Chelsea Bridge

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Template:About Template:Infobox bridge

Chelsea Bridge is a bridge over the River Thames in west London, connecting Chelsea on the north bank to Battersea on the south bank. There have been two Chelsea Bridges, on the site of what was an ancient ford.

The first Chelsea Bridge was proposed in the 1840s as part of a major development of marshlands on the south bank of the Thames into the new Battersea Park. It was a suspension bridge intended to provide convenient access from the densely populated north bank to the new park. Although built and operated by the government, tolls were charged initially in an effort to recoup the cost of the bridge. Work on the nearby Chelsea Embankment delayed construction and so the bridge, initially called Victoria Bridge, did not open until 1857. Although well received architecturally, as a toll-bridge it was unpopular with the public, and Parliament felt obliged to make it toll-free on Sundays. The bridge was less of a commercial success than had been anticipated, partly because of competition from the newly built Albert Bridge nearby. It was acquired by the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1877, and the tolls were abolished in 1879.

The bridge was narrow and structurally unsound, leading the authorities to rename it Chelsea Bridge to avoid the Royal Family's association with a potential collapse. In 1926, with the bridge unable to handle increased volumes of users, caused by population growth in the surrounding area and the introduction of the automobile, it was proposed that the old bridge be rebuilt or replaced. Between 1934 and 1937 it was demolished and replaced by the current structure, which opened in 1937.

The new bridge was the first self-anchored suspension bridge in Britain, and was built entirely with materials sourced from within the British Empire. During the early 1950s it became popular with motorcyclists, who staged regular races across the bridge. One such meeting in 1970 erupted into violence, resulting in the death of one man and the imprisonment of 20 others. Chelsea Bridge is floodlit from below during the hours of darkness, when the towers and cables are illuminated by Template:Convert of light-emitting diodes. As of 2008 it achieved Grade II listed status. In 2004 a smaller bridge perpendicular to the main bridge Battersea footbridge was opened beneath the southern span, carrying the Thames Path underneath the main bridge.


File:Stanford 1891 Chelsea bridges.png
Chelsea and Battersea in 1891, showing (left to right) Old Battersea Bridge, Albert Bridge, Victoria (now Chelsea) Bridge and Grosvenor Railway Bridge.

The Red House Inn was an isolated inn on the south bank of the River Thames in the marshlands by Battersea fields, about Template:Convert east of the developed street of the prosperous farming village of Battersea.Template:Sfn Although not on any major road, since the 16th century its isolation and lack of any police presence made it a popular destination for visitors from London and Westminster who would travel to the Red House by wherry, attracted by Sunday dog fighting, bare-knuckle boxing bouts and illegal horse racing.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn Because of its lawless nature, Battersea Fields was also a popular area for duelling, and was the venue for the 1829 duel between the then Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington and the Earl of Winchilsea.Template:Sfn

The town of Chelsea, on the north bank of the Thames about Template:Convert west of Westminster, was an important industrial centre. Although by the 19th century its role as the centre of the British porcelain industry had been overtaken by the West Midlands,Template:Sfn its riverside location and good roads made it an important centre for the manufacture of goods to serve the nearby and rapidly growing London.Template:Sfn

The Chelsea Waterworks Company occupied a site on the north bank of the Thames opposite the Red House Inn. Founded in 1723, the company pumped water from the Thames to reservoirs around Westminster through a network of hollow elm trunks.Template:Sfn As London spread westwards, the former farmland to the west became increasingly populated,Template:Refn and the Thames became seriously polluted with sewage and animal carcasses.Template:Sfn In 1852 Parliament banned water from being taken from the Thames downstream of Teddington, forcing the Chelsea Waterworks Company to move upstream to Seething Wells.Template:Sfn

