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Chelsea Bridge (1937)
River Thames, Chelsea, London, UK
Chelsea Bridge (1937)
associated engineer
Rendel, Palmer & Tritton
date  1934 - 1937, opened 6th May 1937
UK era  Modern  |  category  Bridge  |  reference  TQ284778
ICE reference number  HEW 2341
photo  Jane Joyce
Chelsea Bridge was the first suspension bridge of the self-anchored type to be designed in Britain and it represented a major step forward in British bridge engineering. It was the most important suspension bridge built in the UK between the two World Wars, and is an early example of high tensile steel construction.
The present Chelsea Bridge is the second suspension bridge on the same site. The first, a wrought iron toll bridge, was designed by Thomas Page (1803-77) and constructed 1851-58. Originally known as Victoria Bridge, Old Chelsea Bridge was considered inadequate for London traffic and was strengthened twice (1836-4 and about 1879). By the 1920s, a new bridge was under consideration.
In 1931, London County Council decided on a six lane suspension bridge, costed at an estimated £695,000. Britain was then in an economic depression and the Ministry of Transport wouldn't approve the six-lane scheme. In 1933, the council agreed to a four-lane bridge provided the ministry contributed 60 percent of the £365,000 cost.
Chelsea Bridge is a self-anchored suspension bridge — the first in Britain. It was designed by engineers Ernest James Buckton (1883-1973) and Harry John Fereday (1862-1939) of Rendel, Palmer & Tritton, with London County Council architects George Topham Forrest (1872-1945) and Edwin Paul Wheeler (1874-1944). The engineers used the latest analytical techniques in its design that had developed Europe and America.
The suspension cables are anchored at both ends of the bridge to longitudinal stiffening girders in the bridge deck, as opposed to ground anchorages. This arrangement enables the girders to absorb horizontal stresses, reducing loading on the abutments, which are founded in (unstable) London clay. However, to compensate, the deck must be heavier and installed before the cables, necessitating temporary works to support it during construction. In this case, deck sections were supported on tall barges.
Work began in 1934, and a temporary footbridge was erected alongside while construction was underway. The old bridge closed in 1935 and was demolished. As specified by the Ministry of Transport, all materials were sourced from within the British Empire — steel from Scotland and Yorkshire, granite from Aberdeen and Cornwall, Douglas fir from British Columbia in Canada and asphalt from Trinidad.
The bridge is 212.75m long overall, comprising a central span of 107.3m flanked by side spans of 52.7m. The underside of the deck is 7.3m above the river's high water mark.
The foundations and piers are new but located in similar positions to those of the old bridge. Steel sheet-piled cofferdams were used to hold the water back while they were constructed. The two river piers are 32.2m wide and 6.1m deep, with pointed cutwaters. They are of concrete, encased in granite facing for the upper 8.1m (above low water). The abutments are of similar construction.
The four obelisk-shaped towers supporting the main cables are constructed in riveted steel box plate. They sit on rocker bearings directly on top of the piers, a pair of towers on each pier. The rocker bearings can be seen in the picture above, under the bridge. The cables pass over the tops of the towers where they are clamped into saddles.
The two suspension cables are made of 37 locked coil galvanised steel ropes bundled together to form a hexagonal cross section. Each 48mm (1.875 inch) diameter rope consists of a line contact core with one layer of radial inner wires and two layers of full lock outer wires. High tensile steel was used for the wires and for the flanges of the stiffening girders. This is one of the earliest applications of this type of steel, pre-dating the first British Standard on the subject.
The stiffening girders run the full length of the structure, encased in riveted steel plate boxes between the carriageway and the footways. Each stiffening girder is made of two 2.7m high I-section plate girders positioned side by side with webs 1.2m apart. Hangers descend at 4.8m centres from clamps bolted to the suspension cables and connect to diaphragm plates joining the I-section girders.
The bridge deck is 25.3m wide with a four-lane carriageway 12.2m wide, between towers, and two cantilevered footways up to 4.2m wide. It is supported on I-section cross girders, and diagonal bracing, spanning between the longitudinal stiffening girders. The roadway of buckle plates riveted to a grid of longitudinal and transverse steel joists was carried originally on timber paving of Douglas fir surfaced with asphalt.
The connections between suspension cables and stiffening girders are housed inside riveted steel plate boxes where the ends of the cables meet the deck. Anchorage blocks are also provided within chambers in each abutment. The bridge deck is continuous over the chambers.
The design of Chelsea Bridge was approved by the Royal Fine Art Commission, its restrained simplicity seen as a welcome contrast to the ornate Victorian structure it replaced. Embellishments are limited to the lighting. Four lamp posts, two at each end of the bridge, are decorated with golden galleons and coats of arms (London County Council, metropolitan boroughs of Battersea, Kensington and Chelsea).
On 6th May 1937, William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950), the Prime Minister of Canada, opened the bridge. It was completed five months ahead of schedule and within budget.
In the 1970s, Chelsea Bridge was painted red and white. In 2007, it was repainted in the present red, blue and white colour scheme. In November 2008, the bridge was Grade II listed. At night it is floodlit from beneath, and 285m of LED lights are strung along the suspension chains and towers.
The roadway timber has been replaced by an in situ mass concrete slab, 127mm thick, with surfacing of hot rolled asphalt base and wearing courses. The footways are of steel trough decking filled with mastic asphalt.
Design engineers: Ernest James Buckton, Harry John Fereday
Contractor: Holloway Brothers (London) Ltd
Steelwork: Furness Shipbuilding
Cables: Wright's Ropes Ltd
Research: ECPK
"Crossing the River: The History of London’s Thames River Bridges from Richmond to the Tower" by Brian Cookson, Random House, 2015
reference sources   CEH Lond

Chelsea Bridge (1937)