Researching the history of bridges

Aquatint of the High Bridge, Lincoln by Thomas Allom c.1830Bridges are expensive to build. Then they require maintenance. Who paid for all this? Bridges benefit the whole travelling public, so they could be supported by taxes. Other approaches, such as tolls, have been tried over the centuries. So the first question for the researcher is 'who paid?' An answer should lead to records, if any survive.

The Romans were great bridge-builders. They seem to have used timber for most of their British bridges, which are long gone. In late Saxon times we see a concern to maintain bridges. Grants of land could include an obligation to do bridge-work, such as this charter by Oswald, Bishop of Worcester in 969. And we have a list of estates liable for work on Rochester bridge, where the stone piers of a Roman bridge survived. Place-names incorporating the Old English word for bridge (brycg), such as Bristol (brycg-stow) tell us that a bridge existed there, while London Bridge rates a mention in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Bridges can appear as boundary-markers in Anglo-Saxon charters, though caution is needed. A 'stan brycg' could sometimes be no more than a stone-paved ford. Meanwhile there are some references to timber bridges in pre-Norman Ireland. The Gaelic name for Dublin - Baile Átha Cliath means town of the hurdled ford.

Yet outside of towns bridges were quite rare in Britain and Ireland until at least the 13th century. Medieval bridges can be recognised by their Gothic pointed arches. They were generally built by boroughs, manorial lords or monasteries, though some were paid for by wealthy and public-spirited individuals. Bequests could be left towards bridge upkeep. Such gifts might go to a guild, fraternity or other body which maintained the bridge. The Statute of Bridges (1531) decreed that, in the absence of any traditional duty upon an individual, parish, hundred, corporation or other body to keep a particular bridge in repair, it should be maintained by the county.

Chapel on the Bridge at Rotherham by S.H. Grimm late 18C (British Library) Stone bridges normally had a chapel on them or on the bank at one end. Travellers could say a prayer there for a safe journey. Such chapels in England and Wales were dissolved in 1547 as chantries, and so should appear in the surveys of chantries unless they escaped attention through lack of income. After the Reformation many bridge chapels were converted to other purposes, such as lock-ups or warehouses, which prolonged their survival. Even so only a handful are still intact today in Britain. The Chapel of Our Lady on Rotherham Bridge was restored as a chapel in 1924. Other survivors are at Bradford-upon-Avon, Derby, St. Ives (Hunts.), Salisbury (much altered) and Wakefield.

Medieval bridges could be fortified. Rivers were often used as boundaries or formed part of town defenses, so it would make sense to guard the river crossing with a strong gateway. Few survive in Britain. Monnow Bridge in Wales has the only surviving gate on a bridge, while at Warkworth in Northumberland there is a late 14th-century stone gate tower at one end of the bridge. Other places like London, Bath, Bristol, Shrewsbury and Stirling had bridge gates once. In fact Bristol managed to combine both bridge chapel and gate in one massive structure.

Shops on bridges could attract passing trade. The bustling cities of London, Bristol and York had shops crammed along their bridges until they were swept away by Georgian improvement schemes. Palladian bridges became fashionable in Georgian Britain; shops on bridges were seen as outdated and an impediment to traffic. Pulteney Bridge in Bath was perverse - a Palladian design which incorporated shops.

With the Industrial Revolution came new bridge technology. For over a century, Britain led the world in bridge design. The world's first iron bridge went up at Coalbrookdale in 1779. The first chain suspension bridge was earlier than that. A bridge of iron chains at Market Harborough is mentioned in an Act of Parliament of 1721. But the UK's first large-scale suspension bridge was the Menai Bridge designed by Thomas Telford and completed in 1826. Kenmare Suspension Bridge, begun in 1840, was the first of its kind in Ireland. The Forth Railway Bridge in Scotland was the world's first major steel bridge. Opened in 1890, it is a staggering one and a half miles long.

There was a burst of bridge building in the Victorian period, including many thousands of railway bridges.

Studies and Gazetteers: International

Studies: National - Britain and Ireland

Studies: Local - Britain and Ireland

Ouse Bridge c.1764 by William Marlow (York City Art Gallery)

Primary sources

Plans and accounts by bridge-builders and owners Wear Bridge under construction 1796 by Robert Clarke (Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens) Maps, images and descriptions