Since 1771, Battersea and Chelsea had been linked by the modest wooden Battersea Bridge.Template:Sfn As London grew following the advent of the railways, Chelsea began to become congested, and in 1842 the Commission of Woods, Forests, and Land Revenues recommended the building of an embankment at Chelsea to free new land for development, and proposed the building of a new bridge downstream of Battersea Bridge and the replacement of Battersea Bridge with a more modern structure.Template:Sfn

Battersea Park

In the early 1840s Thomas Cubitt and James Pennethorne had proposed a plan to use 150,000 tons of rocks and earth from the excavation of the Royal Victoria Dock to infill the marshy Battersea Fields and create a large public park to serve the growing population of Chelsea.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn In 1846 the Commissioners of Woods and Forests purchased the Red House Inn and Template:Convert of surrounding land, and work began on the development that would become Battersea Park.Template:Sfn It was expected that with the opening of the park the volume of cross river traffic would increase significantly, putting further strain on the dilapidated Battersea Bridge.Template:Sfn

Consequently, in 1846 an Act of Parliament authorised the building of a new toll bridge on the site of an ancient ford exactly Template:Convert downstream of Battersea Bridge.Template:SfnTemplate:Refn The approach road on the southern side was to run along the side of the new park, while that on the northern side was to run from Sloane Square, through the former Chelsea Waterworks site, to the new bridge.Template:Sfn Although previous toll bridges in the area had been built and operated by private companies, the new bridge was to be built and operated by the government, under the control of the Metropolitan Improvement Commission, despite protests in Parliament from Radicals objecting to the Government profiting from a toll-paying bridge.Template:Sfn It was intended that the bridge would be made toll-free once the costs of building it had been recouped.Template:Sfn

Victoria Bridge (Old Chelsea Bridge)

Engineer Thomas Page was appointed to build the bridge, and presented the Commission with several potential designs, including a seven-span stone bridge, a five-span cast iron arch bridge, and a suspension bridge.Template:Sfn The Commission selected the suspension bridge design, and work began in 1851 on the new bridge, to be called the Victoria Bridge.Template:Sfn

Design and construction

File:ILN Chelsea Bridge.jpg
The first Chelsea Bridge as seen from Battersea in 1858, shortly after opening. The Victoria Tower of The Palace of Westminster can be seen in the background.

Page's design was typical of suspension bridges of the period, and consisted of a wrought iron deck and four Template:Convert cast iron towers supporting chains, which in turn supported the weight of the deck.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn The towers rested on a pair of timber and cast iron piers.Template:Sfn The towers passed through the deck, meaning that between the towers the road was Template:Convert narrower than on the rest of the bridge.Template:Sfn Although work had begun in 1851 delays in the closure of the Chelsea Waterworks, which only completed its relocation to Seething Wells in 1856, caused lengthy delays to the project,Template:Sfn and the Edinburgh-made ironwork was only transported to the site in 1856.Template:Sfn

Victoria Bridge was Template:Convert long with a central span of Template:Convert,Template:Sfn and the roadway was Template:Convert wide with a Template:Convert footpath on either side, making a total width of Template:Convert.Template:Sfn Large lamps were set at the tops of the four towers, which were only to be lit when Queen Victoria was spending the night in London.Template:Sfn The central span was inscribed with the date of construction and the words "Gloria Deo in Excelsis" ("Glory to God in the Highest").Template:Sfn It took seven years to build, at a total cost of £90,000 (about £Template:Formatprice as of 2020).Template:SfnTemplate:Inflation-fn The controversial tolls were collected from octagonal stone tollhouses at each end of the bridge.Template:Sfn

As with the earlier construction of nearby Battersea Bridge,Template:Sfn during excavations workers found large quantities of Roman and Celtic weapons and skeletons in the riverbed, leading many historians to conclude that the area was the site of Julius Caesar's crossing of the Thames during the 54 BC invasion of Britain.Template:Sfn The most significant item found was the Celtic La Tène style bronze and enamel Battersea Shield, one of the most significant pieces of Celtic military equipment found in Britain, recovered from the riverbed during dredging for the piers.Template:SfnTemplate:Refn


