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Melverley Bridge was always the Achilles heel of the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire and its predecessor companies. The Potteries Shrewsbury and North Wales’ deeply eccentric creator Richard France had crossed the Severn twice, his tortuous approaches to his quarries; and would have built another at Shrewsbury if he hadn’t run out of cash. He built a robust iron structure at Shrawardine but the branch to the Criggion quarry (in the Breidden hills) was far more cheaply built, the river being crossed by a far less substantial structure near Melverley, after which it came to be named.
Like most railway bridges built in this part of the world at the time, the bridge was economically built of timber with 7 long 38ft spans, making it technically a viaduct. The spans were timber trusses sitting directly on timber piles, a common enough railway structure at the time and very similar in general form to some of Brunel’s near contemporary viaducts (described by his assistant Peter Margery as ‘Type C‘). The viaduct, like Brunel’s, looked spindly but such viaducts lasted in use for fifty years and more. However, perhaps crucially, type C viaducts were used for crossing tidal creeks only, whereas France intended the Melverley Bridge to resist the Severn’s fearsome winter flow.
The Breidden branch to Criggion quarries had been opened with, or even before, the main line in 1865/66 for mineral traffic and a limited traffic operated over its single line. By May 1870 the company felt it was ready to be opened for passengers but there was long correspondence and at least two inspections before Colonel Rich reluctantly agreed to this in his report of 17 June 1871.
Although the bridge was reported by Rich as of ‘sufficient strength’ it is characteristic of all timber bridges that they need much care and maintenance. It was usual to replace main timbers about every eight years and timber bridges were usually replaced by iron in the 1880s after a life of 20-30 years. Unfortunately maintenance was notable by its absence on the bankrupt Potts so although still virtually new by railway standards the bridge was in dire trouble by 1880. Following a complaint by a Worcester doctor taking water samples from the river below on 24 April, the BoT notified the Potts Board but Albert Judd, their GM, reported the bridge satisfactory. On the basis of this they responded to the BoT on 26 May, who were very sceptical following some earlier incidents on the Potts, and ordered an inspection of the whole railway by Colonel Rich. He inspected and reported on 9 June and, no doubt properly horrified by what he saw, recommended that it was unsafe to carry traffic. He described the bridge (which he named as Crewe Green bridge) thus
‘…constructed entirely of wood, which is so much decayed that two of the tripod booms have given way. These have been supported in a temporary manner but every boom is more or less rotten and the decking and the longitudinals, which carry the rails, are quite rotten. This bridge is about 1 foot out of level and about 1 foot out of line. The Company work traffic on the Briedden Branch with a small contractors engine that weighs about 16 tons [probably the Worsdell 0-4-2 T Tanat -Ed], but I do not consider this Bridge safe for traffic.’
That was it. The Railway shut the Branch to passengers from Wednesday 16 June, but goods which were still scheduled continued to operate on Wednesdays and Saturdays. However In the light of further criticisms contained in the Rich’s report and the costs involved the directors closed the whole railway to all traffic on 22 June 1880. The bridge no doubt saw a certain amount of pedestrian traffic in the next few years but further deterioration set in and latterly only the most adventurous must have attempted this. France’s bridge finally seems to have been swept away by the Severn at the turn of the 20th century.
When, in Edwardian times, Stephens led the revival of the Potts as the Shropshire & Montgomeryshire, the re-opening of the branch was initially postponed due the absence of a bridge and the cost of replacement but the prospect of substantial mineral traffic and Stephens low cost proposals enabled the project to go ahead. Stephens proceeded with his usual rapidity and in characteristic fashion a new bridge was cheaply created using new timber piers driven in with a hand pile driver and reused wrought iron girders. These were from Shrawardine Bridge, where the deck for the second track had been superfluous since the singling of the mainline in the earliest days of the Potts.
The work seems to have been started in June 1911 and was done by S&MLR staff. It was under the day to day supervision of John Brenchley , a much trusted Stephen’s man, who was employed on the KESR , EKR and Edge Hill over this decade. Work seems to have been done by very few people and the five ton crane obtained in May 1911 was used for removing the Shrawardine girders. The new crossing was again a simple structure and now consisted of 8 openings, with 2 centre spans of about 37’0” over the river, 2 land spans one on each side of 37’0” and 27’ 0” respectively, and 4 flood openings, 2 on each side each of about 20’0" span. The 2 land spans and 2 river spans consisted of plate main girders and cross girders, the flood openings being of 2, 12” x 12” timbers on top of one another. Opening for mineral traffic with the branch on 21st February 1912 it may have looked spindly but it proved cheap and serviceable. Something in excess of 1 ¼ million tons of roadstone passed over it uneventfully in the next 25 years or so.
