An illustrated story of Whitchurch Bridge
On Monday 24th April 2006 the Chairman of the Whitchurch Bridge Company gave an illustrated talk to the Whitchurch Society about Whitchurch Bridge. Click here to see the slides shown at this presentation.
A brief history of Whitchurch Bridge
Compiled by John Elkins, Company Secretary 1992 – 2005, with minor later additions.
The south branch of the Ridgeway drops down to the Thames at Pangbourne and was one of the earliest crossing places into Oxfordshire, first by ferry and later by bridge. The ferry operated from the road running past the George Inn down to the river (now known as Ferry Lane) and ran across to the mill at Whitchurch, where passengers would then walk along the grounds to the bridge over the mill race to Mill Lane.
The Company of Proprietors of Whitchurch Bridge arose from an idea by Robert Micklem, who with Samuel Gardiner and Vanderstegen, father and son, promoted an Act of Parliament in 1792 – the Whitchurch Bridge Act 1792 – for the purpose of building a bridge at or near the point of the existing ferry over the river Thames, from Whitchurch in the county of Oxford to the opposite shore, in the parish of Pangbourne, in the county of Berkshire. The original proprietors grew to ten in number by the time the Act was passed to take over the ferry rights and to build at their own costs “a good and substantial bridge” which was described as being “of great utility and advantage to the public”. In return for their investment the Proprietors were given the right to charge tolls.
The traffic volume has considerably increased over the years and the Bridge still remains “of great utility to the public”.
The Company of Proprietors is required by this Act to repair and to re-build the bridge “such that at all times passage was provided for travellers, cattle and carriages”. The Bridge is considered under the act to be extra-parochial, thus not assessable for rates, taxes or duties, and not considered a county bridge subject to the counties of Oxfordshire or Berkshire. This was at a time when the Turnpike system was common throughout the country. However, in more recent times laws have been introduced which affect such undertakings as bridges, namely the Transport Charges etc. (Misc Provisions) Act 1954 which gave the Minister of Transport power to regulate tolls etc.
As a result of these changes the Company in 1988 promoted a further private Act of Parliament – the Whitchurch Bridge Act 1988 – to link the changes in the 1954 Act to Whitchurch Bridge. The Company relies on the tolls collected to cover the day to day costs of operating this service together with building up a fund to cover the cost of replacing the bridge in the future and prides itself on the high standard of maintenance carried out on the bridge based upon expert professional advice.
An intelligence report in the Reading Mercury dated 10th November 1792 stated that the bridge was now open for horses and foot passengers and all kinds of cattle.
The first bridge was built by Mr Treacher, a gentleman well known for numerous works erected on the Thames at that time, “as surveyor to the Commissioners”. From a sketch made by J Farington in 1792 it is shown merely as a line across the river, no doubt because the bridge was unfinished.
A pretty engraving of it printed in 1805 (above) shows that it was rather steep, supported on about twenty piers, and just wide enough to take a carriage and was entirely constructed of wood. The balustrades were a sort of two-railed fence, the posts of which bulged out below, probably for elegance or strength, and were fixed to the ends of the transverse beams which supported the roadway. There was an upright ornament on each side near the middle.
During rebuilding when the first structure needed to be replaced, it was necessary to operate a ferry to continue with our obligation to provide a river crossing. This ran from the end of Ferry Lane to a new location alongside the Toll House on the Whitchurch side.
The second wooden bridge (above) was built late 1852 and completed in spring 1853 and was similar to the earlier one but was less steep and had only half the number of piers, the balustrade was perpendicular with a criss cross fence somewhat like the present one but simpler, and with no central ornaments. There was a wide gate across the road from the toll-house porch door. When this bridge showed signs of deterioration in 1902 the present iron bridge was built. Again a ferry was operated during re-building using the same route as 49 years previously.
This bridge – the third – was designed by Joseph Morris and built by the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company Ltd. Construction was started in late 1901 and finished in early 1902. It was gently arched and consisted of 4 spans with riveted lattice girders along the 2 outer edges; these act as the main load bearing members and also as parapets. There were two end spans, each 20.3m in length, and two inner spans of 20.75m. The carriageway was supported by wrought iron buckle plates between the transverse girders, overlaid with concrete.
The Bridge was supported by 3 cast iron trestle piers and brickwork abutments. The north abutment had a fixed connection to the deck: the south abutment had elastometric rubber bearing pads. The side girders were fixed to the cast iron column heads (also called “pier caps”) with bolted connections. Carriageway width was 5.18m, and there was a single footway on the west (upstream) side of 1.3m width.
The Bridge was subject to various strengthening improvements in the 1920’s, 40’s and 70’s, including additional bracing around the column heads and between the pier columns.
Upstream fenders each consisting of three braced 300 X 300mm wooden piles at each pier have been in place for many years, and downstream fenders – to protect the Bridge piers from boat collisions – were added in 2005. The headroom for river traffic was 3.95m (summer river level), and the maximum depth of water under the Bridge was 4.4m, under the southern span.
The Toll House dates back to 1792 and is built close to the road so that tolls could be collected from the porch door, which at that time faced the road. As recent as 1977 a ‘front door’ was added to the north facing wall. Both the Toll House and the Bridge itself are designated as Grade II Listed Structures.
In recent times a brick-built toll booth, with swing-arm barriers, has been built at the northern end of the bridge in the middle of the carriageway. In 2006 a computer-controlled toll collection system was introduced using proximity cards known as “Bridge Cards”, which enable motorists to pay their toll and operate the swing-arm barrier automatically.
The 1902 Bridge closed for reconstruction on 3rd October 2013, and re-opened on 19th September 2014. The dimensions and visual appearance of the reconstructed Bridge are similar to the Bridge as built-in 1902, and details of the reconstruction are on the Reconstruction page.
Sir Rickman Godlee, “A Village on the Thames”.
Robert Noble, “How Whitchurch Got Its Bridge”
Mike Beckley, personal notes
Miss E R Micklem, minutes extract
Tom Reay, Bridge Company Secretary 1985 – 1992