Thomas Paine was many things. A writer, revolutionary and political philosopher, Paine was also an inventor and engineer, who made the world’s first smokeless candle. He was also an occasional Londoner, most notably when he stayed at the Angel Inn, Islington, around the time he began writing Rights Of Man in 1791. This monument celebrates that fact.
Considerably more interesting than this, though, is the rarely discussed fact that Tom Paine built bridges. Iron bridges. And he built one of them in London.
Paine was fascinated by bridges, admiring them for their architecture as much as their metaphorical meaning. John Keane, Paine’s biographer, writes that he ‘was stuck by their double meaning. Bridges were for him combinations of architectural beauty and practicality, works of genius that could be breathtaking in their simplicity… the rising spirit of an epoch translated into space.’
Paine first tried to raise the funds to build an iron bridge over the Harlem River in New York in 1785 and then another over the Seine in Paris in 1786, but without success. Bridges of this era were still largely constructed in stone and wood, making Paine’s ideas rather unusual. Plus, he had no real background in engineering or architecture.
But he persevered. In 1788-89, he attempted to build an iron bridge over the River Don in South Yorkshire and although the project was never completed it did secure him a patent for his bridge-building scheme. Paine now decided that he needed to build his prototype bridge in London, where potential investors could see for themselves the sort of brilliant bridge he was going to make. He told Thomas Jefferson – who himself had many ideas about how the bridge should be built – that a London bridge would soon pay for itself in tolls. Jefferson was impressed, writing to a friend: ‘Mr Paine, the author of Common Sense, has invented an iron bridge, which promises to be cheaper by a great deal than stone, and to admit of a much greater arch. He supposes it may be ventured for an arch of five hundred feet. He has obtained a patent for it in England, and is now executing the first experiment with an arch of between ninety and one hundred feet.’
Paine had originally hoped to build this experimental bridge to nowhere in Soho Square, but when he wrote to George Washington on May 1, 1790 describing his single-arch bridge of 110 feet, he still hadn’t found an appropriate location. By the end of May he could tell the no doubt anxious Washington that a site had been found – a field next to a famous tavern called the Yorkshire Stingo, on the Marylebone Road near what is now Lisson Grove. This was at least partly appropriate, given that the bridge was being constructed by a Rotherham-based ironworker called Thomas Walker.
Paine moved into the Yorkshire Stingo and began erecting his 110-foot bridge on the neighbouring bowling green. By September it was finished. Jefferson wrote to him a very nice letter saying: ‘I congratulate you sincerely on the success of your bridge. I was sure of it before from theory: yet one likes to be assured from practice also.’
However, although there were many interested visitors, none of them were impressed enough to offer to invest in Paine’s scheme to build a bridge over the Thames. By October 1791, Paine’s bridge had been started to rust and Paine had lost interest, so it was dismantled and the iron returned to Yorkshire, where some was used in a bridge built over the River Wear in Sunderland in 1796, which at the time was the longest iron bridge at the world at 240 feet.