Building Buck Mill Bridge: uniting two communities

 “Buck Lane footbridge in Thackley ‘closed down for six months’ over repair.”  This headline in the Telegraph and Argus on 23rd October 2020 demonstrates how important to our everyday life are river crossings. Usually we rush across bridges giving little thought to why they are there, who built them and how we would be affected if they did not exist. This particular footbridge, crossing the river Aire, provides more than just a link for the communities of Idle and Baildon. Built in the late nineteenth century it still provides a vital crossing for commuters, walkers, cyclists and horse riders. A deterioration of the wooden planks led to Bradford Council closing the bridge for safety reasons. Financial restrictions meant that the Council would have to delay repairs for over six months. This outraged the two communities and a vocal campaign led by local councillors and a petition eventually forced the Council into action and find the money to enable the repairs to be started as soon as possible.  And the Telegraph and Argus was able to report on the 19th November, “Buck Mill bridge, Thackley, to reopen in January after £40,000 in repairs confirmed.”This happy result provided echoes of the debates and arguments  that had taken place before the bridge was constructed.

Situated on opposite sides of the river Aire to the north of Bradford, Idle and Baildon were two similar industrialised villages with approximately the same sized populations. At just under two miles apart as the crow flies the only practical accessible means of communication was via precarious stepping stones across the river. The need for better method of crossing was clear to all, but village rivalry led to bitter disputes and long delay before any improvements were made.

Original Crossing

The shallow nature of the river Aire at the site of Buck Mill provided a natural point for fording the river, and there had been a crossing point there from at least medieval times. A track way, mentioned in a court case of 1393, came down from Idle, along the route of the current Buck Lane and then across the river.[1] From there it was joined by another track coming down from Guiseley, through Hollins Wood to Esholt and then passing through Baildon by what is now Station Road and over the moors to Bingley. At the natural ford site a cobbled surface had been constructed under the water, the remains of which can still be seen along the river bank when the water is low.

Cobbles of the old ford

Later a series of stepping stones, or hippins as they were called locally, were constructed. This allowed people to cross the river without getting wet, but over time the stones became unstable and in need of repair. There were frequent occurrences of people falling into the river and soaking their clothes. But the biggest danger was in times of flood when the stones became dangerous and there were several instances of people being swept off and drowned. A correspondent in the Shipley Times of 1875 commented on the stepping stones:

Never, perhaps having being repaired for generations, they are sunk, worn, and shifted by the floods, until it is next to impossible for anyone but the young and active to pass over them without stumbling, … Many are the stories told by those living in the immediate neighbourhood of little accidents of this kind, though fortunately very few fatalities are recorded. People perhaps paying a friendly visit to someone on the other side, have slipped into the dirty water and have had to turn back home, wet and comfortless, their friendship cooled and their clothes spoiled by a cold douche.[2]

The nineteenth century saw a steady increase in the populations of the two villages and consequently an increasing number of people needing to commute between the two places. There was a constant stream of people crossing the river some going to see friends and relatives but also workers crossing to get to work in neighbouring factories as well as those travelling to markets in Bingley and Otley. There was also a considerable amount of commercial goods being carried by mule and cart across the river to distant markets. The alternative to attempting the direct but hazardous crossing was to make a detour of three miles to cross by the bridges in Shipley or Apperley Bridge. There is mention of another means of crossing the river which refers to the availability of a ferry-boat, but there is no information as to how long it operated or what charges were made.[3]  The first record mentioning there needed to be an improvement came in 1872 when the Idle Local Board discussed the matter but decided that it was a matter for the County Council or General Stansfield, the local land owner, to address.[4]

In 1875 a letter appeared in the local newspaper suggesting the construction of a good stone bridge, allowing foot and vehicular access. The bridge could be provided by the two Local Boards at no great cost to the ratepayers. Failing this the stepping stones needed replacing and levelling along with the provision of a handrail.[5] The matter arose again the following year when the Idle Board thought the stones needed repairing or replacing. They consulted with General Stansfield who replied it was not his responsibility but that of the local authorities. Idle decided to seek the co-operation of the Baildon Board, but they declined any help.[6]

