The bridge is part of the Avon Gorge landscape, and weather, seasons and natural lighting all have their part to play in how the bridge is experienced and appreciated. When the bridge first opened, the chains were painted chocolate brown and the bolt heads of the chain pins were gilded so that they were, ‘perfectly dazzling where the sun shines upon them.’ In an 1866 guidebook, such effects were described:
The structure should be viewed with the bright beams of the morning sun shining full upon the gilded points which stud the chains from end to end, and surrounded by the bright green of an English spring. It should be viewed again in the sombre light of a November day, when it looks grey and gloomy like everything else around. And, last of all, it should be seen at night, with no light but that of the stars, stretching vast and dark, and awful, across the now measureless chasm, like the pathway to another world. Then will be felt the grand and unapproachable effect of this magnificent bridge.
Early electric experimentation
The opening of the bridge on 8 December 1864 offered an opportunity for public spectacle. It was also perhaps the first time that electricity was used to light up a public structure – certainly within Bristol and perhaps in the UK. Electric lights were placed on top of each tower and two in the centre of the bridge. In addition, lime lights were placed at the base of each tower and magnesium lights spaced along the roadway.
The electric illuminations were conducted under the superintendence of Mr. James Phillips, of Weston-super-Mare. He was paid £50.00 (around £6.5K in today’s money) for this work – a sizable sum. Unfortunately, there are no detailed descriptions of the methods that he used and little is known about Phillips himself. In the census of 1862 it states that he was born in Birmingham and that his profession was ‘Professor of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry’. Local newspapers describe James Phillips as a popular scientific lecturer – in 1862 the Bristol Daily Post gave an account of one of his lectures held in the Victoria Rooms, Bristol, where he described Newton’s theories of light and demonstrated the production of an arc of electric light between two charcoal points using sodium. In October 1864 he wrote to the Western Daily Press under the pseudonym ‘LUX’ suggesting that the bridge should be lit up using electric lighting for its opening celebration. It appears that his suggestion was taken up the following December.
Despite newspaper advertisements proclaiming a thrilling demonstration of electric light, on the bridge’s opening night, Phillips’ efforts came off more as a damp squib. A contemporary account described it as ‘successful from a Scientific Point of View’, but it was hard to illuminate the whole bridge structure evenly. The electric light was intermittent and the magnesium flares struggled to burn due to the wind conditions. Consequently, the spectacle ‘failed to afford that amount of gratification to the public which had been anticipated, and universal disapprobation seems to have been engendered in all quarters.’
Following this early experimentation with electric light, in 1879 the Pyramid Electric Lighting Company from London contacted the bridge directors to see if they could illuminate the bridge. If successful, it would have been a good publicity stunt; however, they did not receive a reply, so the Company carried out the demonstration near Princes Bridge by the docks instead. It would not be until 1893 that Bristol would have a public electricity supply and 1898 when electric ‘arc’ street lamps were installed in Clifton – the bridge itself would not be connected until 1927.
Throughout the decades after its opening, the bridge was principally lit by gas lamps. The ‘lighting up’ was carried out by bridge employees not the city lamplighters. Photographs and postcards from the period illustrate the range and type of light fittings set at various points: two double gas mantle fittings at the centre of the main span; four single standards attached to the longitudinal girders; four single standards located on the corner blocks of parapets of each pier; four at the junctions of the main deck and the abutments; and four single standards were fitted to the masonry parapet blocks beside the pedestrian turn styles at each toll house, a total of 20 lighting units.
At a later date, a single column standard street gas lamp was located at the kerb edge outside the toll house on the Leigh Woods side. Toll receipts for this period indicate road traffic to have been light and horse drawn vehicles presumably carried carriage lamps during the hours of darkness.
Bridge illuminations continued to offer Bristol a way of celebrating public occasions. In 1902, the bridge was lit up with ‘3600 fairy lights, 424 flambeaux, 280 Roman candles, 380 lbs of coloured fire, and half a mile of wire’ for the coronation of Edward VII. In 1908 the bridge was illuminated with 14,000 lights and fireworks installed by Messrs Crane & Son (St James’ Barton, Bristol) to mark the visit of the King and Queen. King Edward VII was visiting Bristol in order to open the new dock at Avonmouth on 9 July 1908.
