To help workmen cross the gorge while the bridge was under construction, Brunel designed the ‘suspended traveller’, a basket car which hung from an iron bar 305 metres (1,000 feet) long and 3.8 centimetres (1½ inches) thick.
The First Bar
The bar was created in sections and fire welded together in Leigh Woods. On Wednesday 24th August 1836 workmen were just completing the laborious process of hauling it across the gorge when a rope attached to it broke. The bar sprang into the air and then fell into the river mud but was raised into position the next day.
“About half past ten o’clock Wednesday morning the bar was brought home, and the men gave three hearty cheers; in five minutes more all would have been safe and secure, but at the very moment of triumph the 10 inch hawser [rope] unfortunately broke at the ring; where it was attached to the chain, and the bar being loosened, sprang up with great force, and immediately descended with a tremendous awful rush, a fall of 300 feet into the river below. Fortunately, only one man was hurt, and he, we believe, not dangerously. The bar then presented an extraordinary spectacle, lying across the channel, with one end deep in the mud and the other lost in the wood at the summit of the rock. By the following morning, difficult as it must have been, the bar was raised and restored to its proper place; the toughness and pliability of the iron have therefore been fully proved.”
On Saturday 27th August at 8:00am the Marquis of Northampton laid the foundation stone for the Leigh Woods abutment in the presence of members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and, as part of this ceremony, Brunel was due to make the first crossing of the gorge.
“On the far-famed and magnificent rocks of Clifton and Leigh Woods, and, indeed, wherever a view of the ceremony could be obtained, multitudes were congregated to witness the commencement of a work of science and art such as the skill and ingenuity of man has never before attempted… The car, or rather square box, in which Mr. Brunel had signified his intention of passing into the chasm, was drawn with much difficulty and apparent labour across the rod by means of pulleys. The inequalities in the rod, caused by the accident of Wednesday, might have rendered the experiment one of extreme danger to Mr. Brunel had he persevered in his intention of crossing in the car.”
“The bar now exhibits a very curious appearance. It is bent in a number of most extraordinary and fanciful curves, but not one particle of it is broken, thus showing the very great excellence of the iron.”
Later that day, two men rode the basket out over the river where it got stuck on a bend in the bar. When a rope attached to the basket caught in the mast of a steamship the men were only saved because a bystander cut them free.
“In the afternoon of Saturday several persons were attracted to the spot where the bar crosses the Avon, in consequence of some gentlemen being observed taking a car over to the Leigh Woods side of the river. In a short time it was perceived that this car was being affixed to the iron bar, and in a few moments two young gentlemen entered it, and it was drawn about midway, hanging over the river, here it stopped, owing, it is supposed, to there being an obstruction in the bar caused by its fall; the rope by which the car was being drawn was then slackened to a very considerable degree. The Benledi steam-vessel at this time approached, and the mast just caught the rope; a cry of horror was uttered on both shores. The parties on board the steamer not being aware of the circumstance, did not stop the vessel, which proceeded, drawing with it the rope, the bar and the car. The people on the shore covered their eyes with their hands, and expected every instant to hear the report of the bar breaking; for if this had been the case, the young gentlemen would have been precipitated into the river below. Fortunately, however, at this awful crisis one man had sufficient fortitude and presence of mind to cut the end of the rope, and thus let the voyagers free from the steamer, but the car then swung to and fro with the most fearful rapidity, and a gentleman who was present states that the sight of it was so dreadful, that it is impossible to give a description of it. After a lapse of some time the car became steady, and the young gentlemen were drawn back to the rock in safety. A gentleman then got into it, and was drawn to the same spot. He ascended from the car to the bar, and was apparently engaged in endeavouring to remove the obstruction, but our informant had seen enough and left the spot, assuring us that what he had witnessed had made such and impression on his mind that it was some time before he recovered his self-possession.”
The Second Bar
Following the incident on 27th August 1836, the bar was taken down and replaced. Brunel ordered a new, thicker bar 5 centimetres (two inches) in diameter to be made and within four weeks it had been installed on site. By 27th September, Brunel made the first successful crossing accompanied by the son of Captain Christopher Claxton, Secretary of the Bridge Committee.
“On Tuesday last we had the gratification of witnessing the first passage over the River Avon, by means of the bar now fixed from St Vincent’s rocks to Leigh Woods. Mr. Brunel, accompanied by Master Claxton, were the first who crossed the river in the car, which succeeded to admiration. The experiment was repeated twice afterwards, when Mr. Brunel, was accompanied in one instance by Mr. Tate, and in the other by Mr. Coulson.” (Item 349, the Braikenridge Collection, October 1st, 1836)
Mr Tate, “a junior pupil of Mr. Brunel’s” seems likely to have been Brunel’s site engineer at Clifton. Mr Coulson may have been Thomas Lane Coulson of Clifton, Honorary Secretary of Bristol Zoo.
