by Diana Willment
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 6 (1997)
Long before a bridge was built people crossed the River Brent at fords, one of which would have been near the site of the present bridge. Water depths would have been variable as the lower Brent was probably weakly tidal. Roman Brentford was an important staging post on the main road west. The ford may then have been paved as were many fords on Roman roads.
There was also probably a fording point over the Thames itself at Brentford or at least a place where the river could be crossed. This would have been at Old England where the Brentford Dock is now. An historian writing in 1695 tells us that the Thames there was not above 3ft deep at low water. These fords probably gave Brentford its name; the earliest spelling is Breguntford in a document of AD 775.
It was most likely at Old England that the battles between the Danes, led by Canute, and the Saxons under King Edmund took place. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle tell us that in the year 1016 Canute was twice driven back across the Thames at Brentford and pursued far into Kent.
The wooden bridge
During medieval times, the Brent crossing continued to be of great importance, both to travellers and local people. Houses and hostelries, chapels and hospitals were established nearby. In the town a weekly market grew up and a monastery was founded at Syon. A wooden bridge across the Brent, possibly a little upstream of the present bridge, was in place by 1224 and pontage was granted for its upkeep. Between 1280 and 1369 tolls were introduced from time to time as needed, to pay for bridge maintenance. During the reign of Edward I farm animals were charged at a halfpenny each while most people passed free.
The three-arched stone bridge
The first stone bridge was in place by 1446. In about 1533 it is described as having three arches and this is how it is shown on Moses Glover’s map of 1635. The bridge was always considered difficult to pass over and by the early 17th century bridge repairs had become the responsibility of the Duke of Northumberland. The number of inns testifies to the continual through-traffic and the town began to gain a reputation for congestion, lawlessness and dirt.
In 1642 the Battle of Brentford was fought fiercely on and around the bridge, in the barricaded streets to the west and in the town, causing a great deal of damage and much loss of life. Although the town fell to the Royalists Prince Rupert was unable to fight his way through to London. The town was sacked and it is claimed that some Brentford citizens, who left soon after, crossed the Atlantic and founded the town of Branford in Connecticut in 1644.
In the later 17th century wheeled through-traffic became so heavy and continuous that attempts were made to encourage it to use the ford which was still in existence close by, so keeping the bridge clear for foot passengers.
The brick and stone bridge
The main road to the west became a turnpike road after an Act of 1717. The road was gradually improved and traffic increased so that by the 1730s the bridge was again inadequate. In 1740 it was taken down and rebuilt after nearly 300 years’ service. It kept its three arches but was now constructed of brick as well as stone. Throughout the 18th century the Brentford road continued to be an important stage-coach route and the heavy wagons and coaches passing this way found even the new bridge awkward and narrow. Timbers were used to widen it, but it was to stand for only 84 years.
The Grand Junction Canal
The River Brent could only be navigated with difficulty and only by small craft until in 1794 the Grand Junction Canal, which made use of the lower three and a half miles of the Brent, was opened for traffic between the Thames and Uxbridge, via Brentford. Soon after there was a through canal route to the Midlands and north which became one of Brentford’s most important trading links. The Grand Junction Canal became part of the Grand Union Canal in 1929.
Downstream from the bridge was Ham Weighdock where boats were loaded with known weights and marked so that cargoes could easily be assessed for tolls. From the bridge is a good view of Brentford Gauging Locks where tolls were paid, according to type and weight of cargo. The Toll Office on the lockside at the Gauging Locks dates from 1911. This was originally the first lock on the canal from the Thames, but to aid navigation a further lock was constructed at Thames Locks in the early 19th century, near the confluence of Brent and Thames. For the first time the water under Brentford Bridge was totally non-tidal.
The granite bridge
In 1824 the foundation stone for the next “substantial and commodious” granite bridge was laid by Colonel James Clitherow, owner of Boston Manor House. After the ceremony an “elegant dinner” was held at the Three Pigeons in the Market Place. The bridge took about three years to construct and during that time traffic used a temporary wooden bridge alongside. The single span arch built for this bridge still supports the present bridge and can be seen from the towing path on either side of the road. This arch is surprisingly small, too low and narrow to accommodate a path. It limits water traffic and impedes water flow in times of flood.
The Brent has had its share of flood disasters. The most severe were in 1682 after a thunderstorm when the three-arched stone bridge was in place, and in the winter of 1841 following a rapid thaw and the bursting of the wooden sluicegate controlling the flow down the river from the Brent Reservoir (Welsh Harp). On both occasions water poured through the streets and alleyways of Brentford, causing a great deal of damage to property and endangering life, and boats smashed against the bridge.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries trade and commerce continued to increase and Brentford prospered. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert passed over the bridge together on their wedding day in 1840. However, the arrival of the railways in the mid 19th century had an immediate effect on stage-coach traffic and also affected commercial carrying by canal. In the late 19th century Brentford Town station was busy with shoppers from Southall who crossed the bridge to get to the shops in Brentford.
The introduction of the internal combustion engine saw increases in road traffic everywhere and Brentford Bridge was widened in 1909. The solid granite parapets were replaced with lighter rivetted iron parapets cantilevered out, allowing extra width for a footway on each side. Granite from the bridge, then known as the County Bridge, was given to Brentford Urban District Council to construct the Brentford Monument, unveiled in May 1909. The Monument used two of the four large granite drums which carried the bridge lamps from about 1825 to 1909 (what, one wonders, happened to the other two?).
Today’s Brentford Bridge is made of granite, concrete and iron. The waterside can be reached on both sides of the road. The sweep of the parapet and round granite lamp bases of 1824-5 are still in place on the downstream side. The footways were strengthened and the iron parapets replaced by near replicas in concrete when the bridge was restored in 1994-5. The four lamps and their iron bases were refurbished and still provide elegant light for travellers. The most recent embellishments arrived in 1996 – some convincing rivet-heads.
The bridge provides a useful impediment to speeding traffic from the west and neatly marks the western end of the town centre. The Thames Path crosses the Brent here and the towing path crosses both canal and road. Public utilities also use the bridge for their services, hiding them discreetly beneath the pavements. Under the footway on the south side is the water main supplying Brentford’s reservoir from Hampton Waterworks, while gas, electricity, sewage, telephone and cable use the north side. The water ring main completed in 1994 lies nearly 50 metres down, almost exactly below the bridge, and supplies water to a wide area of London.
Brentford Bridge is a fortunate survival from earlier times, is still heavily used and remains a well-known local landmark.