On this day in 1887, Prince Albert Victor – accompanied by his father, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII – opened the present Hammersmith Bridge.
London’s bridges had quite recently been taken into public ownership and made toll-free, to great public acclaim. It then became the job of the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, to inspect the state of all the bridges and return them to a safe and serviceable condition. Bazalgette and his team found the state of the bridges to be generally woeful. Three of them – Putney, Battersea and Hammersmith – were considered not worth saving. They were demolished and replaced by structures of Sir Joseph’s own design.
The original Hammersmith bridge was opened in 1827. Designed by William Tierney Clark, it was the Thames’ first suspension bridge, built when that technology was very much in its infancy. Although widely admired by engineers and the public alike, it was never a particular success practically, being far too narrow for the traffic it came to service in the ensuing decades. At its two towers the width of the roadway was a mere 14 feet – insufficient for new modes of transport such as the horse-drawn omnibuses to travel in both directions without putting the lives of pedestrians in peril. But the structure remained sound. All this changed in 1882 when a boat collided with the bridge and a policemen fell through a walkway on his way to investigate. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1883 to build a new bridge.
Bazalgette opted to stick to a suspension bridge design. The chief differences between his bridge and Clark’s were that the bridge was wider – 21 feet going through the towers – and it was by comparison highly decorated with much ornamental cast iron. The result was a beautiful structure aesthetically, considered by many to be London’s prettiest bridge, although a notable exception was the interior designer and local resident William Morris.
But even the far-sighted Bazalgette did not realise the needs of vehicles in the age of the combustion engine. Today, the old lady is too weak to cope with lorries. There are six feet width restrictors on the approach roads in both directions, although small buses are permitted to bypass these. Further indignities were perpetrated by the IRA who have attempted to blow up the bridge on three occasions, most recently in 2000, causing it to be closed for many months.
There have been calls recently from some quarters (eg the art critic Brian Sewell) to replace the bridge with something more modern and sturdy. But most locals love their bridge and will not hear of such at thing. I have to say I agree with them.
Hammersmith Bridge was not the only bridge we celebrate today. Although now a distant memory, the first Waterloo Bridge – designed by John Rennie – was opened on 18 June 1817 by the Prince Regent and The Duke of Wellington, and named Waterloo for obvious reasons.