My thanks to Tony Sheffield for alerting me to this bridge, which was at one time preserved in the Leicester Museum of Technology. It has now been transferred to Snibston Discovery Park at Coalville - where the bridge is on display at the entrance to the museum - and in remarkable condition considering it is now 162 years old!
Also my thanks to Leicester Historian Roger Hutchinson for allowing me to use his composite drawing of what the bridge would have looked like when in use. Roger has published a series of 3 books describing the history of the River Soar in Leicester including 'The Mile Straight - The Fate of the Soar in the centre of Leicester.'
Stephenson's original 1834 bridge was replaced in 1845. The Midland Railway West Bridge branch closed in 1966. (Leicester lost 4 of its 5 rail lines as a result of Dr. Beeching's short sighted closure policy)
On January 23rd 2009 the Leicester Mercury published an item about this drawbridge in which local resident Roy Rains recalled his childhood in the streets close to Soar Lane Bridge. Mr. Rains describes how the boys living in All Saints Road and Pingle Street used the area around the drawbridge for swimming during the summer holidays. He recalls watching the bridge in operation and the horses pulling the wagons back and forth during shunting operations.
There is a photograph of the bridge in its working location in the Book 'The Leicester Swannington Railway' by C.R. Clinker, Anglia Avon Pubs, Bristol 1977. Fom that photograph it looks as if the top mounted winding mechanism was operated via a drive shaft connected to a wooden building beside the bridge.
Roger Hutchinson reports that the control cabin protected the operating mechanism from the weather and from human inteference. The original structure was built in a style similar to a signal box, but this was later replaced - possiblly in the 1940's - by a poor quality wooden framed building clad in corrugated iron.
Roger also reports that the bridge was operated by a rotating drive shaft, probably driven by a hand operated large flywheel delivering the drive through a series of meshed gears. The main shaft connected to the central lifting mechanism via a second gear and shaft with bevelled gears. Two parallel cross shafts revolve in opposite directions to wind the chains that lift the bridge. The large toothed cog wheels at each corner of the frame - unconnected to the main drive system - that carried the weight of the platform and the counterbalancing weights.
When the bridge was in the lowered position the deck rested on solid foundations which took the load weight of crossing traffic. when raised the bridge frame had to bear the weight of the deck and the counterweights. When the bridge was closed to rail traffic it was wedged in the up position and steps built to allow railway and coal yard workers to still use it. When the bridge was still in use it was normally kept in the 'up' position to allow river and towpath traffic to pass underneath - Roger estimates that it was set just high enough to allow a horse to pass underneath.
Roger points out that until 1880 the towpath was regarded as private property and reserved for the use of those authorised to passa along it by the navigation company. In 1880 the towpath became the property of the Leicester Corporation following flood prevention work, and rights of access became much what they are today.
Roger continues -
"The shunting of the wagons on the east side of the river in Soar Lane and Pingle Wharfs was achieved with horses harnessed up with two chains with hooks that could be attached to loops on the chassis of the wagon called ‘Horse Hooks’ a horse could pull about two loaded wagons at a time and three to four empty. Examination of photos both of the yard and bridge show that although covered wagons look as if they would fit under the cross shafts of the lifting mechanism none appear in the 1930’s photo and the majority of business appears to be coal and lime deliveries for distribution in the town. During the fifties, the horses were retired and a tractor fitted with a surrounding steel sheet frame busied about, pushing and pulling the coal, timber and mineral wagons around all the West Bridge, Pingle and Soar Lane Wharves. These arid yards, carpeted with a century of coal dust, catered for up to 24 coal merchants who either traded from the yards or a nearby private coal yard. Dominating the southern end of Frog Island was the imposing Thompstone Flour Mill and adjacent over the track was a siding for the timber wagons for Scotts Timber Mill Over the Stevenson’s Lifting Bridge, on Pingle and Soar Lane Wharves were the rest of the coal merchants along with those who dealt in lime and materials for the building trade.
The Road Bridge
The Midland Railway built three bridges in the 1880’s when the Flood Scheme was implemented, realigning the river channels. Soar Lane now crossed both the navigation and the much deeper and regulated Soar and thus to give direct access to the centre of town for the coal that fuelled the growing city. This must have changed the dynamic and hassle with the lifting bridge with much of the traffic now was road wagons and the yard became used for more local operators. Although the Midland Railway must have seen that this would change the status of the wharf sidings they thought it worth rebuilding a railway bridge across the Soar and refurbishing the old lifting bridge to maintain rail access to the yard despite there was now a wide road bridge.
