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UNION BRIDGE


Early Litho by Sir John Carr 1807 showing the Union Bridge with its original balustrade shortly after construction C1801-1805 with the Denburn valley being used as a Dying or Drying and Bleaching Green.  The Bow Bridge the original southerly access bridge complete with lamps is clearly seen through the main Arch which led to the Green from Windmill Brae which was then lined with Properties.  To the left is Patagonian Court which was once a Berthing area for ships that could navigate up the Denburn to that position for unloading.  Two footbridges appear to span the Denburn for access to the Bleaching and Drying zones.  A small Well is also shown opposite the nearest footbridge bridge. Washer Wifie's are busy on the banks and drying posts abound.  A water barrel and sledge lays to the right of the central group who seem to be conducting some trade and or courtship. A Boy sits to the left with a dog which may not have been welcome on newly Bleached Fabrics.  The terracing of Union Gardens has yet to be considered as has Union Terrace and the Imperial Hotel.  The 2 supporting east arches and one at the west which was later to accommodate public toilets are clearly seen here for the higher elevation of Union Street which seems yet to venture fully further west.   The Walled Gardens of Belmont Street properties and Romanesque west facing white Bath House indicates their established status as a recent constructions.  This Bath House appears on Milnes Map of 1789 (see inset below)
1789 Survey Map - Alexander Milne

Mutton Brae on the Denburn with Hadden's Mill Chimney distant on the Green beyond the Union Bridge

The Pantiled cottages on the right foreground were occupied by handloom weavers who in the early 19th Century worked for the cotton factory of Gordon Barron and  Co sited until 1830 on the corner of Belmont Street and Schoolhill

The site of the factory was subsequently utilised for the construction of Archibald Simpson's 3 Free Churches nestling under the prominent red brick spire.  The cottages were to be swept away under the construction of Denburn Valley Junction Railway and the last disappeared with the completion of the Schoolhill viaduct in 1899. Mutton Brae then led directly along the stream of the Denburn to the Bow Bridge linking Windmill Brae to the Green which was the former main southerly route into the city.

The most important bridge on the Denburn is Union Bridge, so named in commemoration of the Union of Great Britain and Ireland on January 1, 1801. About this time there was a fashion of naming streets after members of the Royal family and State affairs. This gave us King Street and George Street, Queen Street, Charlotte Street, Albion Street and Hanover Street, Constitution Street and Kingsland Place.  On April 4, 1800, the Royal assent was given to "An Act for opening' and making two new streets in the City of Aberdeen." The trustees named in the Act for carrying out its provisions were the Magistrates and Town Council, the Members of Parliament for the city and the county, the Principal of Marischal College, the President of the Society of Advocates, the Convener of the Incorporated Trades, and the President of the Shipmasters' Society, all for the time being.

Prayer at Laying the Foundation Stone at Union Bridge, Aberdeen.
Rev. George Alexander Simpson EM.A., Minister of Tyrie from 1812 till his death on 23rd October, 1841, when a student at Marischal College-1801-05 - preserved a volume of manuscripts and extracts relative to events happening at that time.  A prayer was delivered by Rev. Dr Gordon, chaplain to the Lodge of Aberdeen, at the laying of the foundation stone of the New Denburn Bridge on 7th July, 1801


John Rennie, an eminent engineer, was at that time engaged in constructing the Aberdeenshire Canal. By his advice the trustees advertised for designs for the two proposed streets, Union Street and King Street, including bridges at Putachie, Correction Wynd, and the Denburn, the last being the principal feature. Seven designs were sent in, and the first place was assigned to the design of Mr David Hamilton, a Glasgow architect. Hamilton's design included a bridge over the Denburn of 3 arches, one in the centre being 50 feet in span and the others at the sides being each 37 feet, with a total width of opening of 124 feet. The contract for building this bridge was accepted by the Trustees on May 25, 1801, and the Contractors undertook to complete the work by July 1, 1802. Thomas Fletcher, 33 years of age, was appointed superintendent of the work on the recommendation of Rennie, whom he was assisting with the works of the Lancaster Canal. He had been resident Engineer for Rennie during the construction of the Aberdeenshire Canal in 1796-7, and was familiar with Aberdeen. Apparently no difficulty had been experienced with the foundations, and by December, 1801, the piers of the bridges were at full height for receiving the arches, when the work was suspended on account of the severity of the weather. Early in 1802 the Trustees were informed by the Contractors that they had made a serious mistake in their estimates and were unable to complete the Contract, and they were ultimately allowed to abandon the work. Fletcher had been in the meantime examining the levels given by Hamilton in his designs and had discovered mistakes. In consequence of this new plans were required, and it was resolved to increase the width of Union Street from 60 feet to 70 feet, and to reduce the width of the bridge from 50 to 40 feet. Rennie was again consulted, and he prepared 3 designs and sent them to the Trustees: one for 3 stone and lime arches, another with stone and lime abutments and a cast-iron arch of 120 feet span, and a third for a stone and lime arch of elliptical contour and 116 feet span. None of the designs was approved, apparently on account of the estimated cost being too great.