Little more occurred until 1884, when following a letter from the Baildon Board a joint meeting of the two Boards was held down at the river crossing. This time they agreed that joint action should be taken to obtain a footbridge. A meeting was held with General Stansfield who was in favour of the scheme but again insisted that he did not consider himself responsible for any financial costs. It was decided that the next step was to draw up a plan for the bridge and accordingly Mr Jowett Kendall of Idle was commissioned to prepare such a plan.[7] There was general relief that finally something was being done to improve the crossing, although the Wharfedale Observer expressed a cautionary note saying, “I join the inhabitants in the hope that the proposed bridge may in the near future be an accomplished fact.”[8] Indeed, little progress was made and in December 1886 the Baildon Board suggested constructing a temporary wooden bridge but received no positive responses, and in early 1887 they were still having discussions about who was responsible for repairing the stepping stones. The local press continued to be critical of the slow progress stating,

Idle would seem to be peculiarly idle in the way it carries out its deliberately started projects. … What are authorities for if one cannot rely upon them to provide for the convenience and even safety of the people in their district? It is no new work which is demanded of the Idle Local Board. It is simply that they shall carry out their formal resolutions.[9]

Seven months later the continued lack of progress prompted a letter published in the Shipley Times & Express,

…can you tell me anything about the Buck Mill Bridge which the Idle and Baildon Local Boards a long, long time ago agreed to erect across the Aire in place of the present dangerous stepping stones? I am one of those people having occasion to cross very frequently into the township of Baildon, and as my last experience of the stepping stones left me in a cold sweat and fainting condition when I got over … I have no desire to be the “drowned” victim taken out of the Aire to give an impetus to the two Boards to do their duty, so I presume I shall have to “grin and bear” it.[10]

However some progress was being made and in June that year a tender to construct a bridge from Messrs. Bagshawe of Batley was accepted.

Site and Type of Crossing

The decision on whether or not to build a bridge was partly dependent on exactly where the bridge should be sited. The land on the south side was owned by General Stansfield while Bradford Corporation owned the land to the north. Agreement of both landowners was required since the bridge’s foundations and the approach roads would impinge on their property. As the current situation stood all people crossing the river by the ford or stepping stones had to cross through the yard at Buck Mill and the General was keen to put an end to this practice and the associated problems that had occurred with people passing through his property. Therefore his initial suggestion was that the bridge should be sited further to the west. This would mean that the approach path would pass down Buck Mill lane, then through a field alongside the railway cutting and through an existing small tunnel under the canal and across General Stansfiled’s field down to the river. Although the Baildon Board were happy with this proposal the Idle Board were not. It would involve greater expense for them in constructing this new roadway and they were unhappy with the greater length of the journey for people travelling from Idle, not to mention the problems of walking through a small unlit tunnel under the canal.

Plan showing the original proposal for the site of the Bridge

A further suggestion was to build the bridge lower down the river where it was narrower and thus cheaper as a smaller bridge could be built. The disadvantage was that a longer approach would be needed through the General’s land and would again be close to his mill. Eventually the General was minded to allow the bridge to be built close to the site of the stepping stones but with access to it from behind the mill buildings. He wanted the right of way through his property rescinded. The Baildon Board were unhappy with this because of the extra legal costs involved in applying to alter the right of way but finally agreed to the plan.

Right from the first suggestion that a bridge should be built there was disagreement over what kind of bridge it should be. A bridge that was capable of taking vehicles was quickly discounted on the grounds of cost grounds but should it be just for foot passengers or for horse riders? One just for foot passengers was the cheapest and thus most favoured option but with the urging of the General it was agreed to slightly widen the structure to allow for horses. The first serious discussions took place early in 1885 when the Baildon Board considered three plans submitted by Idle along with a further two proposals. One plan was for a four span bridge 120 feet long. It would have cast iron girders and a planked floor four feet wide at a cost of £330. An alternative proposal showed that the width could be widened to nine feet for an additional cost of £250. A third plan was for a wrought iron lattice girder bridge with a span of 100 feet at a cost of £300. There was also the possibility of using two wrought iron girders, each 100 feet long joining on a central pier at a cost of £600. Other plans were for an iron suspension bridge costing £450 and for a wooden bridge to be erected on piles at a cost of just under £200. The Baildon Board stated they were not prepared to pay £400 or £600 and felt the cost should not exceed £200.[11]