The lifting bridge has been in that position on the navigation since the 1830’s and its permanent height above the water of the navigation on the east side meant that no boats could pass under it and pilings and rails were installed to direct the boat traffic through the correct channel. The Midland Railway’s Soar Lane road bridge is a handsome conception and from it’s construction has never been able to allow traffic through its east arch even after the railway bridge was removed. This is due to the foundations to the lifting platform’s frame (remember those counterbalance weights and loaded coal wagons) being too extensive to allow economic removal by the city council or BW so passage through the east arch will never be an option. This is unless the area does experience a gentrifying regeneration as urban designers would make a big feature of the bridge as a local focal point.
Probably around the time of the conversion of the Soar into a navigation in 1790, a wooden bridge was constructed over the Soar to give access to the towpath from the end of Soar Lane. This accommodation bridge’s size and capacity was similar to that of a towpath bridge – just for pedestrians and horses.
The Lifting Bridge that Robert Stevenson possibly specified.
The mechanics and design of this 1830’s bridge date back to the Middle Ages so as to call it Robert Stevenson’s lifting Bridge is a bit disingenuous. None the less, it was a structure that served a specific function daily, for nearly 122 years allowing railway wagons across the Soar navigation to the Pingle and Soar Lane wharf. Pingle Wharf was a short arm opposite the North Mills leat and this became an early transport interchange between rail and narrowboat focusing on coal and building materials for its 160 year existence. But as railways developed to the detriment of waterway traffic, the arm was filled in as the land was worth more as a siding.
No locomotive ever crossed the bridge and all traffic was moved by horses attached by harness and chains to the ‘horse hooks’ on either end of the wagon’s chassis. In the last years of operation in the 50’s the horse was replaced by an adapted tractor that delivered the wagons (mostly coal) back and forth across to the waiting Johnson 3f 0-6-0 steam goods loco. The very simple lifting mechanism depended on good old counterbalances with four iron weights – one at each corner that weighed together just slightly less than the platform so operation consisted on lowering the platform to allow a wagon across and winding it up again to reopen the navigation. In this case it was the narrowboat who had priority and the 1937 illustration shows a Town Class ‘Nuneation’ in her GUCCC livery pass smoothly beneath while the railway staff look on. I gather that for cyclists using the towpath it was required to either dismount to walk under or crouch right down as you whizzed through. It was dismantled by Ken Roseblade in the late 60’s and it spent a number of years being abused by the public by the Abbey Pumping Station until the remains were given to the Snibston Museum where it stands proud but rotting today. Another interesting matter is that of the ornate Soar Lane Bridge of two arches but no boat has ever travelled through the east arch as it was built in the 1880’s after the lifting bridge which blocked one arch and when it was removed, the substantial foundations were left behind presenting a navigational hazard. So the city council had barriers installed to continue blocking navigational access to this arch of this pretty cast iron and granite bridge. "
My sincere thanks to Roger Hutchinson for sharing his researched notes on the history of the bridge.
It is worth noting that the basic design of this bridge - vertical lift with counterbalance weights at each corner - is repeated in the very modern Lowry Centre Bridge on the Manchester Ship Canal.
Although by 1888 the OS maps show this line as being part of the Midland Railway the line was originally the Leicester-Swannington Railway - the first commercial railway built in Leicestershire.
The OS maps do not identify the rail bridge as a movable bridge, but the bridge was still being shown on OS maps as late as 1938.
The 1888 OS map shows the route as part of the 'Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Navigation'. This was later incorported into the Grand Union Canal.
John Powell reports that the 1965 BW bridge survey recorded that the bridge - owned by British Rail - was to be demolished.
Database ref number = 1396
Adrian Lane has explained that none of the woodwork on the bridge at Snibston is original, only the ironwork. The bridge was first moved to a new location within Leicester itself and was used as a pedestrian bridge over a small stream. However the County Council moved it from the old Pumping Station Museum to Snibston just before Leicester became a unitary status city and aquired all the museum property.