Posted by: madkentdragon | April 26, 2011

Quirky Kent 18, Rochester Bridge to the present day plus its Chapel

The Old Bridge still in use

The medieval bridge served for nearly 500 years, however the City of Rochester and the town of Strood had both increased in size  over this time and the bridge was now too small for its purpose and the piers were no longer wide enough apart to allow the more modern vessels.

Therefore in the late 18th Century, it was decided to widen the bridge to nearly twice its current size and added a footpath either side of the road way, the piers and their foundations were slimmed down and the draw bridge was replaced with a larger central arch. The whole work was completed by 1824.

But soon this was not sufficient for the amount of traffic over and under the bridge and during the 1840s, agreed that a new bridge was urgently needed. This new bridge was, at the insistence of the Admiralty, a cast iron bridge, consisting of the large arches spanning the river. One part was to be a swing bridge to allow fixed masts passage through. The construction weighed over 2500 tons, was 485 feet long plus the swing bridge which added a further 50 feet to the length. The swing bridge, which weighed over 300 tonnes when the roadway was added, was so cleverly engineered that it only needed two men to operate it; this was all built on the site of the old Roman bridge to prevent Rochester being bridge-less.

In 1846 Parliament passed the “Rochester Bridge Act”, which gave permission for this new bridge to be built and the first contract for this was signed in 1850, the bridge being completed in 1856 and grand opening was arranged; with the Wardens, dignitaries and local Mayors, complete with Royal  Marine Band walking over the old bridge and returning on the new Victorian bridge followed by a dinner and fireworks. Six months later the old bridge was demolished by the Royal Engineers

But even this bridge only lasted fifty years! Already in need of refurbishment and new railway bridges built down river from it, the swing bridge, which had never been used, had its winding gear removed and utility services ran their pipes and conduits across the bridge.  Boats had collided with the arches and these were in poor condition and the 1909 inspection alarmed the wardens so much that it was decided that a complete renovation was necessary; so in 1910 the works started and it was converted in to a suspension bridge and reopened in 1914. It
is still in use today and its two lanes carry traffic one way from Rochester to Strood.

Following the Second World War, with the increase of traffic it was decided that a second bridge was needed as over two and a half thousand vehicles were crossing this bridge during the rush hours and streets either side of the bridge frequently came to a standstill. There was a disused railway bridge just downstream from the road bridge, it had been built by the East Kent Railway Company in the 1850s but by 1920 was no longer used, in 1957 it was decided to look at renovating this to use as a road bridge to improve traffic flow

The Ministry of Transport agreed to provide new approach roads and British Rail also agreed to the plan; so in 1965 another act was passed through parliament to buy the necessary land to build this new bridge. Construction started in 1967 and Princess Margaret opened it in 1970. This bridge carries two lanes of traffic from Strood to Rochester, the opposite direction to the old bridge. It also has the addition of the railway bridge which was modernised and is now back in use.

To administer this task, the Wardens and Commonalty had to have a meeting room, known as “The Bridge Chamber”, it was first mentioned in
the late 14th Century but little is known of its whereabouts, but by the late 16th Century it was found to be on the upper floor of a house with a window displaying the arms of Elizabeth I, later it was in a newly built extension to The Crown Inn and was reached by stairs in the yard. By the late 18th Century it had moved to a refurbished building on the bridge itself, but it shared a communal wall with another public house and when that was due to be demolished, it was decided to buy the land and build a new  suite of offices in 1878 and the first meeting was held there two years later, it is now a listed building.

In medieval times all major bridges had chapels, with a priest to pray for your safe onward journey, and Rochester was no exception. A chapel was built by Sir John de Cobham in 1393 on the approach to the bridge on what is now the Esplanade.

At the time of the Reformation it was closed down and used as a store room, and then as a house, followed by a public house and finally in
Victorian times as a sweet shop. When the new Bridge Chamber was built in 1879, the chapel was no more than a ruin, but in 1937 the Wardens had it restored. Now used mainly for civic dinners etc, a service is still held there on All Souls Day, as the original chapel had been called All Souls. The service is to commemorate the founders and benefactors of the bridge.

There are very few bridge chapels left now-a-days, but they can be found at Bradford on Avon, Derby, Rotherham, St Ives (Cambs) and Wakefield. There are the remains of another in Cromford in Derbyshire.

The Trust has become wealthy over the centuries and has given funds towards the building of other bridges in the area, and Maidstone’s bridges as well as other Medway crossings have had subsidies from the trust, their latest being the Medway Tunnel – which unlike Dartford is toll free.

I’m content that I now know what those ancient words meant and why they no longer apply, thanks to The Rochester Bridge Trust and its Wardens.



  1. I found your post on Rochester Bridge very interesting. I walk my dogs here when I can and have walked them over the bridge many times. I also walk them on the esplanade.
    You feel the history when walking through Rochester.

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