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On 31 March 1858 Queen Victoria, accompanied by two of her daughters and en route to the formal opening of Battersea Park, crossed the new bridge and declared it officially open, naming it the Victoria Bridge;Template:Sfn it was opened to the public three days later, on 3 April 1858.Template:Sfn The design met with great critical acclaim, particularly from the Illustrated London News.Template:Sfn

Shortly after its opening, concerns were raised about the bridge's safety. Following an inspection by John Hawkshaw and Edwin Clark in 1861, an additional support chain was added on each side.Template:Sfn Despite the strengthening there were still concerns about its soundness, and a weight limit of 5 tons was imposed.Template:Sfn At the same time, the name was changed from Victoria Bridge to Chelsea Bridge, as the government was concerned about the reliability of suspension bridges and did not want a potential collapse to be associated with the Queen.Template:Sfn

File:ILN Vauxhall, Victoria & Battersea bridges.jpg
Battersea (top), Victoria (centre) and Vauxhall (bottom) bridges, 1859

Although reasonably well used, it was unpopular with the public, who objected to being obliged to pay tolls to use it. On 4 July 1857, almost a year before the bridge's opening, a demonstration against the tolls attracted 6,000 residents.Template:Sfn Concerns were raised in Parliament that poorer industrial workers in Chelsea, which had no large parks of its own, would be unable to afford to use the new park in Battersea.Template:Sfn Bowing to public pressure, shortly after the bridge opened Parliament declared it free to use for pedestrians on Sundays, and in 1875 it was also made toll-free on public holidays.Template:Sfn Additionally, because the main lights were only turned on when Queen Victoria was staying in London, it was poorly used at night.Template:Sfn Despite this, the new Battersea Park was extremely popular, particularly the sporting facilities; on 9 January 1864 the park staged the world's first official game of association football.Template:SfnTemplate:Refn

Abolition of tolls

In 1873 the privately owned Albert Bridge, between Chelsea and Battersea bridges, opened.Template:Sfn Although Albert Bridge was not as successful as intended at luring customers from Chelsea Bridge and soon found itself in serious financial difficulties,Template:Sfn it nonetheless caused a sharp drop in usage of Chelsea Bridge.Template:Sfn In 1877 the Metropolis Toll Bridges Act was passed, which allowed the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) to buy all London bridges between Hammersmith and Waterloo bridges and free them from tolls.Template:Sfn Ownership of Chelsea Bridge was transferred to the MBW in 1877 at a cost of £75,000 (about £Template:Formatprice as of 2020),<ref name="Times Freeing" /> and on 24 May 1879 Chelsea Bridge, Battersea Bridge and Albert Bridge were declared toll free by the Prince of Wales in a brief ceremony, after which a parade of Chelsea Pensioners marched across the bridge to Battersea Park.Template:SfnTemplate:Inflation-fnTemplate:Sfn

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By the early 20th century, Chelsea Bridge was in poor condition. It was unable to carry the increasing volume of traffic caused by the growth of London and the increasing popularity of the automobile; between 1914 and 1929 use of the bridge almost doubled from 6,500 to 12,600 vehicles per day.Template:Sfn In addition, parts of its structure were beginning to work loose,Template:Sfn and in 1922 the gilded finials on the towers had to be removed because of concerns that they would fall off.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn Architectural opinion had turned heavily against Victorian styles and Chelsea Bridge was now deeply unpopular with architects; former President of the Royal Institute of British Architects Reginald Blomfield spoke vehemently against its design in 1921,Template:Sfn and there were few people supporting the preservation of the old bridge.Template:Sfn In 1926 the Royal Commission on Cross-river Traffic recommended that Chelsea Bridge be rebuilt or replaced.Template:Sfn

New Chelsea Bridge

File:Chelsea Bridge traffic.jpg
With four lanes of traffic, the new bridge's roadway is much wider than that of its predecessor.

