In 1846, Parliament passed a law giving permission for a bridge to be built over the River Tamar, Cornwall’s historic border with England. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the engineer asked to design the bridge. It had to span the river, which was 340 metres wide at Saltash, and be at least 30 metres above high tide so that big naval sailing ships could still go up river.
A new design
Brunel came up with the ingenious design after his original idea of a train ferry was turned down. He had to make sure the bridge was strong enough to carry the huge weight of iron rails and heavy steam trains. He combined four different types of bridges into one: arch, suspension, truss and beam. The most recognisable features are the two giant arched tubes, which are made of iron, like the rest of the bridge.
Originally Brunel wanted the bridge to have a two-way track so that trains could leave and enter Cornwall in opposite directions at the same time. However, the Cornwall Railway Company, which was funding the bridge, could not afford the £100,000 to do this and so only a single track was laid – the same as today. It remains the only railway crossing into Cornwall.
Work to build the bridge began in 1848. On 1st September 1857, the first major truss from the Cornish side was floated into the Tamar in front of 20,000 spectators. It took six weeks to slowly raise it to its position 100m above the water. On 10th July 1858 the second truss was floated out from the Devon side. Special trains brought more people from London and elsewhere to watch this amazing feat. The bridge was officially opened on 2nd May 1859 by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband.
When it opened, someone wrote that the bridge ‘spanned the silver streak which separated the Briton from the Englishman’.
How do you think the enormous beams and trusses were raised to build the bridge? Why was Brunel’s name added to the bridge in huge letters after it had opened?
Did you know?
Brunel had fallen very ill during the last months of the bridge’s construction. He could not attend the official opening but did manage to cross his bridge in an open wagon shortly before he died on 5th September 1859.
The Royal Albert Bridge brought more than just the national railway network to Cornwall. As a result, Cornwall adopted Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) by which to set its clocks.