While the denizens of Nine Elms are campaigning for a pedestrian crossing from Battersea, let’s spare a thought for the mysterious ‘lost bridge of Vauxhall’. It seems to have escaped the notice of London’s chroniclers, the reason being that no maps were made of the city during its brief existence, according to John Clarke, emeritus curator of the Museum of London.
The present Vauxhall Bridge is one of London’s dullest at road level, although if you peek over the balustrade, the statues by Alfred Drury and Francis Pomeroy are well worth a look, particularly Pomeroy’s monumental ‘Architecture’ on the upstream side that holds a wonderful miniature scale model of St Paul's Cathedral. The bridge was completed in 1906 and replaced the first structure across the Thames at Vauxhall — a privately owned toll bridge which had itself replaced a ferry crossing in 1816.
The toll bridge had been quite an earner given the number of Londoners visiting Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens from where, among a variety of excitements, hot air balloon flights were launched. Crowds would gather on the old bridge to watch the flights and other urban delights such as Mister Barry the Clown’s journey to Westminster Bridge in a geese-powered washtub. In an act of public-spirited largesse, the Metropolis Toll Bridges Act was passed in 1877 and the Metropolitan Board of Works bought all the bridges between Hammersmith and Waterloo Bridge and made them free to cross.
Work to replace the crumbling toll bridge began in 1898. It was deemed necessary to keep traffic flowing during the construction works, so a temporary bridge was commissioned and installed downstream, on axis with what is now the Tate Britain gallery, as can be seen (along with the old bridge) in a delightful image from 1901 kept in the Museum of London Library.
With its wooden piers and 165ft long central girders, the temporary structure was quite an engineering feat. Those central girders had been prefabricated at the Thames Ironworks in Blackwall and floated upriver on a pontoon towed by an old Greenwich ferryboat. The journey was recorded in the rather dramatic photographs seen here from The Engineer Magazine. Apparently a series of ‘unfortunate and unforeseen delays’ occurred en route: it was discovered to be too big to fit under the arches of the elegant Westminster Bridge and had to be lowered, but after a certain amount of ‘backing and filling, hauling and slackening’ it was finally moved safely into place where it probably became the first ‘wobbly’ bridge.
It was only meant to last for three years but work on the new permanent bridge went so awry, that it remained in place for a full eight and must have become quite a local feature. When the new bridge was eventually opened by the Prince of Wales in 1906, the builder Charles Wall managed to buy the now defunct temporary one, with its 40,000 cubic feet of timber and 580 tons of scrap metal, for the sum of £50. A snip, we would have thought. Where it went to then, nobody knows.
The lost Vauxhall bridge should not be confused with ‘The Millbank Bridge’ later built in a similar location during the second world war, or the Bronze Age sacred structure built millennia earlier from the Vauxhall banks to a vanished island midstream. Like temporary crossings in other locations, the Millbank Bridge was constructed as a precaution against German bombers. In a strange foreshadowing of the fate of London Bridge in America, it was dismantled in 1948, shipped out and ended up spanning a tributary of the Zambezi.
With thanks to John Clarke.