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A guest post by LH Member Brian Cookson. This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from November 2013.

Like several other Thames bridges, Richmond Bridge replaced a ferry which from medieval times had provided a crossing for horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians at about the same location on the river.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Richmond developed into a thriving and fashionable town. Although Henry VII’s magnificent Palace became neglected and was pulled down, Richmond, kept its royal connections and was the favourite country resort of George II and Queen Caroline.

Whereas Richmond was in the county of Surrey, Twickenham on the opposite side of the river was in the county of Middlesex. The Middlesex bank was less developed, but much favoured by aristocrats, artists and writers. Alexander Pope was among the first to build himself a villa here in 1719. Of the several artists who lived in Twickenham at this time, two were very much connected with the Thames and its bridges – Samuel Scott and his pupil, William Marlow, who both painted central London river scenes in the style of Canaletto.

As a result of the developments here on both banks of the Thames the need for a bridge to replace the ferry was becoming overwhelming. Local inhabitants put forward their proposal which formed the basis of the Act of Parliament which received Royal Assent on 1 July 1773. The Act nominated 90 Commissioners who were to be responsible for building and maintaining a bridge of stone construction. The Commissioners included the landscape gardener, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the writer, Horace Walpole, the actor, David Garrick and Sir Charles Asgill who was the local MP and former Lord Mayor of London who had recently presided over the removal of the houses from Old London Bridge. The Act also gave a number of key directions to the Commissioners, including the punishment for anyone convicted of damaging the bridge. Convicts were ‘liable for transportation to one of His Majesty’s colonies in America for seven years’. However the colonies decided to declare independence in 1776, a year before the completion of the bridge, so this punishment could never be handed out.

Among the first decisions made by the Commissioners was to choose to use Portland Stone as the main construction material and to appoint James Paine as the architect. Paine had trained as an architect in London where he caught the attention of Lord Burlington, the leading proponent of the now fashionable Palladian style of architecture.

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Richmond Bridge in 1813.

Construction was put out to tender and a contract was signed on 16 May 1774 for Thomas Kerr to build the bridge for the sum of £10,900. It was now time to raise the money to pay him and cover all the other expenses such as for building the approaches and compensating local landowners. The method chosen was known as a ‘tontine’, named after Lorenzo Tonti who had originated the idea in France in the 1650s. £20,000 was raised by the sale of shares which paid an initial annual dividend of four per cent. As each investor died, his or her share was divided between the survivors until the last survivor received the whole of the dividend amounting to £800 per annum. When there were no more survivors, dividends would cease. The list of shareholders held in Richmond Local History Library contains an unusually large number of investments made in the name of children. It is not therefore so surprising that the last survivor did not die until 1859 at the age of 86, having received the maximum £800 for the last five years of her life. A local historian relates an amusing story about one of the investors, an elderly lady, who ‘called on the paymaster, William Smith, for her biannual dividend and found it was the same as her previous one. She exclaimed in a discontented tone “What, has no one died since I was last here – all still alive?” But it was the last time she complained. When the dividends were next due, death had removed her, thus adding to the amount to be shared by those that survived her.’

The bridge was declared open for carriages on 12 January 1777, although not finally completed until December 1777. The author of an article in The London Magazine of September 1779 wrote ‘…it presents the spectator with one of the richest landscapes nature and art ever produced by their joint efforts, and connoisseurs in painting will instantly be reminded of some of the best performances of Claude Lorraine.’ In the 1820s Turner produced about 20 sketches of the bridge from various viewpoints as well as one finished watercolour which can be seen in Tate Britain.

When the last survivor of the first tontine died in 1859 all tolls ceased and the tollhouses were later replaced by iron seats dated 1868, which are still situated in the recesses of the bridge on the Richmond side.

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Richmond Bridge today. 

During the early years of the twentieth century there were many arguments about how to solve the problems of the increasing congestion over the bridge. In the end a new bridge was in fact constructed in 1933 to the north of the town to take the Chertsey arterial road over the river to Twickenham and beyond. By then Surrey and Middlesex County Councils had finally agreed that the old bridge should be widened and its control was transferred to public ownership. Work proceeded to number each of the facing stones on the upstream side before taking them down so that the inner portion of the bridge structure could be widened and subsequently refaced with the original Portland Stone. The result was a bridge which was widened from 24 ft 9 in. to 36 ft. but looked exactly the same as before. The effect of the widening can be noted only by looking up from underneath the arches where the newer bricks on the upstream side are clearly differentiated from the original brickwork. Richmond Bridge’s bicentenary was celebrated on 7 May 1977, and today is the oldest existing structure to cross the Thames in London.


