8 December 1864: the Clifton Suspension Bridge opens

In 1754, William Vick, a Bristol wine-merchant, left £1,000 in his will to be invested and, once it had grown to £10,000, to be used to finance the building of a new stone bridge, free of tolls, across the Avon gorge.

By 1829, Vick’s fund had only grown to £8,000. That was nowhere near enough for a free stone bridge. So an Act of Parliament was passed which allowed for an iron suspension bridge financed by tolls. And on 1 October, a competition to design the bridge, with a 100 guinea prize, was announced.

Twenty two designs were received, and Thomas Telford was drafted in to judge them. He rejected them all, including one from the 23-year-old Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

He was subsequently invited to submit his own, but his design did not prove a popular one. And so a second competition was held. Brunel came in second, but somehow convinced the judges he was worthy for first place.

Construction began in March 1831. But it was brought to a halt by rioting in Bristol later that year, and didn’t restart for five years.

Then, in 1843, after the stone piers had been built, the money ran out. The bridge had still not been finished when Brunel died in 1859. But his fellow engineers determined to completed it as his memorial.

And so work restarted. The plans were revised by William Barlow and Sir John Hawkshaw, and chains were brought from the Brunel-designed Hungerford suspension bridge in London, which was being demolished.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge was finally completed 33 years after it was first begun. And on 8 December, 1864, it was opened.

The bridge is 214m long between the piers and the roadway is 75m above mean high water. Its height makes it a notorious suicide spot. But in 1885, a young woman called Sarah Anne Henley leapt from the bridge and survived the fall, after landing in the soft mud below.

More cheerfully, it was the site of the world’s first bungee jump on 1 April 1979, when members of Oxford University’s Dangerous Sports Club jumped from the bridge in top hat and tails, sparking a new worldwide leisure pastime.