Berwick Bridge: Early History

Cannon overlooking the Tweed Estuary from Berwick's fortifications

The story of Berwick Bridge, from the days of frail wooden crossings, until the opening of a magnificent stone bridge in 1624.

Berwick-upon-Tweed lies on the north bank of the River Tweed on the Northumbrian coast. There have been bridges over the Tweed, between Berwick and Tweedmouth, for most of the last eight hundred years, carrying the ancient Great North Road between Edinburgh and London. One after the other, up until 1624, four wooden structures bridged the turbulent, tidal Tweed.

Over the years, each was vulnerable to floods, tides and hidden underwater damage from wood-boring molluscs and crustaceans. One of these bridges had stood up until 1216, only to be destroyed by the marauding English King John. In more normal times, maintaining and repairing a wooden bridge over this three hundred yard wide tidal estuary, keeping it safe and passable, appears to have been a constant, demanding, dangerous and expensive undertaking. The importance of a new stone bridge had long been in the hearts and minds of Berwick’s Burgesses and had been discussed at a conference in 1564.

Bend Me Stones

On 24th March 1603, 300 miles south of Berwick, Queen Elizabeth I died, triggering events that changed Anglo-Scottish history forever. When news reached King James VI of Scotland at Holyrood, he headed for London to prepare for his coronation as King James I of England, arriving in Berwick on March 25th. On resuming his journey after spending two nights in Berwick, he was apparently terrified by having to cross the town’s long and vulnerable wooden bridge.

When he reached Tweedmouth on the opposite bank and recovered from his ordeal, he asked the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses ‘Is there never a man in Berwick that can boo stanes (bend stones) to build a brig over Berwick stream?’ While no one had an immediate answer, the King’s question raised hopes that with his support, goodwill and perhaps money, the townspeople would soon be able to build a stone bridge over the River Tweed.

Berwick’s Royal Charter

In 1604, James granted Berwick a Royal Charter, regarded in part as a reward for the reception given to him in the first English town he entered as its King. The Charter confirmed ancient rights held by the town and bestowed important new powers. These included rights to raise tolls and other revenues, to buy land, to create byelaws, to try all offences committed in the borough and to carry out sentences of death and other punishments. However, in this year of such fundamental and far-reaching change for Berwick, there was no mention of a new stone bridge.

George Home – A Champion for Berwick’s Bridge

During these early years of the seventeenth century, James Burrell was Surveyor of Berwick Bridge, for which responsibility he was paid one shilling and four pence (7p) per day. Burrell was also the former Surveyor of the massive fortifications that surround the town, but despite his never-ending work to keep the bridge open, in February 1607 it was buffeted by large ice floes and suffered a major collapse. Every one of the hundred men working on the bridge at the time was rescued.

Burrell wrote to Lord Salisbury to make a case for a stone bridge. His letter set out the maintenance costs incurred since 1570, which totalled £5,372, or about £526,000 in today’s values, or £40,000 since James inherited the crown. Berwick’s Mayor wrote to George Home, Earl of Dunbar in support of Burrell’s proposals. Dunbar, a close friend of the King, Governor of Berwick and Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1603 to 1606 was a great ally. He replied that he would petition the Privy Council for the funds for a stone Bridge.

Debt Collecting

George Home, Earl of Dunbar’s influence clearly worked and in May 1608, King James signed an Indenture giving Berwick with the right to collect £10, 000 of old and uncollected debts to the Crown, plus a moiety, or half share of another £18,000. Some of these debts dated back to 1485. Dunbar gained England’s highest and most coveted order of chivalry in 1608, when he was invested as a Knight of the Garter.

If Berwick could find and collect from every one these previously unwilling and widely dispersed debtors, or their descendants, the Corporation would raise £19,000 to fulfil its dreams. This amount would be worth £1,800,000 in today’s money, for what would become one Europe’s largest bridges. However, the dreams would have to wait. Collecting the money would be a massive task.