These five proposals were then submitted to General Stansfield for his comments as he was the major land owner. And there the matter rested for many months as the General forgot or refused to get back to the Boards and at one point stated he had lost their letter. The Boards were in a difficult position as no progress could be made without the General’s consent and applying undue pressure might result in the General refusing to allow any work to be done on his land.  Eventually in January 1886 he replied by letter:

     Dear Sir,- I shall raise no obstruction to the bridge over the Aire at Buck Mill provided the old footway is done away with, and the same advantages given to the public as they now enjoy on the old road at Buck Mill. The new bridge should carry a horse as well as foot passengers, and the additional cost would be trifling. – Yours, etc, W. H. Crompton Stansfied.[12]

So that appeared to settle the matter and the two Boards should have been able to get on with the construction without delay. However local rivalries conspired to delay matters.

Local Disagreements

Although both Local Boards were of the opinion that improvements needed to be made to the river crossing there were disagreements right from the start, mainly financial. Neither of the Boards wished to commit too much money and place a financial burden on their ratepayers but Baildon was the more vociferous. In 1881 Baildon’s population stood at 5430 whilst Idle’s was 6643, and consequently Baildon failed to see why any proposed expenditure should be split equally. They felt that since Idle had the larger population they should pay a larger proportion of the costs.

The original estimate for a bridge was around £300 but this more than doubled when the plan was revised to allow horses to cross. This increase alarmed Baildon Board members who expressed their concerns that the costs could continue to rise and might exceed £1000; they told the Idle Board further consideration should be made. In an Idle Board meeting the Chairman stated, “I am afraid they are rather frightened at the cost.”[13] Eventually the two Boards met and finally agreed an estimate of £778 of which Baildon said it would pay half, but would pay no more than £389.

Plans for the bridge went out to tender but there was still discontent in Baildon as they felt costs could escalate and they would be asked for a larger contribution. They even refused to attend at the Sun Hotel in Shipley to witness the opening of the tenders.[14] This decision caused dissention within the Baildon Board itself. Some members felt they should have been present while others were adamant they would not commit to paying half whatever the cost, and that the township with the largest income ought to contribute the largest portion. There then followed more

 … disagreement between the two Boards. Idle were under the impression that Baildon had agreed to pay half the cost of the project whilst Baildon stated that they had only agreed to pay £389. On examining the formal agreement it was discovered that some words had been crossed out and amended by the Baildon Board. The Shipley Times accused them of delaying the building of the bridge and being petty over the costs saying it was “a little shabby to seek to compel the Idle Board to pay all the extras, if there are any. 

There was again dissention within the Baildon Board itself with one member failing to see why they had taken this stand and he thought “they had been a little uncourteous in their behaviour to the Idle Board.” However the Baildon Board remained adamant that they would not sign the final agreement unless Idle “produced an agreement limiting Baildon’s contribution to £389.” They eventually decided to send a letter to the Idle Board which stated,

… there are two clauses which bind the two Boards each to pay half the cost of the bridge. I am desired to say that the gross sum towards the cost of the bridge the Baildon Board will pay is £389, apart from the approaches on the Baildon side, and that when the agreement is sent to us in these terms we will sign it with pleasure.[15]

Baildon also complained about the plan to discontinue the right of way through Buck Mill yard. They stated “They had no objection to the stoppage of the bridle path through the mill yard, but if it involved any cost as it was not on their side of the river, they would not be a party to it.”[16] The exasperated Idle Board decided to press on, accepting they would bear the extra cost, in order to complete the project. On 28 August 1888 a Local Government Board of Enquiry was held to decide whether to grant Idle permission to borrow money for the project and the Chairman, Mr. Arnold Taylor, summed up local feelings when he stated, “ … the Idle Local Board have all along shown themselves in earnest in the matter, almost irrespective of the question of outlay, whilst the Baildon Local Board have from the first treated the subject as one of cost and nothing else, though no doubt they admit the necessity for having a new bridge.”[17] The slight ill feeling continued even after the bridge had been completed. In November 1889 the Idle Clerk reported receiving a cheque for £424 11s 3d from Baildon as their part of the costs along with solicitors charges. The charges by surveyors for plans and specification etc were not included as Baildon refused to pay anything on that account. The Clerk “characterised this as extremely ‘shabby’ on behalf of the Baildon Board who had left the whole of the work to the Idle Board.”[18]

