10. Disaster and Demolition

‘… portions of the ironwork threw off so much fire that the thick darkness was illuminated…’




Image ‘reproduced with permission of the Department of Transport (National Records of Scotland, BR/SJR/4/2, p. 2)’


‘DISASTER TO THE SOLWAY VIADUCT! Five of its piers destroyed’ (Carlisle Journal, Tuesday February 1st 1881)

‘THE SOLWAY VIADUCT DISASTER Greater destruction.’ (Carlisle Journal, February 4th 1881)

The winter of 1880/81 was extremely cold, with snow and freezing weather. During the neap tides of January 1881, water froze on the saltmarshes and shores of the Upper Solway, and along the estuaries of the Esk and Eden. When the higher Spring tides arrived at the end of the month, the sheets of ice were lifted and carried down the Firth.

‘On Saturday night and early on Sunday morning, when the principal part of the damage was done, four men were on the bridge keeping watch … They could not see the ice through the darkness, but they heard it rattling and bumping against the pillars, and, hearing several times amidst the general noise, while the ebb tide was running between two and six o’clock, a sound which one of them compared to the report of a gun, they at once came to the conclusion that some of the pillars had been broken…’ (Carlisle Journal, Tuesday February 1st 1881)

The ice floes were as much as 6 feet thick, of all sizes; some of them ‘suggested comparisons with fields that were one or two acres in extent’; some were as much as one hundred feet long. For the next few days, icefloes were carried to and fro by the tides, crashing against the viaduct’s supports.

On the Tuesday, a large section of the viaduct fell; ‘the sound was tremendous, and the steel coming in violent contact with other portions of the ironwork threw off so much fire that the thick darkness was illuminated with a transient gleam of light.’ (Carlisle Journal, February 4th 1881) To the onlookers who gathered on the shores throughout those days, the destruction must have been an exciting and awe-inspiring sight.

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These extraordinary images are ‘Reproduced with permission of the Department of Transport (National Records of Scotland, BR/SJR/4/2, p. 2)’ – to whom thanks.

Mr McKerrow, Brunlees’ engineer, came up from London at once, and joined Mr John Brown, the local inspector, to assess the damage – which increased throughout the next few days. On the Thursday 3rd ‘Mr Hunter, who had been in charge of the Viaduct since it was opened, and who was the last to walk over it’ went out in a boat with Mr John Holmes of Bowness, and noted the full extent of the damage – the missing pillars, the gaps where rails swung free over a void. The Carlisle Journal  for February 4th  lists every missing pillar, the 50-yard ‘Scotch gap’, and the 300-yard ‘Cumberland gap.’

On a lighter side (though less amusing for the subject):

the hare snip

(For much more about the hare, see ‘A hare in a fix‘ on Solway Shore-walker)


The Solway hadn’t finished showing its capricious nature, but luckily, local knowledge gave cause to dance:

‘A contractor [Mr McKerrow?] was summoned to survey the damage with a view to repairs, and he arrived, with his apparatus, at low tide. Setting his instruments etc., on what he thought to be a safe stretch of shore, he withdrew, only to find that on his return that his possessions were severely embedded in the wet sand. He hired some of the local men to get them out for him, and these … proceeded to join hands and dance around the buried instruments, to the very great surprise of the engineer. The reason to them was plain enough: before they could dig the sand they must first of all stamp out the greater part of moisture from it …’ (John Howes, 1950)

Major Marindin, the Board of Trade Inspector, wasted no time in setting up an Inquiry and concluded that because of the size of the icefloes, with no wind to break them up, it was not surprising that the cast-iron pillars, made brittle with the cold, were unable to withstand the shock. The viaduct should be rebuilt with timber ice-fenders to protect the cast-iron bearing columns, and wooden guards should be fitted outside the rails on the permanent way (Carlisle Express & Examiner, March 19th 1881). The report in The Engineer, April 15th 1881, p278  shows that Marindin was well aware of the scouring power of the Solway’s currents: ‘dolphins or fenders of some kind must be provided to prevent the ice from touching the piers … such things are apt to cause a scour in the bed of a stream, and their foundations in future must be carefully watched.’

The Caledonian Railway proposed to continue running trains over the Moss from the Abbey junction as far as Bowness,  but it seems that the Maryport and Carlisle Railway had other plans, and blocked the proposition. Local people sent a petition to Parliament asking for the viaduct to be repaired and the through-line to be re-opened as soon as possible. Parliament finally agreed in 1882 that money should be raised for the repairs. But the reconstruction and re-design needed were considerable, and the viaduct was not completed and approved by inspection until May 1884.

That made nearly three years since The Disaster. During that period it must have been quiet out on Bowness Moss, apart from basic maintenance of the ditches and the permanent way.

