The Great Yarmouth Suspension Bridge disaster

The trains from Norwich had been crowded as people travelled from far and wide to witness the great spectacle which was to take place at Great Yarmouth on May 2nd 1845. As the people gathered along the banks of the River Bure in excited anticipation, no one could have predicted that the day would end in great tragedy with the loss of 79 lives, many of them young children. On the anniversary of that disaster, I thought it would be a poignant reminder to look back at the events of that fateful day.

The Great Yarmouth Suspension Bridge disaster – from the Illustrated London News 1845

In a widely advertised publicity stunt which was designed to draw in the crowds, Nelson the Clown, a performer with William Cooke’s Circus, had undertaken to swim in a barrel drawn by four geese from Haven Bridge at Hall Quay to the Suspension Bridge at North Quay. He began his feat on the flood tide and, as he drew nearer to his destination, an estimated 300-400 spectators had rushed onto the suspension bridge in an effort to get a better view as he passed beneath. When one of the rods gave way a cry went out to evacuate the bridge, but it came too late and as the chains began to snap along one side, the bridge tipped over, catapulting its occupants into the waters below. There was a scene of absolute panic as the horrified bystanders attempted to rescue those who were struggling to reach the banks, others managed to scramble ashore by themselves. A call was immediately put out for every medical person in the town to attend and the injured were treated in Vauxhall Gardens on the west side of the Bure and in private houses along the east side.  As the rescue proceeded it soon became clear that not everyone had survived as, one by one, the bodies of those unfortunate victims who had either drowned, or had been crushed by falling bodies and sections of the collapsed bridge, were pulled from the river.

As the evening progressed the full horror of the death toll became apparent as the bodies of the victims were laid out in the Norwich Arms Inn, Admiral Colingwood and Swan public houses. The youngest, Mary Ann Lake and Charles Dye, were just two years old. The oldest, Mary Ann Ditcham, was 64. Of the 79 who lost their lives, 58 of them were aged 16 or under. A report in the Norwich Mercury on the 10th of May said; “In every street are to be seen one or more bodies extended on biers, returning to that home from which but short minutes before they had passed in health and life. The consternation – the agony of the town is not to be described – it is as if some dread punishment was felt to have fallen upon its inhabitants – every face is horror stricken – every eye is dim.

Many of the victims were buried in St. Nicholas’ churchyard in the town and there is now a campaign to provide a permanent memorial to those who died near to the spot where the suspension bridge once stood. The full transcript of the original report on the disaster from the Norwich Mercury can be found in this PDF document on the Broadland Memories website.

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2 Responses to The Great Yarmouth Suspension Bridge disaster

  1. julie staff says:

    My Name is Julie Staff I am the person who is doing the Memorial for The Great Yarmouth Suspension Bridge disaster, I did a write up on the BBC.Norfolk website on the 2nd May the anniversary, I released 79 Biodegradeble Balloons each carrying a name of a victim from Great Yarmouth Market Place, I am collecting no more than £1.00 per person as people are struggling today just as they did many years ago, There is also a website in the process that will hold many of the documents and information needed if you are a descendant of any of the victims, I have been in touch with people from the other side of the world wanting to trace long lost family who died on the bridge, If anyone out there has any connections with the Bridge .ie. descendant or other wise I would love to hear from you , My email address is I am also raising the profile of this story as somehow it has been missing from Great Yarmouths History for many many years, please get in touch with me with any information no matter how small it may seem to be, it may be a vital missing piece of this Historical jigsaw. Thank You Kind Regards Julie Staff.

  2. julie staff says:

    There is also a facebook page called Great Yarmouth Suspension Bridge Disaster 1845 Memorial Campaign, get on board to find people from all over the world descendant and people who are interested in the this sad story, Many people have taken there own time to bring so much information to the top for everyone to see, It has become like one big family all wanting the same thing to bring the story and a little respect for these poor souls, and make them part of Great Yarmouths History forever , thank you Julie Staff