Rewley Road Railway Swing Bridge
The story of the Swing Bridge
The LMS Swing Bridge is one of only two moving bridges on the Thames - the other being Tower Bridge in London. This ingenious mechanical structure dates from 1851 and was essential in keeping 19th-century Oxford moving.
This Scheduled Monument has a big story to tell, and one that is easy to overlook at first glance. This is a tale not just of the railways coming to Oxford, but of the part Oxford played in railways across England - of Robert Stephenson and Isambard Brunel, the battle for east-west and north-south, and of the ‘Great Exhibition’ of 1851.
The railwaymen could swing open the bridge with a hand crank to let the boats pass or swing closed to let the trains across. The bridge is 22 metres long and weighs 85 tons. It took two men around 5 minutes to wind it open.
An epic battle: Oxford’s railway history
In the mid 19th Century, privately run railways operated across the country and rival bidders, keen to expand, vied to be the one to provide a rail link to Oxford because of its strategic location in the heart of the country. The territory between Oxford and the Midlands became the scene of an epic battle between the broad-gauge Great Western Railway (east-west) and the standard-gauge London (Euston) and Birmingham Railway (LBR) (north-south), one of the seminal events of mid-19th Century railway politics.
LBR sought to block the Great Western Railways northern expansion, and was, indeed, partially successful. This led to the amalgamation of the LBR and a number of other concerns in 1847 forming the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) the largest railway company in Britain and the largest joint stock company in the world.
Until 1999, Oxford’s two rival railway stations could still be seen standing side by side, a potent visual reminder of railway history. Many local people will remember the station, where the Said Business School now stands, which was built in the same modular construction and by the architects of Crystal Palace, directly linking it to the Great Exhibition of 1851.
The Swing Bridge and Oxford's Industrial Heritage
The Swing Bridge appears to be the earliest moving-element railway bridge in Britain to retain its original mechanism and the only one designed by Stephenson to retain the majority of its original structure. It’s low level hand operation enabled it to be constructed quickly and connected the LNWR passenger and goods station to the south (now at Quainton) with the LNWR locomotive depot and lines to Bicester and Bletchley, to its north, and enabled this line to cross the Sheepwash Channel whilst still allowing the boats to pass when the navigation of Oxford’s waterways was of such importance to industry in Oxford.
Around 1890, the Bridge was substantially reconstructed in steel and the majority of the surviving structure visible today dates from this period. Further modifications to the north and midstream abutments were made in 1941. From October 1951, all former LNWR passenger trains were diverted into the GWR Station, following the failure to implement a new lift bridge in 1944 and the Swing Bridge fell out of use.
In 1984 the goods depot closed and the remaining rails on the Swing Bridge and its approaches were removed soon after. At this time the approaches to the north and south were given over to the Rewley Park residential development and the Bridge permanently fixed in its ‘open’ position, allowing navigation of the Channel.
Saving the LMS Swing Bridge
The LMS Swing Bridge was lying unused and rusting since the 1980s and fell onto the Heritage at Risk Register in 2013. In 2020, ownership of the bridge was transferred from Network Rail to the Oxford Preservation Trust and with funding from Railway Heritage Trust were able to restore this essential part of Oxford’s Industrial heritage so it’s no longer at risk of being lost. Every nut and bolt was taken apart, cleaned, and put back together again. In March 2019, the LMS Swing Bridge turned again for the first time in many decades.
A bridge for the 21st century
The Swing Bridge has been restored to its former glory and it sitting proudly next to Rewley Bridge, and you can go and visit it. Oxford Preservation Trust is now working hard with designers to create a meaningful, biodiverse and beautiful landscape surrounding it to link into the chain of ‘pocket parks’ leading to the city centre.
National Railway Heritage Awards 2022
2022 has been an eventful year for Oxford Preservation Trust at the Rewley Road Swing Bridge. With the support of Network Rail, for whom the swing bridge was no longer operational, and with grants from Historic England, and the Railway Heritage Trust, the specialist conservation work to restore the disused railway bridge was completed in the Summer. This led to the swing bridge being marked as ‘saved’ as it was removed from Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register in the Autumn. And in early December, OPT Director Debbie Dance and TMP Project manager Russ Turner attended the National Railway Heritage Award in London, where against strong competition they were delighted to accept the Railway Heritage Trust Conservation Award for 2022, presented by HRH the Duke of Gloucester.
This project would not be possible without the support of our partners Historic England, Railway Heritage Trust, Network Rail, Chiltern Railways, CPRE Oxfordshire and Oxford City Council. Thanks also go to the Morton Partnership, Blake Morgan and Avon Construction.
Click here to watch a video from the Huntley Archive of the Swing Bridge in operation in the 1970s.
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