Brunel Almost Didn't Build the Clifton Suspension Bridge and Here's Why

Photograph taken 1864 © Reproduced by permission of Historic England Archive ref: bb89/03974
When you mention Brunel, you instantly think of his famous Clifton Suspension Bridge located across the River Avon in Bristol. However, Brunel almost didn't create famous masterpiece.

A Battle of Bridges

In 1829 a wine merchant named William Vick was given funds to build a bridge across the River Avon. To choose a design, the Society of Merchant Venturers held a competition. The winner would also be rewarded with 100 guineas. 23 year old Brunel entered the competition along with 21 other entrants.

The competition advertisement stated: 

"ANY persons willing to submit DESIGNS for the ERECTION of an IRON SUSPENSION BRIDGE at CLIFTON DOWN over the RIVER AVON, to the consideration of the Committee appointed to arrange proceedings for carrying the measure into execution, are requested to forward the same, accompanied by an Estimate of the probable expense address “‘To the Bridge Committee, at the Office of Messrs. OSBORNE and WARD, Bristol’” on or before the 19th day of November next.

Should any of the Plans so furnished be adopted, the sum of One Hundred Guineas will be given to the Person furnishing the same, unless he shall be employed as the Engineer in the execution of the Work.  For particulars apply to Messrs. OSBORNE and WARD, Bristol." - via Clifton Bridge


Brunel's Original 1829 Design Via Brunel Institute
Thomas Telford's plan for the Clifton Suspension Bridge. From the Bristol Mercury, February 1830
Brunel's design was between 870-916 feet long which was considered too long as competition judge and engineer, Thomas Telford, deemed that a suspension bridge could be no longer than 600 feet. From the 22 entries, no suitable design was found and even Telford's own design was rejected. A second competition was held and Brunel still did not win! He in fact came second after shortening the length of his bridge design to 630 feet. After convincing the judges that he would alter his design, they finally announced him winner and landed the job of Project Engineer. 

Ancient Egypt & the Sphinxes

With advancements in travel, wealthy Victorians were able to travel the world more easily and could visit the wonders of the world themselves. Brunel wanted to appeal to fashionable Victorians by basing his designs on Ancient Egyptian architecture. He even wanted to have sphinxes on each of the towers but due to a lack of funds this idea was scrapped. However, the towers that stand today were Egyptian inspired.
Samuel Jackson/Bristol Museums via BBC
Brunel began the project in 1831 but was not completed until 1864 due to lack of funds. The 1831 Bristol Riots also caused investors to lose interest in the project so construction was put on hold for 4 years. When the building commenced Brunel stated:

"“Clifton Bridge – my first child, my darling, is actually going on – recommenced week last Monday - glorious!" via Brunel's SS Great Britain

 Unfortunately Brunel died in 1859 and never saw the final completion of his creation. Because the bridge took so long to build, very little is actually know about the men who worked on its construction.

And that is how Isambard Kingdom Brunel almost didn't didn't build the Clifton Suspension Bridge
Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge over the River Avon in Bristol
Clifton Suspension Bridge Today


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