Although the SJR re-opened it was clear that the route was no longer commercially viable. Cheaper haematite was being shipped into Scotland from elsewhere. And the rise of the Bessemer process and the availability of good-quality coking-coal in West Cumbria  meant that a much larger proportion of West Cumbrian pig-iron remained in the county to be converted to steel. Alex Brogden’s optimism at the Sod-cutting Ceremony back in 1865, praising the profits to be accrued, had not been borne out.

The decline in traffic is described in Edgar & Sinton’s book (The Solway Junction Railway, p53). After 1884, a reduced number of trains ran along the SJR; in 1914 more repairs were found to be needed to the viaduct, but the outbreak of war stopped anything but limited maintenance; a speed limit was imposed and trains could not cross on windy days. The war did give a reprieve to the SJR – large quantities of Cumbrian pig-iron were needed in the Scottish foundries for making guns, so Caledonian Railways introduced special lightweight locomotives that could cross the fragile viaduct in safety.

But by May 1921 there was one mixed (passenger and freight) train across the Moss and the viaduct on Tuesdays and Saturdays only. In August, it became apparent that more repairs were needed – and on Wednesday 31st August 1921, the viaduct was closed.

Janet Smith (James’ wife) recalls visiting an old lady in Bowness several years ago who had travelled across to Annan by train every day to go to school. “She told me that one morning they were all called into the Headmaster’s study and told they were to get their things, right now, because they were to go home. They didn’t even have time to say goodbye to their friends! They were put on the train – and it turned out it was the last train, ever.”

In 1926, the LMS railway company took over Caledonian. They declined to repair the viaduct, and on August 3rd informed Wigton Rural District Council that ‘they had definitely decided not to restore the passenger service over the Solway junction section’ (Scotsman, August 4th 1926).

Dismantling the viaduct and SJR

In 1934 – eight years later – the decision was taken to dismantle the viaduct and the railway track as far as Abbey Junction on the Cumberland side. What happened to the track across Bowness Moss during that eight-year period? It is very sad that there are no written or oral accounts. Surely local people walked or rode along the track as a way of getting onto the Moss and to Whitrigg and Kirkbride. Certainly the viaduct was used (illegally) as a pedestrian route between the two sides of the Firth – for various purposes:

TRESPASSING ON SOLWAY VIADUCT. Prohibition in the town of Annan on Sundays had a sequel at Carlisle Police Court on Saturday, when 20 Scotsmen were fined for trespassing on the Solway viaduct. It was stated that every Sunday night Scotsmen made a practice of crossing the Solway Viaduct from Annan to Bowness-on-Solway to obtain drink. Much damage had been done to the permanent way, and there is grave danger of trespassers falling through gaps in the bridge into the sea below. (The Scotsman, June 1st 1925)

 The Scotsman reported on May 7th 1934: ‘Solway Railway Viaduct. Work on demolishment to start this week’. ‘The contractors for the demolition of the bridge are Messrs WH Arnott, Young & Co., Fullarton Iron Works, Glasgow.’

arnott & young ad grace's guide

Dismantling the iron work  – the piles, the pillars, the superstructure, even the huts – was a massive task. Once the permanent way had been removed, steam barges with cranes were brought in to remove the pillars and piles. Despite the apparent fragility of the viaduct, the  contractors often had to resort to blasting to remove the pillars, after issuing warnings to local fishermen.

ct02290 viadcut demolition CIB
Steam barges & the demolition of the Viaduct. (With thanks to Cumbria Image Bank)

Some of the intact columns were sent to East Wemyss pits and the Scottish oil works to be used as pipes; some of the other columns went to Darlington and Motherwell to be smelted, and the rest was shipped to Japan to be used for armamants in the Sino-Japanese War (quoted – unfortunately without noting their source – by Edgar & Sinton, The Solway Junction Railway, p55).

In November 1935 the dismantling of the viaduct was complete – after 18 months of disruption in and around the Solway.

Six cast-iron pillars remain on the Bowness side as a memorial to an extraordinary piece of engineering, an attempt to join Scotland with England, above the tides of the Solway Firth.

As for the section over Bowness Moss, it remained in place for another 18 months: dismantling didn’t start until May 1937 and apparently took two months (John Howes, 1950).

By then, since the viaduct no longer existed, all the materials – rails and other iron-work, sleepers large and small, would have had to be carried back across the Moss to the South, via Whitrigg.

Bowness Moss would, once again, have been a scene of noise and digging and transporting materials in waggons. Were the wooden faggots still intact after seventy years? Did Arnott Young remove them too or had they gradually been oxidised and decomposed in the drained and damaged peat?

The Moss went quiet. In the central damp, lush and untouched part of the raised mire, Sphagnum species continued to flourish; bog asphodel and insectivorous plants produced their flowers; lizards and adders and dragon-flies enjoyed the sunny days; reed-buntings and larks and curlews sang, in season.

Along the derelict railway track, birches and gorse self-seeded, but water continued to drain out of the peat and run in the ditches ‘in river-like streams’.