General William Henry Crompton Stansfield

General Stansfield

The two Boards had differences of opinion which led to many delays in building the bridge but there was another significant participant who added an extra dimension. This was the Lord of the Manor, General William. Henry Crompton Stansfield. As the major landowner in the area he had an important influence on whether the bridge could be built. Born in 1836, William made his career in the army until he succeeded to his family’s estate’s which included Esholt in 1871. He was in many ways a benevolent lord of the Manor and became involved in many local issues but he was first and foremost intent on preserving his own interests. The members of the Local Boards seemed to be,  in some respects, in awe of the General. This may have been out of respect for the gentry or partly because they recognised they needed his support for the venture to succeed. They held countless meetings with the General, describing their plans and hoping for agreement on where the bridge should be built. He owned all the land to the south of the river and they needed his permission to build the foundations and the approach roads. Although the General was in favour of the scheme he had many other interests to occupy him and was often slow to reply to the Boards. On one occasion he delayed because he said he had lost their letter and their exasperation was shown when a member of the Idle Board said they, “had heard nothing from General Stansfield for six or seven months,” and it might be advisable to send “a letter to the General asking him to be kind enough to let the two Boards know what his wishes were in the matter.”[19]

One of the General’s concerns was the security of his commercial property at Buck Mill. The existing site of the stepping stones and ford meant that all travellers had to pass through yards of the mill and he wanted to ensure the new crossing was as far away as possible to prevent people causing a nuisance on his property. Eventually he agreed the bridge should be built on the site of the stepping stones but that a new section of road should be constructed and the right of way through the mill yard be rescinded. He had originally suggested the bridge should be suitable for carts, presumably as this would be beneficial for access to Buck Mill. This idea proved to be too expensive for the Boards who were intent on a footbridge, but a compromise was achieved when they agreed to his next proposal that it should be wide enough for horse riders. Once again this would be beneficial for the General being a horse rider himself.

Albert Rendell

One figure who played a small but significant part in the story of Buck Mill bridge is Mr. Albert Rendell. Rendell was the owner of land at Ford House Farm on Buck Lane, on the Baildon side of the river. The Baildon Board had several disagreements with Mr. Rendell in the past and in June 1888 he sent a letter to the Board in which he objected to anyone stopping his cattle going down to the river. The Chairman suggested the site of the bridge should be arranged so as to allow his cattle access to the river in order to drink, although he thought “they will put their noses in the air and not in the Aire when they smell the water which no one pollutes though somehow it gets as black as ink.”[20]

In the following September Rendell complained to his solicitors that the contractors were causing considerable damage to Buck Lane with their heavy stone carts. He gave notice that unless the use ceased he would institute proceedings to protect his rights and apply for an injunction restraining them from using the land and to make good the damage they had already done. To avoid any trouble the contractor for the bridge obtained consent from Bradford Corporation for carting his materials through their land to the site of the bridge. All was quiet and peaceful for a while until April 1889 when the Baildon Board received another letter from Rendell’s solicitor. This stated that Mr. Rendell had met one of the carts using the bridle road past his farm, for which they had no permission. The Board was asked to undertake no further trespass and they should pay Mr Rendell £1 1s for costs and damages caused. The Board replied that they denied the right of Mr Rendell to control or interfere with the road. In January the following year the Board received yet another letter from Mr Rendell in which he claimed to have seen a three-wheeled vehicle drawn by a horse going over the bridge which was contrary to the agreed use of the bridge. The matter was discussed and the vehicle in question was found to be a milk cart on three wheels and  only took up about a three foot width of the road. The Board decided to ignore the letter.[21]

