Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the little-known hamlet of Crumlin, nine miles north-west of Newport, existed only as a few houses clustered around a stone bridge.
Despite the series of coal levels which gradually opened up along the Ebbw and Kendon Valleys and the arrival of the Monmouthshire canal in 1829, Crumlin remained, on the whole, unaffected by industry. By contrast, the construction of the Viaduct had an enormous impact on the area: between 1860 and 1900 workmen's homes, places of worship, a company school, shops, a hotel and a 'mutual improvement society' with library and reading room were established in its wake by contractor Thomas Kennard. This new area, known as 'Crumlin Village,' serves as a reminder of the importance of the new bridge to the community; Viaduct Terrace, Upper Viaduct Terrace, Kennard Terrace, the Viaduct Hotel and Viaduct Cottage were all constructed here.
Crumlin viaduct was hailed as 'one of the most significant examples of technological achievement during the Industrial Revolution'. During 109 years of service, it remained the least expensive bridge for its size ever constructed, the highest railway viaduct in the British Isles and third highest in the world, outdone only by the Aqueduct of Spoleto in Italy and the Portage Timber Viaduct in the United States.
When Kennard was awarded the viaduct contract in autumn 1853, his first act was to establish a works at the east end of the viaduct site, the Crumlin Viaduct Works. All fitting and fabrication took place in this custom built assembly plant. Wrought iron was supplied by the nearby Blaenavon Wrought Iron Company, whilst casting took place at Kennard's plant in Falkirk. Cast iron was transported from Falkirk to Newport by sea and then via canal or rail to Crumlin.
The first girder was hoisted into place on December 3rd, 1854. To winch it into place, the steep natural slope at the east edge of the valley was levelled from 1:3 to fill at least half the distance between the first two piers. The remainder was spanned by trussed timber beams to create a level platform upon which the girder was built.
The first girder to be lifted into position was hoisted without any form of temporary lateral support. However, the next girder to be lifted in this manner buckled; then slipped and fell. One man, who was standing on top of it, was dashed to the ground and died and a further two were seriously injured. This was the only serious accident during the construction of the viaduct, although there were false rumours in September 1855 that a painter had fallen to his death.
Three and a half years elapsed between the erection of the first column and the opening of the viaduct. The seven span section of the viaduct was completed by August 1855; the three span section by December.
The first five and a half miles of the Taff Vale Extension from Pontypool to the east side of the viaduct were opened on August 20th, 1855, followed shortly after by the opening of a 14 mile branch line joining Monmouthshire's Ebbw Vale Line at Llanhilleth Junction.
The completed viaduct was tested in the presence of Colonel Wynne, the Board of Trade Inspector in May 1857, four years after construction began. Six locomotives loaded with pig iron or lead and weighing a total of 380 tons, were run onto just one span of the bridge. When both lines of rails were used, the locomotives were the correct size to cover this span and were driven across at various speeds whilst measurements of deflection were taken.
In order for the original tests to take place, the railway company required a driver with the necessary courage to make the first crossing. According to legend, the only man to step forward was 'Mad Jack' from Pontypool (although it is unclear whether he was known by this name prior to his crossing of the viaduct). Before making the historic journey, Jack visited every Public House in Crumlin, consuming large quantities of alcohol in an effort to calm his nerves. Although he had been instructed to avoid unnecessary stresses and strains by driving the train over the viaduct at crawling speed, his first crossing was made at tremendous speed. When confronted by the shaken engineer, he remarked; "when eternity looks you straight in the face, you may as well go at full speed to meet it!"
Lady Isabella Fitzmaurice opened the viaduct on Whit Monday, June 1st 1857. The trains travelling across the viaduct and along the Western line beneath were decorated with flags, flowers and evergreens whilst those travelling to the area from other parts of the country were brightly decorated. Beer booths, fun fairs and side shows were set up in the fields whilst two ballad singers strolled about singing a song they had composed about the Viaduct and selling songsheets at a penny a time.
"Thousands come from far and near,
So full of youth and bloom,
To open the Great Crumlin Bridge
On the Glorious first of June!"
When the first train rumbled over the viaduct, there were "loud shouts and cheers, accompanied by the roar of the cannons and music from the band; it made a most spirit stirring occasion."
In 1963, a British Railways Report by Dr Reginald Beeching, entitled 'The Reshaping of British Railways,' proposed that many stopping passenger services should be discontinued and small stations closed. This unpopular strategy, known as Beeching's Axe, resulted in the loss of 67,700 jobs, the shutting down of a quarter of the country's railway lines and closure of 2,128 stations.
On Saturday the 13th of June 1964, the last scheduled passenger train; the 21:10 from Pontypool to Treherbert; passed over the Crumlin Viaduct. Without a passenger service, the future of the line as part of the regional rail network became questionable,and so no major investments had been made in the line for a substantial period.
In 1962, Crumlin Viaduct was scheduled as being of architectural and historical interest by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. However, by 1964, this decision had been overruled by British Railways, who argued that demolition was the most sensible course of action, partly because the viaduct required regular maintenance even after the line had closed and partly because the structure was thought to be unsound and dangerous.
The only costs the viaduct had actually accumulated after more than a century of use were:
- Maintenance costs dating back to 1866
- Redecking costs from 1928
- £10,000 spent on repairs in the 1950's
- The expense of repainting which occurred every five to seven years.
Demolition of the Viaduct was carried out by Bird's of Swansea, specialists in dismantling steelworks and bridges. The work was scheduled to take 9 months and began in June or July 1966 under the supervision of Brian Houston Barron. The first piece of the viaduct to be removed was also the first piece to have been installed. Whilst demolition was in progress, Universal Studios used the viaduct to shoot scenes for 'Arabesque,' a tongue-in-cheek spy thriller starring Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren.
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