Thomas Paine & Sunderland Bridge


Probably but few of the many hundreds who daily travel over the noble high level bridge of which Sunderland is justly proud, and read in conspicuous characters upon its balustrades the words “Rowland Burdon, 1796; Robert Stephenson, 1858,” are aware of the fact that this bridge is constructed of part of the materials of one built under the direction of Thomas Paine, the author of the “Rights of Man.” The history of Paine’s bridge, taken from Mr. Smiles’s “Life of Telford,” and other sources of information, may perhaps interest the reader.

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine, who was the son of a Quaker of Thetford, in Norfolk, was brought up to his father’s trade, that of a staymaker; but he soon got tired of staymaking and Thetford. Leaving home early in life, he filled, during a few years, the posts of privateersman, exciseman, and schoolmaster.

Dr. Franklin, with whom he had become acquainted, persuaded him to go to America, and there he took an active part in the revolutionary discussions of the end of last century. He dwelt for some time in Philadelphia, and studied mechanical philosophy, electricity, mineralogy, and the use of iron in bridge building. In 1787 he boldly offered to erect an iron bridge of 400 feet span with a single arch across the Schuylkill River; in the same year he submitted his design for the proposed bridge to the Acadamy of Sciences at Paris, also a copy of his plan to the Royal Society of England. Encouraged by the favourable opinions of scientific men, Paine proceeded to Rotherham, in Yorkshire, to get his bridge cast.

In August, 1788, he took out a patent for this bridge, and in the specification he describes it as “a method of constructing arches, vaulted roofs, and ceilings, either of iron or wood, on principles new and different to anything hitherto practised, by means of which construction arches, vaulted roofs, and ceilings may be erected to the extent of several hundreds of feet beyond what can be performed in the present practice of architecture.” Paine says the idea was taken from “the figure of a spider’s circular web,” and other ideas from nature, fully described in the specification for the patent, which is No. 1,667 on the list, and is notable as the first patent in our records for arc improvement in bridge construction.

An American gentleman named Whiteside having advanced money to Paine, the castings for the bridge were duly made by Messrs. Walker, of Rotherham, and shipped off to London. The bridge was exhibited to the public at Paddington, where it was visited by large numbers of people.

Whiteside having become bankrupt, Paine was arrested by his assignees; but, two other Americans becoming bond for him, he was liberated. And now, apparently giving up all thoughts of his bridge, he espoused the principles of the French Revolution. Meanwhile, the manufacturers of the bridge agreed to take it back as part of their debt, and the materials were used in the construction of that high level bridge which now spans the Wear at Sunderland.

To the public munificence of Rowland Burdon, of Castle Eden, is due the erection of this bridge, at a cost to himself of about £22,000, in the year 1796. In the previous year he took out a patent for its construction, in which he describes it as “a method of making, uniting, and applying cast iron blocks, to be substituted in lieu of keystones in the construction of arches, the said cast iron blocks being kept in their proper positions, and made to abut against each other, and to support any incumbent structure by means of wrought iron bars and wrought or cast iron braces being affixed to their sides, and passing horizontally between ribs composed of the said cast iron blocks.”

Although the names of Rowland Burdon and Robert Stephenson (under whose supervision the bridge was widened and improved) are alone publicly associated with this bridge, “we must not” to use the words of Mr. Phipps, C.E., in a report to Robert Stephenson “deny to Paine the credit of conceiving the construction of iron bridges of far larger span than had been made before his time, or of the important examples, both as models and large constructions, which he caused to be made and publicly exhibited.”

Several alterations and improvements upon the original design were made in erecting the bridge. Its span is 236 feet, and the roadway is more than 100 feet above high water mark. The bridge was characterised by Mr. Robert Stephenson as “a structure which, as regards its proportions and the small quantity of material used in its construction, will probably remain unrivalled.”


