5. Building the viaduct: imagine the scene

‘the thudding of pile-drivers and the hiss of the tidal-bore…’




On the day of ‘cutting the first sod’, Tuesday 26th March 1865, Brogden had said, “I trust that when most of you now present … are here at the opening, we shall meet under favourable auspices to celebrate that occasion.” (Carlisle Journal, Friday March 31st 1865)

The young Elizabeth Ann Cottam, whose father was a grocer in Bowness, was apparently the first person to cross the viaduct on the Sunday before the official opening  – for the construction of the viaduct itself had taken about three years, between early 1866 and June 27th 1868 when Alex Brogden laid the final two girders.

There’s no record of any major celebration of the opening, probably because there were no ‘favourable auspices’ at that time. Bowness Moss was proving such a hindrance that the SJR was by no means fully open; locomotives could have gone no further than Bowness, where even the station had not yet been completed.

The newspapers continued to report a great deal about the progress of the work, but rather little about the people involved. Out on the Firth, work had been going on ‘night and day’ from the barges. The steamer Arabian and its crew was criss-crossing the Firth with its clutch of barges; here were the barge-captains and their crews, and those skilled in working the derricks and the steam-driven pile-drivers.

The barges

‘were generally moored with four anchors, head and stern. In such an exposed estuary, accidents, of course, occurred – such as the barges being swamped – but on the whole, the work was carried on with very few disasters, and only one life has been lost over the whole undertaking. The weather in some seasons rendered the work very difficult and dangerous; and the storms were occasionally so strong that the men could not hold on to the bridge to continue their work. On one occasion, in a heavy storm, two of the barges were lost; but they were afterwards recovered along with their machinery.’ (Whitehaven News Feb 11th 1869).

Out on the Firth, then, there would have been the thudding of the pile-drivers and the squeal of released steam; the slapping of waves and the hiss of the occasional tidal-bore; the noise of wind through the superstructure of the vessels and the piers; the rumble and splash of boulders being off-loaded around the piles.

Above the men on the barges, others were constructing the upper tiers of the viaduct.  Wrought-iron pillars were being trundled along temporary tracks on waggons, and men were operating derricks with wildly-swinging cables; there was a hammering, shouting and clanging as metal-workers fitted and bolted girders and plates into place.

There was always danger, in the wind, with heavy machinery and equipment and wallowing barges.

And then there was the enormous disturbance to the sea-bed, the shifting of tons of sediment by the Solway’s tides.

There were other, social, knock-on effects: ‘the once busy little bathing village of Bowness’, and ‘Port Carlisle [was] now as lifeless and silent as any place well could be.’ Port Carlisle had been in decline for a while after the closure of the canal, and steamer trade had decreased, but now ‘The viaduct of the Solway Firth has shut up the little place entirely within itself. Sea communication west of the viaduct is quite cut off except for small boats …’ (Whitehaven News Feb 11th 1869).

Moreover, as Chris Puxley, former harbour-master at the Port of Silloth, wrote in the Solway Buzz in August 2014, ‘the building of this viaduct had a profound and detrimental effect on the regular cross-Solway paddle-steamer services and day trips between Silloth and the Scottish ports of Annan, Dumfries, Carsethorn and Glencaple, with those services declining and finally ending around 1878.’

The disruption, including the noise and the lanes busy with carts and waggons, caused to the lives of the people who lived in the nearby villages and farmed the land can be imagined, but contemporary accounts of the societal effects barely exist. All those navvies and metalworkers and masons must have had to live and feed close by – but where, and how? Of course, this influx could also have allowed people like traders and publicans (as we’ll see later) to benefit.

This was perfect terrain for poaching. Was there a major impact on the numbers of roe-deer and fish and wildfowl?

Some people wondered how any salmon could now make their way up the estuary to the rivers; there were disputes, which were even brought to court, about the enormous numbers of ‘fixed engines’ for fishing – the stake-nets and poke-nets – along the shore to the East of the viaduct. Shifting channels and sediment must have interfered with haaf-netting.


Solway nets
Fixed nets on the Scottish side, March 2017 (C) James Smith


The mudflats and saltmarshes and raised mires of the Upper Solway have always been important feeding sites for resident and migrating birds (and are now fairly comprehensively protected by international and European and UK conservation designations). But imagine the extent of the disturbance – to marine invertebrates, to birds and to wildlife in general – during those years of construction of the SJR, across and on both sides of the Firth.

Imagine, too, the long-lasting disturbance in constructing a railway track across the almost untouched and pristine centre of a peat-bog.