Preston landmark's uncertain future

News the Tram Bridge over the Ribble is closed amid safety fears is disappointing for those who have used a route which has served Preston for more than two centuries. Local historian Keith Johnson reports on a landmark in jeopardy

By Mike Hill
Friday, 22nd March 2019, 2:33 pm
Updated Friday, 22nd March 2019, 3:33 pm
Tram Bridge during its days transporting coal across the Ribble. The tracks can be seen leading up to Avenham Park
Tram Bridge during its days transporting coal across the Ribble. The tracks can be seen leading up to Avenham Park

The bridge was a vital link along the old tram road which connected the Lancaster Canal from Wharf Street, behind the Corn Exchange, through a tunnel under Fishergate and onwards to Walton Summit.

Back in November 1797 the Tewitfield to Preston section of the Lancaster Canal was completed and a small flotilla of boats journeyed to Tewitfield and back as praise was heaped upon John Rennie and William Jessop, the celebrated civil engineers. It was quite an engineering feat in its day with 114 road and occupation bridges and two road aqueducts along its length.

Plans to extend the canal towards Wigan and the coalfields were seen as too complicated and expensive and the alternative of building a tram road was agreed. William Cartwright, who had been involved in the canal building, became the leading engineer in the tram road construction. He observed the methods of Benjamin Outram, a pioneer in the building of horse drawn tram roads, before submitting his own plans for a two track double ‘L’ shaped rail system.

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Tram Bridge, note the flagpole, seen on the left horizon, which was put up opposite the Belvedere in September 1882 for the Guild celebrations.

Work began at the dawn of the 19th century and was completed sufficiently by late 1803 to allow coal wagons to transverse it, although work was still going on at the Preston and Walton Summit wharfs. The tram road was about five miles in length and only wagons ran on it with eight or nine constituting a train.

Beginning at the wharf the tramway passed under the Fishergate tunnel, skirted the back of Chapel Street, passed over a wooden bridge at the bottom of Garden Street, and along the back walls of the gardens to Ribblesdale Place, thence to the summit of Avenham Park, where the Belvedere now stands. There the horses were detached from the wagons, which were hooked on to a very strong endless chain.

This chain passed over a grooved wheel on an upright shaft, which revolved by steam engine power in the building adjoining. Each train was drawn by two or three horses along the entire way, except for that portion traversing the Avenham incline. For almost 60 years this method of transporting coal and limestone along the canal was continued. The last driver of the horses on the tramway was John Proctor who carried out the task for more than 30 years. Twice a day, he went from Preston to Walton Summit, partly walking and partly riding. He did so much walking that records reveal it was necessary for him to have his clogs resoled weekly.

The original rickety wooden structure with its familiar engine house was given a structural overhaul in 1902, and in 1936 it needed running repairs after floodwater debris damaged supports. During the Second World War the timber decking was removed to thwart any potential German invasion advances. By 1966 the original wooden structure was in a dilapidated conditions. Fortunately, repairs were undertaken by Preston Corporation and concrete supports and structures rescued. The bridge once more becoming a vital thoroughfare for pedestrians and cyclists alike.

Tram Bridge, Avenham Park, Preston, being redecked in 1966

Quite naturally any structure that has stood the test of time for more than 200 years will have had many moments that lived long in the memory. In October 1826 a tragic accident occurred when the chain used to drag the wagons up the Avenham incline broke. John Roberts had just disengaged his horses from the wagons and was standing at the bottom of the hill when a wagon hurtled down the slope with great velocity.

Two of his startled horses plunging into the river and receiving injuries so severe they had to be put down. In late July 1837 curious onlookers on the bridge watched as six men and three women were baptised in the waters below, becoming the first British Mormon converts of the church of the Latter-day Saints. A movement which began in Preston and led to many converts to their faith.

Old Prestonians often recalled an afternoon in mid-January 1838 following a severe winter during which 15 days of frost had caused a great deal of ice to accumulate in the Ribble. The masses of ice from Walton Bridge to the Tram Bridge, thickened by sheets floating up the rivers rapids, crashed their way past the rickety structure. Borne on the current, the ice was raised eight to 10 feet above the waters and swept towards the temporary wooden structure being used for the construction of the North Union Railway Bridge which was swept away, leaving great timbers floating on the water.

In January 1875 during a severe frost a number of locals took to the frozen Ribble to skate and slide the afternoon away. Unfortunately, a rapid thaw was under way and suddenly a large floe was detached from the ice carrying several persons towards the bridge where it struck the supports despatching them into the freezing waters. Despite their ducking they all managed to reach the river bank.

Archive photo of the Tram Bridge, Preston

All too common have been the occasions when lives have been lost in the vicinity of the Tram Bridge. In November 1888 dragging operations were carried out on the Avenham side of the bridge after John Clayton, aged seven, was believed to have slipped into the river in the whirlpool area. The Preston Corporation diver made five dives to 20ft, but all he discovered were a number of wagon wheels from the old coal wagons.

In mid March 1907 during a period of gales and flooding a schoolboy named John Barton, 12, was blown into the Ribble while playing with his pals on the Tram Bridge. He was quickly carried seawards along the swollen waters. Despite a vigilant search no trace was found of his body until late April when the machinery of a Preston Corporation dredger, working outside Lytham, was stopped through the body being drawn up into the chains.

There was the occasion in August 1914 when a young barmaid, Gladys Maud Stewart, perished in the waters beneath the bridge. That day the boat she had hired was driven against a wooden pillar by the fast flowing current and overturned. Attempts were made to rescue her, including a lifeline which she gripped for a while, before she was claimed by the swollen waters.

There have been plenty of times when the bridge itself has been in peril through floods and windswept waters, mid-December 1936 being one particularly memorable time. As the Ribble overflowed one of the eight supporting buttresses was carried away, causing a portion of the bridge to sink. It had been hit by a hen cabin more than 30ft long and the Preston Corporation had to close it until running repairs could be carried out.

Tram Bridge, Preston, c.1864

It seems no generations have been safe from the perils of the whirlpool. In December 1937 Alfred Scott, who had a refreshment hut on the Penwortham side of the bridge, was having a cigarette break by the side of his hut when he saw a man standing on the ledge of the bridge looking down into the icy water. In a moment he fell into the river and seemed to swim towards the notorious whirlpool. Despite Mr Scott’s shouts of warning the man was soon enveloped in the whirlpool and disappeared. Operations the next day to recover the body were unsuccessful adding to the mysterious of this treacherous spot.

It was the custom from the early days for the Preston Corporation to close the bridge for 24 hours annually, usually in early May. A public notice being placed in the Lancashire Daily Post each year stating the forthcoming event to preserve the ‘Rights of the Corporation’. Its current closure will be an inconvenience for many, so let’s hope a solution to the problem of this lost thoroughfare can be found. As for William Cartwright he never got the chance to see his efforts come to full fruition. He died in January 1804 in only his 39th year after a short illness. He was described as having a happy cheerful nature, which gained him the esteem of all who knew him including the workmen who toiled for long hours, happy to execute his commands.

He had hoped to linger a while in Preston having a house built on the fashionable Fishergate in 1802. In fact, the frontage of that building can still be seen today in the facade of the Primark store.

Tram Bridge, Preston, in 1946