Webpage created: August 05, 2017.
Webpage updated: August 06, 2017
In the Beginning
It is not known if "Ferry me across the Lairy" ever became a familiar cry but that is exactly how the citizens of Plymouth would have crossed the water to get to Plymstock in the 17th century. Likewise, if the farmers from the South Hams wanted to bring their produce to a wider market in Plymouth then they, too, had to cross the water by what was apparently the unreliable Laira Passage Ferry service.
In 1807 Lord Morley asked an engineer by the name of Mr Alexander to make a report on the possible construction of a bridge across the river. His report was unfavourable so his Lordship abandoned the plan and laid on a "flying bridge" type of ferry instead.
But then in 1822, John, 1st Early of Morley, asked a young engineer called Rendel to make a new survey and report back. He prepared drawings for a suspension bridge and in 1823 his Lordship obtained an Act of Parliament authorising its construction. However, the first location was dropped in favour of the site upon which the Bridge was later erected and this required a new Act of Parliament, which received the Royal Assent in 1824.
The First Laira Bridge
Preparatory work for the first Laira Bridge was started on August 4th 1824 and the foundation stone was laid by the Earl of Morley on March 16th 1825.
The first Laira Bridge as it was just before
Designed by Mr James Meadows Rendel FRS, MICE, the Bridge was to be constructed of cast iron, with foundations of granite, limestone and a water-resistant mortar. The roadway was 500 feet in length and was carried across the river on five elliptical arches of cast iron, which in turn supported cast-iron plates holding the carriageway. The iron work was all cast in Coalbrookdale, where the first ever iron bridge had been constructed.
The central arch was 100 feet in length; the next two arches were 95 feet and the two end ones were 81 feet in length. The carriageway was 22 feet above the high water mark at its central point.
The abutments and river piers were built of masonry upon timber piles driven into the river bed. The carriageway was 16 feet wide and flanked by footpaths of 4 feet 6 inches width each.
The Duchess of Clarence, later Queen Adelaide, opened the bridge on July 14th 1827.
The Plymouth County Borough
boundary (marked Co. Boro. Bdy),
The acquisition of the Bridge was part of a general scheme for freeing the approaches to Plymouth on the eastern side, and the Act contained a provision that the tolls should be abolished on or before March 31st 1904. It was hoped that this would reduce the burden upon milk, farm produce and merchandise generally that was brought into the Town from the South Hams. Although the Corporation would lose an income of around £1,800 per year, it was felt that the rate increase of just three-farthings in the pound was well justified.
Up until the evening of that memorable Thursday, March 31st 1904, there had been no plan to celebrate this event in any formal way, partly because the Mayor, Mr Henry Hurrell, and the chairman of the responsible committee, Mr R J Bazley, were both absent from the Town. However, it was such an historic occasion that in the end the Deputy Mayor, Alderman C H Radford, along with the Town Clerk, Mr J H Ellis, the Borough Treasurer, Mr J R Martyr, and the Chief Constable, Mr J D Sowerby, did go to the Bridge at just before Midnight to join the twenty or so people waiting there to mark the freeing of the Bridge.
At a minute or two before Midnight, the gates were closed by the toll-keeper and when the clock of Saint Andrew's Church was heard striking the hour, they were re-opened and Alderman Radford declared Laira Bridge free from tolls. It would remain free, he said, for all future time, day and night, to every kind of traffic and he hoped it would result in such an increase of receipts from the adjoining toll-gate connected with the property acquired by the Corporation from the Embankment Company as to go far towards meeting the annual charges on the purchase of both undertakings.
As it was a fine night, the Deputy Mayor led the party and spectators across the Bridge before returning to the Town. During the hour that followed, several people came to take advantage of the newly bestowed privilege, including two women who 'were particularly jubilant at being the first of their sex to pass over the bridge without payment of a toll', as the Western Daily Mercury put it. The women were presumably intoxicated!
The adjoining toll-gate formerly owned by the Embankment Company was not freed until 1924.
The familiar road sign at the Plymstock end of the Laira Bridge.
Second Laira Bridge
In April 1957 the City Engineer, Mr J Paton Watson CBE, MICE, MIMechE, was instructed to design a new bridge and approach roads and the Ministry of Transport was persuaded to include the scheme in their programme of major improvements. The work also involved Devon County Council as they were responsible for the widening of the road in the parish of Plymstock, outside the Morley Arms Public House. The new scheme also involved the widening of the bridges across the Sutton Harbour and Cattewater railway lines.
Three quarters of the cost was met by the Government and Devon County Council contributed £112,000. The total cost of the bridge and associated road works was £680,000.
Like its predecessor, the new Laira Bridge was to cross the river on five spans, although these were of equal length, 108 feet each. This meant that the piers were in alignment with those of the railway bridge upstream and would thus not create an obstruction in the river. Each of the piers is built around six cylinders measuring up to 120 feet in height and 4ft 6ins in diameter. These are laid in some 90 feet of mud that lies on top of the bedrock and are filled with precast concrete, high-tensile steel bars and cement. The six cylinders forming each pier are joined together by means of a reinforced concrete capping beam 66 feet in length.
Each of the spans consists of fourteen precast, pre-stressed, concrete beams weighing 55 tons. They rest on laminated steel and rubber bearing pads cast into the top surface of the capping beams. The beams are reinforced with thirteen high-tensile steel cables, three of which were stressed only after installation on site.
Both of the abutments are constructed of reinforced concrete faced with limestone. The one on the Plymstock side is founded on rock but the one on the Plymouth side is founded on reinforced concrete bored piles of 2-feet diameter and approximately 50 feet in length.
The contractors were Messrs Marples, Ridgway & Partners Ltd. They commenced work on site in November 1959. An unusual feature of the construction was fact that the western end of the new bridge coincided with the western end of the old bridge, which resulted in the southern carriageway of the new bridge being constructed and opened first so that the old bridge could be demolished and work started on the northern carriageway.
Lord Chesham, Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Transport, opened the Laira Bridge on the afternoon of Friday June 1st 1962, in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Plymouth, Alderman H G Mason CBE, JP.
After the retirement of Mr J Paton Watson the design work was continued by his successor as City Engineer, Mr J Ackroyd BSc, MICE, MIMechE, MTPI. The Chief Assistant-in-Charge was Mr D M Hutton MICE, MIMechE and he was assisted by Mr F T Westwood MA (Cantab); Mr A P Cliffe BSc, AMICE, AMIMunE; Mr A Norman BSc, AMICE, AMIMunE; and Mr J R Gray ARIBA.