Although Clifton Suspension Bridge has always been wholly attributed to the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, it was the vision of a little known wine merchant, William Vick, that sowed the first seeds of an idea to build a bridge across the Avon gorge.
When he died in 1754, William Vick left a legacy of £1000 in his Will, stating that it should be invested shrewdly until it grew to the sum of £10,000. Once this figure had been reached the monies should be used to build a stone bridge across the Avon gorge linking Clifton Down with Leigh Woods.
Nothing changed over the next forty years but, by this time, Clifton had become one of the town's more fashionable places to live and, in 1793, a rather grand plan for a bridge was put forward by William Bridges. However, subsequent years of war with France soon caused the area's prosperity to tumble and, once again, the plans were not realised.
By the 1820s it was decided that, although William Vick's legacy had still to reach its required target, a competition would be launched for suitable bridge designs. It had long been known that a stone bridge would be cost prohibitive, but a suspension bridge built from wrought iron (at this time a relatively new material) would probably fit the bill. On 1 October 1829 the competition was launched with a prize of 100 guineas (1 guinea equals £1.05) to the successful architect.
Some 22 designs were submitted, but most were rejected on the grounds of appearance or cost. Thomas Telford was asked to make the final decision and, having rejected the remaining short-listed designs, submitted one of his own that was quickly accepted by the committee.
This decision proved hugely unpopular in the town but the required Act of Parliament received Royal Assent, and much detailed planning was put in place and financial subscriptions raised. However, the trustees finally bowed to public pressure and, in October 1830, they announced that a second competition would be run to find a design not exceeding a total cost of £40,000. Two independent judges would make the decision - eventually deciding in favour of Brunel's design, although this was not the first choice.
Worked started on Clifton Suspension Bridge on 21 June 1831, but it would prove to be a very slow and erratic process - a 50% shortfall in the initial budget, the Bristol riots, and the bankruptcy of the main contractor all played a part in the delay. In 1843, all available funds had been used, and a further £30,000 was required to finish the job. Attempts to raise the money proved unsuccessful, and mounting pressure from creditors forced the sale of the bridge chains and plant in 1851 - these were subsequently used in one of Brunel's other masterpieces, the Royal Albert Bridge in Saltash. On 29 May 1853, the time limit set by the Act of Parliament expired, and all work was ultimately abandoned.
For nearly a decade the works remained dormant until, ironically on the death of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1859, new life was breathed into the stalled project. In June 1862, after a new Act of Parliament had been passed, work finally re-commenced to complete what the townsfolk and the Institute of Civil Engineers hoped would be seen as a fitting tribute to Bristol's most famous son.
Work progressed at a pace and, although not as lavish in the 'Egyptian' style as Brunel had originally intended, Clifton Suspension Bridge was finally completed and ready for its grand opening on 8 December 1864.