Mr Rendell was not a man to be treated lightly and the Baildon Board reported that it had received a notice of action from Mr. Rendell’s solicitor “for alleged trespass and damage in Buck Lane and personal injuries said to have been done by the Board’s servants for which he claimed £500 as compensation”.[22] The Baildon Board were not in a conciliatory mood and decided Mr. Rendell must either bring his case to court or drop the matter. The local newspaper was surprised by this decision and stated,

 It is said that the litigation will cost the Board (or rather the ratepayers of Baildon) some £400 or £500, and when we recall the protracted agitation which occurred before Buck Mill Bridge was constructed, it is certainly an unfortunate sequel to have all this money literally thrown away on the mere question of right of road to the bridge. The costs in this case are calculated to amount to more than did the Baildon Local Board’s contribution towards the construction of the Bridge. There is a pretty general opinion that the Local Board have been ill advised in the action they have taken in this matter from the very outset.[23]

 The case finally came to the Leeds Assizes where after long and protracted evidence had been given, the Judge  could not see why Baildon was defending the case as they had no rights and he could not see what they hoped to gain. He found in favour of Mr Rendell and awarded him 40s cost in relation to assault. There is no record of how much the Baildon Board had to finally pay in court costs although there was a report that the estimating they could be as high as £400 or £500. There is, however, a record of £216 10s. 10d. that the Baildon Board had to pay for their own legal expenses.  So in the end they paid out about double the amount they spent on the bridge, which seems ironical when they had been so parsimonious in their dealings with the Idle Board.

Buck Mill Bridge and Buck Mill

Building the Bridge

The plans for the bridge were drawn up by the Idle architects Messrs. Jowett Kendall and J. Harper Bakes and the contract for construction won by Messrs. J. Bagshaw and Sons of Batley. Construction commenced in September 1888 with the contractor predicting it would be ready for foot passengers by the end of October and every effort would be made to complete the construction before winter set in. Initially quick progress seemed to be made with a report that by the end of September two of the three piers were practically completed and work on the abutments was well under way. In October the two Boards agreed to spend extra money to fit two plates on the bridge showing the names of the members of the Boards, the date of erection and the purpose for which the bridge had been built. For some reason the work then seemed to slow down causing the Idle Board to write a letter of complaint to the contractor in November. Bagshawe & Sons, the contractor, were later to complain to the Board concerning deductions in payment relating to the nameplates. They felt they were badly done by and that they had actually lost money on the whole contract[24]. low progress continued to be made until in March 1889 it was reported that most of the work had been completed. But there was still a lot of riveting to be completed.  Eventually the bridge was ready for the official opening on 12 April 1889.

A full description of the bridge appeared in local newspapers giving many technical details. The bridge, which was originally painted red, was constructed of iron and consists of three spans supported on pillars. The approaches on each side of the bridge are six feet wide and slope gradually down to the bridge platform. The foundations to the piers and abutments were constructed of cement concrete and go down to a depth of five feet below the river bed. The piers, which have angular cut-waters and abutments, were built of sandstone ashlar from Windhill Wood End quarries, and filled in with solid rubble and concrete.

One of the abutments

The superstructure of the bridge is twelve feet above the level of the river bed and consists of three spans, each measuring 88 feet, supported by piers and abutments, making the total length of the bridge 264 feet. The whole of the superstructure was constructed entirely of wrought iron. The main girders are of the single lattice type, seven feet deep, and placed six feet apart, with parallel horizontal booms, vertical struts  and diagonal ties eight feet  apart, carrying a three inch plank platform at the bottom.  The booms consist of tee iron and flange plates riveted together. The diagonals are flat bars and the verticals are angle irons riveted to booms. The girders are braced together and stiffened by means of an ornamental system of horizontal and diagonal wind bracing on top, bottom and sides.

