East & West Molesey
A Dictionary of Local History
Rowland G. M. Baker, 1972
By the middle of the eighteenth century the slow and cumbersome method of crossing the river by ferry had become so inconvenient and, at times of flood, even dangerous, that Mr. James Clarke, the lessee of the ferry, introduced a Bill into Parliament on 12th January 1750, to enable him to build a bridge across the river in place of the Hampton Court ferry. A petition in favour of this scheme signed by a number of influential gentlemen was presented at the same time. The Bill passed both Houses and received Royal Assent on 15th April 1750. It enacted that "it would be lawful for the said James Clarke to build a bridge" and to make and erect such highways and bridges leading to the same as may be considered necessary. The bridge, designed and built by Samuel Stevens and Benjamin Ludgator, was opened for traffic on 13th December 1753. It was a peculiar, crazy affair of very frail construction, with seven steep wooden arches. Not unpicturesque it was reminiscent of the Chinoiserie of the "Willow Pattern".
Being of such light construction it soon fell into decay and after a life of only twenty-five years was demolished to make way for a more substantial structure. The second bridge, on the same site, was also built of wood. Designed and constructed by a Mr. White, of Weybridge, it was opened in 1778. It was 350 feet long and 18 feet wide, with ten arches raised on piles and surmounted by a low parapet. It cost £7,000 to build. A toll-house stood on the Middlesex bank, and on the middle of the lower side was a stairway leading to a landing stage. This bridge was more solidly built than its predecessor and performed public service for close on a hundred years. However, for a number of years before it was finally demolished complaints were voiced against it. One writer described it as "ugly and hog-backed in appearance, it is neither safe nor convenient for the traffic either above or below". Several public meetings were held in East Molesey to press for a better bridge.
In 1863 the owner of the bridge offered to build a new one and by May 1864 work had started. As it was being built on the same site, the old bridge had first to be demolished and for a time traffic had again to be ferried across the river. The bridge was completed and opened on 10 April 1865. It was constructed of wrought iron lattice girders in five spans resting on four pairs of octagonal cast iron columns sunk 16 feet into the river bed, and on brick abutments. The roadway was 20 feet wide with a 5 feet wide pavement on the upstream side. The approach was between battlemented brick walls, one of which still stands on the Molesey side. A toll-house similarly built on the Middlesex bank is now part of the Mitre Hotel. A plaque bearing the arms of Mr. Thomas Newland Allen, the then owner of the bridge, once fitted on the side of the bridge, is now fixed to the wall on the Molesey side. The bridge was designed by Mr. E.T. Murray, and cost £11,176.
With the continued rise in the volume of traffic, especially at Bank Holidays and race-days at Hurst Park, the bridge became inadequate. In 1923 the Minister of Transport made an order restricting the weight and speed of vehicles using it. In 1928 the Middlesex and Surrey County Councils obtained an Act authorising them to construct a new bridge with the necessary linking roads and to demolish the old one. In September 1930 work began slightly downstream on the building of the fourth and present bridge. This necessitated the demolition of the old Castle Hotel (see Inns), the diverting of the river Mole into the Ember, the filling-in of the old channel, and the widening and straightening of the river Ember to receive the combined waters of the two rivers. A new approach road connecting the bridge with Portsmouth Road and the Kingston-by-pass was constructed by the Surrey County Council.
The bridge is a handsome structure of ferro-concrete, the first Thames bridge so built, faced with red brick and Portland stone, in the style of the "Wren" portions of Hampton Court palace. It was designed by Mr. W.P. Robinson, County Engineer for Surrey, with the collaboration of Sir Edwin Lutyens, R.A. It has three arches, the outers being 90 feet across, and the inner 105. The carriageway is 40 feet wide and the footpaths 15. The bridge was informally opened to traffic on Sunday, 9 April 1933, when a procession of local people with torchlights and decorated vehicles passed over it. The formal opening ceremony was performed by the Prince of Wales (later Duke of Windsor) on Monday, 3 July 1933. The original design provided for four kiosks, two at each end of the bridge, which would have cost £8,000. These, after much controversy, were abandoned.
The Act enabling James Clarke to build the original bridge laid down that it should be built at his own cost and permitted him to levy tolls on all users, ranging from a halfpenny for pedestrians to two shillings and sixpence for a coach drawn by six horses. These tolls were exacted, much to the chagrin of local inhabitants, until 8th July 1876, when they were extinguished by the Metropolitan Board of Works for the sum of £48,000, part of the revenue received from the coal and wine tax.
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