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Old Putney Bridge(1729), site of
River Thames, Fulham to Putney, London, UK
associated engineer
Not known
date  25th March - 29th November 1729
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Bridge  |  reference  TQ242757
The first permanent bridge across the River Thames at Putney was a multi-span timber structure originally known as Fulham Bridge, completed in 1729. This was the first bridge built across the tidal reaches of the river since the 13th century. Now known as Old Putney Bridge, it fell into disrepair and was replaced with the present Putney Bridge in the 19th century.
Before the construction of Old Putney Bridge, the river was crossable at this point by only by boat or ferry. A temporary bridge of boats had been installed in November 1642, during the English civil war, by Robert Devereux (1591-1646, 3rd Earl of Essex). However, Parliament had rejected plans for a permanent crossing on the site in 1671 and again in 1688. Until 1729, no bridges existed between Old London Bridge (completed 1209) in central London and the crossing upriver at Kingston, bridged by various structures since medieval times.
By the 18th century, the need for a bridge was clear, despite opposition from the ferry operators — the Bishop of London, residing at Fulham Palace, and the Lord of the Manor of Wimbledon. Prime Minister Robert Walpole (1676-1745, 1st Earl of Orford) favoured the idea, reputedly because in 1720 drunken ferrymen had ignored his request to cross and he had been compelled to take a longer route to attend a parliamentary debate.
On 2nd March 1725, architect Thomas Ripley (1682-1758) reported to a House of Commons committee on the practicability of constructing a bridge near Fulham Ferry and one further upstream near Battersea Ferry. The committee opted for a bridge between Fulham and Putney, possibly because the river is shallower there (then measured at 1.85m low water and 4.52m high water). Ripley’s borings in the river bed showed that the bridge could be founded on gravel mixed with clay.
The Fulham and Putney Bridge Act was passed in 1726. Its commissioners were expected to manage and maintain the bridge but, to avoid corruption, were not allowed to invest in it themselves. In 1728, an amended Bill was enacted to allow more financial flexibility and attract sufficient funding for the project to proceed.
Initially, 30 subscribers — including Walpole and Ripley — each invested £1,000 in return for the right to receive toll income and vote in the county elections of Middlesex and Surrey (Fulham and Putney respectively). The 30 shares were later subdivided and resold to raise further capital, and the bridge company purchased the ferry for about £8,000.
Five schemes were submitted to the commissioners, including one for a bridge of boats (not adopted). The chosen design has been attributed variously to Ripley or to Sir Jacob/Joseph Acworth/Ackworth (c1668-1749), surveyor of the navy. Its final form is said to have been modified considerably by William Cheselden (1688-1752), surgeon to Chelsea Royal Hospital and one of the original subscribers.
The 26 span low-level timber bridge was 234m long and 7m wide between parapets, enclosing a 5.8m carriageway and a 1.2m footway. Its piers included full-height triangular cutwaters forming pedestrian refuges at deck level. The central span, known as Walpole's Lock, was the widest at 9.1m, enabling the passage of boats.
The high streets of Putney and Fulham do not line up, so to join them without using a skew angle, the bridge followed a curved alignment at the Putney (south) end. A pair of toll collectors worked at each of the bridge’s two toll houses, ringing a warning bell to alert the opposite side if anyone failed to pay. Members of the Bishop's household were exempt from the toll, which doubled on Sundays.
Fulham toll house, known as Bridge House, was also the company office and manager’s residence. Two-storey masonry ranges on either side of the deck were spanned by a hipped roof with corner chimney stacks. A smaller red brick toll house stood on the Putney side.
The contractor was master carpenter Thomas Phillips (c1689-1736), another of the 30 subscribers. Construction commenced on 25th March 1729, and the bridge opened eight months later, on 29th November. It cost in the region of £12,000 to construct. The first person to cross in a coach was the Prince of Wales, son of King George II.
In the winters of 1739, 1788-9 and 1813-4, when the Thames froze over, daring pedestrians avoided paying the toll by making their way over the ice. In 1795, feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) attempted suicide by jumping from the bridge but rescued by two watermen.
In 1845, the bridge’s oil lamp illuminations were replaced by gas lamps. In 1870, two barges collided with the central pier, causing a lot of damage and sinking both vessels. The pier was removed to make a double-width central navigation channel, and the wider span reconstructed using iron girders some 21m long, completed in 1872 for £5,492.
Under the provisions of the Metropolis Toll Bridges Act 1877, the Metropolitan Board of Works (created 1855) purchased all the then Thames bridges downstream of Hammersmith, including Old Putney Bridge. In 1879 (or possibly 1880), the toll was abolished and the toll houses demolished. The bridge continued to be operated by its proprietors until 26th June 1880, when it passed into board management.
In 1880, Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1819-91), chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works 1855-89, reported on the structural stability of all the bridges within his jurisdiction. Commenting on Old Putney Bridge, he concluded: "Scarcely any of the piers are in sound condition; nearly all the piles of which they are formed have been repaired and many of these are now more or less again decayed, so that as a matter of safety it is necessary that early attention should be given to the condition of this bridge". The Metropolitan Bridges Act 1881 enabled its demolition and the erection of a replacement.
The present Putney Bridge was constructed on the north west (upstream) side of the old timber structure. The new bridge, originally 13.4m wide but subsequently widened, consists of five segmental granite arches of maximum span 42.7m. It was designed by Bazalgette, constructed by John Waddell (1828-88), and opened in May 1886.
Architect: Thomas Ripley or Jacob/Joseph Acworth/Ackworth
Contractor: Thomas Phillips
Research: ECPK
"Crossing the River: The History of London’s Thames River Bridges from Richmond to the Tower" by Brian Cookson, Random House, 2015
"Putney Bridge” by Brian Cookson, London Historians, August 2011
Journals of the House of Commons, Vol.20, HM Stationery Office, London, 1803
reference sources   BDCE1DNB

Old Putney Bridge(1729), site of