The Fall of the Widcombe Bridge over the Avon -- June 6, 1877 - An Engineer's Aspect


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Monday, May 17, 2010

The Fall of the Widcombe Bridge over the Avon -- June 6, 1877

Image: The Widcombe Bridge at Bath.
Source: Bath in Time.

On June 6, 1877, the Widcombe Bridge--a pedestrian bridge--over the Avon River at Bath collapsed under the weight of newly arrived tourists who crowded onto the bridge, rushing to see an agricultural show. The center of the bridge snapped and the crowd was thrown into the river.

There are varying accounts of the number of people on the bridge and the number of people killed. Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volume 55, Page 475, published in 1877, claimed that "Twenty persons were killed, and a much larger number injured." Some sources claim as few as eight people died. However, twelve seems to be the generally accepted number of casualties.

The Newspapers Report the Accident:

Image: The fall of Widcombe Bridge at Bath -- after the accident. From "The Graphic," an illustrated weekly newspaper dated 1877.

The New York Times, June 7, 1877.



LONDON, June 6.--A dispatch from Bath gives the following particulars of the fall of Widcombe Bridge there to-day, during the celebration of the centenary of the Bath and West of England Agricultural Society: "About 10:30 o'clock this morning, on the arrival of a train-load of excursionists on the Weymouth Branch of the Great Western Railway to attend the agricultural show, between 100 and 200 persons, belonging mostly to the well-to-do farmer class, rushed upon the toll-bridge leading from the railway platform. The bridge was wooden, of light construction, narrow, about 30 feet long, between 30 and 40 feet above the River Avon, resting upon posts morticed into stonework at either end, and without a centre support. The bridge snapped in the centre, and the two ends were wrenched clear from the sides. The whole mass, with the people, was plunged into the middle of the stream, which was about seven feet deep. Boats from the shore were immediately at work rescuing the living and searching for the dead.

BATH, June 6--Evening.--It is estimated that about 12 persons were killed and 51 injured, some fatally, by the fall of the Widcombe Bridge.

[The Bath and West of England agricultural annual show is, with the exception of the National, the largest held in England, and the average attendance falls little below 100,000 people. The old suspension bridge across the Avon was, on a previous occasion, when the show was held at Bath, pronounced unsafe. It was then strengthened, but the vast crowds which must have traversed it yesterday on their way to the show-grounds seem to have been too much for it. The bridge was from the first considered a trail one, and more elegant than substantial.]

Image: The Scene of the Disaster at the Widcombe Foot-Bridge, Bath. "The Illustrated London News," Saturday, June 16, 1877.

On a More Personal Level:

From "The Royal United Hospital: a social history 1747-1947, Page 17" by Kate Clarke, 2001:

"In 1877 the hospital was involved in what was known as the Widcombe Bridge Disaster. A train arrived at the station from Salisbury and passengers were surging across the river to an agricultural show when the bridge collapsed. Nine people died and sixty were injured, forty-five of whom were admitted to the hospital. It was proudly recorded that they were treated (presumably sewn, splinted and bandaged) and were all in bed within one hour and twenty minutes -- an early example of efficient disaster management! For its prompt actions the hospital received public praise, and donations totalling 400 pounds were received from various individuals and societies."

The Haine Family was affected directly by the collapse. According to the 1891 census, Thomas and Sarah "Fanny" Haine and their family were at the Bath Show in June 1877, when the Widcombe Bridge collapsed. Fanny's sister Mary was killed in the accident.

The account was written in the Haine Family records:

Mary Haine: 12 Dec. 1853, Northover Somerset - 6 Jun. 1877, Widcombe Bridge Bath.

Image: Fall of a Bridge--Struggle for Life, London Illustrated News, June 16, 1877.
Source: Bath in Time.

"Bath City celebrated the three-day centenary of the Bath and West of England Agricultural Society, several toll bridges criss-crossing the Avon providing a short cut to the showground for the 10,000 people arriving at Bath Spa Station. Mary and several of her family had made the day trip from Ilchester. The 10:47am excursion train arrived from Salisbury, a thousand passengers looking forward to a day's enjoyment, in high spirits, rain not having yet begun. Due to large queues, there were estimated over 200 people on this bridge, walking as quickly as possible over "little knowing the risk they ran." Immediately, the bridge parted in the centre. The south end rested for a few minutes on the towpath giving seconds for many to escape, avoiding a worse disaster. The north end fell clean into the water. Mary was one of the five who died at the scene. Her sister Ellen's leg was broken. The inquest notes state: "Identification of the body of Mary Haine was given [at the Boatmans Arms] by Mr. Thomas Haine, farmer, of Madbrook farm, Westbury, his wife's sister. Deceased who was 21 years of age and unmarried, managed her father's house, Southmead farm, Ilchester." Mary was buried at Ilchester, the parish register gives her death as at Widcombe Bridge."

A New Bridge:

From Michael Forsyth's book, "Bath," Page 222, published in 2003:

"W along Rossiter Road, Widcombe Footbridge over the River Avon, a single-span wrought-iron lattice girder construction by T. E. M. Marsh, 1877, replaced a double bow-string wooden arch bridge of 1863 by Hickes & Isaac. This collapsed in 1877, with eight deaths, when crowds of excursionists arriving by train were heading to the Bath & West of England Society centenary show at Holloway Farm."

Image: Dolemeads Bridge, River Avon, Bath. Known as Widcombe Bridge or Halfpenny Bridge. Looking downstream, between the two GWR rail bridges.
Source: Geograph.

Image: The remaining pier from the collapse of the Widcombe Bridge located under the Dolemeads or Halfpenny Bridge to Widcombe.
Source: Flickr.