“A level-crossing system …”
In a recent blog - ‘Melton to Oakham’ - I outlined my account of the construction of Melton Mowbray’s railway road-bridge which today straddles the Leicester to Peterborough railway line and the River Eye - both are in close proximity - conveying the A606 road out of the town to our neighbouring town of Oakham and all points south. I explained that the old stone bridge of around 1820 which had traditionally carried foot passengers and horses and carts for over 80 years, had increasingly become inadequate for its purpose since the arrival of the railways in 1847. In later years and far more consequential to an increasing number of important winter residents, was the arrival of the new-fangled steam and petrol propelled motor-cars, albeit they being restricted to a speed of just 20 mph. With access requiring to be controlled for the dangerous trains crossing the paths of unwary equestrians and pedestrians, a level crossing system was utilised on the old bridge but as the years passed it all became a little anachronistic due in great part to the human frailties of those in charge. Incidents of the watchmen sleeping on the job or just being absent from his post, frequently led to annoying delays in crossing the divide: a seriously contentious matter when 'Reynard' was about to be pursued! This situation was especially exacerbated with the arrival around the turn of the century of the mostly rich motorists who would demand unfettered access for their internal combustion machines.
“ A rickety old wooden bridge …”
Almost two centuries ago, during the early months of 1818, the townspeople of Melton were no doubt delighted to learn that improvements were to be made on a rickety old wooden pile bridge which had long served to connect the North and South sides of the town. Perhaps this was not too big a deal though, considering that old Mr Brown’s newly built ‘Hill House - the old War Memorial Hospital as we know it today - was probably the only dwelling of consequence on that side of the River Eye then: though within a very short period of time, work would commence on ‘Burton House’, the new home on Burton Road of the good Dr. Keal and his family which has only recently been beautifully renovated and re-designated 'Craven Court'.
Plans for a new edifice were apparently well advanced and local money was available to replace the old wooden pile-driven overpass with something a little more substantial. Local people were to be informed by their local newspaper - The Stamford Mercury - in a very pithy paragraph:
‘We are happy to state that the ancient bridge at the end of the town of Melton Mowbray leading to Oakham, which has long been in a dangerous state for passengers, is now taking down [?], and that a spacious new bridge will be built in its place.’
Some eighteen months later this promise was fulfilled and is often the case with the opening of new bridges , there was a certain amount of jubilation and fanfare. In August of 1820, the newspapers would report:
MELTON MOWBRAY NEW BRIDGE.
'On Wednesday the 7th instant, a considerable number of ladies and gentlemen assembled to witness the gratifying spectacle of laying the foundation-stone for a new bridge at the South end of Melton Mowbray. The ceremony was performed by the Rev. Thos. Ford, L.L.D. A great number of ancient coins were deposited underneath; and the workmen all showed their readiness to assist the Reverend Doctor in the work of a mason. Previous to laying the stone to its proper situation, the worthy divine addressed the bystanders on the generosity of the British nation, which was not to be equalled in the world for hospitality, liberality, benevolence, and the support given to public charities, and to all institutions which can in any manner benefit our fellow creatures, not forgetting bridges, which are of much public use. Agreeably to an old saying, everyone might praise the bridge he got safe over; he (Dr. Ford) should also take an opportunity of speaking in a divine way on this occasion. Here was a corner-stone, a firm stone, a stone on which all the others fitly joined together would make a good and substantial building: let not the persons present forget that Jesus Christ is the only foundation, the sure corner-stone for the sinner to build his hopes upon. He exhorted his hearers to consider that before the earthly house of their tabernacle be dissolved, they should by repentance and faith lay their foundation upon Christ, that they may secure for themselves an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. -- An appropriate prayer was then offered up to Almighty God, and the stone was lowered by the workmen to its proper position. The mallet was given to the Rev. Doctor, who gave the finishing blow in a workmanlike manner. He then made a most handsome present to Mr. Morton, jun., the master builder, and the men drank his health in the afternoon with the loudest plaudits.'
Mr Ellis Mortin, master builder and civil engineer of some repute, a resident of nearby Leicester, was contracted to carry out the sizeable project which was reported to be successfully completed within three summer months of that year.
