by Gillian Clegg, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 12, 2003
The bridge across the Thames between Brentford and Kew will have been open for 100 years on 20 May 2003. It replaced a stone bridge, opened by George III in September 1789, which, in turn, replaced a bridge built mainly of wood opened in June 1759. This was the only bridge over the Thames between Fulham and Kingston until Richmond Bridge opened in 1777.
The second Kew Bridge had seven arches and was much admired for its elegance, but it was rather narrow, the roadway being 18 feet wide, the footpaths 3ft 3in each. It also had steep gradients on each of the approaches. In 1892, owing to increased traffic, the engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry was asked to examine the bridge and report on the feasibility of widening and generally improving it. Barry’s inspection revealed that the piers of the bridge were not in good condition and that it would anyway be impractical to improve the gradients. Barry recommended the entire reconstruction of the bridge. This resulted in an Act of Parliament, the Kew Bridge Act of 1898, being obtained for the erection of the new bridge, the cost of around quarter of a million pounds being borne equally by the County Councils of Middlesex and Surrey. The engineers were Sir John Wolfe Barry and Cuthbert A Brereton with W Garney Wales as the resident engineer. The contract for the work was put out to tender which was secured by Easton Gibb and Son.
Early in 1899, prior to the removal of the old bridge, a temporary bridge, simply constructed on timber piles and trestles, was built upstream. This was used by traffic from October 1899. By December 1899 the removal of the old bridge was sufficiently complete to enable the new bridge to be started. The work was finished three years later.
The third bridge, 502 feet long, consists of three elliptical arches spanning the river, the centre arch having a span of 133 feet. The carriageway and its approach measures 36ft and the footpaths on either side are 9ft 6in wide. Most of the bridge is made from solid granite, which came mainly from Cornwall and Aberdeen. Some of the larger stones weigh as much as eight tons apiece. As the plaque on the parapet at the centre of of Kew Bridge records, the official name of the bridge is the ‘King Edward VII bridge’ and it was King Edward who opened it. The name, however, never caught on.
On Wednesday 20 Ma, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra travelled from Buckingham Palace in an open carriage drawn by four horses. Three other open carriages containing various di¬nitaries accompanied them and a detachment of the Household Cavalry provided an escort. The procession proceeded through Knightsbridge, Kensington and Hammersmith to Chiswick (much to the disgust of The Richmond & Twickenham Times which reported that Richmond’s mayor had proposed that the King might ‘traverse the town of Richmond. Unhappil . . . this proposal was vetoed at once and another route was submitted to the King’).
The procession reached Chiswick at around 4pm where it passed under a floral arch in scarlet and gold with a banner saying ‘Welcome to Chiswick’. Thousands of Chiswick residents turned out to cheer the King and Queen on their way, the King, of course, was a former resident of Chiswick having lived at Chiswick House for a time while he was Prince of Wales. Chiswick High Road was gaily decorated with Venetian masts (tall poles decorated with spiral bands of colour) from which were suspended flags and bunting. These had been erected by the local authority in conjuction with the London United Tramways Company. Publicans, shopkeepers, companies and individuals decorated their own premises. Particularly attractive was the fire station which ‘was draped from summit to base in red, white, blue and yellow’ and the Tramways Company’s office ‘most tastefully bedecked with evergreens, flags and shields’.
At Turnham Green many children were gathered under a banner which read ‘The Children Greet Your Majesties’ and sang God Save the King lustily when the Royal Party passed. At the Brentford end of the parish was another banner reading ‘God Speed Your Majesties’.
As the procession reached the bridge the band of the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, struck up the National Anthem (bands of the 2nd Volunteer Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment and the 3rd Volunteer Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment also performed at each end of the bridge).The King, ‘looking exceedingly well and hearty’, and the Queen, wearing a heliotrope cape and a toque to match, alighted from their carriage beside a ‘prettily decorated pavilion’ which had been erected in the centre of the new bridge, stretching from parapet to parapet. On entering the pavilion their Majesties were greeted with a ‘perfect salvo of cheers from over 1,000 invited guests’.
Sir Ralph Littler, Chairman of the Joint Bridge Committee, gave an address to which the King replied saying ‘we welcome the spirit that has moved the two counties of Middlesex and Surrey to join in this undertaki . . .’ He then proceeded to put the last coping stone in position using a silver trowel, a mallet (both of which had handles made from one of the piles of the wooden bridge) and a silver spirit level in the shape of the new bridge. Giving two smart taps with the trowel the King declared the bridge open. This was followed by loud cheering, first from those on the bridge, then from the craft on the river and the people lining the banks ‘until it echoed right across the serried crowds on the roads both north and south of the Thames.’ Their Majesties then inspected the bridge, were served tea and introduced to various people who had been involved with its construc-tion before returning home. The invited guests attended a reception held in the grounds of Kew Palace and afterwards a banquet at the Star and Garter Hotel, Richmond Hill. Children from the area were treated to a tea party on Kew Green.
The King was presented with many gifts. The Joint Bridge Committee gave him an illuminated copy of the Address it had made to him, contained in a sumptuous silver gilt casket. Decorative pan¬els on the casket depicted the old and new bridges, and the coats of arms of the counties of Middlesex and Surrey. The inhabitants of the urban districts of Brentford and Chiswick presented him with a beautifully embossed Georgian silver mug of 1720; the Mayor of Richmond with a commemorative gold medal, and a year later, with a chair made by Mr Culver of King Street, Richmond from the piles of the old wooden bridge. Its cross rails were in the shape of the three Kew bridges. The King also received a short history of the Bridge, bound in purple morocco, and two archaeological artefacts dredged from the Thames dur-ing the Bridge’s construction – a bronze axe dating to around 2000 BC which, remarkably, still had part of its wooden handle intact, and a Neolithic polished flint axe mounted in silver.
Did the King just formally accept these gifts then pass them straight back? In 1994 the mallet and trowel used to lay the coping stone, and the two ancient axes (together with their original presenta¬tion boxes) surfaced at auction when they were acquired by the Museum of London. They had been found in a loft during a house clearance. The auctioneers refused to divulge the name of the vendor because of client confidentiality, but they admitted that the objects had been passed down through one family. This is most likely to have been the family of the engineer, Cuthbert A Brereton.
NOTE: A Kew Bridge chair (shown in the photo) in the Middlesex Guildhall, labelled as being presented to the middlesex County Council by the Mayor of Richm, was purchase by an antique dealer, spotted by David Blomfield (the Kew histprian) and ‘rescued’ as a joint purchase by Richmond Museum and Gunnersbury Park Museum in 2009.
Opening of the King Edward VII Bridge (souvenir programme); The Brentford & Chiswick Times Supplement 29.05.1903; The Acton Gazette 22.05.1903; The Richmond & Twickenham Times 23.05.1903; The Express 23.05.1903.
Gillian Clegg is the editor of this Journal and the author of Chiswick Past, Brentford Past and The Archaeology of Hounslow.