Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: August 05, 2017
Webpage updated: May 22, 2022




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 original Laira Bridge just before the new one was built.

The first Laira Bridge as it was just before demolition.
In the background is the railway bridge, which is still in situ.
Western Morning News Co Ltd.

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 following dimensions were quoted by the designer himself, Mr J M Rendel CorrMInstCE, in a paper "Particulars of the Construction of the Lary Bridge, near Plymouth": 'The central arch is 100 feet span, and rises 14 feet 6 inches; the thickness of the piers, where smallest, being 10 feet.  The arches adjoining the centre one are 95 feet span each, with a rise of 13 feet 3 inches.  The piers taken, as before, are each 9 feet 6 inches thick.  The abutments are in their smallest dimensions 13 feet thick, forming at the back a strong arch abutting against the return walls to resist the horizontal thrust.  The northern abutment forms a considerable projection, which was deemed advisable in consequence of the obliquity of the adjoining wharf below the bridge; as wel as to provide the noble proprietor an opportunity of building a toll-house on extra-parochial ground.  The ends of the piers are semi-circular, having a curvilinear batter on the sides and ends formed with a radius of 35 feet, and extending upwards from the level of high water to the springing course, and downwards to the level of the water at the lowest ebb.  The front of the abutments have a corresponding batter.'

Mr Rendel further stated that: 'The parts of the piers and abutments which lie under water at the lowest ebbs, are composed of 2 feet courses of masonry with offsets.  The roadway between the abutments is 24 feet wide, supported by 5 cast iron equidistant ribs.  Each rib is 2 feet 6 inches in depth at the springing, and 2 feet at the apex by 2 inches thick, with a top and bottom flange of 6 inches wide by 2 inches thick, and is cast in 5 pieces; thweir joints (which are flanged for the purpose) are connected by screw pins with tie plates equal in length to the width of the roadway, and in depth and thickness to the ribs; between these meeting plates the ribs are connected by strong fathered crosses, or diagonal braces with screw pins passing through their flanges and the main ribs. 

The Duchess of Clarence, later Queen Adelaide, performed the official opening of the Bridge on July 14th 1827.

The Plymouth County Borough boundary (marked Co. Boro. Bdy),
 can be clearly followed across the Laira Passage in this image.
From Ordnance Survey sheet number CXXIV.9 dated 1914.

Seventy years later, Plymouth obtained an Act of Parliament that enabled them to purchase the bridge from the Earl of Morley for 43,500.  They got a bit of a bargain because that price was agreed on the basis that the tolls levied on travellers would not earn more than 1,500 per year.  As it turned out, the revenue averaged 2,000 in the succeeding years.  A similar situation occurred with the Embankment Company. This is how the Plymouth Borough Boundary in 1914 included the Laira Bridge.  The boundary stones are on the Plymstock side of the river.

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 familar road sign at the Plymstock end of the Laira Bridge, Plymouth.

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.