River Irwell Bridge (L&MR)
west of Water Street, Castlefield, Manchester, UK
opened 15th September 1830
A two-span skew masonry arch bridge constructed to carry the Liverpool & Manchester Railway
over the River Irwell into the heart of Manchester. The bridge was obscured by two later viaducts, one of which have been removed as part of the 2016 Ordsall Chord works. The River Irwell Bridge is being restored, though the Ordsall Chord scheme severs the rail link to the former Liverpool Road Station
(now the Museum of Science & Industry) it served — the world's oldest surviving railway passenger station.
The River Irwell Bridge was probably designed by George Stephenson (1781-1848), the Liverpool & Manchester Railway (L&MR)’s engineer. However, it has been suggested that some of the design work may have been undertaken by Jesse Hartley (1780-1860) or Thomas Longridge Gooch (1808-82). The structure is one of two masonry skew bridges on the line, the other (SJ490914) lies west of Rainhill Station and was completed in June 1829.
In 1829, Parliament authorised a variation to the original route of the railway, planned to have ended in Salford. It was extended into Manchester, crossing the river and terminating at the west end of Liverpool Road.
The bridge consists of two equal arches of 20.1m skew span, or 19.7m square span. It is 16.2m wide between parapets, carrying twin standard gauge rail tracks plus a 5.5m wide roadway. The accommodation road was included to allay opposition from the Mersey & Irwell Navigation Company to the positioning of a pier in the middle of the river.
The central pier was constructed inside a cofferdam and workers were ferried by boat between the pier and the river banks. Unfortunately, in April 1830, an overcrowded boat collided with the cofferdam and sank — 11 workers drowned.
The navigation company also insisted the bridge should have clearance above the water of at least 8.8m, resulting in the railway line running high above ground level on the Manchester bank. This necessitated the construction of a brick viaduct to carry the line over Water Street, and in turn governed the height of the platfom at nearby Liverpool Road Station.
The bridge is of sandstone with rusticated ashlar facings. Radiating stonework frames the arches and forms the spandrel panels. Horizontal stone courses are used in the parapet and the pilasters of the central cutwater and span ends. The coping and cornice are of plain dressed stone.
The bridge opened with the L&MR line, on 15th September 1830. In 1849, a two-span bridge carrying Manchester South Junction & Altrincham Railway was constructed adjacent to its south side. The later structure is also of masonry and follows a similar alignment.
In 1869, an iron viaduct of plate girders was constructed at an angle to the bridge's north side (now demolished, but may be reinstated). Its chief feature was a large circular cast iron support column on the central river pier.
Over time, the underside of Stephenson’s bridge became festooned with an array of stalactites, up to 230mm long, caused by moisture leaching lime from the mortar between the masonry blocks.
In June 1988, the main structure was Grade I listed, though the Salford end had to wait until February 2007 for the same recognition. The citation notes, "It is of special architectural and historic interest due to its early date, intactness, and design by George Stephenson, the nationally renowned railway engineer".
To improve rail travel around the north of England, a scheme was proposed to link the three main stations in Manchester — Victoria, Oxford Road and Piccadilly. The works include a new 1km section of track known as the Ordsall Chord, laid to a curve connecting the Castlefield Junction line with the Deal Street Junction line.
Part of the Ordsall Chord is carried on a viaduct across the Irwell, bisecting the Manchester end of the bridge approach and the L&MR tracks into the Museum of Science & Industry (the former Liverpool Road Station, closed in 1975 and re-opened as a museum in 1983).
The project was sanctioned after legal challenges, and work began in October 2015. In June 2016, the girder viaduct covering the River Irwell Bridge’s north east face was demolished, revealing Stephenson's full elevation. By October, the arch soffits had been cleaned and the stalactites removed. Further refurbishment followed. The Ordsall Chord is due for completion by December 2017.
Resident engineer: Joseph Locke
"Liverpool to Manchester in 1830: the world’s first main line railway project" by Mike Chrimes, unpublished paper seen in draft, London, 2016