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Historian sheds light on forgotten designers of Clifton Suspension Bridge

08 August 2022

Smeaton Lecture attendees learned about the commonly misunderstood history of the famous Bristolian structure.  

Historian sheds light on forgotten designers of Clifton Suspension Bridge
Visual minutes of the Smeaton Lecture. Produced by Cohenbaum

Isambard Kingdom Brunel wasn't the only figure of note in the design of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, according to an engineering historian.

Julia Elton, past president of the Newcomen Society, shed light on the important role of William Henry Barlow and Sir John Hawkshaw at this year's Smeaton Lecture.

The lecture, 'Who designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge?' was delivered at the ICE's HQ, One Great George Street.

Watch the recording

The history books don’t always get it right

Completed in December 1864, the Clifton Suspension Bridge took 33 years to build and remains the enduring symbol of the city of Bristol.

As one of the oldest surviving iron suspension bridges in the world, it has a rich and fascinating history and marked a turning point in the story of engineering.

Still, the history books don’t always get it right, as Elton pointed out.

In the case of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, for years many people have followed the line perpetuated by Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s son: that Brunel designed the bridge in its entirety.

In reality, the expertise of William Henry Barlow and Sir John Hawkshaw was needed for the bridge to be completed.

Learning from the past

Clifton Suspension Bridge was by no means the first of its kind.

Rather, it was part of the first generation of suspension bridges that tested the knowledge and skills of civil engineers and the limits of what could be built.

Although it was started by Brunel, it was the deck completed by Barlow and Hawkshaw that made the bridge – and they knew not to underestimate the importance of it.

They learned from the mistakes of their competitors’ designs, and from previous projects such as the Menai Suspension Bridge.

Barlow and Hawkshaw designed the deck for the bridge using lattice girders, a method that came out of railway technology.

It not only had a span of more than 700ft but was designed to be heavy and stiff enough to withhold its structure against high winds.

The role of the local community

The bridge’s disjointed completion highlighted an important element of civil engineering projects – the role of the local community.

In the years after Brunel abandoned the project in 1843, people in the area had to put up with the sight of “two unsightly piers which deformed the landscape”, as John Latimer, editor of the Bristol Mercury newspaper, put it.

It showed that while structural integrity is a key part of any project, the communities that will use and live near such structures want something they can be proud to look at.

The ICE prestige lecture series

The Smeaton Lecture, instituted in 1991, was named after John Smeaton, the founding father of civil engineering in the United Kingdom.

The lecture is supported by the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers.

The next ICE prestige lecture, the Unwin Lecture, is due to take place on 6 October 2022.

  • Amy Lilly, knowledge content producer at ICE