And on the other side of town ...
The small market town of Melton Mowbray must have had deep pockets in the 1820s, as, having stretched the public purse for the South side bridge, plans were almost simultaneously in chain to secure another more suitable span, again over the River Eye but on this occasion carrying the road to Syston and Leicester and all points East. Much wealth was indeed forthcoming from the town’s coffers which were then in a pretty sound state, predominantly emanating from the annual attendance of some of the richest and most influential people in the world who would flock to the town ostensibly to chase the little fox. Considerable amounts were expended between these cross-country jaunts, on extra-curricular activities such as wining, dining, gambling and pursuing not only 'Reynard', but the opposite sex. Untramelled access and egress to the town was obviously of prime importance, especially necessary in the wet and cold days of winter and it seems that unrestricted passage across this part of the River Eye - which was particularly prone to flooding - was equally important as that of the south side.
The Eye Kettleby bridge - as it was initially called - was conceived in 1821 and under the stewardship and noted skill of builder Joseph Vinrace - of the quaintly named village of Ashby-de-la-Zouch in the North of the County - a man responsible for many of the stone bridges built in that era in this part of Leicestershire, a fine job was promised. Reminiscing in a letter to the Editor of a daily newspaper some 70 years after the event, a reader was to write:
“ ... as I remember it perfectly well when building, and how a temporary roadway was made across a little higher up the river, with earth and wooden railings at the sides; and I frequently saw waggons and heavily loaded conveyances having much trouble to get across, the wheels of them often sinking deep into the soft earth... “
Once again, with habitual flourish and fanfare, a stone-laying ceremony was once more enjoyed by the excited townsfolk, as the Stamford Mercury of the 7th June was to report:
‘The first stone of the new bridge at Melton Mowbray was laid on Saturday last, by Richard Norman Esq. attended by most of the principal ladies and gentlemen of the place, and by a great concourse of the other inhabitants: this bridge will contribute greatly to the security of the approach to Melton, and to the convenience of the public at large. Under the superintendence of Mr. Vinrace, the architect, it is supposed that it will be completed in about three months. The worthy Magistrate (Mr. Norman), accompanied by a part of his amiable family, delivered the following appropriate address during the ceremony:-
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish your choice had fallen on some one more capable of addressing a few words to you than I am; but since some ceremony should be observed in laying the foundation-stone of this bridge, and you choice of speaker has kindly fallen on me, I accept the compliment with pleasure, and consider the office as an honour. Public highways, canals, and bridges, which contribute to the comfort as well of the opulence of the inhabitants of every country, have always been held in the highest estimation; and it is in consequence of the improvement that has taken place in our roads and bridges, that we shall shortly have two royal mails passing daily through our town, which will give it consequence, and open an intercourse from the North to the South, from the East to the West. The town of Melton Mowbray has contributed largely and liberally towards the erection of this new bridge; by which means it is placed in a more convenient situation than it otherwise would have been; and I have no doubt that through the skill of the architect and the experience of the builder, it will be rendered as commodious as possible. Ladies and Gentlemen, I sincerely hope and pray that this bridge may contribute to the prosperity of the town of Melton, the county of Leicester, and the public in general; that it may be ornamental and durable; and that we ourselves and our children may pass over it in safety for many generations.”Coins of the present Majesty’s reign were deposited under the stone. A subscription was afterwards suggested in behalf of the workmen, to which the greater part of the ladies and gentlemen then present liberally contributed.’
Lady Wilton Bridge, as the new structure was subsequently christened, was officially opened for public use on Saturday, 5th October 1822, but a century later it was required to be widened in order to cope with the pressures of modern-day traffic and the increased requirement for footways as the land beyond it became developed and more populated; this was to result in a major expansion operation being undertaken in 1930. It is of interest to discover that the original bridge which this replaced was in fact some 100 yards further to the north and ran pretty well straight into the grounds of Wilton Lodge.
Remaining much loved by the present generation, this old lady who is so much an intrinsic part of the town today bestriding the ancient River Eye, stands much the same now as when she was first conceived and constructed almost two centuries past and seemingly, proving as strong as ever. See Listed Buildings