On November 16th 1771, across the north east of England it rained. It didn’t stop, and to make matters worse, the deluge coincided with snow melting on the Pennines. The region’s rivers were inundated, the river banks failed. The Great Flood of 1771 swept away houses, mills and every stone bridge on the Rivers Tyne, Wear and Tees, with the exception of Corbridge. On the River Tyne thirteen bridges were destroyed, including three or possibly four arches of Elvet Bridge in County Durham. Twenty-five lives were lost and an entire village disappeared underwater.
The first Hexham bridge with its seven stone arches, Old Hexham Bridge, was built by a Mr Gait and replaced a ferry crossing. It was swept away in the Great Flood. It had only just been built, construction having started in 1767 and finished in 1770. A Mr Wooler attempted to build another bridge nearby in 1774 but abandoned it after the piles were discovered to be sitting on quicksand soil, with “no more resistance than chaff”.
Keen for a replacement, the authorities applied to John Smeaton, who designed lighthouses, canals, and harbours. A well respected engineer who was a member of the Lunar Society (a dinner club frequented by philosophers and intellectuals), Smeaton founded the Society of Civil Engineers, (now known as the Smeatonian Society) and came up with the concept of “civil” engineers to distinguish themselves from “military” engineer graduates. His objective was to bring together those engineers and entrepreneurs responsible for building large public works, such as sewers, canals and bridges, and influence parliament with their ideas. He was a keen advocate of craftsmanship. He developed new materials by experimenting with hydraulic lime in concrete, and his ideas led to the invention of Portland Cement, and he famously designed the interlocking stonework for the building of the third Eddystone Lighthouse (1759) which survived until 1882 when it was replaced by the current structure. And he built bridges.
Smeaton designed the new Hexham bridge, but Henry Errington built it. The bridge was completed in 1780 – yay! Then in 1782 a violent snow storm and hurricane struck and overturned nine arches – so even great engineers can be outdone by the weather. These fallen stones still lie next to current bridge and are part of a weir. Another engineer Robert Mylne was given the task of rebuilding Smeaton’s bridge. This bridge was completed in 1793. Mylne, a Scotsman, designed Blackfriars Bridge in London. He was also another founding member of the Society of Civil Engineers.
Has this Hexham bridge survived? Yes, finally. It’s a Grade II listed building. It also incorporates a fish pass installed in the 1960s to help the migration of salmon upstream.
Hexham is derived from Hagustaldes ea. Hagustald is a High German word denoting a younger son who takes land outside of a settlement. Ea, means stream, and Ham, meaning home. It is a strategic market town close to Hadrian’s wall and famed for its abbey. While Hexham Bridge remains key for the local traffic, a modern bridge was constructed over the main bypass A69. The Constantius Bridge was built in 1975, just below where the River Tyne splits into its north and south tributaries. During construction, the scaffolding collapsed during a flood, and even when the bridge was barely finished it already needed strengthening to protect against flood damage.
Modern engineering has made sure bridge failures are rare, although disasters still happen. What history and Hexham have shown is that bridges are rebuilt. The need to connect across divides is resilient and even if the exact same location isn’t used for each reincarnation, the obstacles to maintaining bridges have been largely overcome to ensure, eventually, they are strong enough to withstand the cruel fates of nature (and man).