John Hemingway (1795-1872) of Dewsbury and Menai

John Hemingway (1795-1872) was born in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, and was the 5th of at least twelve children born to Luke and Mary Hemingway.

Author’s note: He and I are distantly related through the Hemingways of Dewsbury. We are descended from the same couple with several generations between us. My branch of the Hemingway family were mostly blanket manufacturers in Earlsheaton and Chickenley, but John’s family, based in Daw Green, another district of Dewsbury, became stonemasons.

The Hemingway and Nowell families

Along with his brothers, James and Joseph Benjamin Hemingway, John was trained as a mason by the Nowell family of Daw Green, Dewsbury, a prominent family of stonemasons and quarry owners. The Nowells were involved in public works, including the renovation of Dewsbury Minster and built many churches, grammar schools and public buildings in the North and Midlands. James Nowell (1793-1859) married John Hemingway’s cousin, Tabitha Hemingway, who was also a distant cousin of mine, in 1815. Benjamin Nowell (1799-1837) married Mary Hemingway (possibly Tabitha’s sister). One of the family of Nowells also married into my Aveyard ancestors, who were also a family of stone masons.

The Hemingway brothers formed a partnership and worked for James Nowell’s company on construction works in the North and Midlands in the 1820s and 1830s. These included work at Stonyhurst College, near Great Mitton, Lancashire, where a number of new buildings were added in the early 19th century, including the new church of St Peter’s…and Birmingham Grammar School.

King Edward Grammar School New Street, Birmingham

Architect Charles Barry designed Birmingham Grammar School and he was later to go on to be architect on the re-building of the Houses of Parliament. Barry favoured the Neo-Gothic style and planning for the Grammar School, to be built on New Street and called King Edward’s School, began in 1833. Augustus Welby Pugin added to the church-like interior with his Gothic fittings. The problem with the building was that the governors leased the adjoining land to the London & Birmingham Railway Company. As the years went by, noise, smoke and steam increasingly disturbed the studies of the pupils and the building was eventually demolished in the 1930s.

Fortunately, for the Nowells and Hemingways, links with the London & Birmingham Railway, and with Robert Stephenson, had now been made. They were in the right place at the right time. From the 1830s, both families became involved with masonry projects on the railways, including Rea Viaduct (Lawley Street) of 27 arches on the London–Birmingham Railway (1834–1837) and the Wolverton Viaduct at Leighton Buzzard (1838).

Wolverton Viaduct, Leighton Buzzard, Engineer: Robert Stephenson

For these railway projects, Robert Stephenson (son of George Stephenson of “Rocket” fame) was the Engineer. Robert Stephenson had worked with his famous father George and was already a leading engineer in railway construction and a good contact to have made. John Hemingway would now gain much valuable experience building bridges and viaducts to add to his other major works.

John’s family

As his career had progressed, John Hemingway, his first wife Mary, and their young family, had travelled the country as John moved from project to project, working for some of the foremost railway engineers of the day, including, of course, Robert Stephenson. John’s progress can be seen through census records and the birth records of his children:

  • Mercy born in Great Mitton, Lancashire, in 1826, during the building work at Stonyhurst College,
  • Mary born in Castleford, Yorkshire, in 1831. At this time a new cut was built at Castleford on the Aire and Calder Navigation, surveyor Thomas Telford.
  • Lucy, born in Cheshire in 1832, during the building of the Macclesfield Canal.
  • Hannah, born in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, in 1838, the year that the Wolverton Viaduct was completed.
  • John Greenwood born in Cardiff in 1844, where John Hemingway had been working on Cardiff’s Bute Street Docks and possibly also the Taff Valley Railway, Engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Another of the Hemingway family, Benjamin, had a daughter, Catherine, born in Cardiff in 1840-41, coinciding with the building of the Taff Valley Railway, Catherine was attending the same boarding school with John Hemingway’s daughter, Hannah, and they were probably second cousins. Another of Benjamin’s children, Mary, was born at Leighton Buzzard during the building of the Wolverton Viaduct. This suggests that Benjamin and John were working together in the same locations.

Partnership and Move to Wales

John went into partnership with Benjamin Jonathan Nowell (son of James) and another Dewsbury man, Charles Pearson. In the 1840s, they had an office in Beswick, Manchester, and they successfully tendered for various railway projects including the Ardwick Branch of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway.

John went on to work on Cardiff’s Bute Docks before moving to North Wales to build stonework at Porth Penrhyn Docks, situated towards the North Eastern entrance to the Menai Straits, at the confluence of the River Cegin with the Menai Strait. When plans were revealed to build a railway bridge across the Straits, John was, once again in the right place at the right time.

The Britannia Bridge

The Britannia Bridge across the Menai Strait, spanning between the Welsh mainland and Menai, in Anglesey, was proposed in 1845. Telford’s beautiful suspension bridge across the Menai Strait had been completed decades before, but it carried only a road and couldn’t take the additional weight of a railway. On 30th June 1845, the proposed rail connection across the Strait was approved in Parliament and received Royal Assent. The Britannia Rail Bridge would connect London, through Chester and North Wales, to the Port of Holyhead, which gave access to ferries to Northern Ireland.

John’s firm successfully tendered for the masonry contract for the Britannia Bridge across the Menai Strait, for which Robert Stephenson was again the Engineer. John moved his second wife Sarah and his family to live with him at Craig Owen, Cadnant Road in the town of Menai Bridge.

The design of the bridge required that the railway would be at least 100 feet clear of high water, allowing the passage of a fully rigged man-of-war ship beneath it and the task of designing the bridge was given to Robert Stephenson.