By 1939 however the S&MLR was in a terminal state with no passenger services, little general goods and only one serviceable locomotive. If the enterprise was to have any future it could only be rescued by an upturn in the Criggion roadstone traffic. And the quarry was turning to lorries for all its local needs. Of the average of 61,000 tons produced, 35,000 was for local consumption of which only 2,700 went by rail ,with 17,000 rail borne to the wider world. This was not enough but it was the only thing keeping the line going and the River Severn was about to strike again.
Extraordinarily cold nights followed by a thaw in January 1940 brought disaster: The beginning of January was mainly dry and very cold with frosty nights.
On the 20th, the early morning temperature was 15.8 ºF (- 9°C) and the temperature during the day only reached 27.68 ºF (- 2.4°C). The next day, a very cold night over most of the country, minima were between Minus 2.2 ºF (- 19°C) and minus 7.6 ºF (-21°C) in many places, including Ambleside (Cumbria), Canterbury (Kent) and Hereford. At Rhayader on the Severn’s sister river, the Wye, the temperature fell below minus 9.4 ºF (-23°C).After a brief milder interlude, persistent rain, much of it freezing, gave nearly 1.1 inches (28mm) on the 27th. This released ice flows into the river Severn in spate and these pressed against the piles of the bridge, which was so damaged on the 27th that all Criggion branch traffic ceased.
The severity of the weather, and consequent national transport disruption was such that Austen and Ramsey could not reach the bridge till 6 February. Ramsey, as MD, reported to the Railway Executive Committee (REC), the senior government body running the wartime railways, and they asked the GWR for an opinion. Their engineer reported in late February. The timber pile trestle piers and piles supporting the main girders on the up stream side had been washed away and the girders on that side were now suspended and carried by the 12’ by 12’ capping pieces supported by the cross bracings from the downstream side. It was quite unusable. The Engineer and Austen thought that where the piles driven into the river bed and spliced the piles had been carried away above the splices. To make good the damage would necessitate building a temporary gantry in the river, or utilising a floating barge for the pile driving which would need a contractor as even the GWR did not have the facilities to do the work. The river was still in high flood and it was difficult to estimate the full amount of the damage but from what could be seen it would cost from £1,000 to £1,500 to make good. A considerable quantity of pack ice was still coming down the river, and there was a danger of further damage, and no repairs could be carried out until the river subsided.
The quarry was severely hit and only managed to divert a part of its potential output by road to Four Crosses station. The S&MR was now deprived of all the quarry traffic which was its principal source of income and could no of course afford the repairs. Only central funding could provide this, which required REC approval which was slow in coming. Although of relatively small consequence and therefore of no direct concern to the Railway Executive Committee, who ran the Railways, the Quarry had a Director with influence, Sir Henry Maybury former Director-General of Roads, Ministry of Transport 1919-1928, and a pioneer of the arterial road network. He used his contacts to press the Ministry of Transport to safeguard the bridge and get it repaired. Moreover Maybury no longer trusted the S&MR; they would only assist if under wartime arrangements the GWR took over any resumed workings. Matters dragged on and the financial situation of the S&MLR was so severe that they decided that their resources had to be concentrated on those parts of the line which might be made to pay. The Kinnerley to Moele Brace section was to be closed and arrangements made for the remaining lines to be worked by the GWR. In the light of this decision and Ministry pressure, the REC approved financial arrangements to repair Melverley Bridge and these were confirmed in discussions over the June to September 1940 period .
In peacetime this would have been implemented immediately, but others held the ultimate destiny of the line in their hands for the War Department announced in October that they wanted the mainline of the S&MR for storing munitions. They began to take over the main line, but not the branch, in late 1940 and in a meeting on Christmas Eve 1940 between the Ministry and the War Office it was revealed that the military were about to remove some girders. Indeed they had already removed some but the work was stopped. However these changes and lack of materials and other resources delayed the bridge work further. It was not until 8 May 1941 that reconstruction commenced under the supervision of the GWR. These repairs involved more work than originally envisaged and ultimately cost £5,700, with a further £2,350 of repairs to the track of the branch itself. The bridge was not reopened until 27 October 1941, and crucially, the GWR’s contractors had, through accident or design, only rebuilt it for an axle load of 9 tons. Moreover, it appeared later that they had done a poor job that would not endure. So now the S&MR did not, following the loss of the last Ilfracombe goods Hesperus in 1941, have a light enough locomotive to work the reconnected line. Although they tried to obtain a small locomotive for the work ,they did not succeed.
