1612, the town of Berwick petitions for royal help to build a new stone bridge

The mayor, bailiffs and burgesses of the borough of Berwick upon Tweed. SP 14/68 f. 29 (1612)

To the right honorable Robert Earle of Salisbury, Lord High Treasorer of England.

The humble peticion of the maior, baliffes and burgesses of the burrough of Berwick upon Twede.

Itt pleased your lordship about June last to give order for payment of 2000 pounds out of thexchequer, being parcell of 8000 pounds assigned to your humble orators for the building of a new stone bridge over the river of Twede at Berwick.

Some part of which 2000 pounds was payd over in satisfaccion of arrerages and debtes formerly due to many poore workmen there, some part in provision of necessary materialles, some part in workemens wages.

So as thereof remayneth as yet undisbursed onely vi hundred and odd poundes.

Forsomuch as the said sum undisbursed will not be sufficient for the work of this spring and the beginning of the next sommer, and for that sondry other materialles, which must be used in those workes this next March, are now presently to be bought here at London and to be sent downe to Berwick by shipps, which within fewe dayes will be ready to transport the same thither.

May it please your honourable lordship of your honourable and charitable disposicion towardes the furthering of so necessary, so great and so honorable a work to give warrant for payment of 1500 pounds more forthwith to your humble orators or of such other summe of money as your lordship shall think meete towardes the proceeding in the said work: and also for 100 tunnes of timber out of Chopwell woodes to be felled in a seasonable tyme for the said worke.

And your humble oratours shall not onely afford their uttmost diligence and best indeavours for setting forward the said work, and be true and faithfull accomptantes to your lordship for the same, but with thankfull hartes, they and theirs shall ever acknowledge your honours manifold favours, and make their earnest prayers to God for your lordships long life and eternall happinesse.

Report by Barbara Prynn

Before the construction of the stone bridge, the crossing was served by a series of wooden bridges which were variously destroyed by flooding and military action. James Burrell became Surveyor of Works of Berwick in 1604, and this made him responsible for the maintenance of the bridge. He had previously been occupied by the fortifications around Berwick before James VI and I ascended the throne of England, and this made them redundant.

In 1608 ten piers of the wooden bridge were destroyed by ice, and Burrell wrote to Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, then Secretary of State, to recommend the construction of a stone bridge. Arrangements were made in May 1608 to collect funds, but only £3,300 (c. £330,000 to-day) had been collected by 1611. The Captain of Berwick – Sir William Bowyer – was dissatisfied with this progress and a proposal was made for a bridge with seven stone arches over the deepest part of the river, the rest to be built of wood. After a further collapse of the old wooden bridge, a modified proposal for an entirely stone bridge with thirteen arches and estimated to cost a further £8,462 (£846,200 to-day) was put to the Privy Council. On 16th May, 1611 the King ordered £8,000 (£800,000 to-day) to be put towards the bridge. Work started on it on 19th June that year and by September one hundred and seventy men were employed on its construction, including masons, carpenters, quarrymen and labourers.(1)

Also known as Old Bridge, the red sandstone Berwick Bridge is the oldest of the three bridges which cross the River Tweed at Berwick on the Scottish-English border. It was the only bridge at this point for three hundred years or so and is now a Grade 1 listed structure and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

James Burrell was the designer and overseer of Berwick Bridge. The initial main task was the maintenance of the then timber bridge across the Tweed. This bridge had last been rebuilt between 1570 and 1573. While awaiting further funds, Burrell set about organising a ferry for the crossing while decisions were made.

The piers are founded on piles, each 300-460mm square and iron shod. They vary in length from 1.8m to 7m. The piles for the piers were protected from river-born debris by rows of extra piles (or starlings) driven to just below low water level. The eight hundred and seventy-three oak trees required came mostly from Chopwell Forest. They were brought by river, like the sandstone which was quarried at Tweedmouth. Burrell designed a pile driver that hoisted 9-10 cwt and was operated by five men, an improvement on the usual fifteen men or more.

By 1620 the job was still unfinished. Further funds were arranged and Burrell was again named Surveyor, with Newcastle bridge-master John Johnson as supervisor. Berwick made a further request for two hundred and fifty tons of timber for bridge work. It seems that though the petition was granted, the structure of the bridge was an ongoing problem. The design was now for fifteen masonry arches. This was completed, except for parapets and paving, by September, 1621. In October of that year a flood damaged the recent work and re-building was needed. The bridge was more or less complete by 1624.

Berwick Bridge was the largest bridge constructed in Britain in the seventeenth century. It carried the main road from London to Edinburgh until 1928, when the Royal Border Bridge was opened. It is 355m long and 5m wide and its segmental arches increase in height up to 14m at the north end. The longest span is 22.9m. The piers have cutwaters and refuges and are adorned with smooth engaged columns. Berwick Bridge is still open and carries a minor road.

Berwick Bridge
Berwick Bridge (wikimedia)

The overseer for all the works was James Burrell, the lead mason was Lancelot Bramston and the lead carpenter was Roger Richardson.(2)

James Burrell was married twice, firstly to Siciley Acrige on 5 May 1600 and secondly to Elenor Strother on 4 February 1620.(3)

Chopwell Woods is an area of natural beauty outside Gateshead. Castle builders made use of its resources. In 1538 timber for Dunstanburgh Castle’s new roof and floor were sourced there and soon afterwards Bamburgh Castle’s roofers also made use of it. In 1593 the constructors of Berwick’s new pier put in an order for forty tons. More than twice that was later sent to Norham Castle for general repairs.(4)


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berwick_Bridge
2. ‘James Barrell’, Engineering Timelines, http://www.engineering-timelines.com/scripts/engineeringItem.asp?id=1124
3. These marriages are recorded on www.findmypast.co.uk
4. ‘Uses for Chopwell Wood (NZ136580)’, North-East History Tour (2015), http://northeasthistorytour.blogspot.com/2015/12/uses-for-chopwell-wood-nz136580.html

This report is part of a series on ‘Petitioners in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, 1600-1625’, created through a U3A Shared Learning Project on ‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’.