Tubular section on pontoon in the Menai Strait

The design that Stephenson and his shipbuilding partner William Fairbairn came up with was quite revolutionary. It required the building of several stone towers across the straight, creating two spans of 140 metres and two spans of 70 metres. The railway itself would be created by the manufacture of giant wrought iron rectangular tubes, two tubes for each span, to take the two railway lines and Fairburn calculated that they didn’t need to use suspension cables in this design…that the tubes would be strong enough to take the huge weight of the locomotives and their trains.

Construction of the Masonry

However ingenious was the tubular railway bed, bridges also need strong towers. The original stone-built towers still remain and they were built by John Hemingway and his company. Hemingway himself was Master Mason and he was delighted to be working with Robert Stephenson again.

The construction of the masonry began in 1846, with the building of three great stone towers and two land abutments. The three towers were 62 feet by 52 ft 5 inches at the base, tapering to 55 feet by 45 ft 5 inches at the position where the tubes passed through. The limestone was quarried in Anglesey. An inner layer of stone was soft red sandstone from Runcorn in Cheshire. The total weight of masonry in each tower was 20,000 tons.

Sections and elevations of Britannia Tower, from ‘Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History’

Only one of the stone-built towers had its base in the water, the central or “Britannia Tower.” The foundations and masonry up to the level of high water were laid on exposed rock, during intervals of the tide. No coffer dam was used and so the first course of that tower couldn’t be laid until May 1846, when the tide was low. The completed Britannia Tower rose to 200 feet and the Caernarvon and Anglesey towers were 10 feet shorter.

The great iron tubes were floated into place on pontoons and then lifted slowly with hydraulic presses. Stonework was built under the sides of the tubes as they were gradually lifted in case the lifting system failed. One tube did fall nine inches, but the stonework held.

Stephenson spoke of his great anxiety, when the tubes of the Britannia Bridge were being raised, about the stress exerted on the masonry supporting the hydraulic presses that lifted the tubes. The stress was calculated to be 140 tons per square foot, but no crushing of the stone took place.

“Robert Stephenson – The Eminent Engineer”, edited by Michael R. Bailey

The land abutments were 176 feet in length at the mainland and Anglesey sides and the tops formed shorter towers to take the iron tubes. Enormous Egyptian-style stone lions, 25 feet long and 12 feet high, carved in repose, guarded the entrances to the bridge. Each lion weighed about 30 tons and was sculpted in limestone by John Thomas, who had also worked on Birmingham Grammar School with Hemingway. The masonry for the towers and abutments would be Hemingway’s finest achievement.

Anglesey entrance to the bridge.


The bridge was completed in March 1850, when Stephenson fitted the last rivet himself. The finished bridge had a total length of 1512 feet, a width of 52 feet and the railway bed was at a height of 130 feet.

Britannia Bridge, completed 1850

The famous Engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was claimed to have said to Stephenson:

If your bridge succeeds, then mine have all been magnificent failures.

I K Brunel

Stephenson’s bridge did succeed. The Britannia bridge was at the forefront of engineering at the time and carried rail traffic until 1970, when a major fire caused it to become unsafe. After re-construction, the rail deck was supported by iron arches built between the stone towers, which were modified to suit the re-design of the bridge.

Today, the bridge not only takes the two railway tubes, but a roadway has been built over the top of the railway. The combined road-and-rail facility was built in two parts, first the railway line was re-opened 1972, then the upper road deck was opened in 1980.

Conference of Engineers at the Britannia Bridge, Menai Straits

John Hemingway worked closely with Robert Stephenson and would also have known Stephenson’s friend, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was present when the steel tubes were floated and raised. All three men appear in a painting entitled “Conference of Engineers at the Menai Straits Preparatory to Floating one of the Tubes of the Britannia Bridge” (by James Scott, after John Lucas), the original of which is in the National Portrait Gallery. The portrait features Robert Stephenson with his bridge plans, seated in the centre, Isambard Kingdom Brunel to the far right (hands clasped together) and John Hemingway is at the centre back. Hemingway is seen head and shoulders only, wearing a white shirt, black bow tie and bowler hat and is looking away to his left.

Conference of Engineers, Britannia Bridge, Wikimedia Commons

Later Life

Photo courtesy of Menai Heritage,

In 1848, seven arches of a bridge collapsed in sequence, during Nowell, Hemingway and Pearson’s construction of the Ardwick branch of the L&YR. This was due to the premature removal of the wooden supports in the centre of the seventh arch. Nowell, Hemingway and Pearson were held responsible and had to bear the £500 cost of reconstruction. A year later they advertised the sale of the equipment used in this construction and in 1852, John’s partnership with Nowell and Pearson was in financial trouble and was dissolved.

This portrait of John Hemingway, with the Britannia Bridge in the background, remained with his family until recently. It was donated by his 3x great grandson, was restored, and now hangs in the Thomas Telford Centre in Menai Bridge.

John Hemingway made his last home in Anglesey, where he died in 1872, aged 77. He is buried on Church Island facing the Britannia Bridge of which he was so proud and which is the greatest monument to his work. The inscription on his grave reads: “In Memory of John Hemingway Esqr. of Craig Owen & formerly of Dewsbury who died July 7th 1872 aged 77 years.
Though the Lord be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly.”

© Christine Widdall 2019

Information about the construction of the masonry in: “Tubular and other iron girder bridges, particularly describing the Britannia and Conway tubular bridges; with a sketch of iron bridges and illustrations of the application of malleable iron to the art of bridge-building”. George Drysdale Dempsey C.E. ; 1850.