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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

History of Rochester Bridge

Over the centuries before the modern day road bridges there have been three other bridges at Rochester: the Roman bridge, the medieval bridge, and the Victorian bridge. The Roman bridge crossed the River Medway on the line of Watling Street, the main Roman road running from London to Richborough and Dover on the Kent coast. Built soon after the Roman conquest under Claudius in 43 AD, the first bridge across the Medway had nine stone piers constructed on foundations deep below the riverbed. Archaeological evidence of these foundations was found during construction work in the nineteenth century.

For each pier, the Romans built a coffer dam in the river, consisting of a double ring of piles driven into the riverbed. The space between the rings was packed with clay to form a watertight barrier. Inside this double ring, the Roman engineers extracted the water, removed the silt from the riverbed, and drove oak piles tipped with iron into the gravel to rest on the chalk bedrock. Then, on this foundation, they constructed a timber framework, surrounded it with stone masonry, and filled the centre with ragstone rubble to form the pier. Medieval records show that there were nine of these piers standing in the river at irregular intervals. On top of these stone piers, the Romans placed a flat timber roadway, consisting of three oak beams stretching between each pier with planks laid across the beams to form the surface of the road.

In the parishes surrounding Rochester the manors and estates belonging to the king, the archbishop, and the bishop of Rochester were each responsible for keeping a section of the bridge in good repair. Whenever the bridge needed repair, a royal commission consulted the bridgework list kept by the bishop of Rochester and assigned responsibility for repairs. This system worked for centuries until the cold winter of 1381, when the River Medway froze solid. According to the Winchester Chronicle, when the ice melted in February, the combined pressure of flood waters and ice carried away 'the great part of the bridge'.

In February 1382 a royal commission was appointed to decide who was responsible to repair the ruined Roman bridge. The commissioners, who included Henry Yevele, the best English architect of his time, and the powerful Kentish knight and landowner Sir John de Cobham, concluded that Rochester needed a new bridge with stone arches. Sir John recruited the help of another wealthy knight, Sir Robert Knolles, and between them, they paid for the construction of a new stone bridge 100 yards upstream from the remains of the Roman bridge. Construction began in August 1387 and finished in September 1391.

The new medieval stone bridge was 560 feet long and 14 feet wide. There were ten piers built on protective platforms called starlings. These platforms, each about 40 feet wide and 90 feet long with pointed ends upstream and downstream to deflect the current, consisted of over 10,000 piles driven into the riverbed, tied together with joists, and covered with elm planking after the spaces between the piles had been packed with chalk. On top of these wooden platforms Henry Yevele built twelve stone piers, with all but one of the intervening spaces spanned by stone arches. The fifth opening from the
Strood side was crossed by a wooden drawbridge. On top of the bridge, the surface of the roadway was paved with ragstone.

To pay for the maintenance and repair of the new stone bridge, Sir John de Cobham and Sir Robert Knolles petitioned Richard II and received a royal patent in 1399 establishing the Wardens and Commonalty of Rochester Bridge and granting them power to own property and to use the income to maintain the bridge. Through the continued efforts and generosity of Sir John de Cobham and further royal grants of Henry IV and Henry V, the Wardens and Commonalty accumulated properties in Kent, Essex, and London and over the centuries have used the rental income to maintain the bridge. Many of these properties are still owned today by The Rochester Bridge Trust.

Although constantly repaired, the medieval stone bridge continued to provide the only crossing at Rochester for almost 500 years. During this time both the river traffic and the road traffic increased steadily, and in the late 18th century the Wardens and Assistants of Rochester Bridge extensively modernised the bridge. They widened the roadway from 14 to 26 feet and added a footpath on either side. They reduced the width of the starlings, so that larger boats and barges could pass through the arches; and most importantly, they removed the sixth pier from the Strood side, along with the adjacent arch and drawbridge, and replaced it with a large central arch. The programme of modernisation was completed in 1824, but the refurbished stone bridge was eventually replaced entirely by a new cast iron bridge in 1856.

The modernisation of the medieval stone bridge proved to be only a temporary solution to the increasing demands of road and river traffic. During the 1840s, the Wardens and Assistants of Rochester Bridge considered proposals designed by Bridge Engineer Sir William Cubitt for a new stone bridge of five arches, a suspension bridge, or a cast iron bridge of three arches. At the insistence of the Admiralty, they finally decided on a cast iron bridge with three arches and a ship's passage with a swing bridge that would allow ships with fixed masts to navigate upriver. Although delicate in appearance, the massive cast iron structure weighed over 2500 tonnes and rested on foundations of cast iron cylinders sunk through the riverbed onto the bedrock beneath.

The new bridge was 40 feet wide with a combined span of 485 feet over the three arches and 18 feet of clear headroom above high water. A feature of this bridge was a ship's passage at the Strood end of the bridge with a swing bridge opening to a width of 50 feet to allow large vessels to pass through the bridge. A marvel of Victorian engineering, the swing bridge was so delicately balanced that, even though the total weight of the swing bridge and roadway was over 300 tonnes, two men could rotate it with ease 90 degrees upriver in five minutes.

The Rochester Bridge Act 1846, granting the Wardens and Assistants of Rochester Bridge the powers to replace the bridge, received Royal Assent on 14 May 1846. The placement of the new bridge on the line of Watling Street and the old Roman bridge required the purchase of considerable property in Strood before construction could begin. The first contract for the bridge foundations was finally signed in January 1850, and six years later the construction was completed. On 13 August 1856 the Wardens and Assistants, accompanied by a Royal Marine band and the mayors and aldermen of Rochester and Maidstone, processed across the old bridge, along the Strood Esplanade, and back to the centre of the new bridge, where the Victorian cast iron bridge was officially declared open to the public and the medieval stone bridge was declared closed. The momentous day concluded with a public dinner and a fireworks display from the old bridge in the evening. An even more spectacular firework display from the old bridge followed over the next six months as the Royal Engineers practiced their demolition skills, by blowing up the stone structure, which, though much repaired and rebuilt, had crossed the River Medway for 465 years.

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