The Iron Bridge is chosen as the centrepiece of our website primarily to portray the success that this method of building can bring in the physical and in the ideological sense, one piece of the enterprise relying as it does on the position and strength of the adjacent piece in the arch.
But there is another very good reason that this particular cast iron structure should be chosen to represent our Royal Arch Chapter and it is because one of the three partners in this enterprise was:-
Michael Scarth who was the principal founder and First Principal of this Chapter of Strict Benevolence, No 97.
Rowland Burdon, MP for Durham since 1790, who had previously built the turnpike road from Stockton to Sunderland (the A19), with the assistance of his Land Agent Michael Scarth, felt that he could combine the pressing need for north and south Sunderland to be joined by a bridge with his desire to extend his road northwards.
He obtained the necessary Act of Parliament in1792 and the first proposal he considered was to build a stone bridge, but lack of suitable ground for foundations, busy river traffic and immense expense made him quickly abandon this proposal.
Although cast iron had been used previously by Thomas Paine(Author of The Rights of Man etc.) at Ironbridge Rowland Burdon’s concept of using this new metal together with the ancient and well tried principle of stone arch construction, produced a much lighter, stronger and cheaper bridge in a much shorter time. This together with Thomas Wilson’s easily erected and dismantled scaffolding still allowed river traffic to operate as can be seen in Fig.2
Fig.2 Sunderland Iron Bridge during construction
Ironbridge Gorge Museum
Courtesy of the Museum’s Trust.
After the Town of Sunderland and the County of Durham had given their approval to the project the foundation stone was laid on 24th September 1793.
At Phoenix Hall, on that day, William Henry Lambton opened a Grand Lodge, (Provincial Grand Master 1787 – 1797) together with about 200 masons all clothed in appropriate Masonic dress.
After these proceedings were completed their procession was met at the lodge gates by the magistrates, commissioners and other dignitaries and they all set off through a great throng of excited onlookers to the Sunderland Parish Church.
The masons formed into two lines and the magistrates and other dignitaries entered and took their reserved seats in the church whilst the masons occupied the gallery.
Fig.3 Sunderland Church of Holy Trinity built 1719
Sunderland Parish Church where the service was held prior to stone laying ceremony
The service being concluded the procession then moved through large crowds to the south side riverbanks. They then made their way, via a platform fixed to keels forming a wooden bridge across the River Wear, to the North West side of the planned IRON BRIDGE, where the first stone was to be laid.
Rowland Burdon addressed the assembled gathering from a railed off portion on the cliff top informing them that he had been filled with confidence to undertake this vast project by that Great Power to whose protection he submitted its progress and completion.
The stone was then laid by Rowland Burdon (acting as Provincial Grand Master for the day) assisted by the Provincial Grand Master and other Grand Officers according to ancient custom with a plate being inserted containing an inscription written in Latin by Dr Tipping Brown of Phoenix Lodge.
After the stone laying ceremony was completed under the steep cliffs of the Wear the assembled thousands cheered and waved and the air was split with the sounds of bands and the firing of cannon from the vast number of vessels lying nearby.
The procession returned to the Sea Captain’s Lodge where ceremonials were completed and they then retired to Phoenix Hall where ample provisions were provided for more than 200 persons to round off a most wonderful occasion.
Michael Scarth made all of the arrangements necessary for this unique and historic day!!
Bridge Construction Facts
Some facts relating to the construction of the Bridge are set out immediately below
The weight of the iron was 260 tons; 46 tons were malleable and 214 cast iron, being cast by Walkers of Rotherham.
The centre of the arch was 100 feet above the water at low tide.
Mr Thomas Wilson, a schoolteacher turned engineer, was also a partner in this enterprise as well as engineer for the project. He designed the light scaffolding in such a manner that there was no interruption to passing vessels.
It took only 10 days to erect all of the bracing ribs after which the scaffolding was removed.
The arch was the segment of a circle of 444 feet in diameter, the span or chord was 236 feet 8 inches.
The cost was said to be £33,400, Rowland Burdon advancing £30,000 of this sum.
With Rowland Burdon acting as Provincial Grand Master the bridge was officially opened on 9th August 1796 by His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester after a Masonic ceremony and procession watched by 80,000 people.
Robert Stephenson did major reconstruction during 1858 and 1859.
The Cast Iron Bridge was replaced with the present bridge (steel arches) in 1929.
The fine detail of the brick work and iron work can be clearly seen as well as the iron balustrade, in the centre of which, on each side of the bridge, is an inscription fittingly proclaiming Sunderland City’s Motto:-