The Clifton Suspension Bridge Under Construction, 1863/1864

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The Picture

  • This photograph shows Bristol’s famous Clifton Suspension Bridge being constructed over the River Avon. The Bridge still stands there today and is crossed and visited by many people.
  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s design for the Bridge was chosen in 1831 through a competition. He was very attached to the project, describing it as “my first child, my darling.”
  • You can see the Bridge’s towers under construction, grounded into the sides of the Avon Gorge. After this photograph was taken, a platform was installed and chains were attached to support the Bridge, helping it stay upright and strong.
  • During the Bridge’s construction, people paid to travel across the Gorge in a basket hanging from the curved iron bar; visible in this photograph. As the Bridge is 76 metres high, this must have been a thrilling and terrifying experience!
  • Brunel died in 1859 before his bridge was completed. After Brunel’s death the Institute of Civil Engineers were determined to complete the Bridge as a monument to Brunel’s life and work. It was finally finished in 1864.

The Story

The Construction

The Bridge’s construction began on 21 June 1831 but work was delayed due to a lack of money. In October 1831, rioting in Bristol caused investors to lose confidence in the project which led to work on the Bridge stopping for four years.

Brunel was very attached to this project and, in 1835, construction recommenced. Brunel wrote in his diary “Clifton Bridge – my first child, my darling, is actually going on – recommenced week last Monday – glorious!”

Compromises had to be made whilst building the bridge due to practical concerns and again, a lack of money. All work on the Bridge was abandoned in 1853 and did not begin again until 1861; two years after Brunel’s death. The new engineers, Hawkshaw and Barlow, changed parts of Brunel’s design, including omitting Brunel’s Ancient Egyptian style sphinxes, originally designed to sit on the top of the Bridge’s towers.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge was finally completed on 8 December 1864. There was a great opening ceremony, involving a procession and speeches by various important local people. Sadly, Brunel, who died in 1859, never saw the Bridge finished.

A Thrilling Experience?

This photograph was taken before the Bridge was finished. For many years, there were only two towers standing on either side of the Avon Gorge, covered in wooden scaffolding. Between 1836 and 1853, people could pay to cross the Gorge in a basket hanging from a curved iron bar (visible in the image).

Once, a newly married couple crossed the Gorge in the basket as part of their wedding celebrations. Unfortunately, a rope that was part of the hanging basket mechanism snapped, leaving the couple dangling 76 metres above the River Avon for hours until they were rescued.

Continue The Story

The Suspension Bridge Design

In 1831, Isambard Kingdom Brunel won a competition to design a new suspension bridge at Clifton, Bristol.

The committee judging the competition asked well known engineer Thomas Telford for his advice. Telford asserted the logic of the time that a suspension bridge could be no longer than 600 feet (about 182 metres), but Brunel’s winning design was actually 630 feet long (192 metres).

Brunel’s suspension bridge design works well in this location. Suspension bridges could cross wide and deep valleys like the Avon Gorge, with greater strength, flexibility and more cheaply than alternative bridge types.

Huge chains run over the two large towers, are then anchored into solid rock on either side of the Bridge and the Bridge platform is suspended from them. The forces caused by the weight of the platform and traffic crossing the Bridge are transferred to the towers and to the rock through the chains. These chains are made of wrought iron, a material which is very strong, cheap and quick to make.

Extra Resources

Discover the arts and find out about creative people like Brunel with this Brunel-themed Arts Award Discover logbook

Design your own ship and tackle exciting engineering challenges with help from Brunel. Unlock full classroom version using 1843SCHOOLS code. Play the Full Steam Ahead educational computer game (download via app store / play store)


“Discover Brunel in Bristol” with this factsheet

By Courtesy of the Brunel Institute – a collaboration of the ss Great Britain Trust and the University of Bristol.