History: Winston Bridge – A History Feature

Winston Bridge – A History

As part of our website we are celebrating fantastic local history and bringing to life the history of the area, and joining it with the present.

Mark Samuelson, formerly of the History Channel, has written a series of articles exclusively for St Andrew’s and we are proud to highlight the character and depth within our beautiful part of the Diocese.


Local landlord and Rokeby resident Sir Thomas Robinson long enjoyed a love of architecture and building which, in 1760, he put into practice by designing the magnificent bridge across the Tees at Winston which stands today as a fine example of his vision and the strength of local skills.

As a well-travelled grandee who had already made one ‘Grand Tour he spent the years between 1729-30 on a second European Tour with his new wife (Lady Elizabeth, widowed daughter of the Earl of Carlisle from Castle Howard) Robinson was familiar with the function and style of opulent large scale building projects.

Between 1725 and 1730 he re-built his family home at Rokeby to his own design before being ennobled as a Baronet in 1731.

Eight years later after the early death of his wife in 1739 he took up the position as Governor of Barbados where his extravagant costly plans to re-model the Pilgrims Lodge, the Governor’s Residence and the Armouries immediately upset the local colonists. By the time his five-year tenure of the position was completed he ended up bearing most of the costs himself before returning to his fashionable Ranelagh Gardens London home and County Durham estates with much of his fortune spent yet his enthusiasm undimmed.

The topography and undulating geography of Teesdale had long impeded regular transportation. Minerals, agricultural produce, manufactured goods and other trading was traditionally a difficult procedure within the dale. Horses, hauliers and waggoners were vital to the local economy yet the routes they travelled were mainly over ancient un-enclosed moorland tracks lacking proper cobbles and a flood proof graded highway. When rivers or becks needed to be crossed there were fords or ferrymen and only the occasional packhorse bridge. The most prominent remaining Roman Bridge within middle Teesdale over which to cross the turbulent Tees that at Piercebridge which; ancient narrow and constantly requiring repairs and alterations, was consequently moved 600 yards upstream to its present position being rebuilt and widened with solid buttresses in 1631.

The County Bridge at Barnard Castle is generally thought to have been completed in 1569 other than which the only substantial crossings downstream (according to Elizabethan Bridge Tax documentation from 1571) were at Piercebridge, Croft and Yarm after which the river became tidal.

Following widespread contour drainage, the establishment of ownership by boundaries and enclosure of the local moors (nearby Newsham field patterns date from 1635) the existing busy track, between Stockton, Blackwell, Conniscliffe, Gainford, Winston and Barnard Castle, took on a new importance becoming a well-maintained road. It was turnpiked in 1747; the tolls from the buildings en route paying for the upkeep of the road for the next 140 years.

The road from Bowes to Stockton was important in the transportation of lime, lead and coal as well as a variety of livestock and the woollen goods made in the riverside mills at Barnard Castle. Lime, an important building material had been fired, ground and transported from kilns along the banks of the Tees since medieval times being an established local industry.

The supply and demand of other locally extracted minerals, such as lead and coal, increased in parallel with mining technological advances which supported the constructions needed for the national increase in urban population. Such a booming trade (before cheaper imports) would have encouraged the land-owners, mine proprietors, hauliers miners and middle-men to re-invest their increasing profits in the infrastructure of their enterprises. The importance of local mining trade increased rapidly from the start of the eighteenth century largely due to relative national stability.

The local hierarchy employed an acceptably well structured, widely respected national, yet locally enforced, judicial and political system backed up from the top by the newly arrived Hanoverian monarchy.

Ever increasing amounts of coal was being mined along the Cockfield and Evenwood seams. The problem was; how best to get it to where it could be utilised within industrial smelting processes. Such a bulky commodity required heavy transport to the furnaces and forges amongst the skilled specialist manufacturing towns rapidly expanding further south beyond the Tees boundary with Yorkshire.

That the historic carters could carry their increasing volumes of freight eastwards but not to the south. One might well assume that Sir Thomas Robinson, an experienced trader and concerned observer, would have investigated the options of various riverside locations for the siting of a suitable bridge?

The Johnson family, established builders and stonemasons md of Wolsingham, had in 1761 built a small two arched bridge over the River Wear at Whitton and it was they who Robinson employed to build his planned single semi-circular arch bridge design at Winston across the tumbling waters of the Tees.

