Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989
From Cigarette Island there is a fine view of Hampton Court Bridge, surely one of the handsomest pieces of architecture on the Thames,
'But up the stream anent the village green,
A ferry crossed this spot at least from Tudor times and probably much earlier. This, together with another running between West Molesey and Hampton, were appurtenances of the manor of Molesey Prior, and were acquired by the Crown with the manor in 1536. For some years after, the ferries were leased to various people independently of the manor. Thus in 1545 Hampton Court ferry was in the hands of Thomas Sheparde of Molesey.
By the middle of the eighteenth century this slow and cumbersome method of crossing the river 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 12 January 1750, to enable him to build a bridge across the river in its place. A petition in favour, signed by a number of influential gentlemen, was presented at the same time. The Bill passed both Houses and received Royal Assent on 15 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 13 December 1753. It was a peculiar, crazy affair of frail construction, with seven steep wooden arches. Not unpicturesque, it was reminiscent of the Chinoiserie of the Willow Pattern.
Of light construction, it soon fell into decay and, after 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 three hundred and fifty feet long and eighteen feet wide, with ten arches raised on piles and surmounted by a low parapet. It cost £7,000. A toll-house stood on the Middlesex bank, and on the middle of the downstream side was a stairway leading to a landing stage. This bridge was much more massively 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 hogbacked in appearance, it is neither safe or 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 was forced to offer a new one by threats of Parliamentary action, 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 sixteen feet into the river bed, and on brick abutments. The roadway was twenty feet wide with a five 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. The bridge was designed by Mr E.T. Murray, and cost £11,176.
With the continued rise in the volume of traffic that bridge too became inadequate. Especially on bank holidays and race-days at Hurst Park, and on the one occasion in each year — Whit Monday — when both these functions fell on the same day, the scene on the narrow bridge and approach roads was absolutely amazing. In 1905 it was reported 'towards mid-day visitors came in their thousands. The electric cars at times were well loaded. Thirty-eight special trains came down and over 40 were required for the return journey. Indeed at one period of the evening it is estimated that there was a crowd of fully 5,000 persons in the station yard awaiting their turn to pass on to the platforms. There were many thousands at Hurst Park, and though the attendance was not a record one, the general impression was the number of vehicles was larger than at any previous meeting. The police had a most difficult task in controlling the traffic, more especially at Tagg's corner and over the bridge, but thanks to good tact and temper all got safely through, and although there were many close shaves no serious accident resulted'. And this was on a day which started with rain.
In 1928 the Middlesex and Surrey County Councils obtained an Act of Parliament authorising them to construct a new bridge with the necessary linking roads and so demolish the old one. Work began in September 1930 on the building of the fourth and present bridge which included the demolition of the old Castle Hotel, the diverting of the river Mole into the Ember, and the filling in of the old Creek. A new road, connecting the bridge with the Portsmouth Road and the Kingston-by-pass, was constructed by the Surrey County Council. This is the road now known as Hampton Court Way.
The bridge is a handsome structure of ferro-concrete, the first Thames bridge so built, faced with hand-made red bricks 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 RA. It has three arches, the outers being 90 feet across, and the inner 105. The carriageway is 40 feet wide and the footpaths each 15. So each footpath is almost as wide as the complete width of the second bridge. 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. The formal opening ceremony was performed by the then Prince of Wales (later Duke of Windsor) on Monday 3 July 1933. The original design provided for four kiosks or pavilions, two at each end of the bridge, which would have cost a further £8,000. These, after much controversy, were abandoned.
In 1938 Sir Edwin Lutyens flew over the bridge and wrote in his diary: 'my bridge from the air looks so much better than any others — why? I know but I shan't write it'. Which is rather a pity, because it would have been nice to have had the opinion of such an eminent architect, especially after he had whetted one's appetite so.
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, from a half-penny 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 8 July 1876, when they were extinguished by the Metropolitan Board of Works who bought the bridge for £48,000, part of the revenue received from the Coal and Wine Tax.
From the crown of the bridge a perfect vista is unfolded of the path our ramble up the river will follow. The eye swings round, from the wistaria-clad Mitre Hotel - looking very much the same as it has done for over three hundred years - past the trees on the left bank, and usually a row of motor boats moored at the Thames Motor Cruising Club, the weir and lock, with the tower of Hampton Church peeping over the trees, to the row of villas on River Bank. Standing here, one can sense what was in the mind of James Thorne when he stood on the same spot in 1849 and wrote: 'Looking up the river, you have a luxuriant prospect of the valley of The Thames, upon whose placid surface rest a number of well cultivated islets; and through the foliage so abundantly spread around peers out many a lowly and more than one lordly roof, and from many a chimney curls up the light smoke, gracefully contrasting with the dark hue and heavy forms of the trees, till it loses itself against the hazy sky; while in front Moulsey lock and weir, with the wide sheet of water rushing over it, impart strength and motion and a picture-like completeness to the view.'
ISBN 0 86023 414 2
Thameside Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.
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