From the illustrated social history book…
“Blantyre – Glasgow Road, The Real Story” by Paul Veverka (c) 2016 – 2018.
The Priory Bridge is an iconic name and structure in Blantyre that exists to this day and yet it is still surprising how many people wonder where it is. Whilst the bridge has been entirely closed off to traffic for several decades, it still stands proudly as an old monument to Blantyre’s history at the side of the new A724 re-profiled Glasgow Road to the South of the old Mavis Mill and to the North of Caldergrove Lodge. It spans the Rotten Calder River, which is the boundary between Blantyre Parish and that of Cambuslang. It’s actually very close to Glasgow Road itself and you can easily drive past on the way to Cambuslang, not knowing it’s there at the roadside within the woods.
The bridge was sketched in 1799 by Jean Claude Nattes and is a fine example of stone vaulted arch construction. To the immediate North East side of the bridge was the Black Mill (Bardykes or Spittal Mill), which is now in ruins today.
Described in 1859 as, “A Bridge over the “Rotten Calder Water” — the Boundary of the Parish, on the T. P. [ Turn Pike] Road between Glasgow & Hamilton. This Bridge is supposed, by the authorities given, to be as old as “Blantyre Priory.” No authentic information can be obtained, relative to its date, or probable date in any accounts of the Parish or the neighbourhood. There is however, a tradition in the neighbourhood of the Bridge. — “That when the building of the “Priory” was finished the Masons employed there were so numerous, that upon each bringing a Stone from the Priory they were sufficient to form the Bridge, which, was built in one night.” The Arch of this Bridge is not as wide as the Road over it. The alteration in the width of the Road, as stated by Mr. Jackson of Blantyre Park, was made about 50 years ago. (1809). The construction of the Bridge, which is not seen until under the Arch, is supposed to be of a very old date. As stated by R. Ker Esqr. of Auchinraith House, the description given of the Arch, shows it to be similar to the construction of Bothwell Bridge, before it was improved. The oldest & best authorities in the Parish have been applied to for information.
The name “Prior” is a corruption of “Priory,” supposed to have been adopted for sake of abbreviation. The Session Records of the Parish, are at present being searched for any clue to the age of Prior Bridge. If anything of importance […] it will be immediately forwarded Tracing & Name Sheet of Cambuslang to be altered.”
The account and suggestion of a 13th Century Bridge may be wishful thinking. It’s unlikely the bridge is as old as the Priory (13th Century) and it is more likely in design and architecture, 17th Century, noted on a 1634 map, although an older crossing at that point may have been entirely possible. One has to assume fully the bridge was not built in one evening! It got its latter name of the Priory Bridge, instead of Prior Bridge by the end of the 19th Century due to Blantyre Priory, which despite a little distance away, was still one of the nearest, adjacent and ancient Blantyre landmarks.
Fatal Fall from Priory Bridge
On Saturday 21st June 1817 an open air stage coach travelling between Glasgow to Hamilton was involved in a fatal accident on top of the Priory Bridge at Blantyre. As the coach approached the bridge, an oncoming horse and cart startled the horses pulling the coach, and the passengers on top of the coach were alarmed as they were thrown from the side, as their coach toppled over. The coach didn’t topple right over, but fell leaning on top of the high Priory Bridge parapet wall, with such a movement and jolt that several passengers fell from the coach to the bridge.
One passenger however, was not so lucky. A young man, named Bennie was thrown clear of the parapet right over the side of the Priory Bridge itself, and fell below in the River Calder. He was hurt so badly, he lived for only an hour afterwards. His body was so shockingly disfigured, for he had fallen a great distance from above on to rocks below. No other person was hurt, although there were several outside passengers on the coach. Mr. Bennie was a millwright who had been working at Camlachie and had been travelling to see his father in Blantyre, when the accident occurred.
Those who know Priory Bridge will realise just what a great height this bridge is. The next picture is a mock up of the scene created using an actual sketch of the bridge from a similar time period and showing a coach and cart of the day, poised ready for the accident to happen.
Priory Bridge – The 20th Century
In 1906, a spate of crimes took place on the Glasgow to Hamilton Road near the Priory Bridge, the cause being people taking advantage of no light. It was pitch black at night. People were being robbed travelling between Halfway and Blantyre. When girls and women started to be violated by molestation, the authorities had to act. It was proposed that lights should be put up for the full stretch paid by each county council from the Westend to the Sun Inn at Halfway. The cost of this proved prohibitive and was put off when it became known that the tram network was to be extended. Authorities hoped the tram companies would simply put a light on each tram standard at intervals. However, the cost of this was eventually borne by both tram company and authorities, initially only lighting part of the way. Crimes continued in this area for many years afterwards.
When extending the tramlines from Blantyre to Cambuslang in 1907 this bridge represented a major obstacle. It was the source of a lot of expenditure to make the dual tram lanes run over it and connect with the nearby adjacent tram network. A passing line was also constructed next to the tram terminus, where cars could stack up and remain overnight without causing obstruction. At this time, the bridge started to become known also as “The Spittal Bridge” a reference to the nearby area being mined. Contrary to other writings, the bridge was never widened beyond 1907, nor ever encased in concrete.
Its construction actually spans several decades and is a real mix of styles and type. From underneath you can see three clear stages of rebuilding or extension. In the centre is the early portion – a high single span arch of ashlar masonry, 3.3m wide. This original arch has the appearance of 17th or possibly early 18th century work. On either side is another extension constructed in approximately 1809 as outlined in the earlier account. This is furthered by the modern brick-and-girder extension of 1907 to accommodate tram and vehicular traffic. There is a moulded stone course round the arch of the original span. The top of the bridge is quite ‘modern’ dating from 1907.
