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Archive for July, 2018

A guest post by LH Member Brian Cookson. This article was first published in LH Members’ Newsletter of August 2014.


By the early nineteenth century, with the increase in population in west London and improvements in transport from the centre, people who wanted to cross the river from Hammersmith to the Surrey side by road had to make a five mile detour either via Kew or Putney Bridge.

After the usual abortive attempts to construct a river crossing, a group of local people formed the Hammersmith Bridge Company and raised £80,000 with a view to presenting a Bill before Parliament. Despite strong opposition from the proprietors of Kew and Putney Bridges, the Act enabling the building of Hammersmith Bridge, which was to be the first suspension bridge over the River Thames, finally received Royal Assent on 9 June 1824.

The engineer chosen to design Hammersmith Bridge was William Tierney Clark who was the engineer of the nearby West Middlesex waterworks. Clark’s proposed design of a suspension bridge at Hammersmith was attractive as it required the construction of only two river piers and provided a 400 ft. wide navigation path for shipping.

Tierney Clark’s magnum opus was undoubtedly the famous chain bridge over the Danube at Budapest. The bridge was completed in 1849 and survived until its destruction by the retreating German army in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. After the end of the war the bridge was rebuilt according to Tierney Clark’s original design and stands today as a foreign monument to the great engineer.

The choice of a suspension bridge was a daring decision to take, since no successful large-scale suspension bridge had ever been built except for the pioneering Union Bridge over the River Tweed near Berwick, constructed in 1820 by Captain Samuel Brown (1776-1852). Brown supplied the ironwork for Hammersmith Bridge, but it was Tierney Clark who designed it with two massive stone river towers which supported the suspension chains and formed a Tuscan archway through which the road platform ran. Since Thomas Telford (1757-1834) was in the process of constructing a similar suspension bridge over the Menai Straits between Wales and Anglesey at this time, Clark submitted his plan for Telford’s comments. There was considerable mutual respect as well as rivalry between the great engineers of the nineteenth century and so it was not surprising when they asked each other’s advice.

Telford’s Menai Bridge was completed in 1826, one year earlier than Hammersmith Bridge. The Menai Bridge has a central span between the supporting towers of 579 ft. However, the road between the towers and the shore is supported on masonry arches. At Hammersmith the central span between the river towers is 400 ft, but the suspension chains also support the road platforms between the river towers and the river bank. This gives a total length of 688 ft. and allows the claim that Clark’s Hammersmith Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time it was built.

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Tierney Clark’s Hammersmith Bridge of 1827.

From a practical point of view, the bridge had significant shortcomings. The width of the carriageway was 20 ft. and there were two footpaths of 5 ft. on either side. This was not unreasonable for the traffic conditions at the time, except that where the road went under the thick stone arches its width was reduced to only 14 ft. and at this point it had to provide for both vehicles and pedestrians. Traffic was about to increase substantially not least because of the existence of the bridge itself. It could even be said that the bridge put Hammersmith on the map rather than vice versa.

With the creation of the Metropolitan Water Board in 1855, pressure grew to free all the bridges in its area of toll charges, especially since the upstream bridges from Kew to Staines had already been freed . In 1877 the Metropolis Toll Bridges Act was passed to allow for the MBW to purchase the bridges and abolish the tolls. Hammersmith, Putney and Wandsworth Bridges were all declared toll free on the same day, 26 June 1880.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the MBW which now owned the bridge, was concerned about its safety. He produced a report recommending the complete reconstruction of the bridge superstructure on top of the existing pier foundations, and in 1883 an enabling Act was passed.

The new Hammersmith Bridge, like the old, was designed on the suspension principle but has a much more fanciful appearance than its predecessor. Structurally there are major differences in the use of material. The suspension chains are of steel rather than wrought iron. The river towers, instead of being built of stone, have frames of wrought iron which are clad in ornamental cast iron. Since iron is lighter than the equivalent strength masonry, the towers take up less space and allow a wider opening for river traffic through the arches. As a result, the carriageway under the arches is now 21 ft. wide, instead of 14 ft., and there is room for two 6 ft. footways which are cantilevered and curl round the outside of the towers rather than sharing the carriageway with the road as with the old bridge. On the river banks, instead of the toll gates which had been located there when the old bridge was built, Bazalgette constructed highly decorative abutments which take the suspension chains underground to a depth of 40 ft. where they are firmly anchored.

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The current bridge, by Sir Joseph Bazalgette.

Unfortunately, the bridge has suffered from problems of wear and tear, and has had to be closed a number of times. Natural deterioration has not been the only danger to which Hammersmith Bridge has been exposed . The IRA has tried to blow it up on no less than three occasions, but with limited success. Not everyone has agreed with the aesthetic merits of this bridge. William Morris, who owned a riverside house in Hammersmith, called it simply ‘this ugly suspension bridge’. However today it stands as a monument to Victorian engineering and design, beloved by the public, and seen by millions as the Oxford and Cambridge boat race crews strain for victory as they pass underneath every year.

See also.


Brian Cookson is the author of Crossing the River: The History of London’s Thames River Bridges from Richmond to the Tower and London’s Waterside Walks. He is also a Blue Badge Guide who offers various fascinating guided walks of London.
Find out more on his web page: www.lonwalk.ndirect.co.uk/.

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sopwithhawkerplanes

Sopwith Camel, Hawker Hurricane, Hawker Hunter, Sea Harrier.

