Since the Dowlais Iron Company made the iron that was used to forge the original chains, their importance to the Clifton Suspension Bridge was significant. The village of Dowlais itself is located on the fringes of Merthyr Tydfil and the Iron Company was established in 1759, when a group of nine gentlemen signed Articles of co-partnership in what they termed ‘Merthir Furnace’. By the 1840s, under the management of John – later Sir John – Guest, it was supplying iron rail to railway companies across the world. In time, Dowlais eclipsed the other Merthyr ironworks – Penydarren, Cyfarthfa and Plymouth – to become a vast concern; by 1853, when Guest’s widow Lady Charlotte headed the company, it had no few than eighteen furnaces in blast. The association with Clifton began a decade earlier in 1840 when Dowlais contracted to supply iron to the Copperhouse Foundry in the Cornish town of Hayle to be forged into eye-bar chains, that is, chains made up of bars with eye-plates at either end. A number of letters from John Poole on behalf of the Copperhouse Company, also known as Sandys, Carne and Vivian, to the Dowlais Iron Company – it also traded as Guest, Lewis & Co – survive which give some idea of the problems to which the contract gave rise.
On 15 August 1839, Poole wrote in confidence to Guest’s onsite manager, Thomas Evans. He wished to ascertain the prices ‘for Iron of the best quality’ that Dowlais could supply, and how soon Dowlais could provide it. Evidently Poole found the figures which Evans quoted acceptable, and fifteen months later, on 14 November 1840, he wrote again to Guest, Lewis & Co, demanding to know when they could make ’80 to 100 Tons of the Bars for the Clifton Bridge’ available at the Cardiff docks for shipping to Hayle. In bar form, the iron was not only convenient for transportation, but also ready to be worked into the finished product – in this instance, suspension chains.
At some point in the winter of 1840-41, Dowlais duly despatched a consignment of bar iron to Hayle where Brunel, always the perfectionist, sent one of his staff – a man named Charles Gainsford – to assess its quality. Having tested the iron, not only did Gainsford think it unfit for purpose, but also suspected Dowlais of having double-crossed Copperhouse. ‘We regret,’ John Pool informed the Dowlais management on 13 February 1841 ‘that [Gainsford] will allow us to use no part of the iron invoiced the 8th December last, which he says is not of best cable quality, & which he requested should not be forwarded to us when he visited the Dowlais Works. It is a great disappointment to us,’ he continues, that the Iron has not been made agreeably to the Order, and we fear the delay may subject us to a heavy loss. We hope the present shipment will be of the proper quality.’
It is a shocking indictment of procedures at Dowlais yet, surprising as it may seem, Poole’s aggrieved tone failed to bring about any improvement. Crucially, the iron bars from which the sections of chain were to be made up necessarily had to be straight. On 15 March 1841, Poole vented his growing impatience with Dowlais’s apparent failure to grasp this requirement in another letter of complaint. ‘Even a large portion of the Bars for the Clifton Bridge already received,’ he wrote, ‘must be heated all over to be made perfectly straight.’ He ordered them to send no more bars, other ‘than what may be inspected & approved by Mr Brunel’s representative at the works.’
By the end of March 1841, Poole’s forbearance was exhausted. Another consignment of faulty iron bars had reached him and, in considerable annoyance, he wrote at once to Thomas Evans. ‘We are exceedingly sorry,’ he protested, ‘that a large portion of the bars for the Clifton Bridge […] are so crooked as to entail upon us more labour to straighten them than ever upon welding on the eyes. […] Will you be good enough to inform us whether you are likely to have a further lot of bars shortly fit for use? It seems likely that, having received this missive, Evans read the Riot Act to the Dowlais workforce with the result that the quality of iron which they supplied to Copperhouse improved. Before long, Hayle was able to supply Clifton with satisfactory elements of the chains for the bridge ready for onsite assembly.
But by 1842, the Suspension Bridge trustees had run acutely short of money. Already £2,885 12s 1d was owing to Copperhouse and even by 1845 they had not been paid. Three years later, in 1848, so desperate for payment were the Hayle company that they were willing to accept £2780 12s 7d in return for quick settlement of their account. In the event, they were not paid until 1849, and only then after the despairing bridge trustees had taken out a loan for the purpose. In the town of Hayle, people evidently regarded this long-overdue settlement of the Clifton account as a significant landmark. The name of ‘Riviere Terrace’ which was a street of imposing houses built in 1840 changed to ‘Clifton Terrace’ by way of marking completion of the Cornish Copper Company’s contract. As for the chains themselves, when lack of funds halted work on the suspension bridge, the Cornwall Railway purchased them for incorporation within the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash.
Yet although the lack of money brought work on the suspension bridge to a temporary halt before Hawkshaw and Barlow completed its construction to a much-revised version of Brunel’s design, the association with Dowlais did not entirely evaporate. The Dowlais Iron Company had provided the original iron used in the old Hungerford Bridge whose chains Hawkshaw and Barlow adopted for their bridge, supplemented by a large volume of new links purchased from the Lord Ward Round Oak works in Dudley. If the association between the Dowlais Iron Company, the Copperhouse Foundry of Hayle and the Trustees of the Clifton Suspension Bridge was less than harmonious, it is nevertheless intriguing to witness the frustrations and stalling that could bedevil even the most celebrated of Victorian construction projects.
Article by Victoria Owens
Victoria Owens is one of the Clifton Suspension Bridge’s volunteer tour guides. An independent scholar and writer, she is a member of the Railway & Canal Historical Society’s panel of book reviewers and serves on the Newcomen Society’s Council. In the days before Covid-19, she used to sing with Bristol Chamber Choir.
Her books James Brindley and the Duke of Bridgewater – Canal Visionaries (2015) and Aqueducts and Viaducts of Britain (Amberley Publishing 2019) are both available from Amberley Publishing. Her most recent publication Lady Charlotte Guest – the exceptional life of a female industrialist came out in September 2020 and is available from Pen and Sword Books.