Design by Fletcher Approved
Thomas Fletcher, having seen the style of bridge that would please the Trustees and knowing how much they were willing to spend upon it, prepared a plan for a single arch of stone and lime with 130 feet of span, which was sent to a committee of the Trustees and considered by them. It was then sent by Provost Hadden to Thomas Telford, the famous Engineer, for his opinion, probably on account of the great span of the arch. Telford's reply to the Provost was highly favourable. He said he was only sorry that the span was not 150 feet instead of 130, and recommended that the space between the top of the key stones of the arch and the roadway should be reduced from 30 to 20 feet; that the pilasters and the sides of the bridge should have a batter of half an inch to the foot; and that the pilasters should be drawn back from the arch far enough to show the whole length of the stones of the arch. The pilasters were not drawn back in the plan contracted for, and some of the voussoirs were partly hid, but the batter recommended was adopted; and the space between the crown of the arch and the roadway was reduced a foot, which was a cause of regret when it afterwards became necessary to lay large gas pipes along the bridge. Inset - Union Bridge from Bow Brig.

Fletcher's Plan approved by Telford and Rennie's Plan of 3 arches were submitted to Contractors, when the offers of the Contractor for the Canal were found to be the lowest, namely, £9816 for the 1 arch bridge and £8287 for the 3 arches. It was resolved to adopt the plan with 1 arch. Before the Contract was signed the Contractor offered to enlarge the span to 142 feet for £280 additional; but this offer was not accepted because it would have caused some delay in finishing the Bridge; and so anxious were the Trustees to have the job completed that they offered the Contractor £250 additional if he completed the bridge within the year 1803. The delay caused by the failure of the 1st Contractor to complete his work and the loss of time in preparing new plans caused a serious outlay for interest on the money already expended, and the Trustees were anxious to have the Bridge completed as soon as possible.  The contract was signed on December 2, 1802, and the Bridge was completed August, 1805. It had, however, been far enough advanced in February of that year to allow a gentleman on horseback going out of town to ride over the new Bridge; and it is reported in the "Aberdeen Journal " of the time that the bridge was opened to the public on the King's Birthday, June 4. The dimensions of the Bridge were:-
Central arch, 130 feet; rise of the arch, 29 feet; height from the ground to the carriageway, 46 feet; width of the carriageway, 40 feet.  There are at both ends of the bridge, beyond the pilasters, vaults or blind arches, 2 at the east end and 1 at the west, which saved masonry; and in the spandrels there are 2 blind arches at both ends, each ten feel high, which reduce the weight upon the haunches of the arch. The total cost of the bridge with the vaults came to £13,000.



Widening of the Bridge Carriageway
All the Engineers concerned in the erection of the bridge were of opinion that it would not only save expense but tend much to beautify the bridge if the width were reduced to 40 feet, and this was done. A 100 years after it was erected it was widened. While the narrowness of the roadway added to the beauty of the Bridge and made it a convenient place for crossing the street congested with traffic many people came to think that it ought to be widened, though not to the full width of the street. Accordingly, in 1906 an addition was made to both sides, and the bridge is now 60 feet wide between the parapets. In preparing for laying the foundations of the additions it was found that the west end of the bridge rests on old red sandstone. This was to be expected, for this rock was met with in forming the pit for a Railway Turntable at the north side of the bridge. At the East End Granite was found at a depth of 20 feet 6 inches - overlaid by decayed rock 2 feet 3 inches, gravel with large boulders 5 feet, blue clay 4 feet 3 inches, and gravel 9 feet. At both ends the new additions are laid on bases of concrete. Many years ago when the New Gas Light Company laid large gas pipes along the bridge it was found that there was a bed of red clay from the Tile Burn under the causeway, intended to prevent the passage of water through the arch, which would dissolve out the lime in the mortar. The many stalactites under the arch show that the clay only partially serves the purpose intended, and that it would have been better to have adhered to Fletcher's 1st Design, which would have allowed a thicker bed of clay.

When the 'blind' arches passing through the spandrels were entered, slender stalactites were found in the vaults hanging from the roof. They were about a 1/4 of an inch in diameter and hollow, and so thin and fragile that they could be broken by the breath. Some of them extended from the top to the bottom, a length of ten feet.

The Original Bridge Balustrade before widening or the addition of shops to the South Archside

This picture is much later when the far side of the Union Bridge was extended for a parade of shops ruining the original clear arch appearance with deep structural steel spans and C&A's building which occupied the original Imperial Hotel site was closed. 

The old high sided Footbridge from Windmill Brae to the Green is roughly in the location of the old Bow Bridge cleared to accommodate the Deeside Railway hence the Signal Box. 