Crossing the Gorge
Workmen used the traveller for free when on company business. The public initially paid 5 shillings each (equivalent to £16 today) – a fee later “reduced to half a crown, and finally one shilling or one and six ‘to and fro’”. The attraction raised £164 for the Clifton Suspension Bridge Company by the time it closed down in 1843 (an amount just shy of £10,000 in today’s money).
Rumour has it that a newly-wed couple who planned to start their honeymoon by crossing the gorge in the basket were left stranded above the river for several hours when the ropes attached to the basket broke! “A Somersetshire wedding-party went to see the fairy bridge, and the bridegroom having had enough cider to make him adventurous, persuaded the not unwilling bride to make the flying passage. The two got into the basket; but when they had reached the centre of the bar, high over the Avon, and the moment arrived where they were to be drawn up on the opposite side, it was found that the communicating-rope had broken; and as no provision had been made for such a contre-temps, the enthusiastic husband and his newly-wedded wife dangled in mid-air – to the astonishment of the rooks, no doubt – for several hours, their extraordinary position being rendered none the more comfortable by their friends on the abutment shouting across to them that they would have to remain in the basket all night! This novel way of beginning the honeymoon was avoided, however; but the party were not rescued till they had passed several hours in their strange carriage.” (Chambers’ Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts – Nov 26, 1864)
Taking the Bar Down
In 1853 the bar was taken down after an effigy of Forster McGeachy, an electoral candidate, was suspended from it. The papers reported that the Suspension Bridge Company called either the gamekeeper from nearby Ashton Court or a marksman, who shot at the string until the dummy fell into the river.
The bar was cut into pieces and sold as souvenirs. A piece gifted to the Trust by Dr and Mrs Michael Nelki of Clifton can be seen on display in our Visitor Centre.
Did Brunel climb out of the basket over the gorge?
Although there is no contemporary evidence that Brunel was himself involved in the incident, after his death in 1859 the Glasgow Herald recounted his life and included the story that “on one occasion Brunel was crossing in the basket which some years ago, hanging from a rope stretched from rock to rock… Some hitch occurred in the tackling, and the basket remained fixed in the middle, swinging frightfully over the river some three hundred feet below. Brunel coolly climbed the rope, disengaged the knots, and was drawn back in safety.” A different version of the tale is told in 1870 in ‘The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Civil Engineer’, written by Isambard Junior: “when all was ready, one of Mr. Brunel’s assistants started on a clandestine trial trip, and owing to a bend in the bar, the basket stuck half way, and the mast of a passing steamer caught in the rope. The rope was however cut, and he was drawn back. When the apparatus had been put to rights, on another occasion, when Mr. Brunel was in the basket, it got jammed, and he had to climb up the connecting link and get upon the bar, before he could release the basket.”
Throughout the 1870s various versions of the story claiming that Brunel was once stuck in the basket and had to climb out to rescue himself appear in accounts of Brunel’s life and the construction of the bridge. The accounts rarely agree on the date of the incident or the specifics of what occurred, often muddling the gentleman removing the obstruction with the two young men stuck above the river, swapping the order of the incidents over or claiming that Brunel himself became stuck when testing the second bar.
In 1903 an account which is now commonly retold was included in the autobiography of Brunel’s brother-in-law, John Calcott Horsley: “the experiment worked as usual; the basket went with a rush down the swaying iron chain to the middle, when suddenly a rope went wrong, and with an excited crowd watching him, I.K.B. swung himself on to the edge of the basket, stooped over and released the rope, after which they were drawn up safely to the other side” (Recollections of a Royal Academician). A great story, but here is no contemporary evidence that this was ever the case.
It is worth noting that there were no articles printed at the time specifically naming the gentleman who endeavoured to remove the obstruction as Brunel. In his book ‘Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Engineering Knight-Errant’, Brunel biographer Adrian Vaughan includes an undated extract from the Bristol Mirror which reported that “Mr. Brunel endeavoured by swinging it to and fro to release the car but being unable to do so, this intrepid gentleman mounted the car, climbed the ropes and released the car when swinging over this tremendous chasm.” Vaughan follows this up by noting that “none of the other Bristol newspapers reported this dramatic event, indeed even the Bristol Mirror only had the story as hearsay since the report used the words, ‘we hear that…’” and further doubt over the accuracy of the report comes when we note that the name of the steamship included in the article is incorrect – it’s named as ‘Killarney’ not ‘Benledi’.