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George Double, Builder of Boxted Bridge

March 15, 2021
by the gentle author

Contributing Photographer Lucinda Douglas Menzies sent me this missive from rural Essex where she has been spending the lockdown and campaigning to save George Double’s fine old bridge at Boxted. Lucinda has traced the remarkable ascendancy of this forgotten engineer and designer for whom his beautiful bridges serve as his monuments.

Sign the petition to Save Boxted Bridge

View from Boxted Bridge by John Nash, c. 1950 (courtesy Government Art Collection)

From modest beginnings – born in Benton Street, Hadleigh – George Double (1840-1916) rose to be nationally recognised as a bridge builder and civil engineer. As the designer of Boxted, Dedham and Wormingford bridges, he deserves special remembrance in the Dedham Vale.

Through his thirties and forties George worked with with the eminent civil engineer John Dixon, but by the time he came to work in the Stour Valley he had become his own master at the age of fifty-one. The Bury & Norwich Post reported on 10 February 1891 –

“Mr Double, whose contract had been successful for Wormingford Bridge was a very experienced man, having built Westminster Bridge and was also active in the erection of Cleopatra’s Needle.”

What I have found about his early life comes from census records. George is listed as a Scholar, living in Hadleigh in 1851 and as a railway porter in London in 1861. But then a reference to ‘worked on Westminster Bridge’ in 1862, and listed as engineer in the Isle of Man in 1869 and as engine fitter near Lake Windermere in 1871.

The last two may be no more than a coincidence, except John Dixon was in the same place – working on the Iron Pier at Douglas on the Isle of Man and on the Windermere Steam ferry – so an early association between the two men is possible. In any event, we know that George was working as site manager for John Dixon in 1877 on the construction of Llandudno Pier because the Caernarvon & Denbigh Herald of 25th August 1877 reported a serious accident there.

“William Tooth, one of the workmen employed in the construction of the new pier, received very dangerous injuries by a fall…..Mr Cheeseman, the pier-master, and Mr Double, the manager of the works, were both upon the pier at the time of the accident, and they hurried down to where the unfortunate man was lying. Brandy was administered to him, and he was taken to his lodgings…”

In September 1878, George was in the national news as John Dixon’s foreman, erecting Cleopatra’s Needle on the Victoria Embankment.

“Into the enclosed space around the skeleton structure only those responsible for the safe raising of the obelisk were admitted. Mr Dixon, the engineer, with Mr Baker as chief of the staff, and Mr George Double, as the executive foreman, remained there throughout directing the labours of the twenty or thirty men who worked the winches that served to prevent a too sudden movement of the ponderous stone.”

A year later, George was credited with building the hundred and forty-six foot swing bridge over the River Blyth for the Southwold Railway Company, a major civil engineering challenge featuring a pivoting span to allow boats to pass. By April 1887, he was back in London again, as the West London Observer report on the construction of Hammersmith Bridge reveals.

“The cost of the new bridge has been about £85,000. and it has been erected with remarkable expedition under the supervision of Mr George Double, the energetic manager of Messrs. Dixon and Thorne, the building having taken just two years, reckoning from the date of commencement”

Soon George became a successful independent bridge contractor in his own right, as the plaque of 1890 on a wrought iron trellis girder bridge at Curbridge confirms. The next year he won the tender for Wormingford Bridge over the River Stour. George’s experience building over water led to the contract for the new pier and landing stage for steamer ships at Clevedon in Somerset – which is now grade I listed – as the Wells Journal 9th June 1892 noted with approval.

“The work undertaken by the contractor (Mr Double) from designs of Mr Abernethy, the eminent engineer, is being carried out in a very satisfactory and expeditious manner.”

The new pier head was one hundred feet in length and fifty feet wide, with twenty four massive iron columns that suspended it sixty-five feet above the mud. The landing stage was built at an angle in order to align with the prevailing current in the Bristol Channel which the offered extraordinary challenges to any construction. The pier had to withstand the second highest tides in the world and constant immersion in salt water.

George’s tender for £937 to build Boxted Bridge over the River Stour in Essex was accepted on 14th November 1896 and a mere six months later the Evening Star reported –

“The Boxted Bridge, which has been built by Mr George Double of Ipswich, is now completed and opened for traffic so that the road to Nayland is once more available.”

George’s next contract was Dedham Mill Bridge – also on the River Stour – another substantial bridge built in the space of six months as the Ipswich Journal announced on May 12th 1900.

“that the tender of Mr George Double, Ipswich, for £1865, had been accepted, and that the work had to be completed within six months, was adopted.”

