The bridges of Weymouth
Iris Bool takes a comprehensive look at the various constructions and crossings of Weymouth through history
Published in December ’11
Weymouth Town Bridge was the centre of celebrations on 4 July 2010, which heralded the 80th anniversary of its first official opening. The 1930 ceremony was performed by HRH Duke of York who later became King George VI. Cosens-owned paddlesteamer, Empress, full of excited school children, was the first vessel to sail under the opened bridge. A procession of highly decorated boats followed and the harbour was filled with a variety of craft from steam to sail. The hydraulically operated bridge has continued to open at two-hour intervals several times a day to give ships priority over road traffic.
One then nine-year-old girl remembers this event very well, having witnessed it with her parents in 1930. At 89 years of age, Gwendoline Hampton was given the honour of pressing the button at the anniversary opening of the decorated bridge. An excited crowd watched the special opening as a small choir sang ‘Happy Birthday’. Celebrations continued all day. Bands played and a carnival atmosphere created by the flotilla of small, decorated vessels sailing in tribute.
The River Wey rises at a spring in Upwey and flows for approximately three miles into Radipole Lake. In Roman times, long before any bridges were built, ships were able to sail to the northern shore of Radipole Lake. Sufficient remains and evidence have been discovered to verify this. The Wey continues from Radipole Lake to the Backwater, now known as the inner harbour, then through the main harbour into Weymouth Bay.
These waters separated two Parishes. On one side was Weymouth (now known as Chapelhay area) and opposite was Melcombe Regis (now known as Weymouth). Rivalry flourished between these two ports from early days and continued for many decades. Discord was mostly over trading rights at the ports.
The accession of Queen Elizabeth I brought hopes of these differences being settled, but they still rumbled on. In 1570, appointed Commissioners advised the union of the two boroughs and on 1 June 1571, Queen Elizabeth I granted a Charter of Union. Feuding still continued for decades until finally in 1606, a Charter of James I, finally made the union a working success.
Over five hundred years of history are cocooned around the Town bridge and the inner waters. The earliest recorded crossing of the harbour was by the Lelands Ferry 1533. The boat had been pulled across the harbour by rope loop – no oars were used.
The first Town Bridge was built of timber in 1597. Wooden piles supported the seventeen-arch bridge with a two-part central drawbridge. The Civil War of 1642-1646 caused structural damage to the bridge. Records reveal many oaks from the New Forest were taken for repair work. The next hundred years showed a dramatic increase in the shipping trade and in 1770 another timber bridge was built, extending the quay length by seventy yards. This bridge was a gift by J Tucker, Esq MP, and new warehouses at Weymouth Port allowed for increased trade.
In 1821, plans were produced for a permanent stone bridge to the original site. The magnificent structure, built of two graceful arches with a cast iron centre swing section, was completed in 1824. This was the first stone bridge and served the town well for over one hundred years. The swing section allowed larger ships to sail into the backwater. It is recorded that in 1885, it was widened and the central section altered.
Westham Bridge first spanned the backwaters in 1859. A much-needed link was required to cross the Backwater. The first Westham Bridge was built under the ‘Backwater Bridge and Road Act 1851′. The wooden structure had a central lifting section, which allowed barges to travel to Westham and Radipole and were later removed. The bridge opened to the public in 1859 with a toll charge of one halfpenny to cross. It ceased in 1879 when the bridge was registered as a County Bridge.
A backwater dam was built in 1872 in an attempt to control the water level in Radipole Lake and also to try to stop unpleasant smells at low tide. The now-disused dam can often be seen when waters are low. In 1882 the bridge closed for six months for essential repairs. Over £3000 was spent replacing piles and decking.
In 1914, responsibility for the maintenance of the bridge passed to Weymouth Corporation and, shortly afterwards, plans were started to build a new bridge of stone. Much land had to be reclaimed at both ends in order to permit its connection to the existing roads. Sluices were built into this bridge to control the water level and have controlled water levels ever since; the sluices were updated in 2008 and are now electrically controlled.
As with the Town Bridge nine years later, large crowds watched the opening of the new Westham Bridge on 13 July 1921 by the then Mayor, Councillor R A Bolt, Chairman of Dorset County Council; Colonel J R P Goodden unveiled a commemorative tablet.
In 1973, a footbridge was designed and added to the side of the bridge. Westham Bridge was closed to through traffic when the new Swannery Bridge was completed in the late 1980s, and has since been used as a car park.
Ferry Bridge at Smallmouth, the entrance to the Fleet waters, was resited and rebuilt in 1985. This vital link from Wyke Regis to the causeway and to Portland was first graced with a wooden structured bridge in 1839. Prior to this, the only way to cross this stretch of water was by ferry service.
Disastrous gales and storms hit the area in 1824 and the tethered ferry at Smallmouth was destroyed. The ferryman also perished at this time as did his cottage. News of the tragedy soon spread around the community, the shock of which rumbled on for some considerable time. It also aroused urgent discussions for the need of a bridge at this point. Although another ferry was later installed for use, many years passed before the building of the long awaited bridge. Local newspapers continually stressed the urgency. Meanwhile, Portland Fairs continued with cattle swimming across the stretch of water – pigs and sheep taken across by ferry. Eventually, after years of discussions, pressure by newspapers and business people, a bridge built of wood finally opened on 30 January 1839 at Smallmouth. It is to be noted that the population of Portland increased after this date, an increase claimed to be thanks to the easier access.
Regular repairs were necessary because of the wooden structure. The present road bridge was first built in the 1890s. Faults were discovered in it in 1959 and then remedied. Then, in 1983, the bridge was found to be sagging due to structural decay. As a matter of some urgency the bridge was re-sited to its present location and completed in 1985.
The rail bridges of Smallmouth and Westham Backwater have played an important role in Weymouth’s history and both belonged to the rail link from Portland to Melcombe Regis. Wooden viaducts at Smallmouth and across the Backwater, were completed by 1865 when the line opened for service. They were later replaced by iron structures, which stayed in service until the line closed in 1965. The final train for passengers took to the rails on 1 March 1952. Melcombe Regis station was demolished and later became the site of Swannery Court. The Backwater viaduct was dismantled between 1974 and 1976, in order to make way for the road development.
Swannery road bridge came into being in the 1980s and was included in the planning of the Weymouth Town Centre Relief Road scheme. It spans Radipole Lake, shadowing the same line as the old rail bridge to join the roundabout at the end of King Street.
The official opening of this Relief Road Scheme took place on 2 July 1987 at Mount Pleasant. Air Commodore K J Mclntyre, Chairman of Dorset County Council, was given the honour of cutting the ribbon. A plaque to commemorate the occasion is displayed on the brick retaining wall at the Dorchester Road end of Weymouth Way. 2010 found the Swannery bridge receiving a facelift as part of The Weymouth Transport Package Scheme. In 2012, the year of our Olympic celebrations, Swannery Bridge will be twenty-five years old.
This history of bridges in Weymouth is concluded with its latest, the Newstead Road bridge, which appropriately enough is to be the last bridging link on the Rodwell trail and it replaces a stone railway arch which was demolished in 1985. Designed by Bruce Williams, based on ideas from local school students, the latest of Weymouth’s bridges seems as connected with its people as the first.