The Great Yarmouth Suspension Bridge Collapse of 1845

Aug 9, 2023 0 comments

The year was 1845 and the Cooke's Royal Circus was in town. All of Great Yarmouth was brimming with excitement. The Cooke’s Royal Circus was a prominent traveling show that traces its origin back to the 1780s in Scotland under the leadership of Thomas Cooke. As the 19th century unfolded, the performing troupe journeyed extensively across Scotland and England, making stops in both major cities and smaller locales. While their expertise encompassed various disciplines like equestrian performances, numerous circus members displayed talents as acrobats, strongmen, and contortionists. At Great Yarmouth, the Cooke's Royal Circus promised a new trick—a clown named Arthur Nelson would sail up the River Bure in a washtub pulled by four geese.

Depiction of the collapse of the bridge in the “Illustrated London News”.

On 2 May 1845, a large crowd gathered along the riverbanks and upon the suspension bridge to watch the feat. The bridge, constructed in 1829, initially spanned 63 feet, but its dimensions were later extended to 86 feet without consulting its designer, Joseph John Scoles. Furthermore, the bridge's width was expanded by two feet on each side, totaling four feet, to facilitate the passage of two carriages side by side—an alteration not originally part of the bridge's blueprint. Consequently, the bridge was already under strain when a crowd of around 300 to 400 onlookers climbed atop to get a better view of the proceedings in the river below.

The clown began his feat on the flood tide, and as he drew nearer to his destination, the crowd rushed towards the south-eastern corner of the bridge. An audible crack marked the failure of one of the rods, followed by the snapping of chains, resulting in the entire south side of the deck collapsing into the river. Panic erupted among the horrified witnesses as they endeavored to aid those struggling to reach safety. Some managed to scramble ashore independently, while boats swiftly joined the rescue operation, retrieving both the injured and deceased from the water. Many of the victims were children who were standing against the parapet railing and were crushed against it by the weight of those behind them.

A poster advertising Nelson's stunt.

The injured were taken to nearby houses and pubs, and an urgent appeal was issued for medical personnel throughout the town to attend to the survivors. Some 75 bodies were recovered on the day of the accident, though some remained trapped in the wreckage of the bridge. In total, the disaster claimed the lives of 79 individuals, among whom 59 were children. Most of the deceased were under the age of 13, with the youngest casualty being merely two years old.

An official enquiry was conducted to determine the cause of the accident, headed by James Walker, former president of the Institution of Civil Engineers. The commission determined that a welding defect was responsible for the tragedy. Additionally, the commission denounced both the subpar materials and labor employed in the bridge's construction, asserting that they did not meet the standards stipulated in the original contractual agreement.

In a separate investigation led by William Thorold, an engineer from Norwich, partial blame was placed on the decision to widen the bridge's deck, as well as on the substandard quality of the suspension chain. Thorold's findings aligned with Walker's conclusions, highlighting the imperfect quality of the welding on the scarf joint, which ultimately led to the bridge's collapse.

In 2013, to mark the 168th anniversary of the disaster, a granite memorial was erected near the site of the accident to remember the lives that were lost.

Photo credit: Happy Snapper/Flickr


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