The Bridge platform
The Bridge span

Each main girder is constructed so as to show, when riveted up, a camber of two inches at the centre of the span measured on the platform level. The platform structure consists of cross tee iron bearers, spaced eight feet centres apart, with crossed diagonal flat bar bracings. The cross bearings and diagonal bracings are directly connected by means of rivets to the bottom booms. Suitable railings and hand-rails are provided alongside each main girder. (Wire netting was later added to the hand-rails to provide extra protection to children) The fixed ends of the girders are carried on bearing plates, bedded on sheet lead upon the foundation stones, and securely bolted down, while the end plates of the girders, at the joints of the piers, are also bolted together.

Dorman Long, steel manufacturers

The total weight of the wrought iron, supplied by Dorman Long and Co. of Middlesbrough, is about forty tons.  At both ends of the bridge there is a metal plate bearing the names of members of Local Boards, the architects and the Batley constructor.[25]

The bridge was formally opened on 12 April 1889 when a large crowd of people from both sides of the river gathered for the opening ceremony. Both ends of the bridge had been closed and the bridge cleared of people and members of both Local Boards gathered at either end. The barriers were then removed and the representatives advanced across the bridge meeting at the centre, where the Union Jack was flying, and shook hands.

One of the commemorative plaques

Mr Murgatroyd, the Chairman of the Idle Board, gave an opening speech in which he stated that he thought the two Boards had acted wisely in providing the bridge, before declaring it open. Mr Nutt, from the Baildon Board, endorsed these words  and was sure the bridge would prove a great boon to the people of both sides of the river. Following the opening the members of both Boards retired to the Great Northern Hotel in Thackley for dinner and “had a pleasant and enjoyable evening.” The Boards’ workmen were not forgotten as they were also given a supper at the same place, although probably not to the same standard as their employers.[26] The Baildon Board reciprocated the hospitality and invited the Idle Board to a dinner in Baildon on 1 May at 7.30. The Idle Board members decided to meet up at Buck Mill and walk up to the event together.[27]

Forgetting their past differences the two Boards continued to work amicably together in maintaining the bridge. Over the years repainting and minor alterations were carried out with each contributing half of the expenses. At some point the colour of the bridge was changed from the original red to the more rural green which we can see today. We may be thankful that the two Boards were reluctant to spend the extra money to provide a bridge that was accessible by vehicles. If they had been more ready to spend their rate payer’s money we would now have a steady stream of cars and vans roaring through our quiet backwater. Bradford Council carried out a major refurbishment of the bridge in 2004, replacing the decking and the metal safety grills along the side  as well as a complete repainting. The bridge continues to be well used by commuters between Idle and Baildon along with many walkers, cyclists and horse riders, and as we have seen are quick to take action when their route is blocked.

Modern flooding restricts access (photo courtesy of Stephen Trudgill)

Norman A Alvin, 2022

[1] West Yorkshire: an archaeological survey to AD 1500, 3 vols. WYMCC, 1981, p. 629-30

[2] Shipley Times & Express, 9 September 1875

[3] Ibid, 28 May 1888

[4] Idle Local Board Minutes, 23 December 1872, p.74

[5] Shipley Times & Express, 8 September 1875

[6] Idle Local Board Minutes, 22 September and 18 December 1876, 15 January 1877

[7] Ibid, 4 August, 19 & 25 September, 24 November 1884

[8] Wharfedale Observer, 15 May 1885

[9] Shipley Times and Express, 10 September 1887

[10] Ibid, 21 April 1888

[11] Ibid, 21 April 1885

[12] Ibid, 6 February 1886

[13] Ibid,12 May 1888

[14] Leeds Mercury, 21 June 1888

[15] Shipley Times, 7 July 1888

[16] Wharfedale Observer, 24 August 1888

[17] Shipley Times and Express, 1 September 1888

[18] Wharfedale Observer, 22 November 1889

[19] Ibid 8 January 1886

[20] Ibid, 8 June 1888

[21] Shipley Times & Express, 4 January 1890.

[22] Baildon Local Board Minutes,16 April 1889

[23] Wharfedale Observer, 3 April 1890

[24] Shipley Times & Express, 20 July 1889

[25] Ibid, 20 April 1889

[26] Idle Local Board Minutes, 24 April 1889, p.351

[27] Ibid, 26 April 1889, p. 357

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