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Pytney bridge (part one)
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There was probably a ferry from Putney to Fulham at least as early as the thirteenth century. As well as a cross-river service, there was also a long-distance ferry taking people into London, as Putney was an important stage on the way to the capital from the south-west. Crossing the river here by ferry could often be dangerous, especially in bad weather, and in 1633 the boat capsized while transporting some of Archbishop Laud’s staff across.The importance of the crossing is also shown by the fact that in November 1642, in the early days of the Civil War, the Earl of Essex built a ‘bridge of boats’ a little downriver of the present bridge to prevent the Royalist forces getting into London. Small vessels were used as piers to support the pontoons, and there were wooden forts at each end. The structure remained in place until 1648, by which time the King had withdrawn with his troops to Oxford.

By the late seventeenth century London was growing rapidly, and it was felt in some quarters that the capital needed to build more bridges to improve communications. In 1671 and again in 1687 proposals were put forward in Parliament for a bridge to be built at Putney, but there was massive opposition from the vested interests of the watermen and the City of London, and both plans were rejected. Another attempt in 1725 was more successful, and an Act was passed in 1726 for the new bridge to be erected.The Bill was supported by Sir Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister, who, it is said, had once been kept waiting on the Putney shore when on his way from Richmond to Westminster for an important debate, while the ferrymen were enjoying a drink at the inn on the opposite bank.

Commissioners were appointed to carry out the scheme and a number of designs were considered. The final choice was a wooden bridge proposed by Sir Joseph Ackworth, although William Cheseldon, a surgeon from St Thomas’ Hospital, was later to have some input into the bridge’s design. The construction was contracted out to the King’s carpenter, Thomas Phillips. In addition to the construction costs, the owners had to pay compensation to the ferrymen and to the owners of the ferry rights, the Bishop of London, who had his palace at Fulham on the north bank, and the Duchess of Marlborough, who was Lord of the Manor of Wimbledon on the south side. As part of the compensation deal, the Bishop and the Duchess, as well as their staff, were allowed to cross the new bridge without paying. This privilege was often abused by people who shouted ‘Bishop’ and kept going! The King, however, agreed to pay the toll.

Pytney bridge (part one)

View of old Putney Bridge, showing the iron girder which replaced the three central arches after the bridge was hit by a barge.

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