Rochester Bridge in Rochester, Medway was for centuries the lowest fixed crossing of the River Medway in South East England. There have been several generations of bridge at this spot, and the current "bridge" is in fact four separate bridges: two carrying the A2 road, one carrying the railway and one carrying all the service pipes and cables. The bridge links the towns of Strood and Rochester in Medway.
The Romans built a bridge across the River Medway as part of Watling Street, carrying traffic from London to Dover (the port for Continental Europe). This was almost certainly the first bridge at the site as the Romans were the first occupiers to have the necessary technology to bridge such a wide and fierce tidal river. The Roman engineers might have initially built a pontoon bridge to support and supply their invading armies; however this would have needed replacing by a stronger, more permanent bridge to support increased traffic. After Victorian engineers discovered the Roman foundations when they were building the current "Old" bridge, it was learnt that stone foundations had been used, probably to support a wooden deck.
A wooden bridge existed in the Middle Ages since at least the year 960. The bridge was divided into sections of responsibility amongst local landowners and institutions. This worked reasonably well although despite partial rebuilding, the bridge fell into disrepair and collapses occurred with the worrying frequency of about once a year. In the winter of 1381 a large proportion of the bridge was carried away by the combined forces of melt water and ice.
A stone bridge was built by Sir John de Cobham and Sir Robert Knolles (or Knollys), finished in 1391. To ensure the maintenance of their new bridge, the two men instituted the Wardens and Commonalty of Rochester Bridge, two elected wardens were appointed with permission from Richard II to own land and use the income for the bridge. The Wardens and Commonalty received grants of land from Henry IV and Henry V, as well as money from other benefactors. The trust was able to maintain the bridge using income from property and investments, and materials from woods and quarries. A scheme of improvements was completed in 1824 to the plans of the engineer Daniel Asher Alexander. The bridge was widened and the two central arches merged into one to provide a wider channel for shipping. In 1856, when modern river traffic demanded a new structure the medieval bridge was demolished with the help of the Royal Engineers.
A cast iron bridge was built in 1856 to replace the stone bridge. One span was designed to swing open to allow river traffic, but the mechanism was never used and was eventually removed. The cast iron spans were below the road deck, making the bridge relatively low and meant that passing traffic on the river had to navigate to line up with the top of the arch or risk striking the bridge.
Not every ship was successful and many collisions occurred. These took their toll on the bridge and an inspection in 1909 showed fractured ribs and missing bolts. After a relatively short life a new bridge was needed.
1914 to present day
The cast iron bridge was reconstructed at a cost of £95,887. The bridge opened for traffic on 14 May 1914 with new features to allow more clearance for the many boats that had to pass under it. The supporting arched trusses were built further apart and above the road deck. Trams continued to use the bridge until the tram system was abandoned in 1930 and superseded by buses.
In 1970 a second road bridge was opened immediately next to the first, to increase capacity. The old bridge underwent major maintenance and complete refurbishment, completed in November 2006, to extend the lifespan another 30 years. As for all the work to the bridges, this was paid for by the Rochester Bridge Trust with the proceeds from the original endowments and was carried out at no cost to the public taxpayer.
The East Kent Railway built the first rail bridge (which opened on 29 March 1858) for its line from Strood to Chatham. It was designed and built by Joseph Cubitt, and had four spans, one of which could be opened to allow masted ships through, although this was later found to be unnecessary and so was fixed shut. The bridge was built of iron girders supported on masonry piers, 600 feet in length and weighing 700 tons. The East Kent Railway became the London Chatham and Dover Railway 1 August 1859 and in 1861 the bridge became a part of the newly completed Chatham Main Line from London to Dover.
South Eastern Railway, the LCDR's local rival, built a branch line from its nearby railway line at Strood across the Medway to its own Rochester station, Rochester Common, opened on 20 July 1891, and its own Chatham station, Chatham Central, opened 1 March 1892, for which it built the massive second railway bridge over the Medway.
The two rivals merged under a Joint Managing Committee in 1899 to form the South Eastern and Chatham Railway, and subsequent rationalisation saw the SER's Chatham Central branch closed before World War I on 1 October 1911. In 1927 the Chatham Mainline was diverted to use the more substantial second railway bridge, and the original LCDR railway bridge was left unused for decades until it was eventually demolished, the piles being used for the second road bridge which opened in 1970.
Rochester Bridge Wardens and Rochester Bridge Trust
These days the road bridges and services bridge are maintained by the Rochester Bridge Trust, the modern incarnation of Sir John de Cobham's Wardens and Commonalty of Rochester Bridge. The Trust still owns some of the land gifted to the Wardens and used the income derived from the endowments to pay for the new bridges in 1856 (now the west bound lanes of the A2) and 1970 (east bound A2) as well as meeting all the costs of maintaining those bridges and part of Rochester Esplanade.
The Trust is a charity with 12 trustees, known locally as the Bridge Wardens. Six are nominated by the local Councils and six are local people appointed by the Trust. The Trust in its current form was created by an act of Parliament in 1908 and is regulated by the Charity Commission.
The Trust also contributed to the building of the Medway Tunnel (1996), a few miles downstream. Although the freehold is still owned by the Trust, the Tunnel is operated, maintained and funded by Medway Council under a 999-year lease. and there are negotiations underway for the Council to take over the freehold. The Trust has made substantial voluntary contributions to the Council for the maintenance of the Tunnel since it opened. It has been reported by the local press that negotiations are underway for the Council to buy the freehold from the Trust for £1 and to accept a substantial one-off payment from the Trust in place of an annual contribution.
The Medway Tunnel was the first immersed tube tunnel to be built in England and only the second of this type in the UK, the other being at Conwy, North Wales. The work, which was carried out by an HBM Civil Engineering/Tarmac Construction joint venture, started in May 1992 and the Medway Tunnel was opened by the Princess Royal on 12 June 1996.
The Trust has also made grants for local good causes ranging from a few thousand pounds to more significant grants. In particular, contributions have been made to the restoration of many important historic buildings in Kent. The most recent of the larger grants have been for the restoration of the South Transept of Rochester Cathedral, and to appoint a Professor of Bridge and Tunnel Engineering at the University of Greenwich (Medway Campus). In the 1880s, the Trust founded Rochester and Maidstone Girls Grammar schools and made large endowments to the boys grammar schools in both towns.
- "D.A. Alexander, Esq.". The Gentleman's Magazine 26: 210–11. 1846. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
- "The Medieval Bridge". Retrieved 30 May 2011. Retrieved 26 May 2011
- Harley, Robert J. (1994). Maidstone and Chatham Tramways. Middleton Press. ISBN 1-873793-40-5.
- Marshall (1968), p.326.
- 'Railway Bridge at Rochester', London Journal, 5 July 1856, v.23, 593, p.245.
- Brooks, Nicholas P.; R.H. Britnell; James M. Gibson; David Ormrod; James Preston; P.F. Cooper and Glyn C. Jones (1994). Nigel Yates; James M. Gibson, eds. Traffic and Politics: The construction and management of Rochester Bridge AD 43–1993. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. ISBN 0-85115-356-9.
- Marshall, Dendy C. F. (1968). R.W. Kindner, ed. History of the Southern Railway. London: Ian Allan. ISBN 0-7110-0059-X.
- The Rochester Bridge Trust website
- Rochester Bridge Trust Accessed 2006-09-05. History of the wardens and photos showing construction of current bridges and tunnel.
- The story of Rochester Bridge Medway Council website. Accessed 2006-09-05.