The Chester and Holyhead Railway and The Britannia Bridge

By Bill Rogerson

2020 Marks the 170th Anniversary of the Opening of The Britannia Bridge on 5 March 1850, and 50 Years Since the Disastrous Fire on the 23 May 1970

Part 3: TRAGEDY STRIKES THE BRIDGE

Tragedy struck the bridge on the evening of Saturday 23 May 1970. Two young thoughtless local boys entered the tube on the Anglesey side looking for birds and they accidentally set fire to the timber linings of the tube, which were coated in bitumen. The fire took hold very quickly. This badly damaged some of the plates before the fire was discovered. Heat from the resultant raging fire caused the spans to sag, leading to the loss of structural continuity. Then as the metal cooled, ironwork over the supports split. After standing the test of time for 120 years, Stephenson’s great work had been destroyed and would never look the same again. The damage was so extensive that closure of the bridge and isolation of the railway on Ynys Môn was the only option. Passengers went from Bangor to Llanfair PG by road – much as they did in the two years from 1848 before the bridge was completed. While the Britannia Bridge was out of action, Ynys Môn suffered great difficulties indicating the continuing the importance of this great Victorian Bridge, one hundred and twenty -five years after it was built.

Fortunately, the then Secretary of State for Wales attached great importance to this strategic link with Ireland and rebuilding was authorised with the proviso that the new design should be strong enough to accommodate, at a later date, a three-lane roadway above the railway. This opened to road traffic as a two-lane carriageway in 1980 and forms part of the A55 North Wales expressway. It is now totally inadequate for the amount of traffic that uses it. Plans to widen it or put a third crossing in are currently being discussed.

As shipping traffic through the Menai Strait had by then virtually ceased, the engineers, Husband & Co. faced fewer restrictions than Stephenson. They adopted a lattice steel arch construction and, from January 1972 trains were once again able to run through to Holyhead. Since the bridge was, travellers by train are treated to spectacular panoramic views of the Menai Straits, something their predecessors were unable to enjoy. I regularly travel by train over this route and there is always a scramble by the holidaymakers for their cameras.

The dual bridge was formally reopened by HRH the Prince of Wales in July 1980, but the new structure was functional rather than aesthetic, despite retaining many old Stephenson’s original, carefully conceived design features.

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On the day of the fire, British Transport Police Constables, Bill Atherton and Geoff Davies were on late turn duty at the Port of Holyhead and they responded to the fire at the Britannia Bridge. All the way across the island they thought they were responding to an embankment fire, so imagine the shock when they arrived to find it ablaze. The fire service was already in attendance. Bill and Geoff stayed at the scene all night until extra officers arrived from Liverpool to replace them.

When it was declared safe, DC Harry Caven and PC Davies walked through the tube looking for evidence and taking photos. Geoff was part of the subsequent enquiry to find the two schoolboys although he doesn’t remember too much about it. They’d opened a hatch to look for pigeons and as it was dark, they’d lit a taper, but all the metalwork was covered in pitch to protect it and that caught fire. The investigation file is no longer in existence.

Geoff remembers one of the most spectacular events of the aftermath was having low loaders from Pickford’s to transport the locos stuck on Anglesey and they were taken down Turkey Shore Road, Holyhead and loaded onto the ‘James Fishers’ of Barrow in Furness ships and taken off the island.

Glyn Thomas was based a Holyhead at the time. He can recall very little of the actual fire. He does remember however spending long hours on cordon/access control on the Caernarfonshire side afterwards. The aftermath of it of course meant that Holyhead was like a ‘ghost’ town as the ships moved to Heysham, for about 18 months. The Freightliner traffic was being sent to the old Caernarfon station site (where Morrisons Supermarket is now) and he and other officers had to include a visit on nights. Travelling Post Office duties started from Bangor to Crewe/return and he and other officers had to catch the train to Llanfairpwll PG (This station had actually closed on 14 February 1966 but reopened on a temporary basis on 29 May 1970 following the fire). It closed again on 31 January 1972. Permanent reopening followed on 7 May 1973), then forward by road to Bangor and in a British Rail lorry for the return all the way to Holyhead, not a comfortable journey.

Following the fire there was a decrease in traffic from Holyhead. Heysham Harbour in Lancashire handled the bulk of the sailings to Dun Laoghaire. The main A5 road from London to Holyhead over Telford’s suspension was still open so car ferries still ran from Holyhead each night. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays in the main summer season there was an additional daytime sailing. The passenger trains from London were diverted to Heysham. As a consequence, some of the Holyhead based BTP officers were transferred to Heysham and some to Stratford Freightliner depot in London as there was not enough work for them at Holyhead.

