Secrets Of Chelsea Bridge

By Zoe Craig Last edited 17 months ago

Last Updated 16 December 2022

Secrets Of Chelsea Bridge
Chelsea Bridge. Photo by E A Murray.

1. Julius Caesar crossed the Thames at the same point

When the first Chelsea Bridge was being constructed, the excavators found an amazing number of Roman and Celtic artefacts and skeletons on the riverbed.

Historians believe workers had found the site where Julius Caesar's crossed the Thames during the 54 BC invasion of Britain.

The most significant find was the bronze and enamel Battersea Shield, one of the most important pieces of Celtic military equipment found in Britain. You can ogle it in the British Museum.

The Battersea Shield.

2. It used to be called Victoria Bridge

On 31 March 1858 Queen Victoria, accompanied by two of her daughters, crossed the new bridge and declared it officially open, naming it the Victoria Bridge. They were on their way to the newly constructed Battersea Park, for even more regal opening duties.

Victoria Bridge was opened to the public three days later, on 3 April 1858.

But its name was soon changed. The bridge was narrow and structurally unsound; it was renamed Chelsea Bridge, possibly to avoid associating the Queen with any potential bridge collapse.

3. The first Chelsea Bridge

So while the first Chelsea Bridge was a classic Victorian suspension bridge; it was far from a success.

The new Victoria Bridge (later called the Chelsea Bridge) under construction in 1852.

It was rarely used at night, because the four lamps that were supposed to illuminate the bridge were only lit when Queen Victoria was in town.

And to cross, you had to pay a toll.

The bridge had been built to connect the densely populated north side of the river with a new green 'breathing space' in the form of Battersea Park. Londoners were understandably upset at having to pay for the privilege of getting to the fresh air.

Bowing to public pressure, shortly after the bridge opened, Parliament declared it free to use for pedestrians on Sundays, and in 1875 it was also made toll-free on public holidays.

The contentious tolls were collected in these formidable-looking toll booths at the end of the bridge.

On 24 May 1879 Chelsea Bridge (alongside Battersea Bridge and Albert Bridge) were declared toll free by the Prince of Wales.

But by the early 20th century, the bridge was no longer considered safe. Between 1914 and 1929, traffic over the bridge had almost doubled from 6,500 to 12,600 vehicles per day: London needed a new bridge at Chelsea.

4. Today's Chelsea Bridge: vital statistics

Today's Chelsea Bridge was officially opened in on 6 May 1937 by the then-Prime Minister of Canada, who was in London for the coronation of King George VI.

The new bridge was completed five months ahead of schedule and within the £365,000 budget (about £22.4 million in 2017's money.) Chelsea Bridge is 213m (698 ft) long, and 20m (64ft) wide. It has three spans.

5. It's got a rather international flavour

As was agreed with the Ministry of Transport, all the materials used to build Chelsea Bridge came from (what was then) the British Empire.

So, as you're crossing Chelsea bridge, you are traversing a structure made of steel from Scotland and Yorkshire; the granite of the piers are from Aberdeen and Cornwall; the timbers of the deck from Douglas fir trees from British Columbia in Canada; and the (original) asphalt of the roadway was from Trinidad. (We can't help thinking this has been replaced since.)

6. It's decorated with doves, winged bulls and more

There are just a few choice embellishments: five sets of lampposts, each decorated with golden galleons; and four tall turrets at either end of the bridge.

These turrets are decorated with heraldic designs: a golden galleon on top, and, on the outside, the LCC coat of arms of an English lion, St George's Cross, and wavy lines representing the Thames.

A gorgeous golden galleon, plus the Battersea coat of arms on one of Chelsea Bridge's four lamp posts.

On the inward south side, there's the Battersea dove of peace; on the northwest corner there's the winged bull, lion, boars' and stag of the borough of Chelsea; on the northeast corner, there's the portcullis and Tudor roses of the borough of Westminster.

A lamp post with the Westminster coat of arms. Photo by Luis Paz.

7. Red, white and blue: a calming paint-job

Back in the 1970s, Chelsea Bridge was repainted in a striking red and white colour scheme. This prompted a flurry of complaints from fans of Chelsea FC, who felt their local landmark had been painted in the colours of their arch-rivals, Arsenal FC.

In 2007, the bridge was repainted with a less controversial, and more stately, white with a red trim —- with an all-important greyish blue along the balustrades.

8. It was once a biker's paradise

During the early 1950s, Chelsea Bridge became popular with motorcyclists who regularly staged races or pulled stunts while riding across the bridge.

Indeed, Chelsea Bridge was used as a Friday night meeting point for bikers for decades, at least until the turn of the 21st century.

Chelsea Bridge at night. Photo by vgallova.

Most meetings were peaceful (if noisy), but one such meeting in 1970 erupted into violence.

On 17 October 1970 there was a huge fight between rival motorcycle gangs: the Essex and Chelsea Nomads and the Road Rats, Nightingales, Windsors and Jokers. One of the Essex Nomads was shot and wounded, and around 20 people were arrested and spent time in prison for various offences.

Here's a great memoir by a biker, of good times spent on Chelsea Bridge.