Currently closed for 3 years, Hammersmith Bridge is one of London’s most attractive crossings. There’s been a bridge connecting Hammersmith and Barnes for nearly 200 years, and ever since the first one was opened in 1827 there have been complaints about its strength. With Hammersmith becoming an important agricultural and industrial part of west London there had been an increasing need to add more river crossings. With this in mind the authorities turned to local engineer William Tierney Clark, who’s best known for the Széchenyi Chain Bridge that spans the Danube in Budapest. Even at the start of the work, when the Duke of Sussex blessed the bridge, there were concerns about the bridge’s capacity to take weight. This came to a climax in 1870 when some 10,000 people gathered on the bridge to witness the annual University Boat Race. Newspapers reported ‘the shameful overcrowding’ as the bridge swayed. There was only one solution: build a stronger, safer structure.
This time they turned to Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the go-to engineer most famous for designing London’s sewer system. Work began on the new bridge in 1884 and was completed in 1887, with the Prince of Wales officially opening the bridge on 11 June of that year. While Bazalgette’s new bridge was being constructed, a temporary bridge was erected alongside it to allow traffic to continue crossing the river between Hammersmith and Barnes. A group of people living in Barnes, concerned about the difficulties they would face to reach Hammersmith while the suspension bridge
was being redeveloped, campaigned for the temporary bridge to be provided, but a letter from a Barnes resident printed in the London Evening Standard on 3 December 1885 gives us an insight into locals’ experiences with this temporary bridge: “Sir, May I inquire, through your journal, how much longer the public is expected to tolerate the miserable and disgraceful condition of the Bridge erected over the Thames at Hammersmith for use during the closing of the old Suspension Bridge.”
Since its construction Hammersmith Bridge has had an eventful history. Near midnight on 27 December 1919, a Lieutenant Charles Campbell Wood from Bloemfontein in South Africa, dived into the Thames from the upstream footway of Hammersmith Bridge to rescue a drowning woman. They both survived the ordeal, but Campbell Wood died of tetanus contracted from his injuries, and died two weeks later. His bravery is commemorated with a plaque on Hammersmith Bridge.
It’s also been the target of the IRA no less than 3 times. In 1939 a bomb was spotted by Maurice Childs, a hairdresser from Chiswick. Walking home at one in the morning, Childs spotted a smoking suitcase lying on the bridge's walkway. He quickly threw the bag in the river: the resulting explosion sent up a 18m column of water. Moments later, a second device exploded causing girders on the west side of the bridge to collapse. Childs was later awarded an MBE for his quick-thinking.
Naturally so photogenic a bridge has been a popular location for film makers, including Sliding Doors, Theatre of Blood, Night and the City, Repulsion, and Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence. Let’s hope we can enjoy the bridge for many years to come.