However the WD agreed to work the branch line (confirmed in May 1942) and small locomotives that came to be used by the WD, such as a Manning Wardle 0-6-0ST, could have been used on the whole branch. However if through workings ever used the bridge they must have been few as surviving records show that the quarry loco was exchanging traffic with the WD at the bridge from 22nd December 1941. Whether this involved wagons being propelled onto the bridge by the quarry Sentinel and pulled off the other end by a WD locomotive is entirely uncertain and there is at least one photo of the quarry loco crossing the bridge at this period.
Accounts that the line was worked from this date solely by the quarry’s Sentinel locomotive are not correct. The records show that the WD worked the Branch as far as the Bridge till 7th May 1947 including, we must surmise, normal goods traffic which had increased, particularly with the construction of a BBC transmitting station near the branch. Workings were not however on a daily basis but appear to be about every other day, unless quarry traffic was heavy.
And Yet Another…
The poor nature of the 1941 repairs was to come back to haunt the railway and the quarry. In August 1944 Austen reported to the Ministry that due to settlement in the repaired Criggion side pier which was leaning downstream and the track was moving out of alignment and had been under observation for some time. Traffic levels were severely depressed in that year but traffic seems to have continued to pass over the bridge although for a time it is possible that no locomotives were allowed to cross .Something must have been have been done for normal traffic arrangements, or at least those that had been normal since 1942, seem to have held up. The WD finally, after a period when its service was intermittent, gave up their share of the haulage probably as the and the Coal Engines had fallen by the wayside by late1946 and even the Dean goods, which may well have anyway been too heavy for the branch, were being phased out during 1947 in favour of the much heavier Austerity Tanks. For operational convenience if nothing else the Quarry Sentinel provided all the motive power on branch services from 7th May 1947 until final closure in 1959
Whatever the motive power the bridge was too far gone and replacement became a priority.After Austen’s’ report the fate of the bridge fades out of the record for a while but its continuing use is shown in quarry traffic figures which rose from the 1944s low of 14,000 tons (virtual all of which went to the WD for consumption on local sites) to around 22,000 tons in each of the years 1945, 46 and 47. Maybury had died in 1943 but his influence was clearly still felt as the Ministry of Transport was clearly involved in discussions of the fate of the bridge over the next year or two. The S&MR could not finance the work but by July 1947 Austen had persuaded the Ministry of Transport not only to accord the replacement of the bridge high priority at a time of material shortages but to loan the company the cash to do it! By this time, of course, he did so in the certain knowledge that the newly nationalised railways would have to pay the bill.
Reconstruction of the Bridge was originally costed at £16,342/10/- although some of this cost was in respect of the rebuilding of another bridge on the branch near Kinnerley. Costs later rose and the final bill was £23,300/10/- with contributions of £6,000 from the river board and £1,000 from the quarry. The new bridge was constructed in the spring and summer of 1948. The bridge was totally new and slightly upstream of Stephens’ bridge which was not removed until the new was ready. The work was carried out by the Westbury firm of A G Farr under the direction of the new Western Region of British Railways using wartime Bailey bridge components. True to tradition the bridge does not seem to have been constructed to full mainline standards, for the WD never seem to have sent one of their locos over it, using only the lightest of railcars for inspection etc and leaving the heavy traffic to the Quarry’s hardworking Sentinel, presumably under some sort of working arrangement with British Railways who were wholly responsible for the branch.
Later, the great white chief in charge of all nationalised transport, Sir Cyril Hurcomb, expressed retrospective dislike of the decision of the Ministry, and the bridge cannot have paid for itself from the quarry traffic which was destined to cease in December 1959, a few days before the WD closed the S&MR mainline for good. Perhaps the official who advised the Minister on the decision knew better than Hurcomb, for the bridge still serves to this day as an invaluable road bridge for the local community having been handed over and re-opened for that purpose in 1962. It remains busy and unchanged today.
I wonder how many British railway bridges have been completely rebuilt three times and still serve a useful purpose today.
National Archives (PRO): S&MR Minutes at RAIL 621; RAIL 1057/363; AN2/49-51 PRO AN13/1373, 1376 and 1377; A 157 360-2; WO32/ 19181.