In 1931 the London County Council (LCC) proposed demolishing Chelsea Bridge and replacing it with a modern six-lane bridge at a cost of £695,000 (about £Template:Formatprice as of 2020).Template:Inflation-fnTemplate:Sfn Because of the economic crisis of the Great Depression the Ministry of Transport refused to fund the project and the LCC was unable to raise the funds elsewhere. However, in an effort to boost employment in the Battersea area, which had suffered badly in the depression, the Ministry of Transport agreed to underwrite 60% of the costs of a cheaper four-lane bridge costing £365,000 (about £Template:Formatprice as of 2020),Template:Inflation-fnTemplate:Sfn on condition that all materials used in the building of the bridge be sourced from within the British Empire.Template:Sfn

Design and construction

File:Chelsea Bridge 2.JPG
Being self-anchored, the bridge uniquely in London has no anchoring abutments.

In 1934 a temporary footbridge which had previously been used during rebuilding works on Lambeth Bridge was moved into place alongside Chelsea Bridge, and demolition began.Template:Sfn The new bridge, also called Chelsea Bridge, was designed by LCC architects G. Topham Forrest and E. P. Wheeler and built by Holloway Brothers (London). Much wider than the older bridge at Template:Convert wide, it has a Template:Convert wide roadway and two Template:Convert wide pavements cantilevered out from the sides of the bridge.Template:Sfn Uniquely in London, Chelsea Bridge is a self-anchored suspension bridge, the first of the type to be built in Britain.Template:Sfn The horizontal stresses are absorbed by stiffening girders in the deck itself and the suspension cables are not anchored to the ground, relieving stress on the abutments which are built on soft and unstable London clay.Template:Sfn The piers of the new bridge were built on the site of the old bridge's piers, and are built of concrete, faced with granite above the low-water point.Template:Sfn Each side of the bridge has a single suspension cable, each made up of 37 1Template:Frac-inch (23mm) diameter wire ropes bundled to form a hexagonal cable.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn As was agreed with the Ministry of Transport, all materials used in the bridge came from the British Empire; the steel came from Scotland and Yorkshire, the granite of the piers from Aberdeen and Cornwall, the timbers of the deck from British Columbia and the asphalt of the roadway from Trinidad.Template:Sfn

File:Chelsea Bridge cable.JPG
As a self-anchored bridge, the suspension cables attach directly to the deck and do not extend to the ground.

Because the self-anchored structure relies on the roadway itself to absorb stresses, the suspension cables could not be installed until the roadway was built; however, until the cables were in place the roadway could not be supported. To resolve this problem, Topham had the roadway built in sections, supported on very tall barges. The barges were floated into place at low tide, and the rising tide was used to lift the sections above the height of the piers. As the tide ebbed, the roadway dropped into place.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn

The recently built Battersea Power Station then dominated most views of the area, so it was decided that the bridge's appearance was unimportant.Template:Sfn Consequently, in contrast to the heavily ornamented 1857 bridge, the new bridge has a starkly utilitarian design and the only ornamentation consists of two ornamental lamp posts at each entrance.Template:Sfn Each features a gilded galleon on top of a coat of arms. The outward facing sides of all four posts show the LCC coat of arms of the Lion of England, St George's Cross and the barry wavy lines representing the Thames; the inward faces on the south side show the dove of peace of the Metropolitan Borough of Battersea, that on the northwest corner shows the winged bull, lion, boars' heads and stag of the Metropolitan Borough of Chelsea, and that on the northeast corner the portcullis and Tudor roses of the Metropolitan Borough of Westminster.Template:Sfn

File:Chelsea Bridge crest.JPG
Coat of arms of the Metropolitan Borough of Battersea on a Chelsea Bridge lamp post

The new bridge was completed five months ahead of schedule and within the £365,000 budget.Template:Sfn It was opened on 6 May 1937 by the Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King, who was in London for the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.Template:SfnTemplate:Refn

