Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Burdon, Rowlandfree

  • Gillian Cookson

Rowland Burdon (1756–1838), by unknown artist, c. 1800

© Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens, Tyne & Wear, UK / Bridgeman Images

Burdon, Rowland (1756–1838), politician, banker, and businessman, was born on 28 December 1756 in Newcastle upon Tyne, the only child of Rowland Burdon (1724–1786) and his wife, Elizabeth Smith. In 1758 the father, a merchant originally from Stockton, bought the Castle Eden estate north of Hartlepool, where he built a large and impressive hall. Burdon attended the Newcastle Royal Free Grammar School, and in 1773 went to Oxford, reading law at University College. He then studied architecture under Sir John Soane while on the grand tour in Italy (1779–80).

Returning from Italy, in 1780 Burdon joined the Exchange Bank in Newcastle which had been founded by his father and the latter’s commercial partner, Aubone Surtees, in 1768. On 27 June 1780 Burden married Margaret, daughter of the prominent coal owner and MP Charles Brandling of Gosforth. After she and their daughter died in 1791, Burdon remarried, on 20 February 1794. With his second wife, Cotsford (1773–1860), only child of General Richard Matthews, he had four sons and three daughters. Burdon inherited Castle Eden from his father in 1786 and two years later opened a Berwick branch of the bank. He continued to develop Castle Eden: a cotton (later sailcloth) factory built about 1792 employed 200 spinners, and there were also a bleachery, a brewery, a foundry, associated workers’ housing, and a new road leading to the sea.

In 1789 Burdon campaigned to represent co. Durham in parliament. He was backed by Pitt, Brandling, the bishop of Durham, and influential local aristocrats. His political principles vacillated as he canvassed support. Opposed by two whigs in the general election of 1790, Burdon topped the poll after an expensive contest. He proved an active and independently minded parliamentarian, his loyalties generally with Pitt. He was vocal on matters relating to war, favouring the suspension of habeas corpus and supporting moves against sedition. His opposition to the slave trade grew, and increasingly he supported the militia, in which he served as captain, later major, of the Easington volunteer cavalry (1797–8). He was also mayor of Stockton in 1793–5. Burdon’s commitment to improve transport communications in his constituency, especially in east Durham, never wavered. This and other policies appealing to Durham coal interests won Burdon enthusiastic approval, and he was returned unopposed in 1796.

Burdon became an active promoter of turnpike building in 1789, with a 26 mile turnpike from Stockton to Sunderland via Castle Eden. Once in parliament he continued the model, selling shares to subscribers and contributing large sums of his own money to cover any shortfall. But the mouth of the Wear, negotiable only by dangerous fords and ferries, stood in the way of Burdon’s ambition to link directly northwards to South Shields and Newcastle. Previous schemes to bridge Sunderland harbour had been frustrated by topography, and interrupting the Wear’s coal traffic, even for the duration of bridge building, was a further obstacle.

From 1791 Burdon applied his energy and resources in seeking a solution to the Wearmouth bridge problem. A gorge upstream of the harbour offered the only practical crossing place, but the 236 feet span challenged contemporary technology. A plan to build a bridge in stone, advised at first by Soane and others consulted, was lengthily investigated, but abandoned when the problems proved insuperable. Burdon turned to the idea of an iron bridge, in which he was guided by the radical Thomas Paine and Paine’s associate, the Rotherham ironmaster Joshua Walker. The novel concept drew upon masonry principles, quite unlike the earlier example at Coalbrookdale, which was essentially a timber design made in iron. In 1795 Burdon patented the use of cast-iron blocks in place of keystones in the arch.

