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Grosvenor Bridge, Chester
River Dee, Chester, UK
Grosvenor Bridge, Chester
associated engineer
Thomas Harrison
Jesse Hartley
James Trubshaw
date  1827 - 20th Nov 1833, opened 17th Oct 1832, public access 1st Jan 1834
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Bridge  |  reference  SJ401655
ICE reference number  HEW 104
photo  courtesy ICE
A spectacular classically-inspired road bridge with a single river arch that was the longest masonry span in the world at the time, and is still the longest in Britain. It is still in use. Until this bridge was completed, the only river crossing at Chester was the medieval one.
Engineer and architect Thomas Harrison (bap.1744-1829) had moved to Chester in 1793 after a decade spent in Lancaster. Before that he was in Italy for seven years, he and was much influenced by its architecture. He is said to have become the architect for Grosvenor Bridge in about 1802, some 25 years before it was constructed.
In 1808, when the only crossing of the river at Chester was the Old Dee Bridge, the Chester Corporation ran a competition to design a second stone bridge, though no further action was taken. In 1811, Thomas Telford (1757-1834) surveyed the route of a new road from Shrewsbury to Holyhead, bypassing Chester and potentially jeopardising custom. His plans were approved and, in 1815, he was appointed to construct the road. The bridge project was revived in an attempt to boost the city’s trade.
On 28th September 1818, a committee was established to consider plans, surveys and estimates. At its first meeting, on 3rd October, Harrison was asked to submit. He provided three options, one in iron and two in masonry, one of which was a three-arch structure and the other a single arch of 61m. The original proposed site, between Chester Castle and Wrexham Road, was moved slightly downstream (west) to avoid soft ground.
Harrison's single-span design, which when constructed would be the longest single-arch stone bridge in the world at the time, was initially thought unlikely to stand. But his plans were supported by engineers James Trubshaw (1777-1853) and John Rennie junior (1794-1874, knighted 1831). The structural stability of the design was proved by building a scale model in limestone, probably undertaken by Trubshaw.
In a letter to Harrison on 10th February 1825, Trubshaw estimated that the bridge "may be erected for the sum of twenty thousand pounds or thereabouts" and stated that he was "convinced the Arch will be the largest and finest stone arch in Europe ..."
In April 1825, William Hazeldine (1763-1840) offered the design of a cast iron arch bridge design costing £19,933 including abutments.
In June 1825, an Act of Parliament gained royal assent for improving Old Dee Bridge, erecting a new bridge downstream and constructing approach roads. Harrison was involved in designing the bridge approaches carrying Grosvenor Street over the river and requiring the demolition of properties and a church for their construction.
On 13th October 1825, Harrison — by now over 80 years old — was authorised to prepare working drawings and a detailed specification for his single-arch bridge. In addition, he was asked to submit the documents "to the consideration of Mr. Rennie, his friend, and to deliver to the Commissioners their joint report".
On 3rd December, the committee directed Harrison to write to Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849, knighted 1841) about erecting a bridge "formed of rubble" in mortared brickwork reinforced with iron. On 7th January 1826, Brunel wrote that such a bridge would cost £30,520. Harrison doubted Brunel's construction methods and hoped the proposal would not be adopted.
On 21st January 1826, Harrison resigned from the bridge project, citing his "advanced age and the infirmities attending it". Nevertheless, the work proceeded. His design was costed by Telford and accepted by the committee. The contractor would be Trubshaw, who was from Haywood in Staffordshire, and who had worked previously with Harrison on Weston House in Warwickshire. However, Trubshaw delegated the day to day bridge duties to his son John Trubshaw.
On Harrison’s recommendation, Jesse Hartley (1780-1860), Liverpool's dock engineer, was engaged to supervise the construction. Hartley agreed not to alter the external appearance of Harrison's bridge but insisted that "the interior and all practical points should be left entirely to him". Harrison's former pupil, William Cole, worked with Hartley as resident engineer.
On 1st October 1827, the Robert Grosvenor (1767-1845, 2nd Earl of Grosvenor, 1st Marquess of Westminster), after whose family the bridge was named, laid the foundation stone.
The 18.3m high bridge is constructed in red and cream Peckforton sandstone ashlar, local Chester red stone and Scottish granite, with voussoirs of Anglesey marble, all jointed with lime mortar. Its segmental arch spans a clear 61m and rises 12.8m above the river. The arch stones are 1.2m deep at the crown and 1.8m at the springings.