Highway Robbery at the Bridge
In June 1910, a sensational affair was reported to the Cambuslang police. A man named Henry Kelly (28) visited his parents at 71 Main Street, Cambuslang. As he missed the last Lanarkshire tramcar at Cambuslang for Hamilton, he started to walk back towards Blantyre. He reached Priory Bridge about 1 a.m. Suddenly, he was accosted by two men, and asked for a match. Kelly complied with this request, and then his ‘no-gooders’ asked him if he “had anything on him.” “Do you mean drink?” queried Kelly. “Yes,” was the answer. ” Well, I don’t drink at all.” “Have you any money ?” ” Yes,” answered Kelly, “and I mean to keep it!”
A desperate struggle then took place on Priory Bridge, but ultimately the taller of the two men pinned Kelly’s arms, while the other turned out his pockets. Kelly still retained his watch and chain, and another fight took place over it. It was broken during the struggle. On Kelly demanding his money back, the taller of the two men lifted him and threw him over the parapet of the Priory Bridge into the river Calder, a drop of over 39 feet. How the unfortunate man got out he was not able to tell. When he recovered consciousness the murky water was running over his body. Kelly was able to reach home, but he was drenched to the skin, and covered with blood. The men were not caught and today, this crime would have been deemed an attempted murder.
The trams traversed this bridge until the late 1920’s. Earthing guard wires were added to the tram network in 1923 between Priory Bridge and Springwell at a cost of £60. Various road realignments have also occurred in the 20th Century. The bridge was closed off to traffic and now also to pedestrians and has been so overcome by nature, there are trees actually growing on the bridge deck now in these post Millennium years. With the realigned road, Priory Bridge is a bridge to nowhere and consequently is not maintained. The structure is incredibly high and the steepness of the slopes immediately beside it, making it feel quite perilous to be in the area. Ivy trails over the side reach down almost to the water giving a romantic appearance to those adventurous enough to observe it from the river or steep embankments.
Priory Bridge Tram Heist
Before we leave the Priory Bridge, let us tell you of a daring robbery at this location, the story worth telling here. Late on Saturday 9th April 1927, around 11.15pm, the last tramcar of the evening from Cambuslang was proceeding to the Power Station at Hamilton Road, Motherwell. To do this, it had to go through Blantyre as usual. Being so late, the car had only three passengers aboard, who occupied the inside of the car. It was around the Priory Bridge district (a quiet spot lying between Cambuslang and Blantyre) when three (it is alleged) young men stepped on to the parked tramcar and proceeded upstairs.
The night was dark, and it was the custom and duty that tramcar drivers proceeding to the depot on the last run of each evening required to switch off the street lighting. These were days when electric lights on roadsides were new. They were not controlled centrally, but instead operated manually by control pillars on each road. One switch would kill the streetlights. The electric lights on this particular roadside were being switched off at the time by the driver of the car who had stopped and got out to do so.
The fact that the lights on the roadside were out, coupled with the fact of the loneliness of the remote road, made the intentions of the men easier than if the lights had been on. However, the conductor, after the lapse of a second or so, proceeded upstairs to the open top-deck of his car to collect the fares from his three new “countryside” passengers who had boarded at an unofficial stop.
It was when he had reached the top that he noticed the three men had seated themselves in different parts of the car and were strangely not sitting beside each other, despite being previously observed chatting with each other. An uneasiness descended as the streetlights were put out adjacent to the car and the tram plunged into darkness. Approaching the nearest man, the conductor was informed that the tickets were being procured by the “other chap over there,” meaning of course the passenger further along.
The conductor then proceeded to the next man and inquired about the tickets for all 3 passengers, and was in the act of punching the tickets when he was set upon from behind! A heavy blow being dealt on the back of his head by a blunt weapon of some kind or other. No sooner had the severe blow been received than the conductor felt a hand being forced over his mouth, whilst efforts were being made to pull his bag of money from off his shoulder. This was a robbery.
The conductor, however, appeared to have been stunned by the blow on the head, but he managed momentarily to free himself and in a brave moment, bit the hand which covered his mouth, biting his assailant’s finger. With his mouth free, the conductor called out for help to the driver, all the time struggling against his 3 attackers in their desperate attempt to get a hold of his bag of cash. However, the driver heard the commotion upstairs, stopped his lighting duties immediately and ran back to the tramcar. Hearing his fellow-worker’s call for aid, he shouted back he was coming.
The robbers now realised their “game was up,” and knowing that the driver was likely now to be the scene at once, they made their escape fast as foot could carry them down the stairway at the opposite end of the tramcar and back into the darkness at Priory Bridge. The conductor appeared to be somewhat dazed, and was suffering from the effects of the blow his head. He had a nasty wound, which was bleeding profusely. Aid was summoned, and the local county police were informed of the untoward event. The bag was held by the conductor and it was later found that only 1s 9d was missing. The men were unknown to the conductor and it was not thought that any arrest was made.
Dr, Wilson in Blantyre, had been early on the scene, and attended the injured conductor who was later removed to his home. The conductor was James Wilson, a young Motherwell man. This was just a couple of years prior to the trams ending and we’re sure would have prompted a lot more awareness against similar things happening.
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