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Westminster bridge (part five)
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In 1846 a Select Committee recommended that the bridge be replaced, but discussions continued for years about what type of bridge it should be and whether the new bridge should be on the same site or further downstream. In the meantime the bridge continued to be patched up, and it soon became a laughing stock, an editorial in The Times referring to it as 'a ruin one century old; too old to be safe, too young to be picturesque, and threatening any day to fall into the bed of the river'. There were also many complaints from those living and working in Lambeth, as the bridge was regularly closed to traffic while repairs were carried out, which forced them to take a detour to get to work, and it also affected trade in the shops of Westminster Bridge Road.

In April 1852 a parliamentary commission recommended that the old bridge be used as a temporary crossing while a new one was constructed as close as possible to it. The new bridge would be built with iron spans on stone piers and have no more than five arches, which would allow adequate headroom for vessels passing under it and still offer a reasonably easy incline for carriages going over it. An Act was passed in 1853, transferring the bridge to the Commissioners of Public Works, and allowing the new bridge to be built, with Thomas Page, the Commission's engineer, appointed to design it. This was Page's fourth bridge over the Thames, but it is the only one surviving, the others having been replaced. In 1854 the first pile was driven in, but the first contractors, Mare & Company, went out of business in September 1855 and work was suspended in March of the following year. Page agreed to take on the job of overseeing the project himself, and work restarted in 1857.

The bridge was built slightly upstream of the old bridge, not on the downstream side, as originally agreed. It is of seven iron spans, not the five originally specified, despite complaints from James Walker and others that this would not allow enough headway for river traffic; it seems that the needs of road traffic were already beginning to take precedence over those of the river traffic. At 85 feet wide, it is almost double the width of the old bridge. The arches are formed of iron ribs, mostly of cast iron, though, for greater strength, the flat crown of each arch is of wrought iron. The brick piers and abutments are faced in granite, and the abutments built using some of the Portland stone from the old bridge. Page made sure the foundations were robust by driving elm piles into the riverbed, and strengthening them with sheet iron and concrete. Charles Barry was taken on as architectural consultant, so that the new bridge would blend in with his new Houses of Parliament. Originally he had wanted the bridge to have Gothic pointed arches, but the final design was for much flatter, elliptical spans. The Gothic detailing on the cast-iron parapets and spandrels was made to Barry's designs and incorporates the coats of arms of England and Westminster.


Westminster bridge (part five)

One of Westminster Bridge's ornate lamp standards, photographed before the recent renovations.




There were many innovations in the way the bridge was built. Firstly, by using electric and gas lighting, they were able to work during all low tides, even during the night. Also, the job of fixing the bolts and placing the bags of concrete in the foundations was carried out by divers, while inspections were made from a diving bell. Most unusually, to save the expense of building a temporary bridge, the new bridge was constructed in two stages. The upstream side was built first, allowing the old bridge to be used by pedestrians and carriages during the construction. When that half was ready to be used, the old bridge was demolished and the downstream half completed. While awaiting the delayed arrival of some of the ironwork, four of the new piers were extended under the old arches, and this may well have helped the old bridge remain standing.

There were also delays in the creation of the approaches, but, eventually, in March 1860 the western half of the bridge opened to vehicles, while the old bridge continued to be used by pedestrians and those on horseback until the western part of it was demolished. There was a small ceremony in which Page and the Commissioner ofWorks walked over the bridge, followed by a crowd of boys. During the next twelve months the old bridge was removed and work on completing the new one moved ahead without delay. The official opening took place on Queen Victorias birthday, 24 May 1862, at 3.45 a.m., the precise time of her birth. She had originally agreed to open the bridge in person but, as she was now in mourning for Prince Albert, who had died the previous year, she withdrew, and the event was low-key, with little ceremony. At 3.45 precisely a twenty-five-gun salute was fired in honour of the Queen's twenty-five years on the throne, and the barriers were opened for the public to cross.



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