introduction | Solway Viaduct south | Solway Viaduct north
Wampool Viaduct | Leven Viaduct | Kent Viaduct


Keen readers of this rubbish will have noticed my passion for history, and especially Victorian engineering. This led me off on a hunt amongst the remains of the old Tay Bridge and eventually to the engineering feats of a certain James Brunlees, who gave evidence as a very unconvincing expert witness at the enquiry into the Tay Bridge disaster in 1880.

If you look at the index above, you'll notice that a fair proportion of his work was in the Furness area of the UK and seeing as I was at Ulverston one weekend for a Morris Dancing festival, a nice cool but pleasant Saturday evening saw Carole, Adrian and yours truly take a wander out to the Leven Viaduct to see what we could see.

james brunlees leven viaduct morecambe bay 168 170 class dmu diesel multiple unit juillet july 2008 copyright free photo royalty free photo

There's a pub at the end of the Ulverston Canal that makes for a nice refreshing break after a steady walk from town, and from the pub there's a really good view of the Leven Viaduct if you are blessed with a good long-range lens on your camera.

It's an even better shot of the viaduct if you can manage to catch a 168/170 class DMU - diesel multiple unit - crossing over the viaduct. This here is a train made up of three 2-car units. Frank Sprague's invention in 1897 of multiple train control from one cab revolutionised passenger transport and was the first nail in the coffin of steam traction on rural railway lines. If it had been adopted seriously long before the 1960s, it would have saved a good number of lines that were closed under the Beeching Plan.

To get to the viaduct from here was not as easy as it seemed. The track along the front of Morecambe Bay petered out into nothingness so we had to retrace our steps, rescue Caliburn and go for a long drive out into the wilds.

But having said that, I wouldn't have been at all surprised if the road that we took wasn't the old road that led to the footway across the sands prior to the building of the railway line and the modern road around the head of the bay.

milepost furness railway james brunlees leven viaduct morecambe bay juillet july 2008 copyright free photo royalty free photo

So here we are, 16 miles and 69 chains from somewhere. My guess is that it is Carnforth, where the Furness Railway branches off from the LNWR main line that runs between London, Carlisle and Scotland.

For the benefit of those of you brought up with decimal measurements, there are 10 chains in a furlong and 8 furlongs in a mile. A cricket pitch - the distance between the wickets - is one chain in length, and a "strip" - an individual's allocation of part of a field in a medaieval open-field farming sytem - was said to be one chain wide by one furlong in length.

You don't 'arf learn a lot reading my web pages.

james brunlees leven viaduct morecambe bay juillet july 2008 copyright free photo royalty free photo

Now the first thing that you might notice about Brunlees' viaduct is - "where are the cast-iron columns?". Brunlees was considered by many to be the foremost engineer of iron bridges in his day and at the enquiry into the Tay Bridge disaster, at which he appeared in the guise of an expert witness, he was proud of his cast-iron viaducts that had "stood for 27 years" prior to the Tay Bridge disaster. At question 15598 of the enquiry he stated that he had "the most thorough confidence in the use of cast-iron". So where have the cast-iron columns gone?

What we need first of all to do is to set the scene for Brunlees' Leven Viaduct.

During the early years of railway mania, a line connecting the existing railway network in southern Lancashire with the industrial heartland of central Scotland was proposed by no less a person than George Stephenson himself. He considered that the primitive steam locomotives of the day would not be able to climb over the fells around Shap and so his choice fell on a line around the Furness coast.

Somehow the railway line needed to be taken over the treacherous Morecambe Bay, and his idea was to build a huge embankment between Poulton-le-Sands near Morecambe and Humphrey Head, near Grange over Sands. Morecambe Bay would then fill with silt. The bay could then be reclaimed with the idea, one supposes, of then selling the land for agriculture, with the income from the sale of land going to defray the costs of construction of the embankment.

That was the idea that Stephenson put forward in August 1837. and the subsequent "debate" raged for years. In 1843 the idea was abandoned and the engineers resolved to build their line over Shap.

In the meantime, a company of Victorian engineers from Manchester, Brogden and Sons, had begun to develop the haematite (from which iron ore is extracted) mines in the Furness area and a particularly good sem had been discovered at Millom. They had had high hopes of bringing the iron to Manchester along Stephenson's railway but now that his line to Scotland was to go over Shap they had to think of another way to send the iron to Manchester.

The iron could not go by ship as Manchester had no connection to the sea at this time (the Manchester Ship Canal was not built until 1894 and the Bridgewater Canal was woefully inadequate from Brogden's proposals). The Furness Railway had in 1854 constructed a line from Barrow to Ulverston but had little inclination to continue the line any further east. In the absence of any other proposition the Brogdens planned to build their own railway line.

They formed the Ulverston and Lancaster Railway Company and an Act of Parliament of 1851 gave the company the necessary powers to construct a line from Ulverston to the LNWR's line at Carnforth.

The company had engaged Messrs McClean and Stillman to plan the line, and they proposed a route 19 miles long, of which over half would be on either viaducts or embankments. There was a lengthy delay in the commencement of the construction and this led to the resignation of McClean and Stillman in February 1853. Into the fray entered one James Brunlees.

Brunlees had been engaged on the construction of the Londonderry and Coleraine Railway and one of the major tasks was to carry that line across Rosse's Bay. For this he had constructed an impressive embankment and in doing so had met with a great many problems, all of which he had successfully overcome. He was therefore just the man to oversee the construction of the Ulverston and Lancaster line and once he was appointed to the task, work began in September 1853.

