Thomas Paine Builds a Bridge on Lisson Green

Thomas Paine, the famous English revolutionary who was involved in both the American and the French Revolutions, is best known for his pamphlets The Rights of Man and Common Sense. These influenced political thought all over Europe and America. However, apart from his political ideas, Paine was deeply interested in bridge building.1 While he was living in Philadelphia there was talk of a bridge over the River Schuylkill. Some people favoured wood, a natural choice in a country rich in forests. Earlier, the largest trees had been reserved for British shipbuilding, but in 1783 this law was changed and American engineers began to propose large wooden bridges.

To span wide rivers, the timbers would have to stand on piers set in the river beds, expensive and perhaps unstable. Instead, in 1785, Paine proposed a cast iron bridge in one span. He made a model which was widely admired, but found no backers. Indeed a project of this size may have been beyond the capacity of American foundries at that period. When his hopes of success in America were finally dashed, he packed up his model, asked Benjamin Franklin for introductions to important French politicians and scientists and left for France.

In Paris other bridge builders had their own schemes, mostly in stone, but some in wood, so that Paine's plans for a cast iron bridge foundered once again. Then, ironically, he returned to Britain, the country he had abandoned hastily when he published his seditious pamphlet, `Common Sense'. In 1788 he obtained a patent for a cast iron bridge under George III, the very man whose `monarchised tyranny' he had denounced.

pic26To demonstrate his ideas Paine decided to create a sample arch, ribbed, eleven feet wide, rising 5 feet and weighing 3 tons, covered with a wooden decking. He would display it in some public place, attract wide interest through the press and scientific societies in the hope that someone would invest money in building a full-sized bridge. Incidentally, he hoped to raise some money by using the span as a side-show and charging people for walking over the bridge. The site for this important display was a field next to the Yorkshire Stingo, on Lisson Green. This popular public house stood in the Old Marylebone Road until 1960, when it was swept away for the building of the Marylebone Flyover. At that time, before 1800 when Lisson Green was built over, it was a country inn and pleasure garden on the very edge of London, famous for its bowling green and locally brewed strong ale.

With his partner Walker, who was an iron founder in Yorkshire, a single span of the bridge was cast, shipped to London and erected on Lisson Green. Unfortunately there was little response from public or investors. Nobody offered to back it and the public preferred to view it from the side, very few paying even the half-penny for walking over it. Paine lost heart. Eventually Walker reclaimed the materials. It seems possible that Walker later reworked the Lisson Green Bridge material as part of a bridge in Sunderland. Meanwhile, Paine returned to his political interests.


1 Most information from Tarry Paine - a Political Life, by John Keane, pp. 267-282, Bloomsbury 1990


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