chain roller guided the chain that pulled either end. This chain was rotated in either direction by a steam engine. © and kindly supplied by Jon Gridley
Another view from further down the bridge, showing more clearly the chain roller. © and kindly supplied by Jon Gridley
The railway layout on the west of the Parrett, c.1904, which depended on the Telescopic Bridge. The main destination was the docks themselves, for wagons to pick up cargo left by shipping, then there was also the Linseed Cake Works, a timber yard at the western end of the docks, then the brewery to the south. Between the docks and the bridge was Sully’s Coal Yard, then just to the south of the line was ‘the Pottery’ which contained Chandos’ Glass Cone.
More detail from the 1888 OS map.
The same area in August 2021, showing the bridge in relation to the docks. The building site in the centre right was the site of the brewery. © and kindly supplied by Jon Gridley

For the first eight months of operation it had to be opened by manual winches before a steam engine was installed. It bore both standard and broad gauge tracks (used until 1892) and had a pedestrian walkway installed on the south side. The railway primarily led to the docks, but also to a pottery (which included Chandos’ old Glass Cone), the Starkey Knight and Ford brewery, as well as the Timber Yard and Cake Mills (now Bowerings) both on the far side of the docks.

The Bristol Times and Mirror  of 6 May 1871 reported: “a large barge, heavily laden with scouring brick, manufactured by Messrs Colthurst and Symons, whilst proceeding down the river Parrett, Bridgwater, on Thursday, came in collision with one of the cylinders of the new railway bridge and sank. There were three men on board, who ran to one end and sprang on shore.”

Telescopic Bridge
The bridge in about 1914, seen from the YMCA building on the corner of Eastover and Salmon Parade
Rough sketches showing how the bridge operated.
The bridge, seen directly from above in August 2021. The diagonal line to the left is where the bridge separated. © and kindly supplied by Jon Gridley

The bridge was last mechanically opened in 1957 and the steam engine from the engine house was removed in the early 1960s. The boiler and one of the cylinders of the engine  are on display at the Westonzoyland Pumping Station Museum. Some of the ruined mechanism can still be seen on the site of the engine house, when it is not overgrown with brambles. It was converted into a road bridge in 1983 and during its conversion it was opened for the last time, before being permanently fixed into place. Since the nearby Chandos Bridge was built in 1988 it has been a purely pedestrian crossing.

The bridge was examined and photographed in 1962 by the technical historian, George Watkins (1904-1989)*  It is described and illustrated on page 92 with Plates 56 and 57 in volume 7 of George Watkins, Stationary Steam Engines of Great Britain: the National photographic collection.

The bridge from the traverser pit, showing the ruin of the engine house on the right. This photograph was taken on 21 April 1973. The standing remnants are still there, covered by brambles.
April 2022

*see Paul Stephens & Tony Woolrich eds, George Middleton Watkins (1914-1989), 2002, This was a memorial volume  and comprised his biography, reminiscences of his friends and some of his earlier articles, including an unpublished one from 1936 describing and illustrating the steam engine drainage of the Somerset Levels.

Thanks are expressed to Mr. Marc Welham for his memories concerning the bridge being opened during its conversion.

Squibbs,P., Squibbs’ History of Bridgwater (1982)
Lawrence and Lawrence, A History of Bridgwater (2005)
Fitzhugh, R., Bridgwater and the River Parrett (1993)
Murless, B., Bridgwater Docks and the River Parrett (1983)
Dunning, R., Bridgwater: History and Guide (1992)

A.P Woolrich (editor) George Watkins, Stationary Steam Engines of Great Britain: the National photographic collection, 11 volumes, 2002 onwards