Swanley History Group – July 2018 meeting
Lower attendance than usual at our July meeting was due to the England/Colombia football match. Those of us who came enjoyed an excellent presentation full of fascinating facts on ‘The History of Rochester Bridge – A Unique Survivor’ by Sue Threader, Civil Engineer and Bridge Clerk (Chief Executive) of Rochester Bridge Trust – and most of us were home in time to see the penalty shoot-out.
The Romans with their efficiency and preference for straight lines, constructed the first bridge crossing the River Medway to enable their legions to march from Canterbury to London and beyond in AD43. Made with stone pillars and a timber deck it was 10 ft. wide and 500 ft. long. There were no sides so it must have been a dangerous crossing, especially when riding horses and driving livestock.
In 1384, when the frozen river thawed, the Roman Bridge was swept away. Its replacement was constructed up-steam of the Roman Bridge with stone arches and a drawbridge in the middle. As was common practise on bridges, a chapel for travellers was built, one of only five remaining. The benefactors were Sir John De Cobham, landowner of Cooling Castle and
Sir Robert Knowles, mercenary, murderer and ravager from Cheshire – it is said to pay for a swift passage through purgatory.
Preserved in archives is the ‘Bridge Work List’ showing the allocation of responsibility shared between the parishes of the Lathe of Aylesford for the maintenance of Rochester Bridge. During the reign of Richard II, when The Wardens and Commonality of Rochester Bridge Trust were created to raise funds for ongoing maintenance, a wealthy merchant and ship-owner from Newcastle gave financial donations. His name was Dick Whittington. Others gave land. Auditors were brought in during the reign of Elizabeth I, following the discovery of widespread fraud. The new rules demanded that failure to attend election dinners resulted in a fine.
During The Civil War 500 Royalists were slain in The Battle of The Bridge by attacking Parliamentarians. Bridge Warden Dr.John Thorpe who lived in Bexley built and furnished the chamber during the Georgian Period.
The mediaeval bridge reached the end of its useful life after the coming of the Industrial Revolution when river traffic carrying cargo related to agriculture and brewing and other industries along The Medway found it difficult to get through the arches. The solution was The Great Arch Project, duplicating the bridge to double its width and creating a shipping channel in the middle. The remains can be seen at very low tides. Stone from this bridge was collected and used to build Chatham Dockyard, after it was blown up with gunpowder by The Royal Engineers stationed at Gillingham
A cast iron arched bridge designed by Sir William Cubitt was built in 1856 with a swing bridge at the end to allow ships through without lowering masts. This was never used as it stopped other traffic. During 1911 to 1914 the arches were removed by ingeniously incorporating three bowstring trusses, supported on piers with the deck of the bridge hanging below on chains. This now takes road traffic from Rochester to Strood. A new bridge from Strood to Rochester was opened in 1970, with a service bridge carrying all the utilities in-between. The bridge carrying the railway is not owned by The Bridge Trust.
Today the twelve Wardens of The Bridge Trust and a small team of staff maintain Rochester Bridge and the other bridges crossing The Medway. No funds or grants are paid by The Government. So how is this achieved? The truth goes back to the beginning as it says in the musical introduction to the TV Scandi-noir drama series coincidentally called ‘The Bridge’. The donations of money and land through the centuries has been wisely managed and is still funding all the functions of The Bridge Trust, which also includes providing grants for the restoration of ‘stuff which no one else wants to fund’ such as tombs, ceilings and stained glass, church restorations and university civil engineering research projects.
Christina Tyler, Programme Organiser