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INVESTITURE OF H.R.H. PRINCE OF WALES 1 JULY 1969

H.R.H Prince Charles was invested The Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle / Castell Caernarfon on 1 July 1969. Some of you may have been on duty for the Investiture.

Whilst serving at Holyhead I came across the below note. I don’t think in today’s climate so many senior Royal figures would be allowed to travel together in the same saloon. Bill.

On the Occasion of the Investiture of H.R.H. The Prince of Wales on 1 July 1969 the following members of the Royal Family travelled in this saloon 45029 from Menai Bridge yard to the Britannia Bridge and back. There is no mention of the locomotive that hauled the saloon, but I believe it could have been one of the two English Electric Type 4s (later class 40) which hauled the Royal Train to Caernarfon.

H.M. The Queen

H.R.H. Prince Charles

H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh

H.R.H. Princess Anne

H.R.H. The Queen Mother

H.R.H. Princess Margaret

H.R.H. The Duke of Kent

H.R.H. The Duchess of Kent

H.R.H. The Duke of Gloucester

H.R.H. Prince Richard of Gloucester

H.R.H. Princess Alexandra

The Hon. Angus Ogilvy

H.R.H. Prince Michael of Kent.

The Earl Mountbatten

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SESQUICENTENARY

The Britannia Bridge celebrated its Sesquicentenary on the 5 March 2000. The actual celebrations took place on Saturday 18 March 2000. A special train ran from Bangor to Llanfair PG for the occasion. I and two Constables, PC Sean Morgan and PC Sean Braithwaite were on duty for the celebrations. Also, in attendance was Michael Argent, the then Chief Constable of the North Wales Police and a couple of his senior officers.

Sergeant Bill Rogerson and PC Sean Morgan at Bangor with the special train, from Bangor to Llanfair PG, a class 158 Diesel Multiple Unit to Llanfair PG. Photo courtesy of Gwyn Roberts.

 

 

The following letter of appreciation was received from the organiser of the event:

‘Dear Sergeant Rogerson,
Many thanks indeed for the support of the British Transport Police for the celebration of the Britannia Bridge last Saturday. It certainly was a splendid occasion which had a tremendous party atmosphere and one which was enjoyed by everyone present – and we were blessed with good weather. The whole programme came together very well, and I have heard nothing but praise from every quarter for those who contributed to the event. Everyone comments on how wonderfully intense the day was, with so many things to do, see and read. Many people were impressed with the amount of preparation which had been put in the programme by the various organisations involved. It will certainly be a very hard act to follow, and one which put the coast of North Wales on the map for the day.

I very much appreciate the efforts that were put in by yourself and all of the police officers both prior to the event and on the day itself. This certainly helped for the smooth running of the celebration and could you please pass on my thanks for the very cheerful, enthusiastic and polite manner in which everything was done. The high profile of the uniformed officers added colour and character to the whole scene. I just hope that things aren’t too humdrum in the aftermath!
Once again, many thanks for your contribution which helped to make for an unforgettable day’.

The following letter was sent by HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales:

‘The Britannia Bridge is a splendid structure which, for so many years, has played a vital role in the lives of people living in, and travelling through North Wales. The successful construction of this bridge 150 years ago marked a significant stage in the development of civil engineering and its use in enhancing communications. It is a monument to the foresight and skill of the great nineteenth century engineer, Robert Stephenson, and to all those who worked to build this extraordinary tubular bridge.

I understand that it was never formally opened because Queen Victoria decreed that the then Prince of Wales, who had been invited to perform this ceremony, was too young to undertake such a task at the age of nine. I have to say that I do have some sympathy with the decision! And although I am sorry not to be with you in person today, I could not be more pleased to send you all my warmest good wishes for this historic anniversary celebration’.
Charles.

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The bridge which, in March 2020 celebrated its 170 anniversary of opening continues to serve its successive owners well, playing a pivotal role in providing a fast and well-used link between Britain and Ireland.

 

The Britannia Bridge taken from St Mary’s Church Llanfair PG. Photograph: Bill Rogerson

 

Part 1: The Chester and Holyhead Railway

Part 2: The Britannia Bridge

 

Acknowledgements / Bibliography
British Transport Police History Group Website
Railtrack / Network Rail archives
The Railway Magazine
Glyn Thomas
Geoff Davies
Viv Head
Wikipedia
Thomas Brassey Railway Builder & Canada Works Birkenhead by John Millar
A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain Volume 11 North and Mid Wales – Peter E Baughan. David St John Thomas.
An Historical Survey of the Chester and Holyhead Railway – Anderson and Fox. OPC