The arch was formed on centring, a temporary framework used to support it during construction. The centring rested on three stone piers built in the river and braced horizontally in both directions. Timber members radiating fanlike from cast iron shoes at the tops of the piers supported planking on six curved timber ribs beneath the arch soffit.
The parapets are 10.1m apart and the carriageway is 7.3m wide between footways. The parapet walls are of plain slabs, with raised panels above the crown of the arch supporting street lamps. The flanking piers are faced by engaged pavilions with Doric detailing, above rusticated plinths. The pavilions include round-headed niches and triangular pediments. The pediments rise to form refuges at road level, with walls topped by street lamps.
On each side of the main arch, tall hemispherical flood arches provide pedestrian access along the banks. The abutments of rock-faced masonry are quadrant-shaped in plan and step down with the slope of the embankments. The abutments are founded in solid rock, except on the north side where piling was undertaken over part of the foundation to overcome a geological fault.
On 17th October 1832, Princess (later Queen) Victoria formally opened the bridge. Construction was completed on 20th November 1833, and a toll imposed on traffic using the bridge, but it was not generally open to the public until 1st January 1834. The total cost was £49,900, including £7,500 for the approach embankments.
The Rennie family's involvement has been disputed. In his Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) presidential address on 20th January 1846, Sir John Rennie claimed his brother George Rennie (1791-1866) had "equilibrated the arch, and gave the proper dimensions of the voussoirs and form and dimensions of the abutments, the mode of constructing them, and designed the centre". An 1836 account of the construction by Hartley’s son, John Bernard Hartley (1814-69), records the centring "is stated by Mr. Hartley [Jesse] to have been exclusively designed by Mr. Trubshaw".
On 23rd January 1847, Trubshaw wrote to Hartley on the matter. Evidently, "some two years ago" he had shown the Rennies' original plan for the centring to James Walker (1781-1862), then president of the ICE. In Walker’s opinion, the document proved "most of the centre was not theirs". Trubshaw commented that George Rennie's report to the committee "was a sore subject with Mr Harrison".
He also noted that in discussions of the bridge design with Harrison, he had suggested increasing the rise of the arch from 9.1m to 12.2m, and shared details of the abutments of "Wolseley, and Darlaston Bridges which I built from a design of old Mr Rennie’s 40 years ago". Any outward Rennie-like similarities in the appearance of Grosvenor Bridge therefore seem to stem from the influence of John Rennie senior (1761-1821), rather than his sons.
In 1885, the bridge toll was abolished when Chester Corporation took over its maintenance.
Jumping forward, in July 1955, Grosvenor Bridge was Grade I listed. It continues in daily use, carrying one lane of traffic in each direction. The 1.8m stone model of the bridge, originally on display in the grand jury room in the castle, was later moved to the Water Tower Gardens. In 1979, it was restored and brought to its present location (SJ403656) on Castle Drive.
For 30 years, Grosvenor Bridge stood as the greatest single-span stone arch in the world. However, in 1864, it lost the title to Union Arch Bridge (constructed 1857-64) in Cabin John, Maryland, USA. Union Arch Bridge’s 67.1m main span was the world’s longest until 1903, when the Adolphe Bridge in Luxembourg was completed.
Many record-breaking masonry spans have been built since then, the most recent is the 146m main span Danhe Bridge (opened 2001) near Jincheng, Shanxi, China, some 670km south south west of Beijing.
Resident engineer: Jesse Hartley
Resident engineer: William Cole
Contractor: James Trubshaw
Research: ECPK
"Trubshaw, Hartley and Harrison Early Nineteenth Century Engineers and Architects" by G. Woodward, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 72:1, pp.77-90, 2000
"The Brunels and the Grosvenor Bridge, Chester" by G. Woodward, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 69:1, pp.129-145, 1997
"Address of Sir John Rennie, President to the Annual General Meeting, January 20, 1846", Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vol.5, pp.19-122, London, 1846
"An Account of the new or Grosvenor Bridge over the River Dee at Chester" by J.B. Hartley, Transactions of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vol.1, pp.207-214, London 1836
reference sources   CEH W&WBDCE1

Grosvenor Bridge, Chester