The Life and Works of John Rennie (7 June 1761 – 4 October 1821)

Kelso Bridge

Sandra Purves

In 1797 the bridge over the river Tweed in Kelso partially collapsed and was washed away. A tremendous & violent storm that had started at six o’clock in the evening and raged on through the night caused extensive flooding which undermined the bridge foundations causing partial collapse of the bridge. This event was graphically reported in the “Edinburgh Advertiser” of the times.

The local road trustees appointed John Rennie to design a new bridge; this was his first major masonry bridge. In November 1798 he visited Kelso to establish the best location for the new bridge. Having determined that the shallow depth of the previous bridge’s foundations caused the bridge to fail he searched for a location where there was suitable bed rock in the riverbed. He also decided to build the foundations in coffer dams using the waterwheel in a mill race on the south bank of the river to pump the coffer dams dry. The foundations were sunk 7ft into the bedrock. The new bridge was located 50 yards downstream of the old bridge.

Whilst he was in Kelso he visited the nearby Teviot Bridge of which he was somewhat critical of its architecture and location on the bend of the river but as we will see he incorporated the use of twin columns on his Kelso Bridge.

He was concerned with both the engineering and the aesthetic details of the bridge and decided to keep the road and parapets horizontal, a move away from the more common solution of the day of an arched roadway. This meant that an embankment had to be built at the north end of the bridge. He also chose to use elliptical arches, ‘not only because those sort of arches give much more waterway but because such arches are better suited to the loads they have to sustain’. This resulted in the bridge being built with 5 semi-elliptical arches of 72ft span. The previous bridge had six spans. The architectural details consisted of a wide projecting cornice, dentilated string course, pairs of three-quarter Doric columns on the faces of the spandrels and rusticated cutwaters.

Kelso Bridge 2017 © G. Laird CC BY-SA 2.0 Geograph NT7233

During construction of the bridge a serious accident occurred when a 14 year old local lad was working as a labourer on the bridge. He sustained a serious gash on his leg whilst carrying a stone that was too heavy for him. This injury threatened to cripple him but fortunately he made a complete recovery. The local lad was Sir William Fairbairn who became a famous bridge engineer designing many iron girder bridges including the 460ft spans of the Menai tubular railway bridge.

The cost of the bridge was £12,876 and was partly funded by a government loan. The contractors were Murray & Lees. Tolls were charged to replay the £15,000 borrowed from the government and a trust was set up to collect the tolls. A toll house was built to Rennie’s design at the town end of the bridge. The tolls were only meant to be collected only until the debt had been repaid. Fifty years later the trust was still collecting tolls. Kelsonians began to suspect that the trustees were lining their own pockets. Discontent grew when the railway reached Kelso in 1850 as the station was in Maxwellheugh on the south side of the river and to reach the station the good folk of Kelso had to pay the toll. Kelsonians demanded an end to the tolls but the Trustees refused. One night in 1854 a mob sawed though the gates which blocked the bridge and through them into the Tweed. The tolls subsequently ceased.

Tollhouse, Kelso Bridge

Masonry repointing and some bridge strengthening took place in 1921. A small width increase was proposed in 1956 but the Fine Art Commission objected strongly since the required cantilevering would affect the architecture of the elevations and the proposal wasn’t implemented. In 1981 the parapets were rebuilt with much new stone being used. In 1988 a new concrete viaduct, Hunters Bridge, was built about a mile downstream to allow traffic to bypass the centre of the town and reducing the number of vehicles using Rennie’s Kelso Bridge.

Kelso Bridge was a precursor to Rennie’s Waterloo and London Bridges over the Thames in London. When Waterloo bridge was demolished in 1936 two cast iron lamps were salvaged from that bridge and placed at the west end of Kelso Bridge.

Ornamental lamp column – relocated to Kelso Bridge from Rennie’s demolished Waterloo Bridge
Commemorative Plaque

Images © Sandra Purves unless otherwise stated