Construction was by no means easy and the company ran out of money. Two of the directors of the Furness Line saved the company from bankruptcy by making a personal loan of £50,000. On 26th August 1857 the line finally opened at a cost of £410,000.

At first the line was unable to pay its way and the directors were obliged to go cap-in-hand to the Furness Railway for another loan. The Furness Railway refused and offered to buy out the line - an offer that the Brogden family refused. Instead, they persevered with the line and traffic slowly increased, to such an extent that it was rumoured that the LNWR was interested in buying out the Brogdens.

This rumour frightened the Furness Railway to death. The company was hemmed in at its northern end by the LNWR and if that company gained control of the Ulverston and Lancaster line it would hem in the Furness Railway at the southern end too. The directors of the Furness Railway had no option. In 1862 they bought out the Brogdens and took over their line. It has to be said however that the terms they offered were hardly generous.

james brunlees leven viaduct morecambe bay juillet july 2008 copyright free photo royalty free photo

Much of the expense went into the building of the two viaducts over the rivers at the head of Morecambe Bay. The Leven Viaduct near Ulverston is the longest at just about 600 yards. It consists of 49 spans of which 48 vary in width between 7 metres and 12 metres but span 37 is by far the longest, at about 20 metres. The reason for this is that it was designed to be opened in the manner of a drawbridge to allow ships to pass underneath, a necessary device seeing as the height of the viaduct above the river is a mere 25 feet. This could be operated by "a man and a boy", so it was said.

The major difficulty that Brunlees had was in sinking the piles into the river bed. There was a great depth of sand that no ordinary technique could penetrate. Pile-driving with a steam percussion hammer simply squashed the sand underneath the cylinder and so he developed the system of water-blasting the sand out of the way. Into the resultant holes he sank tubular cast-iron cylinders with a large disc base. This process was repeated until the cylinders were sufficiently deep and they were then filled with concrete.

Local history records very little about the gang of navvies who built the viaduct. Almost everywhere else in the UK the navvies who built the canal and later the railway system caused drunken mayhem and havoc yet the local press of the area is strangely silent about those who built the Ulverston and Lancaster navvies. It is now almost impossible to uncover any trace of them and their activities.

The Leven Viaduct was originally built as a single-track crossing with a deck of longitudinal lattice girders supported by three vertical 10-inch cast-iron columns and one "raker" - a column that is set out from underneath the viaduct at its base and then leans in to connect with the girders at the top. This raker would give the added security of the effects of triangular bracing against the prevailing westerly winds.

james brunlees leven viaduct view west morecambe bay irish sea prevailing winds juillet july 2008 copyright free photo royalty free photo

Talking of winds, the winds that blow up the estuary can be fierce. On 27th February 1903 the morning mail train was blown over as it crossed the viaduct. Luckily it remained on the bridge and the bridge itself held otherwise Brunlees himself would have been the subject of a similar enquiry to that of the Tay Bridge disaster, at which he appeared as a less-than-convincing expert witness. But Brunlees had already died by this time - passing on in 1892.

One of the first tasks undertaken by the Furness Railway on taking over the line was to double the track bed, hence widening the viaduct. A fourth vertical column and a second raker were added, leading to the six-column configuration that Brunlees was later to employ on the Solway Viaduct The lifting drawbridge was done away with.

james brunlees leven viaduct morecambe bay juillet july 2008 copyright free photo royalty free photo

In its exposed position deterioration of the viaduct was quick to take effect and between 1885 and 1887 the longitudinal lattice girders were replaced. But this was not the worst. An examination of the cast-iron columns, those in which Brunlees had "the most thorough confidence" less than 30 years later revealed that they were in a desperate condition.

Nothing must occur that would impede the flow of haematite from the mines to the blast furnaces of the war effort so despite the war austerity programme that was in force, it was decided in 1915 to surround the columns with masonry and infill with concrete. Much of the deckwork was replaced at this time.

Just 6 years later, Brunlees' other major work, the Solway Viaduct about which I write elsewhere was found to be in such a poor condition that it was abandoned forthwith and later demolished.

So much for Brunlees as an expert witness in the use of cast-iron!

In the 1950s despite the moratorium on major projects enforced upon British Rail by the pro-road transport British Government, further repairs were carried out on the viaduct and these secured the future of the line. But by the turn of the 21st Century the viaduct had deteriorated again. By now there was a speed limit of 20mph in force and it was clear to almost everyone that the viaduct was on its last legs. A warning was issued that it would soon be declared unsafe, by which process the whole Furness Line would be obliged to close down.

In 2002 a full investigation of the viaduct was undertaken, which led in 2004 to the identification of a scheme for reconstruction which was put out to tender and on 26th March 2006 the line was temporarily closed to traffic as repairs begain. A new deck, weighing 3500 tonnes was installed and more than 2,000 square metres of masonry was repaired. Just 16 weeks later, the viaduct was reopened.

The original cost of the construction of the viaduct was said to be £18,604, which doesn't sound like very much money to me even given the rampant inflation that has occurred over the last 150 years or so. The repairs in 2006 cost in the region of £14 million. It has to be said that the prompt reaction of the railway authorities in securing the future of the viaduct and hence the line contrasts with the shameful farce that surrounded another famous viaduct not too far away and another shameful farce not too far away from where I live.

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