How first railway architect became a figure of note

The Northern Echo: Bonomi's bridge near John Street off North Road, in Darlington Buy this photo Bonomi's bridge near John Street off North Road, in Darlington

Chapter 9

Where brooks and becks stood in the way of the railway pioneers, George Stephenson was allowed to throw single span arches over them.

He was even allowed to have a stab at crossing the Gaunless, near West Auckland, but, initially at least, he wasn’t especially successful.

Perhaps because of this, when the S&DR came up against the River Skerne – a bigger river than the Gaunless – the pioneers on the committee decided to call in an outsider.

And so Ignatius Bonomi of Durham City came to be called “the first railway architect”.

Bonomi’s father, Joseph, was born in Rome and travelled extensively, becoming one of Europe’s leading Egyptologists. He fell in with the Lambton family of Durham and it was they who provided young Ignatius with his first building contracts.

The Lambton’s aristocratic friends also helped the budding architect, and he soon attracted the attention of the clergy – he was Durham Cathedral’s architect between 1827-34.

More importantly from a railway point of view, he became Surveyor of Bridges in the county, and it was “Mr Bonomi’s experience in building bridges” that led the S&DR pioneers to approach him when they came up against the Skerne.

On July 2, 1824, the S&DR committee accepted his design to cross the river in countryside a mile outside Darlington town centre, and four days later Francis Mewburn – “the first railway solicitor” – laid the first stone.

Today, 175 years later, Bonomi’s bridge has been consumed by Darlington’s growth, and now it is tucked away near John Street off North Road. It hasn’t been cherished by the town, and until the gasworks was demolished in the 1970s, it was hidden from view.

It is still difficult to discover, although in recent years the piping that clambered over it has been reduced.

However, in the imagination of generations of Darlingtonians the Skerne Bridge is a huge but elegant piece of industrial architecture. This is because it is central to the most famous painting of the opening of the S&DR by John Dobbin.

Dobbin, though, was just ten years old when the S&DR officially opened on September 27, 1825. He did witness the scenes, but it wasn’t until the 50th anniversary celebrations that he committed them to paper – probably referring to a sketch either he or his father had done in 1825. It is little wonder, then, that Dobbin’s view is a highly romanticised one.

In 1990, when the Bank of England introduced the current £5 note, it drew heavily on Dobbin’s view for the illustration on the reverse of the note. Curiously, the Bank embellished Bonomi’s simple bridge even further by adding a couple of decorative stone slabs just beneath the parapet. These slabs were only on the north side of the bridge and disappeared when it was widened at the turn of the last century. However, the view on the fiver is from the south so, once more, artistic licence has been taken with the bridge.

Still, it does look a little more impressive than the sketch by the Reverend John Skinner suggests.

Mr Skinner produced his drawing on August 26, 1825 – a month before the railway’s official opening – and it appears in his unpublished book Journeys Through the North of England which is in the British Museum.

For this unlikely likeness, Mr Skinner has been called “the first railway artist”.

Skerne Bridge itself has also attracted some dubious accolades, the most incorrect of which is “the first railway bridge”.

With the Gaunless Bridge pre-dating it by a year, and Causey Arch near Stanley by a century, this is clearly incorrect.

Yet it does have a much more important place in history than you would imagine if you were scrabbling around North Road trying to find it.

Ignatius Bonomi (1787-1870) is one of the more influential people in North-East history, although he is often forgotten about. As well as doing substantial works at Lambton Castle, Durham Castle and Durham Cathedral, he built Durham Prison and courthouse (1810), Eggleston Hall near Barnard Castle (1820), Dinsdale Spa Hotel near Middleton St George (1829), Burn Hall near Croxdale (1821-34), Croft Spa Hotel (1835) and Clervaux Castle near Croft (1842-3).
All but Clervaux Castle (demolished 1951) remain. Burn Hall is regarded as his masterpiece – Queen Victoria called it “the finest looking estate between the Humber and the Tweed” – and it is also likely that he was in charge of Echo Memories’ old friend Windlestone Hall when that was built for the Eden family around 1834.

A cast iron certainty for fame

Parked in the car park of the National Railway Museum in York is the world’s first iron railway bridge.

However, initially this historic construction was not a great success.

Within a couple of months of its completion, it was partially washed away by a flood, and had to be rebuilt.

The bridge carried the Stockton and Darlington Railway over the River Gaunless to the south of West Auckland.

George Stephenson, the self-taught engineer in charge of the building of the line, designed the bridge and it was built by John and Isaac Burrell in their factory in Newcastle.

On October 23, 1823, Stephenson was able to report to a committee meeting of the S&DR that the Gaunless had been successfully spanned.

But then came six weeks of severe snow.

All building work had to be suspended; even the mail coaches were stuck for weeks in drifts at Rushyford.

After the freeze came the thaw, and the Gaunless Bridge appears to have been its main victim.

Stephenson revised his plans so that there were four spans inside of his original three. This means that in the car park at York there are five pairs of cast iron columns which acted as the bridge’s legs.

They are held 12ft 6in apart by iron girders.

The section of the S&DR between the Etherley and Brusselton inclines, on which the bridge sat, seems only to have used horsepower to draw the wagons and not locomotives.

So when the Shildon Tunnel Branch opened in 1856, it fell into disuse (in weeks to come, Echo Memories hopes to produce a detailed map of the line so all these historic names should then fall into geographic place). The bridge clung to its masonry supports until 1901 when it was moved to Brusselton Colliery.

In 1928, it was shifted again, this time to the Queen Street Museum in York, which was the forerunner of the National Railway Museum where it is today.

Helen Ashby, a registrar at the Museum, says: “As the first cast iron railway bridge, on the first public railway, designed by the great George Stephenson, I think it ranks pretty highly in terms of historic and national significance, and even higher in terms of railway history.”

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