Great Yarmouth suspension bridge disaster memorial unveiled

  • 28 September 2013
  • From the section Norfolk
Painting of the Great Yarmouth suspension bridge disaster by CJW Winter 1845
Image caption Artist CJW Winter painted his eyewitness recollection of the 1845 disaster

A granite memorial to mark the "largest recorded loss of life" in a Norfolk town where nearly 80 people, mostly children, died has been unveiled.

On 2 May 1845, a suspension bridge over the River Bure in Great Yarmouth collapsed under the weight of hundreds of spectators watching a circus stunt.

Julie Staff, 55, has spent 14 months raising £5,000 to create the town's first public memorial to the tragedy.

She said: "Finally we're able to give people the respect they deserve."

The memorial, which is shaped like a book and stands about 4.5ft (1.4m) high, was unveiled on the site of the former bridge which spanned the river near to where the Swan Pub stands today on the town's North Quay Road.

Image caption Julie Staff with the memorial on North Quay Road near the site of the bridge

Thousands lined the riverbank with families packed on to the bridge in 1845 to watch Nelson, a clown, journey along the river in a tub pulled by four geese.

Mrs Staff, a grandmother of eight who runs a deckchair business, said: "Hundreds of people were on the bridge.

"As the clown came into view they all went to one side of it, but the bridge didn't stand the weight and it collapsed.

"Four hundred people went into the river, 79 died, 59 were children.

"One minute everybody would be excited to see the clown, it would then have turned into a scene from hell."

The "book" of granite, which was quarried in India and weighs nearly a tonne, was shipped to Norfolk via China, and carved by stonemason Kevin Abbey and artist Roland Ayers.

Mr Abbey said working on the memorial, which took several weeks to complete, had been "an honour".

"To be so involved in a big part of Great Yarmouth's history means a lot," he said.

Image caption The memorial "book" measures 64" x 40" (1.63 x 1.02m) and features the name of the deceased on one page with images portraying the event on the other
Image caption Images of the bridge, a family at the event and Nelson the clown, have been etched into the memorial by Roland Ayers
Image caption Nelson the clown worked for Cooke's Circus and rode the flood tide in a tub drawn by four geese to promote the circus coming to town.
Image caption Stonemason Kevin Abbey designed the layout for the memorial. Text was laser cut into a stencil which was then sandblasted through to etch the granite
Image caption After the names were sandblasted on to the "page" they were painted in silver by Michael Vincent. Eight people in total worked on the stone
Image caption About 400 people are estimated to have plunged into the River Bure when the bridge collapsed and 79 lost their lives
Image caption The memorial on North Quay Road features the names of the dead and a picture of the disaster

He added: "It's important to have a lasting memorial for those who tragically lost their lives on what should have been a fun occasion and for the town to be able to remember these people at a memorial where they can come and pay their respects."

About 100 people joined Mrs Staff at the unveiling and she said it was "very emotional".

"Anybody who came will have played a part in the telling of the final chapter in a story that's spanned centuries," she said.

"This memorial has been created by the people of Great Yarmouth as all those pound coins have come together to make this happen.

"It's like the suspension bridge story has finally been told and the people who died have finally been the given the respect they deserve."

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