It is admitted that Rowland Burdon constructed and erected Sunderland Bridge, but this is widely different to inventing it. Let us look at the facts of the case, as far as they are known. Paine’s specification of his patent was registered August 26, 1788, and numbered 1,667. No one will doubt that considerable time would elapse in considering and mastering the specification before it was registered. In fact, we know from Paine’s memoir, addressed to the United States Congress, that in the September of 1787, about a year before the patent was registered, a model of the bridge was sent to Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society of England.

In a paper read before the Royal Society, in 1797, Thomas Bowler states that “a plan for an iron bridge, on a new principle, was also invented by Mr. Thomas Paine, and exhibited some time ago near Paddington.” There is little doubt that the bridge alluded to was made at Rotherham, and sent to Paddington for exhibition. We now have historical evidence that Paine had a model of his bridge, the specification of his patent being registered seven years before Burdon took out his patent; and we may fairly assume that a bridge was built in accordance with Paine’s model and specification, and exhibited about the time Burdon’s patent was registered. There can be no doubt that Burdon, when considering and maturing his plans for the construction of such a novel structure as the Sunderland Bridge, would be fully aware of the facts alluded to. Rowland Burdon’s specification of patent was registered September 18, 1795, No. 2,066. The foundation-stone was laid 24th September, 1793, and the bridge was opened to the public on the 8th of August, 1796, so that the erection of the structure had been in progress for two years before the patent was entered in the patent office. This looks very much like making the machine first, and drawing the plans afterwards.

I must now call attention to the Rev. William Turner’s remarks in a paper read by him before the Literary and Philosophical Society at Newcastle, in 1795, and to Mr. John Rastrick’s letter, dated Morpeth, September 8th, 1795. Mr. Turner’s remarks certainly imply that he was not certain that Mr. Burdon was the inventor. Mr. Rastrick says: “It has been asserted that Wearmouth Bridge is built on the principles of a model of Paine’s which came from London one evening when I was at Castle Eden.” We may fairly infer that there must have been some grounds for this report.

An Act of Parliament was obtained in 1857 for the reconstruction, or rather the strengthening, of the bridge, which was carried out under the superintendence of Robert Stephenson. The original structure of the bridge was found to consist of six cast iron ribs. To the surprise and astonishment of all immediately connected with the repairs, the discovery was made that two of the ribs had been made of one pattern, and the other four ribs of a different pattern. The question naturally arose, how had this occurred? The most feasible answer is that the two exceptional ribs were those sent from Paddington, which we have most unmistakeable hints about.

In 1786 Paine made three models of iron bridges, partly at Philadelphia, but mostly at Borden Town, in the State of Jersey. One model was in wood, one in oast iron, and one in wrought iron connected with blocks of wood, representing cast iron blocks. He took the last-mentioned one with him to France in 1787, and presented it to the Academy of Sciences at Paris for their opinion of it. In September of the same year he sent a model to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society in England, and soon after came to England himself.

The principle he took to begin with, and to work upon, was that the small segment of a large circle was preferable to the great segment of a small circle. The appearance of such arches, and the manner of forming and putting the parts together, admit of many varieties; but the principle will be the same in all. The architects Paine conversed with in England denied the principle, but it was generally supported by mathematicians.

In order to ascertain the truth of the principle on a larger scale than could be shown by a portable model of five or six feet in length, he went to the iron foundry of Messrs. Walker, at Rotherham, and had a complete rib of ninety feet span, and five feet in height from the cord line to the centre of the arch, manufactured and erected. It was a segment of a circle of four hundred and ten feet diameter; and until this was done no experiment on a circle of such extensive diameter had ever been made in architecture, or the practicability of it supposed. On the success of this experiment, he entered into an agreement with the iron founders at Rotherham to cast and manufacture a complete bridge to be composed of five ribs of one hundred and ten feet span, and five feet of height from the cord line, being a segment of a circle of six hundred and ten feet diameter.

At this time Paine’s bridge operations became suspended, and he employed himself on the now celebrated work “The Rights of Man,” in answer to Burke’s attack on the French Revolution. In 1792 a Convention was elected in France for the express purpose of forming a constitution on the authority of the people, as had been done in America, of which Convention Paine was elected a member. He was at that time in England, and knew nothing of his election till the arrival of the person who was sent officially to inform him of it. So great was Paine’s popularity in France that he was chosen about the same time by the people of no fewer than four departments.