In 1911 the bridge was lit with candles in fairy lights and fireworks for the coronation to King George V and Queen Mary. It is easy to underestimate the how hard and dangerous it must have been to produce such a show. George L. Bamford – the son of bridge employee, Alfred Bamford – recollected as a child his ‘mother cleaning hundreds of coloured glass fairy lights which my father used to hang by wire on to the chains. He would then light a little candle in each.’ Bamford’s recollections are corroborated by a newspaper report:
‘ten thousand lights flamed from every available point on the bridge… a breeze that blew towards the city made the task of those who lit the thousands of fairy lamps a difficult one.
It was nearly half-past eight when the work of lighting up the Bridge and the Gorge was commenced. There were about 6000 fairy lamps on the Bridge and buttresses, and 200 flambeaux. Over the chains in the centre of the Bridge was mounted an immense crown, measuring 20 feet by 15 feet, and this was hoisted into position once its lamps had been lit. On the city side of the Gloucester side buttress a large “G. R.“ was mounted half way up the stonework…At 8.30 Messrs Davis and Bamford performed their arduous and daring feat of walking, unprotected, up and down the chains to ignite the flambeaux, and the somewhat tedious work of illuminating the whole scene proceeded to the accompaniment of enjoyable strains of music from the Observatory…’
Installation of electricity
More permanent electric-powered lighting was introduced in 1927. This work was carried out on the Clifton side by the Bristolian firm, Messrs Rouch & Penny. However, electric lighting was only supplied to the toll houses and lamps suspended from the road arches in the towers. There appears to have been no other lighting on the bridge at this time. Road toll receipts indicate a significant increase in the number of motor vehicles. Presumably they would have had powerful headlights, offsetting in part the need for lighting on the bridge.
First electrical illuminations
Clifton Suspension Bridge continued to be illuminated with festoons for special events such as coronations, royal jubilees or major local business events; however, from this point onwards, electric lighting was used. In 1930 the bridge was lit up for Bristol-French week with ‘small red, white and blue electric lamps.’ The spectacle promoted tourism; it was estimated that a quarter of a million visitors flocked to Bristol during the week. In 1933 the bridge was illuminated for Bristol-Brighton week, again electrically using 1,500 bulbs. In 1935 the number of electric bulbs doubled to 3,000 for the Silver Jubilee Celebrations. The contractors who installed the illuminations were the local Bristolian firm, Colston Electrical Co. The bridge was also lit to celebrate the coronation of George VI in 1937.
Postcard showing the illuminations for the coronation of George VI
Throughout the 1950s and 60s the bridge continued to be lit electrically for special events. In 1951 the bridge was illuminated for the Festival of Britain with 4500 bulbs. The amount of lightbulbs was increased again in 1953 for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. This system used 6 miles of cabling, 6000 lamps and included illumination crown decorations on top of each toll house.
It was quite a feat to install as this film clip shows.
The bridge was lit in 1959 for the centenary of the death of the bridge’s initial designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Another major centenary was for the opening of the bridge in 1964 when it was again lit with 6000 lamps from 1 May 1964 onwards (the actual centenary of the opening was on 8 December 1964).
More permanent system of night-time illuminations
In 1966 the bridge was lit for six weeks in tribute to the opening of the Severn Bridge in September. At this time the Trustees investigated whether lights could be installed on the bridge on a more regular basis. Consulting engineers, Howard Humphreys reported on a more permanent installation of festoon lamps to allow the bridge being illuminated at will and so obviate the need for the costly and time consuming erection and dismantling of temporary installations. The aim was to see if a long-life system could be fitted that could be appreciated from as far away as Bridgewater Road. Other considerations were to ensure that the bulbs on the chains and towers could be accessed and replaced by the bridge maintenance team, and that it would not interfere with routine maintenance painting of the chains and the movement of the painting cradles. Following this report, in 1967 a more permanent lighting system was installed by NG Bailey & Company. This enabled the bridge to be lit throughout the summer months and Christmas and Easter.
