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Old Battersea Bridge (1772), site of
River Thames, Chelsea to Battersea, London, UK
Old Battersea Bridge (1772), site of
associated engineer
Not known
date  1771 - 1772
era  Georgian  |  category  Bridge  |  reference  TQ268774
photo  Walter Greaves [public domain] (detail), via Wikimedia Commons
The first Battersea Bridge (over the River Thames) had no formal name but it was known locally as Battersea or Chelsea Bridge. Its narrow deck was carried on a multi-span timber structure whose many piers posed a danger to shipping. The bridge was demolished in the 19th century, shortly after the construction of nearby Albert Bridge. The present Battersea Bridge was constructed soon afterwards.
A ferry service plying between Chelsea and Battersea offered the only river crossing at this location until the bridge was erected. Until 1618, the ferry was owned by Thomas Clinton (1568-1619, 3rd Earl of Lincoln), passing through various hands and into the possession of John Spencer (1734-83, 1st Earl Spencer) in 1763. It operated near a sharp bend in the Thames, where the river turns from north to east, generating strong currents.
On 2nd March 1725, architect Thomas Ripley (1682-1758) examined the feasibility of constructing bridges near Fulham Ferry and Battersea Ferry. The bridge at Fulham (Old Putney Bridge) was completed in 1729, but the deeper water and changing course of the river at Battersea was perhaps too much of a challenging prospect, and he did not proceed. Ripley’s trial borings in the river bed found gravel on the Chelsea (north) bank and gravel mixed with clay on the Battersea bank. He measured the Thames as 242m wide, with water 3m deep at low water and 5.5m at high water.
On 6th June 1766, the Chelsea and Battersea Bridge Act was passed, empowering Earl Spencer to erect a bridge to the west of the ferry’s landing stage (TQ270775), south of Old Church Street. A company of 15 subscribers invested £1,500 each, earning toll income and voting rights in Middlesex and Surrey elections (the counties of Chelsea and Battersea respectively). Construction commenced in early 1771.
The bridge was of timber with rising gradients towards the centre and in plan apparently had a "slight curvature to the west". It was reputedly designed by architect Henry Holland (1745-1806), possibly aided by his father master builder Henry Holland senior (1712-85). The contractor was John Phillips (c1709-75), a nephew of Thomas Phillips (c1689-1736) who had built Old Putney Bridge.
Old Battersea Bridge was about 224m long. As built, it was a structure of 19 spans, varying from 4.7m to 9.75m, the longest in the centre, supported on piers comprising assemblies of massive vertical and inclined posts with bands of horizontal timber fenders. The deck was a maximum of 7.2m wide, though in places it narrowed to around 4.9m wide, carrying a single lane roadway and two footways — 1.2-1.5m on the downstream (east) side and only 600mm wide on the upstream side.
In November 1771, the bridge opened to pedestrians. The following year, it opened to vehicular traffic after the deck was finished with a chalk and gravel surface. The final cost was around £16,000.
However, the venture was not a financial success and shareholder dividends were generally low. The bridge was too narrow to accommodate sufficient traffic volumes to generate good toll returns and its many piers obstructed navigation. Vessels collided frequently with the piers, and the bridge was damaged by ice floes in 1795, all resulting in expensive repairs. In addition, Parliament compelled the bridge company to provide a ferry service in the event of bridge closures.
In 1799, oil lamps were installed on one side of the bridge — this was the first bridge over the Thames to be lit. The oil lamps were exchanged for gas lights in 1824, and the timber railing along the edges of the deck was replaced in 1.2m high iron railing.
In 1864, an Act was passed for the construction of Albert Bridge on a site less than 460m to the east of Old Battersea Bridge. To dampen the opposition of the Battersea Bridge proprietors, the Act instructed the Albert Bridge Company to pay Battersea Bridge Company £3,000 a year in compensation until the new bridge opened, and to then purchase its neighbour.
Albert Bridge opened on 23rd August 1873, and its bridge company duly bought Old Battersea Bridge. To make navigating under the timber bridge easier, two of the piers were removed, creating two longer spans, of 22.9m and 21.3m. One wider span was in the centre of the bridge, the other on the Chelsea side. The superstructure above the modified spans was strengthened with transverse cast iron girders below deck and trapezoidal edge trusses.
Under the provisions of the Metropolis Toll Bridges Act 1877, the Metropolitan Board of Works (created 1855) was permitted to buy all the Thames bridges in central London. The board purchased Albert Bridge and Old Battersea Bridge for a combined price of £170,000. Tolls were removed from both bridges on 24th May 1879, and their toll houses demolished.
Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1819-91), chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works 1855-89, decided that the bridge at Battersea was beyond safe repair. The Metropolitan Bridges acts of 1881 and 1884 enabled it to be demolished and rebuilt. In 1883, vehicular use was discontinued and in autumn 1885, the bridge was dismantled. A temporary crossing was erected for pedestrians while a new bridge was under construction.
The present Battersea Bridge was designed by Bazalgette and constructed by John Mowlem & Co. It is 204m long and 16.8m wide, carrying a 12.2m roadway and two cantilevered footways over four stone piers. Each of its five spans consist of seven cast iron arched ribs, and the longest (central) span is 52.7m. The bridge now carries the A3220 trunk road.
Architect: Henry Holland
Contractor: John Phillips
Research: ECPK
bibliography
"Crossing the River: The History of London’s Thames River Bridges from Richmond to the Tower" by Brian Cookson, Random House, 2015
"An historical and topographical description of Chelsea, and its environs" by Thomas Faulkner, London, 1810
Journals of the House of Commons, Vol.20, HM Stationery Office, London, 1803
http://thames.me.uk
https://search.lma.gov.uk
www.british-history.ac.uk
www.ucl.ac.uk
www.victorianweb.org
reference sources   BDCE1DNB
Location

Old Battersea Bridge (1772), site of