Burton on Trent Landmarks #1 – Ferry Bridge

Welcome to the first in what I hope will be a series of posts about some of the sights to be seen in my home town of Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire. As I can’t go anywhere by train at the moment because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I can at least have a socially-distanced walk around the town, and I decided to showcase some of the landmarks associated with Burton.

Ferry Bridge, Burton upon Trent.

One of the most prominent landmarks in the town is Ferry Bridge, a semi-suspension bridge linking the borough of Stapenhill to Burton town centre and crossing the River Trent.

From the 13th Century until the 1880s, a ferry service operated between Stapenhill and Burton and was the only crossing of the river at that end of Burton (the only bridge in the town at the time was Burton Bridge, located about a mile down the river). The Marquis of Anglesey, who owned the rights to operate the ferry, had planned to build a bridge in the 1860s, but this never came to fruition. Michael Arthur Bass (later to become Lord Burton), local brewing magnate, offered to pay for the bridge to be built as long as the Burton Corporation bought the ferry rights from the Marquis of Anglesey, which they did for £12,950 (around £1.7million in 2020 money).

In 1888, work began on constructing the bridge. It was designed and built by local engineering firm Thornewill & Warham, who were notable for building steam locomotives as well as other heavy industrial equipment. They had prior experience with building bridges; the nearby Andressey Footbridge was built by them in 1884 and it still stands today. Their name is displayed on a plaque on the bridge, although the company itself went into liquidation in the 1920s and was taken over by another local firm, Briggs, who remain in the town today.

The bridge itself is 240 feet in length, and 10 ft wide. It was originally adorned with ornamental ironwork, with panels bearing the coat of arms of Lord Burton and his motto ‘Basis Virtutum Constantia’ (The basis of virtue is constancy). Several Victorian gas lamps also adorned the bridge, along with ornamental lions rampant.

Underneath Ferry Bridge.

Ferry Bridge was opened at an elaborate ceremony on Wednesday 3rd April 1889. 8-10,000 locals turned out to see the opening, which was attended by Sir Michael Arthur Bass (Lord Burton) and the Mayor of Burton, Mr C. Harrison, along with other local dignitaries. A toll was imposed to help recoup the costs. People had to pay ½ pence to cross, with manned turnstiles at either end of the bridge. The toll was lifted nine years later on 13th April 1898 as Lord Burton had generously paid off the remaining debt from the construction of the bridge. A sign on the shelter halfway down the bridge viaduct was installed with the following inscription:

THIS BRIDGE AND VIADUCT
WERE PRESENTED TO THE BOROUGH OF BURTON UPON TRENT
BY THE RIGHT HONOURABLE MICHAEL ARTHUR BARON BURTON
AND THE BRIDGE WAS DECLARED FREE OF TOLL BY THE CORPORATION
ON THE THIRTEENTH DAY OF APRIL 1898

The viaduct leading from the bridge to just outside Burton College wasn’t built until the following year after the bridge opened (1890), meaning that bridge users had to traverse a muddy path to get to the town centre from Stapenhill. Just a short while after the bridge opened, Sir Michael Bass proposed the idea for the viaduct. A shelter was erected midway across the viaduct, which bears the “toll-free” sign mentioned before. There are benches within the shelter. Antisocial behaviour in the shelter in the 2000s led to proposals to demolish the shelter, but this never happened in the end.

In 1969, it was found that after 80 years, the bridge was falling into disrepair. The heavy ironwork was causing damage, with parts of the outer iron casing cracking and allowing water to seep in. It was recommended that the bridge be dismantled, and a new bridge built in its place. Fortunately for the bridge and the people of Burton, it was decided to repair the bridge and restore it to its former glory…

Except it wasn’t. Most of the magnificent ironwork was removed to lighten the load on the bridge, making Ferry Bridge look stark and almost “naked” compared to the original bridge. Worse still, the original plum and gardenia colour scheme had been replaced with a sterile black and white scheme, which it retains today. Some of the removed metalwork was put into storage and subsequently lost, some was saved by locals, and a couple of pieces are now on display at the National Brewing Museum in the town.

Ferry Bridge from the Stapenhill end.

In the 2000s, the bridge was again falling into disrepair, and it was once again suggested that it be demolished and replaced. After campaigning by the Burton Civic Society and the Friends of Ferry Bridge groups, in 2014 it was decided to carry out the necessary repairs and restoration. In summer 2015, the bridge was closed and shrouded by scaffolding. After a year of work, it was reopened in October 2016, freshly repainted and with a new walkway and safety railings. Replicas of some of the plaques bearing Lord Burton’s coat of arms were made and installed on the side of the bridge.

Ferry Bridge in all its glory. The tower of St Peter’s church can be seen in the distance.

Ferry Bridge remains a popular walkway for pedestrians and also a cycle route across the river. On the viaduct, there is access to the rugby pitches and a sculpture trail featuring many works of art. There is also a walkway leading to the Burton Mail Centenary Woodland. At the Stapenhill end of the bridge, a path leads to Stapenhill Gardens.

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