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Water Street Bridge (1830), site of
Water Street, Castlefield, Manchester, UK
associated engineer
Sir William Fairbairn
Eaton Hodgkinson
date  1829 - 1830, replaced 1905
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Bridge  |  reference  SJ829979
ICE reference number  HEW 911
The original bridge on this site was the first constructed to carry railway locomotives over a level bridge of cast iron beams, rather than arches or trusses. It formed the main span of the viaduct approach taking the Liverpool & Manchester Railway to its terminus at Liverpool Road Station in Manchester. The bridge was demolished to allow road widening, and a replacement constructed in 1905.
The Liverpool & Manchester Railway Company was founded on 20th May 1824. On 1st May 1826, the railway’s enabling Act was passed, and in June the same year George Stephenson (1781-1848) appointed its principal engineer. Water Street Bridge was the inter-city line’s only iron bridge, the others were initially of timber or masonry.
The Liverpool & Manchester Railway Act stipulated a headroom under each bridge of 4.88m at the crown. Following intervention from Manchester’s Surveyors of Highways and a public meeting, the minimum headroom was raised to 5.18m over the whole span.
An arched bridge over Water Street, whether of masonry or cast iron, would have had a crown higher than 5.18m, raising the track bed far above that on the neighbouring rail bridge over the River Irwell, only 64m to the north west. The resulting gradient would have been difficult for the locomotives of the day to negotiate. (Lowering the road was unlikely to have been permitted.)
George Stephenson, probably acting with advice from his son Robert Stephenson (1803-59), decided to use a flat beam bridge of cast iron girders — the first time such a bridge would be used to carry a railway. On 7th December 1829, he submitted the design for the bridge to the railway company’s board. He also mentioned an alternative design, yet to be completed, using a new form of I-section beam developed by Eaton Hodgkinson (1789-1861).
The proposal was adopted. It is generally accepted to have been prepared by William Fairbairn (1789-1874, 1st baronet of Ardwick 1869) — a personal friend of George Stephenson since 1803 — and Hodgkinson. Fairbairn, an ironwork expert, had firm ideas about girder length and strength for buildings and bridges. Hodgkinson had devised a mathematical solution for the most economic beam section — maximum loadbearing capacity for minimum quantity of material.
The bridge crossed Water Street at an angle of around 39 degrees. Its total span was about 12.8m on skew, divided by piers into three spans to accommodate a road with footpaths on either side. The bridge was 14.6m wide at rail level and carried four standard gauge tracks.
Its design made pioneering use of I-section cast iron girders, with a clear span of 7.9m above the roadway of 7.5m. The bridge had five longitudinal ribs. The three I-section main girders were 698mm deep with a 51mm thick webs, bottom flanges of 406mm x 76mm and smaller top flanges 102mm wide and 76mm (or possibly 25mm) thick. Two L-shaped face girders 762mm deep carried the cast iron parapets — each of eight panels between seven decorative pilasters.
Secondary girders 406mm deep spanned transversely at about 914mm (or possibly 838mm) centres. Reports vary on whether they were parallel flange beams or had larger bottom flanges. The cross beams carried brick jack arches, probably with built-in wrought iron ties (Fairbairn's standard practice). The underside of the ironwork may have been covered with slabs or plasterwork to form a flat soffit over the road.
Normal structural practice was to cast slots, nibs, grooves, mortices and tenons in iron members to enable secure connections on assembly without the need for bolts. Both flanges of the main girders were parabolic in plan, though the bottom flanges were full width at each end to form integral bearings on the piers. The ends of the cross beam top flanges stopped short to fit below an extrusion in the web of the main girders. Their bottom flanges were grooved near the ends to fit over a nib on the main girder bottom flanges.
The two piers each consisted of nine columns, with small base-plinths on the road kerb line, and top slabs 838mm square and 114mm deep. The columns tapered from 610mm diameter at the base to 533mm at the top, below capitals 178mm deep, and were some 3.8m tall including plinths and top slabs. The end columns were fluted and the intermediate columns plain, though it is not clear whether they were of cast iron or stone.
The bridge abutments were 838mm thick and backed with solid fill. A barrel arch spanning 1.9m clear over the 1.7m wide footpath provided support for the ends of the five longitudinal ribs. The arch, which presumably had inbuilt wrought iron tie rods, was hidden by a flat ceiling 152mm thick (probably stone slabs).
Fluted pilasters were set into the abutments corners, adjacent to the footpaths. Masonry walls 533mm thick and 1.5m deep filled the space between the top column slabs/abutment pilasters and the underside of the deck, supporting the ironwork.
On 12th April 1830, it was reported that the bridge piers were almost finished and, on 15th September 1830, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway opened.
In 1893, plans were made to replace Water Street Bridge. Two similar bridges (locations unknown) had apparently failed in 1882 and 1891, and a programme of cast girder bridge replacement was initiated. Demolition at Water Street commenced more than 10 years later. On 26th August 1904, the Manchester Evening News noted, "Workmen are at present engaged in demolishing the old bridge which spans Water-street."
The present bridge, completed in 1905, is a steel plate girder structure with a single span of 14.6m. Headway of 5.18m has been maintained. The abutments are faced with white glazed bricks above plinths of red and black brickwork. The new bridge cost an estimated £4,000.
In June 1988, the 1905 bridge was Grade II listed. Though not the original structure, Historic England states the present bridge is an "integral element of railway structures associated with Liverpool Road Station, the first passenger railway station in the world". The former station is now Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry.
Between April 2016 and November 2017, the Ordsall Chord railway junction was constructed with the first passenger services running in December 2017. The work effectively bypassed Water Street Bridge.
Ironwork casting (1830): Fairbairn & Lillie, Ancoats
Research: ECPK
"Ordsall Chord: Design Guide", Northern Hub Alliance, January 2016
"Liverpool Road Station, Manchester: An Historical and Architectural Survey" by R.S. Fitzgerald, Manchester University Press, 1980
reference sources   CEH North

Water Street Bridge (1830), site of