Wooden scaffolding towers, stone block cutting rigs and all the other specialist manual tools of the trade would have been used by the hundreds of labourers and experienced dale quarry men who camped on both sides of the river from the autumn of 1762. An enabling Act of Parliament, specifically submitted by Robinson via his local M.P. would have been required to ‘improve the route’ and legitimise the construction prior to the start of building works. Having previously been the Whig Member for Morpeth back in 1727 he would have been fully familiar with the Parliamentary procedure and the Act was duly passed.

The land to the North and South of the crossing was owned the by John William Earl of Bridgwater via descent from the Scrope and Powlett dynasties. Bridgwater’s relatives were hugely successful pioneers in extensive nationwide canal building so their approval for the construction of a single bridge, no matter how remote the location, would probably hardly have been uppermost on their list of 1762 priorities.

Sedimentary Whin stone gravel occurred naturally (hence the derivation of the village name) from the upper banks above the Tees and local soils were dredged in huge quantities providing a solid stone footed base to carry the enormous weight and stresses of the 112 foot span width high above the flow below.

Both banks were strengthened with massive earthwork movement, the Winston side needing to be built up so as to match up with and be made level with the elevation on the Yorkshire side.

The hard blue ragstone was locally quarried and painstakingly hand cut into suitably sized blocks to fit the Robinson design. The steel braces, embedded in the arch below the parapet, to strengthen the structure would have probably been forged on site as there are records of many local skilled blacksmiths within a five-mile radius. On might presume that they would have gladly travelled for the work.

At some point in the operation Mr Johnson removed himself from the project having reservations about the integrity opf the bridge and it was finished by Mr Green of Hexham. On completion it was the largest single span bridge in Britain.

It is a fair assumption that the population of Winston would have grown during the time period of the Bridge construction. Both spiritual and temporal importance of the village within the region would also have increased; here was a community that epitomised the advance of science at the epicentre of such a hive of activity. Presumably the population (of about 350 in 1801) were friendly with those who worked so hard to put their crossing place on the map.

The massive task was completed with the framework structure eventually being removed on 26th September 1763. Robinson must have been well pleased that his huge well-built bridge was solid enough to withstand the widespread Northern floods of 1771 which destroyed so many other large bridges throughout in the North (including the low-slung Whitton bridge over the Wear). At one stage in the 1770’s the completed bridge was acknowledged to have, at 112 ft, the widest span of any bridge in Europe.

On 21st December 1771 the Newcastle Courant Newspaper was publishing a helpful notice that: “this is to inform the public, that no temporary bridge is finished, or scarcely yet begun at Greta-bridge, not-withstanding the repeated advertisements to the contrary in this paper. Therefore, the only road now for travellers west-ward is to turn off Gatherly-Moor and go through Forcett over Winston-bridge”. Winston was, clearly, well and truly on the map providing a crucial crossing location for all travellers and trade to the North West and vice versa.

Aged seventy Robinson was not yet finished however and went on to complete another high Tees bridge, this one was to cross the river on his land at Rokeby. Abbey bridge was completed in 1773 to his design, although at the expense of JBS Morritt and still carries heavy traffic into and from nearby Barnard Castle.

Aware that he was now elderly and short of funds he left the task of building the more spectacular and aesthetically stunning Greta bridge, in front his Rokeby home which he had recently sold to the Morritt family, to his heirs. This bridge was finally built to his original idea in 1793.

The church at Rokeby was completed in 1776 following another Robinson design but again at the expense of JBS Morritt. Sir Thomas retired to live his Prospect House, Chelsea in 1770 and thereafter disappeared from the social scene. Until his death in 1777.

Sixty years on in 1833 a local Gainford historian Surtees from Snow Hall, Gainford described the bridge as being,” a very frequented pass for the carriage of coal and lime. The wild range of the Richmondshire hills bounds the horizon to the south and west”.

Almost two hundred and sixty years after its completion I take my hat off to the vision of Sir Thomas; a man who built elegant fully functioning solid bridges for the future good not, being content to merely sit behind walls of privilege.

Mark Samuelson

Written by Mark Samuelson

Mark was fascinated by history from an early age; he still is. After a 1978 University B.A. in American History before working for The History Channel, after which he completed an M.A. in The History of the English Country House at Leicester University in 2011. Amongst a busy schedule of eclectic activities he now makes artisan cheese in Little Newsham.

April 24, 2022

You may also like…


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.