Introduction to Hexham Bridge Papers

Introduction to Hexham Bridge Papers

This volume of papers relates to the second rebuilding of Hexham Bridge in 1777-80, and its subsequent collapse in 1782. (The bridge had first collapsed in the Great Tyne Flood of 1771, an attempt to rebuild in 1774-5 had been abandoned, and the one which stands today was only finally completed in 1795).

The contract for rebuilding was given to a local landowner, Henry Errington of Sandoe, who employed civil engineer John Smeaton to act as consultant engineer, with experienced surveyors John Wooler and John Pickernell supervising on the spot. After its collapse, there was a lengthy dispute over whether Errington should forfeit the money  paid to him, and should also pay for a further rebuilding, and this is what the papers relate to.

The original documents are in Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn Mining Museum, bound in a single volume with the reference number SANT/BEQ/1/4/1, part of a bequest from John Adamson, a founding member of Newcastle Antiquaries and its treasure for 38 years. The volume is an assortment of pages of different sizes and shapes, some in very poor condition.

There is an image for each page, with separate ones for front and back where the page is double-sided. Some of the images look as if they are merely fragments, as in this example. In fact what has happened is tha the page has been put on a backing sheet, the binders have cut a hole in the backing sheet to expose the small amount of writing on the back.

Follow this link for a full list of the documents

Follow this link for a list of the people concerned, and explanations of their role

Follow this link for a glossary of terms, and further reading about the topic.

There are also  links to relevant websites, and to books where they are available online.

Local Government at the time

County Councils did not come into existence until the 1888 Local Government Act, more than a hundred years after these events. To quote the Wikipedia article on the subject, ‘from the 16th century onwards, the justices of the peace in a county took on various administrative functions, known as “county business”. This was transacted at the Quarter Sessions, summoned four times a year by the Lord Lieutenant. By the 19th century the county magistrates exercised powers over the licensing of alehouses, the construction of bridges, prisons and asylums, superintendence of main roads, public buildings and charitable institutions, and the regulation of weights and measures. The justices were empowered to levy local taxes to support these activities, and in 1739 these were unified as a single “county rate” under the control of a county treasurer. In order to build and maintain roads and bridges, a salaried county surveyor was to be appointed.’  JPs were most commonly local landowners, and so all many of those involved in the dispute would have met each other frequently,  on official occasions, for business, and socially, and knew each other well.

The postal system

The General Post Office had been authorised by Charles II to carry mail throughout the country. By the late eighteenth century, letters were taking around 3 days between London and Newcastle (more in bad weather) by fast mail-coach. There were daily collections in Newcastle, less frequent ones in the great houses in the Northumberland countryside. A letter had to be paid for by the recipient on arrival, and the cost could be substantial. However, one of the privileges of being an MP was that one could ‘frank’ correspondence – that is, sign one’s name on the outside, by the address, and add ‘Free’. This was then stamped FREE at the sorting office, and the recipient need pay nothing. Follow this link for an example.

Postal rates were charged according to the distance travelled and the number of sheets of paper. Envelopes had not yet been invented, and would anyway have been charged as an extra sheet. The custom was, therefore, to write on a folded sheet, leaving one section blank, and then fold the sheet down, write the address on the blank section, and seal with wax. You can see how this was done in the same example.


In 1785, Mr Errington had a judgment against him for £9,100 as a result of the bridge’s failure. How much is that worth in today’s terms? Putting the sums of the 1770s and 1780s into today’s value has many difficulties and involves much guesswork, and various calculators are available on the internet, each giving different answers. The National Archive’s version, which only goes up to 2005, gives a figure of just under £600,000, while another calculator going up to 2017 gives £1.3m! A rough rule of thumb would be to multiply the figures in the documents by 100, so making Errington’s debt £910,000.


Once Mr Errington had a judgment against him in court, it was for the magistrates to enforce it. They did this by getting a writ against him, to be enforced by the Sherrif of Northumberland. The papers mention two different types of writ;

  • ‘elegit’; under this procedure the sheriff delivered to the creditor all the chattels of the debtor (except cattle and beasts of the plough) and one half of the debtor’s land, until the debt had been levied. A jury would be summoned to make the “extent” or valuation of the debtor’s land and to fix a fair price for the chattels;
  • ‘fieri facias‘, generally shortened to ‘fi fa’; this authorised the sheriff to “cause” the sum due “to be made up” from the debtor’s goods and chattels: Its issue was virtually automatic once a creditor had a judgment for a particular sum. Once the sheriff was authorised by the writ he would cause the bailiffs to do the dirty work of seizing the debtor’s stuff.(source, Plunkett, History of the Common Law, 5th Edn, 1956 at 390-391)

Follow this link for a Legal Note on the progress of the court case, and the issues involved