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Building bridges

By Laura Joint
BBC Devon

James Green's bridge over the River Otter
James Green's bridge over the River Otter

James Green may not be a household name in Devon, but his structural achievements on the highways and byways of the county have stood the test of time - and many are still in use 200 years on.

Green was a bridge builder extraordinaire, and the next time you pass over or under one of Devon's historic bridges, the chances are it's one of his pieces of handiwork.

The year 2008 marked the 200th anniversary of Green's appointment as Devon's first county surveyor in 1808.

For the following 33 years, he was responsible for the upkeep of Devon's highways and bridges, and the construction of new ones.

In that time, he designed and built over 100 bridges. He also repaired and widened some of Devon's older structures, such as the existing Barnstaple Bridge.

Bridges over the River Otter at Newton Poppleford date back as far as 1259, but the present bridge was built by Green in 1840. It was one of the few bridges over the river to survive the great flood of 1968.

Cowley Bridge
Cowley Bridge in Exeter was built by James Green

Cowley Bridge in Exeter is another of Green's achievements. A bridge at Cowley was first recorded in 1286, but in 1545, part of the bridge fell down. The replacement was then destroyed by flooding in 1809-10.

Green, whose Devon base was in Exeter, built the current Cowley Bridge in 1813-14, and it is now a Grade II listed structure. It was built for the coaching era, and is proving to be too narrow for 21st century traffic.

Bridges weren't Green's only speciality. He also worked on canals, including the Bude Canal on the Tamar, the canal at Torrington, a section of Exeter Canal, and the eastern part of the Grand Western Canal.

He was a busy man, as he proposed improvements for Ilfracombe harbour, and put forward a scheme for water supply, sewerage and railway service in Torquay.

Another of his achievements was re-aligning a 14-mile section of the highway between Exeter and Plymouth, the early-day A38.

Ilfracombe Harbour
Green drew up improvements for Ilfracombe Harbour

He has clearly been an unsung hero of Devon's past - until now. Devon County Council marked the bicentenary with an event to celebrate Green's work.

Green had the best possible teacher, working as an assistant to John Rennie before taking up his Devon post. Rennie was one of the greatest engineers of his age, designing the Plymouth breakwater and the old Waterloo and London bridges.

Green became an engineering genius in his own right. Yet his starting salary for Devon was £300 - and towards the end of his career with the county, his pay was reduced to his starting salary.

That decision didn't help Green's financial circumstances. He had invested in schemes such as the Bude Canal which didn't pay dividends, and he was declared bankrupt in 1837 - four years before he left the county's employ.

Being a Quaker, his bankruptcy was frowned upon to say the least, and he was excluded from the Religious Society of Friends.

He died following a heart attack in 1849, aged 67.

His biography was written by Exeter civil engineer Brian George, who spent 17 years on the work: "It's extraordinary, isn't it, that he's not at all well known," said Brian, whose favourite Green construction is Cowley Bridge.

"He may not have been a Brunel or a Rennie, but he was certainly in the second XI, so to speak.

"He was very innovative in his engineering. And to have done so much, he must have been an extremely good organiser to get around to all these places in those days. And he must also have employed very able people to run the jobs."

Devon's county archivist, John Draisey, said Green hasn't enjoyed the recognition his work deserves: "He did an immense amount of work and undertook a very serious task - that of putting Devon's bridges into working order.

"Many of them are still in good working order today. He deserves to be celebrated."

* James Green - Canal Builder and County Surveyor, by Brian George is published by Halsgrove.

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