The 1911 Census records George and Emma Double, his wife of forty-eight years, living at Kirby Lodge, St John’s, Ipswich. His occupation is listed as Retired Contractor, Bridges, Pier & Bridge. Emma died in 1912 followed by George in 1916. They had no children and his niece inherited the estate. No photograph of George Double has come to light, but perhaps the readers can help?

Workmen posing on the scaffolding surrounding Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment in 1878. Is George Double one of these men?

George Double’s Wormingford Bridge, built 1891 (Photo by Lucinda Douglas Menzies)

George Double’s Boxted Bridge, built 1897

George Double’s Dedham Mill Bridge, built 1900

Photo by Lucinda Douglas Menzies


For over a century after George Double’s death, Boxted Bridge carried traffic without any need of repair or maintenance, but wear and tear led to a predictable outcome in the Principal Inspection Report of 1992.

“The bridge has been assessed to be able to carry only three tonnes loading… the proposed remedial measures were to strengthen one of the spans, impose a three tonnes weight restriction, and monitor the structure.”

Yet Essex County Council turned a blind eye, relying on ‘hidden reserves of strength’ in the bridge and permitting traffic to use the bridge, unrestricted, for the next twenty-eight years. It was not until 2018 that ‘Not suitable for HGV’ signs were finally placed on the approaches.

In the most recent Principal Inspection Report of March 2018, it was recommended that ‘design work should be considered to establish maintenance, strengthening or replacement options for the structure’ and a list of repair work was put forward but again ignored, even though this is obviously the preferable option for the bridge over replacement. Repair would cost less, be less disruptive and has less carbon footprint. Essex County Council have declared that they are “committed to reducing Essex’s carbon footprint”.

In spite of this, Essex Highways are finalising a planning application to replace Boxted Bridge with a much wider bridge to accommodate Heavy Goods Vehicles at a conservative estimate of £1 million, delivering road closures for a year and an unknown carbon footprint. This cannot be justified when set against the recommendations for repairs listed in the last Principal Inspection Report which were costed at £122,500.

Consideration for the surrounding Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty must be paramount in any future decision for Boxted Bridge which is listed as a local heritage asset and has strong associations with Alfred Munnings and John Nash. Now that we know it was built by local engineer, George Double, it should not be written off and scrapped as obsolete. This is more than enough justification for Essex Highways to make the extra effort to conserve it.

Sign the petition to Save Boxted Bridge

A View of Boxted Mill by Alfred Munnings, c.1930 (courtesy of artist’s estate)

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The Bridges of Old London

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 15, 2021

    Good luck with the campaign – repairing the bridge seems to be a much more sensible solution.

    I am always in awe of what the Victorian engineers achieved – especially the bridge builders.

    I’d also love to know more about Cleopatra’s Needle and what the system for getting it into place was… the mind boggles!

  2. Pauline Taylor permalink
    March 15, 2021

    I have signed and shared this petition, I know this bridge well as I have cycled over it and the others over the river Stour so many times and the thought of Essex County Council replacing it with a hideous modern structure just to accommodate HGVs is appalling. It is in an area of outstanding natural beauty so beloved by John Constable and the County Council must be made to preserve it.

    The painting by John Nash, who taught me, is beautiful and I hope that Ronald Blythe, who inherited John Nash’s home of Bottengoms in Wormingford, is supporting this campaign? I know that he is now very elderly but this will be very close to his heart I am sure.

  3. Katie Howson permalink
    March 15, 2021

    Fascinating story, thank you, and I shall be signing that petition too!

  4. paul loften permalink
    March 15, 2021

    Thank you and Lucinda for bringing this to our attention. The bridges are part of the natural landscape that is why they are painted and photographed and give such pleasure to the viewer. Boxted bridge has carried people safely across since 1897 . A simple thing to say but in reality it has much greater meaning. The lives of those of us who have ever ventured upon it were in the hands of the builder. George Double and his workers did not let us down. If there was good reason to tear this bridge down and replace it then we could feel some sort of justification. However if the structure is fortified and reinforced then we owe it to the builder and to ourselves to act as the preserver of a rare sight of natural beauty .

  5. March 17, 2021

    I have signed the Petition to save the bridge. I do believe there would be more support if the bridge could be viewed easier. There is an awful lot of keep out signs around the river there. Access to the river gets harder every time I visit.

  6. March 17, 2021

    A huge thank you to everyone for their interest and for signing the petition to save Boxted bridge. We feel sure that George Double ,with his extensive experience in bridge building as site manager for John Dixon during the construction of the massive Hammersmith Suspension Bridge to the smaller bridges he built himself in the Dedham Vale, will have been built solidly and to last, to the highest standards of those Victorian engineers. What a coincidence that your reader Pauline Taylor knows the area, has cycled over it and other bridges over the River Stour many times, and was also taught by John Nash!

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