During Paine’s absence in France, Sunderland Bridge was erected. Paine had a very intimate, friend Sir Robert Smyth, who was also an acquaintance of Mr. Monroe, the American Minister in Paris. Smyth had been a colleague in Parliament of Mr Ralph Milbanke, and, supposing that the persons who constructed the iron bridge at Sunderland had made free with Paine’s model, which was at the iron works where the Sunderland Bridge was cast, he wrote to Mr. Milbanke on the subject, and the following was that gentleman’s answer:

With respect to the bridge over the river Wear at Sunderland, it is certainly a work well deserving admiration both for its structure and utility, and I have good grounds for saying that the first idea was suggested by Mr. Paine’s bridge exhibited at Paddington. What difference there may be in some parts of the structure, or in the proportion of wrought and cast iron, I cannot pretend to say, Burden having undertaken to build the bridge, in consequence of his having taken upon himself whatever the expense might be beyond three and four thousand pounds (sterling) subscribed by myself and some other gentlemen. But, whatever the mechanism might be, it did not supersede the necessity of a centre [the writer has here confounded a centre with a scaffolding], which centre was esteemed a very ingenious piece of workmanship, and taken from a plan sketched by Mr. Nash, an architect of great merit, who had been consulted in the outset of the business, when a bridge of stone was in contemplation. With respect, therefore, to any gratuity to Mr. Paine, though ever so desirous of rewarding the labour of an ingenious man, I do not feel how, under the circumstances already described, I have it in my power, having nothing to do with the bridge after the payment of my subscription, Mr. Burden then becoming accountable for the whole. But if you can point out any mode, according to which it should be in my power to be instrumental in procuring him any compensation for the advantage the public may have derived from his ingenious model, from which certainly the outline of the bridge at Sunderland was taken, be assured it will afford me very great satisfaction.

Paine had no patent for his bridge construction in America, but he took care to put the country in possession of the means and of the right of making use of the construction freely. Among the world’s inventors he has an honoured place. The iron truss bridge, which he invented, now spans a thousand streams in America, a graceful monument to his mechanical genius. He was the inventor of the planing machine, which relieves the weary mechanic from much of the severity of his olden toil; and he was the first to suggest steam navigation, although not to practically carry out the idea.

The above summary and extracts are taken from two of Paine’s letters one to Sir George Staunton, Bart.; the other, “On the Construction of Iron Bridges,” to the Congress of the United States.

A long discussion took place in the “Notes and Queries;” of the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle in 1875 on the subject of the invention of Sunderland Bridge. Immense credit was of course justly given to Mr. Burdon for originating and building the structure; but the curious and varied evidence produced in the course of that discussion conclusively proved that the honour of inventing the principle on which the bridge was constructed belongs to Thomas Paine. It will be sufficient to enumerate here the names of some of the authorities who were shown to have awarded the credit to the author of “The Rights of Man.” I mention them in the order in which they appeared in the correspondence: Ralph Milbanke, the colleague of Rowland Burdon in the representation of Durham; the “Encyclopedia Londinensis”; Kensington Museum of Patents; Quarterly Review, July, 1858; J. C Jeafferson, “Life of Robert Stephenson”; Mr. Murray, engineer of Sunderland Dock; Dr. Smiles, “Life of Telford”; Mr. Phipps, C.E.; Professor Pole; Rees’s “Encyclopaedia”; Robert Stephenson, “Encyclopaedia Britannica.”

Our sketch of the Sunderland Bridge is copied from an engraving in Richardson’s “Table Book.” Paine’s portrait is a copy of Romney’s. It is to be regretted that we have been unable, though we made inquiries far and near, to obtain a portrait of Rowland Burdon also……………..although Northeastlore has tracked one down!!!!!

Rowland Burdon
Rowland Burdon – Sunderland Museum

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