Brian Cookson is a Founder Member of London Historians, Blue Badge guide and author of Crossing the River: The History of London’s Thames River Crossings from Richmond to the Tower (2006).

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A guest post by London Historians Member, Simon Fowler

evac1The story of brave Cockneys grinning and bearing it during the Blitz in 1940 is really a myth. The start of German air raids on Docklands and the East End in late August saw many panicky families flee the bombing. Some sheltered in Epping Forest, while others made it as far as Reading and Oxford. Frank Lewey, the Mayor of Stepney, who arranged the despatch of thousands of desperate men, women and children, wrote later that he and his staff were…
“far too busy to keep records of the evacuees. It was all we could do to get them out of London fast enough. We did not know where they had all gone, or all who had gone there, except that one hundred and fifty had gone to Ealing, two hundred and thirty to Richmond and so on.”

In Richmond hundreds of refugees arrived at short notice on 12 September. The Richmond and Twickenham Times reported that:
“A thousand men, women and children arrived, after a four-hour journey down river by barge or in pleasure launches. The first relay arrived at about 12 o’clock; a later party were landing just as an air raid warning sounded and so had to take shelter under the arches by the riverside immediately, and the last 600 arrived so late that they could not be billeted…, but had to spend the night at the cinema sleeping on the chairs or the floor.”

They did not receive a warm welcome – in contrast to the myth of Britain pulling together. Richmond’s middle class homeowners were reluctant to take in strangers, particularly those from a different social class.

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The Mayor H A Leon appealed for help: ‘Inconvenience will inevitably be felt by the householders on whom they were billeted, but this inconvenience is negligible compared with the unhappy circumstances of those who have had to leave their homes. I appeal to all to their utmost to meet this emergency in a happy spirit of co-operation.’

Margaret Scudamore played host to a little girl: ‘who looked with disfavour on the bathing facilities provided and such innocuous foodstuffs as we could muster, and longed only for the joys of her companionable cul-de-sac and piquant pickles.’

Not everybody was so hospitable. Writing after the war, the Richmond Herald remembered:
“Some householders accepted evacuees reluctantly and did nothing to make these people comfortable, with the result that a large number of East Enders left their billets at night and slept in public shelters and walked the streets by day. Often families had to be billeted in different houses and the fact that they wanted to meet each other during the day led to further trouble. Gradually these were smoothed out… considering the large numbers of persons dealt with there were few cases of dirty conditions.”

Most East Enders soon returned home because they were homesick or just worried about what had happened to their houses and possessions.

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Long-time London Historian member Simon Fowler is a professional history researcher, writer and tutor. Richmond at War 1939-1945 is available from the Richmond History Society price £6.50 (plus P&P). Order online at www.richmondhistory.org.uk.

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A good day for West London. First, the 157th Boat Race showing off our beloved neck of the woods to the world at large. Helicopter’s eye view of wonderful bridges and Thameside sites. It’s surprising how much greenery still exists in these built up areas. The Boat Race organisers no doubt kindly arranged the start for 17:00 hours so many of us could get home sharpish in time from the 31st West London Local History Conference.

The conference is sponsored by local history societies:
Acton
Barnes & Mortlake
Brentford & Chiswick
Fulham & Hammersmith
Hounslow
Richmond
Twickenham
Wandsworth
West Middlesex Family History Society

This year’s theme was Scientists & Innovators in West London History. The near sell-out audience were treated to talks on a variety of absorbing topics: Dr John Dee, an Elizabethan scientist from Mortlake, the remnants of whose library give us one of the biggest bodies of source evidence for Western natural philosophy in the late 16C;  George III’s scientific instruments from Kew (now in the Science Museum); the history of Price’s, the biggest candle manufacturer in the world during the Victorian era, which finally shut down as recently as 2000, although its brand name lives on; the potions, powders, pharmaceuticals and popular grooming products of McLeans and Beechams of the Great West Road (now part of GlaxoSmithKline); innovative 18C nursery gardeners in West London who nurtured pineapples, pears and elm trees.

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My favourite was Price’s candles. We take candles for granted, today they are fripperies. But not so long ago, except for open hearth fires, they were our only source of artificial light. Beeswax candles we all know about. But it was interesting to discover how the 19C chemists at Price’s went to enormous lengths to find alternatives to the stinky and cheaper tallow-based models. Now I feel educated on the topic.

At just £8 for a full day’s worth of fascinating local history, this is terrific value. We congratulate the organisers for a fabulous conference and look forward to next year.

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