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Chelsea bridge (part one)
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By the middle of the nineteenth century Battersea was becoming a busy new suburb and improved communications with Chelsea were becoming essential to its further development. In 1846 an Act was passed to build a new bridge on the site of an ancient ford, and the engineer chosen was Thomas Page, who later built the new bridge at Westminster. Page prepared several designs, including a seven-span stone bridge and a five-arched cast-iron one, but his design for a suspension bridge was the one chosen by the Metropolitan Improvement Commission. Unusually, the cost of construction was to be borne by the Government, and there were debates in Parliament as to whether the Government should own a toll-paying bridge.

Work started on the bridge, which was unofficially referred to as the Victoria Bridge, in 1851. During its construction, workmen found Roman and Celtic weapons, as well as human skulls, and it was thought by some that this might have been where Julius Caesar and his army crossed the Thames. The most important object, found during dredging for the piers, was a superb Iron Age shield, made of bronze and decorated with coloured glass, and now known as the Battersea Shield. One of the finest ever found, it is unlikely to have been used in battle but was most probably thrown into the river as a votive offering. The original is now in the British Museum, and the Museum of London has a replica on display.

Chelsea bridge (part one)

The first Chelsea Bridge, in a postcard view from the early twentieth century.

The bridge's general appearance was not unlike the present Hammersmith Bridge. It had four massive cast-iron towers with ornate cross-braces and was topped off with pinnacles. On top of each tower were large lamps that would be lit only when Queen Victoria spent the night in London. At each end of the bridge were two equally ornate octagonal tollbooths. The bridge was 47 feet wide, including a roadway of 32 feet and two footpaths, each 7.5 feet wide. The cost of the construction was about £90,000.

On 31 March 1858, three days before the public were allowed on to the bridge, Queen Victoria, accompanied by two of her daughters, crossed it on her way to open the new Battersea Park. The park had been created by Thomas Cubitt out of the marshy area known as Battersea Fields, and one of the reasons for building the new bridge was to allow access to the park from north of the river. It was much used for this purpose by the residents of Chelsea and Fulham, but they felt aggrieved at having to pay a toll to cross it, and representations were made to Parliament by the local authorities to have it reduced. In particular, it was felt that the working classes, who could not afford to travel further afield, were being denied access to an important new local amenity. Before the end of 1858 Parliament declared the bridge toll-free for pedestrians on Sundays, and in 1875 it was made free on public holidays as well.

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