Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Georgian Exe Bridge

Exeter has had at least four different bridges over the River Exe, the main waterway from which the city takes its name and which passes just outside the city wall to the west. First there was a medieval bridge (significant parts of which survive), a Georgian replacement from the 1770s (of which a few fragments of parapet survive), an Edwardian iron and steel bridge (of which a few bits of decoration survive) and finally two ugly concrete bridges from the 1960s and 1970s, the construction of which resulted in an enormous amount of the remaining historic cityscape being demolished. Unlike other cities which might've had two or three different bridges in existence at the same time, each of Exeter's bridges came at the destruction of its predecessor (there was possibly a timber Roman bridge over the Exe from the 1st century onwards but no archaeological evidence has been found to prove the hypothesis).

This post concerns the one built in the 18th century, surely the most beautiful bridge Exeter ever possessed top. The medieval 18-arch stone bridge which it replaced above was built between 1190 and 1240. The eight arches which remain of this bridge make it one of the earliest surviving examples of medieval bridge-building in England. The medieval bridge had allowed traffic to cross the river Exe for nearly 600 years before it was decided to replace it. Fortunately Jenkins provides a near-contemporary account of what happened. The narrow medieval bridge was proving to be a problem. Jenkins, writing in 1806, recorded that "The intricate, and inconvenient, entrance into the city over the Old Bridge (by which all carriages, and travellers, were obliged to enter at West Gate and, to avoid to the steep ascent of Fore-street hill, proceed commonly by the way of Rock-lane) made an alteration absolutely necessary".

In order to avoid the West Gate entirely (which had been the main western entrance into the city for centuries) a new road was laid out, in line with Fore Street. This road, what the 1960s left of it anyway, is still known as New Bridge Street. Money for the new bridge was raised by increasing the fees paid at the city's turnpikes. The first stone of the bridge was laid on 4th October 1770 by the mayor of Exeter, "in the presence of many thousand spectators", and on a slightly different alignment to the medieval bridge which was kept in use until the new bridge was completed. The bridge above was designed by Joseph Dixon, an architect based at Westminster in London, and consisted of only three arches, far less than the 18 arches of its medieval fore-runner. Part of New Bridge Street was raised up on five arches to allow water from the city's many leats to continue powering the numerous water-driven industries of Exe Island. Another arch was used to span Frog Street. This 18th century archway remained until it was demolished in 1961.

The engraving right c1832 shows a coach and horse crossing the late-18th century bridge and entering the the suburb of St Thomas.

Unfortunately things didn't go quite as smoothly as the city authorities hoped. They started to suspect that Dixon wasn't sticking either to the agreed plan or his contract so they called in Robert Stribling, the architect behind the creation of Bedford Circus, to see what was going on. Having surveyed the work, Stribling reported back that there had been a "considerable departure from the contract - that the pier is in no way regular in courses or wrought fair" and that the Portland stones of the upper course were "raised by small stones to keep them in course". Stribling ended his report by saying that the work was so shoddy that it would "within a short time be fretted out by the water" and that there had been a "total neglect in the workmanship". After much deliberation, a majority of the Bridge Committee instructed Dixon to continue, despite the reservations of one of the city's own leading architect-builders. Some things never change, as later events would prove that the city authorities made the wrong decision in putting their faith in Dixon. Clearly Dixon had been slip-shod in his construction of the piers' foundations and it was a disaster waiting to happen.

In the middle of January 1775 a "tremendous inundation" over the hills surrounding Exeter forced an enormous amount of water down through the Exe at Exeter. Anyone who has seen the Exe in full spate today will know with what force the water can flow through its channel as it rounds the bottom of the cliffs at Bonhay Road. The result in 1775 was that, on 18th January, the deluge destroyed all the foundations and arches of the new bridge.

Another almost-contemporary historian, George Oliver, blames Dixon for being "unfit for his work". Jenkins calls it "an unlucky accident" and then blames the architect as well. Preventative measures were taken to save the still-used medieval bridge, the city's only link to the west. Despite the water beating against the ancient arches "with much vehemence" and making "the whole fabric shake", it weathered the flood intact. How galling for the city though: they decide to replace a 600-year-old bridge and the new one gets destroyed at the first opportunity before it's even finished!

The image above shows the Georgian Exe Bridge c1890. Everything in this view, including the river banks, has since been destroyed to the point where today the same scene is unrecognisable. The postcard view below right shows the bridge shortly before its demolition.

Work literally had to start from scratch. The stones were recovered from the river bed and this time a system of dams was built, diverting the river away from the construction site and allowing proper foundations to be inserted into the bedrock.

Yet another foundation stone was laid on 15th July 1776. Work began on New Bridge Street soon after, one consequence of which was the destruction of the church of Allhallows on the Walls, a church that had already been damaged during the sieges which affected Exeter during English Civil War. Jenkins records that, during the church's demolition, "the remains of many human bodies, and fragments of old tomb-stones, were dug up". In 1778 the boundary line across the river demarcating the change in authority from the City of Exeter to the County of Devonshire was decided upon. The word 'Exon' was inscribed upon the central pier of the bridge on the city side of the demarcation line with the word 'Devon' on the other. Shortly afterwards, in early March 1778, the bridge was officially completed, having cost the enormous sum of £30,000. The city authorities wanted to charge pedestrians for using it but, relates Oliver, the idea was so "obnoxious" to the citizens and their MP that the idea was dropped.

The finished three-arched Georgian bridge of the 1770s was exceptionally attractive, embodying all of the architectural traits associated with that period: simplicity, refinement and classical elegance. Constructed from white Portland stone, the bridge had a stone balustrade, the central arch of the bridge being wider than the two on either side (according to Todd Gray the stone balustrade was reused on the terrace at Culver House in nearby Longdown). The 18th century bridge was demolished in 1903 and it was replaced with an Edwardian steel and iron bridge, not unattractive by any means but perhaps without the grace of the Georgian bridge which served the city for 130 years. The Edwardian bridge would prove to be the shortest-lived of all the Exe Bridges but that story will have to wait for another post. The current Exe Bridges (both identical) are completely typical utilitarian products of their time. They carry a lot of cars over the river and that is about all you can say about them. They have no visual, historic or aesthetic merits whatsoever.


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