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Wolverton Viaduct
River Great Ouse, Wolverton, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, UK
Wolverton Viaduct
associated engineer
Robert Stephenson
William Baker
date  July 1835 - 1838, opened September 1838
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Railway Viaduct  |  reference  SP814422
ICE reference number  HEW 152
An impressive brick viaduct, constructed to carry the London & Birmingham Railway over the River Great Ouse north of Wolverton on the outskirts of Milton Keynes. The 1838 viaduct is now part of Britain's modern west coast main line railway network.
The 181km London & Birmingham Railway was the first intercity line into London. The enabling Act incorporating the railway company received royal assent on 6th May 1833. Engineered by Robert Stephenson (1803-59), the line ran north-north west from its London terminus at Euston Station to Rugby, and then west via Coventry to Curzon Street Station in Birmingham. After negotiation with landowners, work at Wolverton commenced in July 1835.
The river here originally followed a curve to the south, along with a stream called the Tow. The two watercourses were diverted into one straightened channel to flow beneath the new viaduct. The south embankment approach is located over the former river bed.
Wolverton Viaduct, 84.5km from London and 96.5km from Birmingham, was one of 30 contracts let for constructing the railway and its structures. The viaduct, or contract 4C, was built by contractor James Nowell & Sons. The tender price of 25,964 was exceeded and the contact completed for about 30,000 or a revised estimated cost of 28,694 (sources vary).
The approach embankments to the north and south let as contracts 2C and 3C total 2.2km in length and average 14.6m in height. Their construction was hampered by landslips caused by the weight of the embankments, and a fire resulting from the spontaneous combustion of decomposing iron sulphate in the south embankment fill.
The red brick viaduct is 201.2m long and originally 9.4m wide. It consists of six semi-elliptical arches, each spanning 18.3m between solid piers, and rising 14m from ground to crown. Prominent stone cornices run the length of the bridge below the parapets, which feature stone copings and refuge places. The structure is 17.4m high to the top of the parapets.
The rectangular-section intermediate piers taper slightly from 3.4m at the bottom to 3.3m at the top. The bases are extended by D-shaped cutwaters with semi-domed caps. The terminal piers are larger at 8.5m long.
Beyond the terminal piers, each hollow abutment is pierced by four semicircular arches of 4.6m span, springing from 1.8m-wide piers. Stephenson used this abutment arrangement for most viaducts on the London & Birmingham Railway, making it an early example of design standardisation in railway infrastructure.
Railway workshops were built at Wolverton in 1836-38 for the maintenance and repair of locomotives that would work the line. The viaduct was completed in 1838, and the route from London to Birmingham opened officially in September that year.
The viaduct features in an illustration by John Cooke Bourne (1814-96), shown nearing completion in 1837. The illustration is number 21 in a series of 33 lithographs depicting the London & Birmingham Railway (published 1838).
In July 1846, the London & Birmingham merged with the Grand Junction and the Manchester & Birmingham, forming the London & North Western Railway. The line was then doubled from two tracks to four.
In 1881, Wolverton Viaduct was widened by 6.7m on the east side to accommodate the extra tracks. The new work is in blue engineering brick with red sandstone dressings, and of similar style to the original, which was repaired at the same time, using engineering bricks. The junction of new and old is clearly visible as the two parts are not bonded. The viaduct is now 16.2m across and its rail tracks run 15.2m above the water.
The line over the viaduct was electrified in 1958, with the addition of electric catenaries and portal frames.
In July 2001, Wolverton Viaduct was Grade II listed.
Contractor: James Nowell & Sons
Research: ECPK
reference sources   CEH E&CBDCE1

Wolverton Viaduct