Electric illuminations were costly – especially as people kept on stealing bulbs. During the 1935 illuminations it was reported that on average 40 bulbs a week were being taken. In June of that year, two men from Wales were charged with willful damage. Their defense was that they wanted the bulbs as souvenirs.
In 1951 when the bridge was illuminated for the Festival of Britain, 400 bulbs were stolen in the opening weeks. During the 1966 illuminations 1400 bulbs had to be replaced – the cost of which was more than the electricity to light them. On 14 July 1967, a youth was charged £10 for removing a bulb and dropping it over the side of the bridge. In 1971, a man was fined £25 for taking bulb and it was estimated that during the 21 weeks of the summer in which the bridge was lit, 650 bulbs were damaged or stolen. Throughout the summer months of 1972, 611 bulbs were purposely broken or stolen.
Between 1974 and 1977 the bridge was not lit in order to conserve funds and save electricity during the national fuel crisis. Lighting on the bridge at this time consisted solely of the large suspended lanterns under the road arches of each tower and single lamp standards near the toll houses. However – in response to local pressure to light the bridge to promote tourism – the whole of the bridge was lit between 16 May and the end of September to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.
Despite some work to upgrade the wiring, the Silver Jubliee illuminations of 1977 demonstrated that the lighting was unreliable and that the whole 10-year-old system needed replacing. Consequently, in 1980 a completely new festoon system was installed that used 4,200 x 25w tungsten filament lamps. This enabled the bridge to be lit from dusk to 1am every night.
However, this system was still vulnerable to vandalism and corrosion and – in common with previous schemes – presented difficult health and safety issues when trying to replace bulbs on the rods, chains and towers. It was estimated that on average 50 bulbs were either stolen or blew per week. Each lamp had a lifespan of 2000 hours – approximately equivalent to one year’s use and so ongoing maintenance was costly.
1990s Guide Lite system
By 1992 the festoon lighting had reached the end of its useful life and was replaced by the Guide Lite system. Designed by Existalite, this innovative design was initially used on aircraft control panels. Then, in response to the Piper Alpha and Zeebrugge disasters, it was developed as a form of emergency guide lighting for use in smoke-filled atmospheres. It consisted of tiny incandescent lamps contained in rectangular plastic (polycarbonate) tubes that traced the outline of the bridge towers, chains, rods, abutments and toll houses. As there were no bulbs to steal it was vandal proof. Also, the amount of electricity needed to light the system was predicted to be 75% less. To light the whole bridge, 1.7 miles or 2.7 km of tubing was used. These tubes encased 27,000 bulbs, or 13,500 light sources.
The experimental scheme was ‘commended’ in the 1996 Lighting Design Awards and – according to Mark G. Taylor (the consultant engineer who oversaw the project) – the effect it produced was ‘like driving between two walls of light’.
Despite an estimated lifespan of 20 years, the Guide Lite system suffered problems of corrosion, (some contemporary records cite acid rain as well as general weathering), lamp failure, connection failures, pecking from birds, as well as dimming as a result of erosion of the plastic tubing. The strips also trapped debris that discoloured the rods and made cleaning problematic. By 2002 it was proving more difficult to source the custom-made replacement parts and so it was decided to investigate a new lighting system. The total removal of the Guide Lite lighting was completed in October 2004.
New illuminations were installed in 2005/06. Designed by Pinniger & Partners, this scheme utilised cutting-edge LED dimmable lighting technology and was more energy efficient, reducing energy consumption by 53%.
The design was intended to reduce light pollution and glare and to emphasise the monumentality of the bridge structure, casting light across the surface of the chains and masonry of the towers and subtly connecting the bridge to the Avon Gorge.
The switching on ceremony was held on 9 April 2006 and was coordinated to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the bridge’s designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The scheme won the Lighting Design Awards (Transport) in 2007.
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