As a small contribution to #RAF100, I’d like to remember in particular a man who – while never in the RAF himself – did build tens of thousands of their warplanes. Boy, did he build them. That man was Sir Thomas Sopwith (1888 – 1989). Remembered mainly for the aeroplane that bore his name – the Camel – Sopwith also gave us many other famous fighter planes, including the Hurricane, the Hawker Hunter and, believe it or not, he was also involved in the Sea Harrier, some 60 years after World War One. In other words, he was building aircraft from barely ten years after the Wright brothers up to a model which is still in use by the US Marines today, over a century of in-service fighter planes. You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that Sopwith himself lived to be 101.

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Thomas Sopwith c1911

Thomas Sopwith, a Londoner, was born in Kensington in 1888. Although his father died in a shooting accident when Sopwith was a boy, he left the family well-off. In his twenties, young Tom enthusiastically embraced the pursuits of adventurers of his standing: ballooning, motor racing, ocean yachting and flying. He was the 31st British pilot to gain his licence. He was also fiercely competitive, competing in and winning speed and endurance competitions. By 1914 he was building aircraft from a small factory in Kingston in addition to running his flying school since 1912. By the end of the war the Sopwith Aviation Company had manufactured 18,000 warplanes in dozens of variants, but most famously the Camel, nemesis of Baron von Richthofen.

He subsequently in the early 1920s started a new company with his Australian collaborator and test pilot, the appropriately named Harry Hawker. Unfortunately Hawker died soon afterwards in a flying accident but Sopwith took the company forward from its HQ at Brooklands, designing the Hurricane unprompted and before the government realised the looming need for such a fighter. Until 1963, under Sopwith’s leadership, 26,800 aircraft of fifty-two different types flowed from the production lines of Hawkers and its associated companies.

Sopwith remained on the board of the Hawker Siddeley Group until 1988. Knighted in 1953, Sir Thomas Sopwith’s biggest regret was failing to win the America’s Cup in 1934. What a life!


Thomas Sopwith on Wikipedia.
Thomas Sopwith Documentary (1984) on YouTube (30 mins: marvellous!).

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A guest post by LH Member Prof. Sheila Cavanagh.

Miranda Kaufmann. Black Tudors: The Untold Story (OneWorld Publications 2017)
Stephen Alford. London’s Triumph: Merchant Adventurers and the Tudor City (Penguin 2018)
Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson. A Day at Home in Early Modern England: Material Culture and Domestic Life, 1500-1700 (Yale, 2017).

Although most but not all London Historians are interested in the early modern period, the three books described here contain information that will be valuable for all historians.  They are all rich resources that cater to historians of many persuasions, academic and not.  At least one author, Miranda Kaufmann, is a London Historians member herself. In fact her book is offered as this month’s London Historians book prize. Stephen Alford speaks at length about Sir Thomas Gresham, whose London College is the site of the LH annual lecture.  Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson are regular (and highly recommended) speakers in the area. I was privileged recently to spend a day with them at the Weald and Downland Living Museum (http://www.wealddown.co.uk/) where they presented a wealth of information about early modern wills and inventories.  Each of these writers works on topics of significant interest to the London Historians and I encourage our members to keep an eye out for their works and for their public presentations.

book black tudorsMiranda Kaufmann undertakes a detailed study of the presence of Africans in early modern England, a population that many people have believed were absent.  Drawing from a range of documentary sources (many found in London), she provides a series of biographies that range far more broadly across London society than one might anticipate. There were a number of African musicians, for instance, who received considerable acclaim (and wages) for their work.  Somewhat surprisingly, Africans were often prized for their skills at swimming, since Englishmen were less likely to be able to swim.  This section is rather poignant, since Kaufmann notes that one reason English sailors could not swim was the desire for them to drown quickly if they fell overboard, since no one was going to attempt to save them.  She also talks about entrepreneurial Africans and dispels the assumption that all African women in England would have been prostitutes, although she does discuss the sexual abuse and enslavement of Africans.  The author has been speaking regularly since this book appeared, for good reason. She offers an articulate and illuminating account of a group many people did not know inhabited England during this time.  London Historians should be pleased to have such an informative book offered by one of its members.

alfordStephen Alford’s book is also very interesting and well-written.  It offers much to appeal to London Historians since, in addition to the focus on Thomas Gresham, he spends considerable time discussing the development and importance of the Livery system within the City of London.  Members who have been visiting the Livery Halls with our group will find much to recognize here as Alford describes the ways that the Livery contributed to individual and communal lives during this period.  Like the other authors in this review, he provides considerable evidence from wills and inventories, which helps make this volume useful even for those working outside this historical period.  Similarly, his account of London’s rapid growth during this era, despite the devastation caused by illness introduces pertinent information about immigration and international trade that could be valuable for those interested in a variety of topics.  This is a fascinating book that offers a great deal of historical research in a readable format.

dayathomeinearlymodernengland.Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson also keep their readers firmly in mind as they present a wonderfully well-illustrated account of daily life in the early modern period.  Like their workshop, the book discusses topics both large and small and encourages you to think about early modern England with a new attention to detail.  Ear cups (for cleaning said orifices) and toothpicks, for example, were often intricately carved, but rarely listed in inventories or wills.  Kaufmann, notably, makes a related point when she indicates that animals were often named on farms, but those names only occasionally were listed in wills.  This book about daily life brings a number of such ordinary items and tasks into focus and helps modern audiences better understand what the daily lives of these people looked and felt like.  The documents they use for this study would be helpful in a number of inquiries and they do an excellent job of setting out the strengths and weaknesses of using different kinds of evidence for a range of investigations.

These three books all offer excellent bibliographies and lists of sources, so would be valuable for those sections alone. They each provide new perspectives on London during this time frame and complement each other well.  None of them treads on the others’ territory, but they each tell fascinating stories that intersect with things that many LH members appreciate.

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