University of Portsmouth's History Blog

(Un)safe heritage?

In this post, the third in our series of blogs looking at sites of historical interest in Portsmouth, Mike Esbester, Senior Lecturer in History at Portsmouth, explores what might be learnt from an apparently unexceptional piece of the city’s built environment. Mike’s research and teaching focus on the everyday, including ideas about mobility and accidents in modern Britain.

Not far from my office, there’s yet another mundane object that for most of the time, most people don’t notice – for 140 years it was part of the background to life around Burnaby Road. For a week or so earlier this year, however, it became very noticeable – particularly its absence, which left a hole in the eyeline. And then, once replaced and the shock of the new subsided, it has once again become a part of the background.

This post is about a bridge. To be precise, the railway bridge over Burnaby Road, on the final trundle from Portsmouth & Southsea station to the Harbour station. Erected by the London & South Western Railway in 1876, the bridge was certainly functional – yet also not without a faded decorative element, at least by the time of its removal. I like these everyday things; if we stop and notice them, they tell us all sorts about the societies that produced them and the society of the present moment.

The bridge was life-expired. It looked a little the worse for wear if one remembered to look up whilst walking underneath (not advised when it was raining!). It was also in need of strengthening, as age and changing technology had taken their toll on the original design – not unreasonable given it was carrying well over 100,000 trains a year. It might have been a relatively straightforward decision to remove the bridge and replace it with a plain girder bridge. But this isn’t quite the way it worked out.

The process of removing the bridge and installing the new one required extensive planning, preparation and a road closure for a week. The new bridge was assembled nearby and moved into place – no mean feat given the physical constraints around the site and the need to move the 88-tonne structure around 200 metres. Over the course of a week in February the old bridge came down and the new one went in.

A decision was taken – and I don’t know where or by whom – that the replacement bridge show mirror the aesthetic of the original. So, whilst never particularly ornate, the look of the bridge – including its new paintwork – at least referred back to its predecessor. This bridge wasn’t a heritage asset in the way that say the nearby Mary Rose or HMS Victory might be. But it was a part of the working heritage of the area. That was reflected in the colour scheme used on the new bridge, which referred to Portsmouth’s city colours. This was a relatively subtle marker of civic belonging, a means of siting the bridge in its locale.

So clearly the bridge might not be ‘just’ a bridge: it can be used in particular ways. This raises questions pertinent to transport museums and the preservation movement more widely: how do you retain the essence of things that are functional? Did the original bridge have some sort of intrinsic worth or value ‘just’ because of its age? Remove it from its context and purpose and does the bridge retain that value? Just like trains that are preserved in museums, as static exhibits: they were designed to move, so when still have they lost their raison d’etre? Or has the value and meaning changed? What values do we, as a society, place upon these mundane artefacts – particularly infrastructure, like the bridge – without which our world would be very different, but for most of the time we don’t notice because they function smoothly?

There’s another element to the story, which ties in with my research: safety. A quick glance at the ‘before’ and ‘after’ images flags up some prominent differences between the old and new bridges. There’s the yellow and black hazard warning bar and the height limit notice, obscuring some of the paintwork replicating the original but designed to deter bridge strikes (a major problem on the rail network). Of greater interest to me, for my work on the history of workplace safety & accidents (particularly in the rail industry), there was additional consideration: safe access across the bridge for railway workers.

The old bridge was narrow, without adequate provision for workers to cross at track level. This meant they had to watch carefully and squeeze past when there were no trains coming: hardly safe in anyone’s imagination. Indeed, some of the cases of railway worker accidents coming out of the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project I co-lead with the National Railway Museum are of exactly this scenario: narrow bridges and workers being struck by passing trains, sometimes with fatal results. This was either the original engineers being blind to the workers, who were not high up in their considerations especially when weighed against extra cost, or a deliberate decision to put worker lives at risk. This might (hopefully!) seem shocking by today’s standards but it was not surprising for the 19th century.

In a sign of how times have changed, proper access routes were built into the new bridge, seen in the walkway (including safety rail) on either side of the bridge, away from the moving trains. It changes the look of the bridge, certainly, but this again relates to the discussions about how far built heritage can or should be adapted for modern standards. Given this was a new installation the debate was, hopefully, minimal; it would have been a much easier proposition than trying to adapt an original structure. Thankfully we have a higher regard for safety now than 140 years ago – which isn’t to suggest that things are perfect today, but to acknowledge that priorities and who is valued have shifted.

So, via a number of routes, an initially unpromising structure can be interrogated to reveal interesting glimpse of the values of the societies which both produced the original and the replacement bridges. If we look closely at such objects we can see where particular concepts and values are built into the fabric of any mundane item.

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