The Narrow granite sett road has been widened for traffic from the harbour going north. 

The Aberdeen Council seem to enjoy re-assessing this area for aesthetic, commercial or transport reasons.


William Kelly and Union Bridge

Aberdeen's Union Bridge underwent a major widening scheme in 1908, which was drawn up by William Diack – with Benjamin Baker of Forth Rail Bridge fame as a consultant.  The steel side spans which carry today's pavements were introduced at that time, along with Kelly's cats, the 'wee leopards' which decorate the balustrade.  These leopards have an interesting tale attached to them: the painter Joseph Farquharson, famous for his Deeside snow scenes featuring sheep and sunsets. ‘Frozen Mutton Farquharson’, liked to base his work on careful observation, but since sheep will not stand still, he had life-size models made for him.

The model sheep could be arranged as the painter wished, marking the place for life models, and were created by William Wilson of Monymusk, who also cast the erect iron Leopards on Union Bridge.

 

The Leopards were commissioned by the City Architect and Antiquarian William Kelly, and according to his biographer, they generated a great deal of debate and controversy. Why the need for ornament– and why represent the city's coat of arms here? Well, Kelly rightly recognised that the leopard is emblematic of Aberdeen, and where better to show it off than on the the great bridge carrying the city's main thoroughfare. This bridge was created as part of an early exercise in town planning and traffic management. Charles Abercrombie, engineer of the turnpike roads in Aberdeenshire, produced a report in 1794 which recommended the construction of King Street and Union Street, in order to make access into the city centre easier. An Act of Parliament in 1800 enabled these long, wide, straight boulevards to replace the narrow, winding mediaeval roads.

In the same year that Union Street was named, the Union Bridge foundation stone was laid – 1801. The Bridge was intended as a three-arched structure, but greatly influenced by Thomas Telford's proposal for a single span bridge, with one mighty 150-foot arch. His scheme was worked up by Thomas Fletcher into a granite arch with a 130-foot central span, and a built-up arch at each abutment with a span of 50 feet. The keystone was slotted into place in August 1803, although work carried on until 1805. The half-mile stretch of Union Street from the Adelphi to Diamond Street, which takes in Union Bridge, rests on a series of massive blind arches over Putachieside, Correction Wynd and the Denburn, forming an artificial causeway which varies from 2 storeys to over 5 storeys above the natural level of the ground.

Vaults called the Viaduct Approaches, were designed by Charles Abercrombie and David Hamilton: until buildings were erected on its south side, the arched walls of Union Street towered above The Green.  The costs of building this half-mile megastructure literally bankrupted Aberdeen: the municipality became insolvent in 1817, and it took 8 years for the City Fathers to recover the situation.  The leopards appeared much later in the day, when the horse lorries, trams and prototypical cars of Aberdeen created the 1st traffic congestion, then the Bridge had to be widened.  As a result, the old granite pillar and capping balustrades were taken down, and rather than re-use them, higher smart new cast iron panels were commissioned.

Union Street looking West from Union Bridge, with the Palace Hotel on the left and the Commercial Union Assurance building on the right. The hotel was built in 1874 for Messrs Pratt and Keith, milliners, who occupied the street level area. It operated as one of a chain of LNER Hotels. Its upper storeys were destroyed by fire on 31st October 1941, with loss of life, and the building was entirely demolished after the war.

Great North of Scotland Railway's Palace Hotel, Union Street, Aberdeen burnt down in the 1940s to be replaced in the 1950s by the C&A Modes Shopping Building which is now a Travelodge.

 

 

Leopards on Union BridgeThis panel in high relief, was designed by Sydney N Boyes, 1878 - 1931, painter and sculptor and cast in Burton on Trent.  Originally it was set into the cast iron parapet or balustrade, formerly on the south side of Union Bridge.  The figures represent:- trade, finance, fishing, shipbuilding, engineering and agriculture.  Presently the panel has been separated from the balustrade which is also sited in the Winter Gardens of Duthie Park. This side of the parapet was removed when shops were built in 1962.  The cast iron Leopard finials were actually designed by Sidney N Boyes, who taught at Grays School of Art, Aberdeen. Professor of sculpture Sidney Nicholson Boyes.

The parapets were added when the Bridge was 1st widened (1905-08). The cats were cast by William Wilson and erected on the bridge in 1910.  Designed in a sitting or upright position, there are 16 cats in position at present on the North side of the bridge, of which 6 are cast iron and the other 10 are cast in concrete and painted black. The cats on the south side of the bridge were removed to the winter gardens in Duthie Park in 1962, when building took place.

One of Kelly's Cats, on the northern parapet to Union Bridge in Aberdeen

Leopard yawns and says 'Plonker' to Dodd Dow the Artist in his somnolent Nightmare Leap.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013