Temporary wartime bridge

Two years after the bridge's opening the Second World War broke out. Because of their close proximity to Chelsea Barracks it was expected that enemy bombers would target the three road bridges in the area, and a temporary bridge was built parallel to Chelsea Bridge. As with the four other temporary Thames bridges built in this period, it was built of steel girders supported by wooden stakes; however, despite its flimsy appearance it was a sturdy structure, capable of supporting tanks and other heavy military equipment.Template:Sfn As it turned out, no enemy action took place in the area, and all three bridges survived the war undamaged. The temporary bridge was dismantled in 1945.Template:Sfn

Motorcycle gangs

Beginning in the 1950s Chelsea Bridge became a favourite meeting place for motorcyclists, who would race across the bridge on Friday nights.Template:Sfn On 17 October 1970 a serious confrontation took place on Chelsea Bridge between the Essex and Chelsea chapters of the Hells Angels, and rival motorcycle gangs the Road Rats, Nightingales, Windsor Angels and Jokers.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn Around 50 people took part in the fight; weapons used included motorcycle chains, flick knives and at least one spiked flail. One member of the Jokers was shot with a sawn-off shotgun and fatally wounded,Template:Sfn and 20 of those present were sentenced to between one and twelve years imprisonment.Template:Sfn


File:Chelsea Bridge, London - Oct 2012.jpg
Chelsea Bridge's illuminations

In the 1970s Chelsea Bridge was painted bright red and white, prompting a number of complaints from Chelsea F.C. fans that Chelsea Bridge had been painted in Arsenal colours.Template:Sfn In 2007 it was redecorated in a less controversial red, blue and white colour scheme.Template:Sfn Chelsea Bridge is now floodlit from beneath at night and Template:Convert of light-emitting diodes strung along the towers and suspension chains,<ref name="LEDs 2006-02-13" /> intended to complement the illuminations of the nearby Albert Bridge.Template:Sfn Although motorcyclists still meet on the bridge, following complaints from residents about the noise their racing has been curtailed.Template:Sfn<ref name="BBC 2006-06-24" />

Chelsea Bridge was declared a Grade II listed structure in 2008, providing protection to preserve its character from further alteration.<ref name="BBC 2008-11-26" /> Battersea Park still retains Cubitt and Pennethorne's original layout and features, including a riverfront promenade, a formal avenue through the centre of the park and multiple animal enclosures.Template:Sfn

On the eastern side of the bridge at the southern end a major new residential development of 600 homes called Chelsea Bridge Wharf has been built,<ref name="McGhie 2002-07-24" /> as part of long term plans to regenerate the long-derelict former industrial sites around Battersea Power Station.Template:Sfn

Battersea Footbridge

File:Battersea Footbridge.JPG
Battersea Footbridge curves beneath Chelsea Bridge.

To link the new developments around Battersea Power Station to Battersea Park, in 2004 a new curved footbridge was built beneath the southern end of Chelsea Bridge.<ref name="NCE Waterfront" /> The footbridge was built offsite in four sections, transported by road to the King George V Dock where it was assembled, and the completed structure floated down the river and hoisted into position.<ref name="NCE Waterfront" /> It is planned that once the riverfront in the area has been opened to the public, following the completion of the rebuilding of Battersea Power Station into a commercial development, the new bridge will form part of the Thames Path.Template:Sfn<ref name="NCE First Steps" /> The new bridge curves out from the bank, overhanging the river bank by Template:Convert, and cost £600,000 to build.<ref name="NCE Waterfront" />

CS8 Cycle Superhighway

Chelsea Bridge is now a major component of the CS8 Superhighway from Wandsworth to Westminster, with a mandatory blue cycle lane painted in both directions on the bridge. However, the cycle lanes do not cover the whole length of the bridge, forcing cyclists to ride in traffic when entering the bridge from Chelsea.

Notes and references

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