Saturday, 06 February 2016

Walney's 40-year wait to get road bridge

Barrow's last town clerk DEREKM LYON tells the stopry behind the builduing of Walney Bridge 100 years ago.
In this first Tuesday installment we look at some of the reasons why it was needed.

LOOKING AHEAD: An artist’s impression of how the new bridge to Walney would look by 1908

ON July 30, 2008, it will be 100 years since the mayoress of Barrow, Mrs TF Butler officially opened the newly completed Walney Bridge.

Therefore, if that time span is taken as a precedent, how many years have we to go before a second bridge is built across Walney Channel?

The very handsome brochure, which was produced to mark the opening ceremony, is a mine of information not only about the actual bridge but also about the background and history of the borough, which had led to the need for the bridge being established in the eyes of its supporters.

However obvious the need for a bridge seems to us, the long gestation period is understandable if one looks at the economic situation of Barrow in the latter half of the 19th century.

The incredible expansion from the approximate population of 150 in 1843 to that at the time the bridge was built of around 65,000 had not seen a steady line on the graph.

The local industries had seen some remarkable surges and recessions, which had an inevitable effect on the demand for housing.

Barrow’s geographical situation presented problems to employers because there was no pool of labour floating around in the hinterland on which they could draw in times of prosperity.

All labour had to be attracted to the borough from far afield, and this had been done by the fact that there had been work here in the new industries.

So we saw steelworkers arrive from the Midlands, miners from Cornwall, shipyard trades from Scotland etc.

As an example in my own family’s case, the Lyons moved from working on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal to labouring on the construction of the Furness Railway.

But when all these people arrived they had to find accommodation and some of the conditions they had to endure were disgraceful.

My great great grandfather James Barwick and his wife, coming from Broughton, had 11 children and they lived at 18 Salthouse Road (Rabbit Hill) which must have been a squash if they were all there together but at least they weren’t in the squalid huts on Barrow Island.

So when Vickers of Sheffield bought the Naval Construction Works and began to benefit from the international re-armament boom in 1896 they wanted a stable workforce not seen since the heyday of the steelworks.

To this end they took over the Isle of Walney Estates Company, which had been set up by a syndicate headed by Benjamin Fish.

Fish was an entrepreneur who came to Barrow to make a killing in housing development and by the 1890s was amongst the local “big boys”.

So it is not surprising that he cast his eyes upon Walney and produced in 1899 a glorious scheme for a seaside resort around Earnse Point and workers’ housing to the east.

Whether or not he had any real financial backing is in some doubt, so perhaps he was greatly relieved when Vickers bought the company and announced that they were going to build a Port Sunlight-type estate.

Two factors relating to living on Walney are obvious; people aren’t going to live there if it is difficult to reach and they aren’t going to live there if they can’t get to work.

Since the population on Walney was naturally increasing by reason of the expansion of Barrow, those good folk were inconvenienced by having to walk the ancient fords across the channel or rely on chaps with rowing boats. Also as an outlet for recreation and exercise the folk on the mainland were also taking an increasing interest in Walney through their alleged legal right to enjoy access to Biggar Bank.

The landowners stance and the imposition of a toll for entrance led to the Battle of Tummer Hill in 1873.

Demonstrations, public meetings, court actions etc ensued and the end product was that in 1881 Biggar Bank was purchased by the Corporation.

But the problem of crossing the channel still remained and had in fact been increased immensely by the acquisition by the Furness Railway Company in the Act of 1863 of powers to deepen the channel.

The stretch from Piel to Old Barrow had been done and showed that if the company exercised its powers further north there would be no practical pedestrian access between the mainland and Walney, except at North Scale.

Arguments about interference with ancient highways and public rights of way and threats of legal proceedings to enforce these rights were no doubt reinforced by the shipbuilding company concerned about getting its workforce housed and accessible.

So in June 1878 a steam ferry built by the company for the Furness Railway opened for business and ended, for the time being, any question of building a bridge.

Vickerstown began to figure as a centre of population by the turn of the century, and by 1903 the poor old ferry was creaking and groaning and, what was worse, was out of action on many occasions.

Therefore, in 1903 the Furness Railway ordered a new, enlarged ferry from Vickers, Son and Maxim to cope with the coming and going from Walney of a population which had by then reached 5,000.


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