Burdon was made a freemason at the Phoenix Lodge, Sunderland, in 1790, and the following year was admitted to the Sea Captain’s Lodge, where he was master in 1792 and 1794–8. For the bridge project he recruited two local freemasons: Thomas Wilson as engineer and clerk of works; and to manage finances during and after construction, Michael Scarth, partner in a ropeworks in which Burdon also had an interest, and afterwards owner of the sailcloth factory at Castle Eden. The foundation stone was laid in 1793 by Burdon himself, with the provincial grand master leading a procession of 200 brethren. The abutments took two years to complete, and the gorge was bridged in 1795. Ten days after Burdon walked across the centring, the arch was completed. The bridge was 96 feet above the river at low tide, and 83 feet at high water, so that ships could sail under it with their top masts standing. A formal opening with further masonic ceremonial led by the duke of Gloucester in 1796 attracted a crowd of 50,000 to 80,000. Burdon was made provincial grand master for the day. The bridge may have cost as much as £41,800, £30,000 of it from Burdon personally, the remainder raised in £100 shares. It was a great success, the second large iron bridge in Britain, an engineering triumph, tourist attraction, and fundamental to Sunderland’s growth. Burdon had plans in place for turnpikes north from the bridge, drawn up in 1791, and as the Wearmouth Bridge opened, an enabling bill was passing through parliament. Within a decade Burdon’s network had linked the county of Durham’s four main commercial centres.

After the death in 1800 of Aubone Surtees, his sons Aubone and John joined Burdon as partners in the Exchange Bank, along with Burdon’s brother-in-law John Brandling. In 1801 Burdon, then a supporter of Addington’s tory administration, announced that he would not stand for re-election. A popular campaign was launched to keep him, and even to nominate him without his consent. Eventually he conceded and continued as MP, as a follower of Pitt once again in 1804–5. But the Surtees brothers’ unwise speculations brought the failure of the Exchange Bank in 1803. Efforts by liquidators to settle all accounts were only partially successful, and after three years the partners were personally bankrupted. To continue as MP proved politically impossible, though Burdon tried in 1807. He had played little part in parliament after 1803, and retired at the dissolution in 1806. The inhabitants of Sunderland presented him with a testimonial, and named part of the Stockton turnpike Burdon Road. Once worth £8000 a year and with capital of £50,000, Burdon was reduced to living on his wife’s £500 a year.

In fact his discharge from bankruptcy was achieved before the end of 1806, when Burdon was rescued by allies who reached agreement with creditors. The valuable Wearmouth Bridge holding was so large that its disposal proved difficult. Burdon’s trustees tried various means to realize funds from it, including a tontine and a lottery. To retain his life interest in Castle Eden, Burdon accepted a loan—he had declined it as a gift—raised by county subscription. He repaid this, and by 1811 had settled debts of £85,368 against his private estate. The partners remained jointly liable to 3320 creditors for £280,298, until 1832 when a dividend of 8d. in the pound was finally paid. Burdon lived quietly on his estate, eventually solvent but never again wealthy. He declined the offer of a testimonial to acknowledge his public work.

Burdon remained a mason, though less active, and was a member of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society. He was described as stout, stalwart, and independent, a practical man of business standing second to none, respected by the region’s greatest merchants and all who had dealings with him. Because of a speech impairment, he spoke slowly and deliberately and was not a great orator. Burdon died on 17 September 1838 at Castle Eden, survived by his wife and six of their eight children.


  • L. Taylor and D. R. Fisher, ‘Burdon, Rowland’, in HoP, Commons, 1790–1820
  • A. W. Skempton and others, eds., A biographical dictionary of civil engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, 1 (2002)
  • VCH, Durham, 5
  • County Durham, Pevsner (1983)
  • C. Aspin, The water-spinners (2003)
  • J. G. James, The cast iron bridge at Sunderland (1986)
  • C. Sharp, Freemasonry in the province of Durham (1836)
  • Sir John Soane’s Museum, private corresp. and letter books
  • UK patents, 2066 (1795); 2635 (1802)
  • TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1902/259, will of Rowland Burdon of Castle Eden, Durham (8 Nov 1838)
  • United Grand Lodge of England, London, Phoenix Lodge no. 136 (now no. 94); Sea Captains’ Lodge no. 177 (now Palatine Lodge no. 97)


  • Durham RO, D/CG 5/1-115 Burdon of Castle Eden


  • oil on canvas, late 18th century, Rowland Burdon and the Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland Museums and Winter Gardens [see illus.]
  • unknown artist, Durham County Council
N. Pevsner & others, Buildings of England series
Durham Record Office
Public Record Office