Severn Railway Bridge

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Severn Railway Bridge
'The White Elephant'[1]
Severn Railway Bridge, from near Purton - - 2041712.jpg
Severn Railway Bridge in July 1948
Crosses River Severn
Locale LydneySharpness
Preceded by Severn Tunnel
Total length 4,162 feet (1,269 m)
Clearance above 70 feet (21 m)
Designer George Baker Keeling
Construction begin 1875
Construction end 1879
Collapsed 25 October 1960
A 1946 Ordnance Survey map showing the bridge and branch line.

The Severn Railway Bridge was a crossing across the River Severn between Sharpness and Lydney, Gloucestershire. It was badly damaged by river barges in 1960 and demolished in 1970.


It was built by the Severn Bridge Railway company in the 1870s to transport coal from the Forest of Dean on the Severn and Wye Railway. Work began in 1875 and was completed in 1879. The wrought iron bridge, which was 4,162 feet (1,269 m) long and 70 feet (21 m) above high water, had 22 spans and had stone abutments made from local limestone. The span across the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal operated as a swing bridge.[2]


The bridge was single track, and it took approximately 30 miles (48 km) off the journey from Bristol via Gloucester to Cardiff during Severn Tunnel maintenance occupations. The bridge predated the construction of the Severn Tunnel, a dozen miles or so downstream, by seven years. It was known by locals as 'The White Elephant'.[1]

Until the Severn Road Bridge was opened in 1966, the Severn Railway Bridge was often referred to as the Severn Bridge. There was a small station known as Severn Bridge on the Lydney side, adjacent to the main line from Gloucester to Chepstow, which the railway from the bridge crossed.[3]

The bridge was used as a diversionary route for the Severn Tunnel when that was closed for engineering work. The south-to-north chord at Berkeley Loop South Junction used for this route was closed when the bridge was abandoned. The remaining line from Berkeley Rd Junction to Sharpness docks remains and on the north side of the Severn estuary, the line from the former Otters Pool Junction at Lydney to the Severn Bridge has long been lifted but a short headshunt on the trackbed exists as part of the Dean Forest Railway network.

In 1943 a flight of three Spitfires was being delivered by ATA pilots, including one woman, Ann Wood, from their Castle Bromwich factory to Whitchurch, Bristol. As it was low tide, the lead pilot Johnnie Jordan flew under the bridge. Some time later, Ann Wood repeated this underflying – without realising that this time it was high tide and there was 30 ft (9 m) less headroom.[4] This was not the only instance of pilots buzzing the bridge; it was seemingly so common at one time that a local policeman was tasked with recording serial numbers.


After the accident, April 1966
Wreckage of the barges, Arkendale H (bows, left) and Wastdale H (stern right), still visible at low water.

On 25 October 1960, in thick fog and a strong tide, two barges (named the Arkendale H and Wastdale H) - which had overshot Sharpness Dock - collided with one of the columns of the bridge after being carried upstream. Two spans of the 22-span steel and cast iron bridge collapsed into the river. Parts of the structure hit the barges causing the fuel oil and petroleum they were carrying to set on fire. Five people died in the incident.

The Western Region of British Railways planned to reconstruct the bridge but after further damage to the bridge in February 1961, when another span collapsed, the bridge was deemed to be damaged beyond economic repair.[1]

Following the accident, schoolchildren who had used the bridge daily had to be taken to school on a 40-mile (64 km) detour via Gloucester.


Remaining tower of the swing section over the canal

Demolition began in 1967 and took until 1970, by Nordman Construction[1][5] although evidence of several of the piers remains. Most notable is between the canal and river, a large circular pier that formed the base of the swinging section. Some piers are mere foundations & only visible at low tide, as are the wrecks of the petrol barges.

The river at this point has always had hazardous tidal currents, the cause of the 1960 collision. During the demolition a support vessel (the Severn King which was one of the old Aust Ferry boats replaced when the Severn Road Bridge had opened) broke its mooring in the tide, struck the remains of the bridge and sank.[1]

See also[edit]


  • Awdry, Christopher, (1990). Encyclopaedia of British Railway Companies. London: Guild Publishing.
  • Disasters on the Severn, Chris Witts
  1. ^ a b c d e Ron Huxley, The rise and fall of the Severn Bridge Railway, 1984, ISBN 978-1-84868-033-3
  2. ^ Paget-Tomlinson, Edward (2006). The Illustrated History of Canal & River Navigations 3rd edition. Landmark Publishing Ltd. pp. 124–125. ISBN 1-84306-207-0. 
  3. ^ Victoria County History of Gloucestershire: Lydney
  4. ^ Whittell, Giles (2007). Spitfire Women of World War II. Harper Perennial. ISBN 0007235364. 
  5. ^ Biddle, Gordon (2003). Britain's Historic Railway Buildings. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 299, "Purton". ISBN 0-19-866247-5. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°43′58″N 2°28′26″W / 51.73267°N 2.47400°W / 51.73267; -2.47400