The magnificent cast-iron railway bridge across Friargate, north of Derby city-centre, made a grand statement proclaiming the arrival of the Great Northern Railway in the home town of its rival the Midland Railway in 1878.
The Midland’s monopoly of the East Midlands coal trade had been a grievance of local businesses and the new railway was welcomed, to the detriment of the local environment: the bridge cuts across Derby’s grandest Georgian street, Friargate, authorised in 1768 as a speculation by the notoriously unscrupulous banker-brothers, John and Christopher Heath.
Many important personalities in late-eighteenth-century Derby had residences on Friargate, including the architect Joseph Pickford (1734-1782), whose house at 40-41 Friargate is now a museum.
Though it’s commonly referred to as Friargate Bridge, there are in fact two bridges side by side accommodating pairs of tracks fanning out to the station platforms immediately beyond.
To mitigate – or perhaps to pay back – for the intrusion, the GNR engineer, Richard Johnson, provided a particularly dignified design with elaborate decorative spandrels cast by the Derby ironmasters Andrew Handyside & Co, featuring the buck within the palings of a park that appears in the coat of arms of the borough, now the city, of Derby.
The gesture did not go down well with some residents, one of whom described it as “meretricious decoration, which only emphasised the insult”.
Passenger services between Derby and Nottingham closed in 1964 and goods services finally ceased four years later.
Little remains of Friargate Station itself, which stood on a brick viaduct west of the bridge, except for the enormous goods station, now ruinous.
Bud Flanagan told a BBC interviewer that seeing homeless men sleeping under the railway viaduct at Friargate gave him the idea for the 1932 song ‘Underneath the Arches’, which he co-wrote with Reg Connelly) while Bud and Chesney Allen were playing at the nearby Hippodrome Theatre.
It’s ironic that the bridge, like the viaduct at Monsal Dale, has become a conservation issue. Derby City Council, which bought it from British Railways for £1, has been vexed for years finding a practical solution to safeguard its future.
It was listed Grade II in 1974, oddly suggesting a lesser value than the other surviving structure on the line, Bennerley Viaduct (Grade II*).
At present a species of hairnet protects the cast ironwork from pigeons, and also creates difficulties for photographers.
Beside the line of the former railway viaduct on the north side of Friargate remains one of the oddest survivals of Derby’s transport history, the 4ft-guage rails and setts of the horse-tram depot of the Derby Tramways Co, which were in use from 1890 until the route was electrified in 1907.
The Friargate Bridge features in the Waterways & Railways of the East Midlands (September 3rd-7th 2018) tour. For further details please click here.