8 Secrets Of Putney Bridge

Eleana Overett
By Eleana Overett Last edited 83 months ago

Last Updated 03 July 2017

8 Secrets Of Putney Bridge
Photo: David Henderson

1. Putney Bridge wasn't Putney Bridge

The first Putney Bridge was officially known as Fulham Bridge.

2. Born out of frustration

Before the bridge, ferry crossings were the only way to get across the Thames in that part of London. The story goes that Prime Minister Robert Walpole finally acquiesced to public demand for a bridge when he himself attempted to cross the river in 1720 after returning from a visit to King George I in Kingston. Walpole was on his way to attend a debate at the House of Commons but found the ferry unattended on the opposite side of the river, and the ferryman drinking in the Swan Inn. Despite repeated efforts to grab his attention, Walpole went unnoticed and eventually his party had to make the longer journey round to Parliament. The unsuccessful attempt seemed to hasten his decision to build a new bridge.

3. Second bridge to cross the Thames

The bridge was first built in 1729 out of wood to connect Putney with Fulham. It had 26 arches (compared to the current version's five) and was the first bridge to be built over the Thames in central London after London Bridge, which had been the only bridge in the area since the days of Londinium.

Photo: Putney SW15

4. Costly crossing

It was once a toll bridge, with toll booths positioned on either end. Putney Bridge has always seen heavy traffic, and in the first few years alone netted £1,500 per year — that's around £130,000 per year in today's money.

Once the bridge installed toll booths, the Prince of Wales would pay £100 annually for his family to freely cross the bridge.

Many Londoners caught a cheeky break from paying the toll in 1739, 1788-89 and 1813-14. These were the years of big freezes in London, when the Thames froze over and was solid enough to cross by foot for those who were brave and steady enough.

The toll was removed in 1877 when all London's bridges were taken into public ownership.

Photo: Putney SW15

5. Scene of near tragedy

In 1795, early women's advocate and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft threw herself off Putney Bridge after finding out her partner was having an affair with an actress, was pulled unconscious from the river, and resuscitated by passing boatmen. She went on to marry philosopher William Godwin and had a daughter, Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein.

In 2014, the 424 bus mounted the pavement and slammed through the stone wall of Putney Bridge, coming close to hanging over the edge. The driver had to be removed by the London Fire Brigade and was taken to hospital with minor injuries. No passengers were hurt and were able to escape through a rear emergency door.

6. The Boat Race doesn't technically start here

Okay, it does and it doesn't. Putney Bridge is where you can see the boats of Oxford and Cambridge line up in their starting positions before they begin the gruelling 20 minute race. However, the bridge is often mistakenly quoted as being the actual starting point of the race, a point which is actually a little further upstream.

Photo: Massimo Usai

7. Flanked by religion

Putney Bridge is the only bridge in Britain to be flanked by churches on both ends. On the north bank is All Saints' church, whose churchyard was partly dug up when the bridge was widened in 1926 and required 15 graves to be removed and resited. On the south bank is St Mary's church, the site of the famous Putney Debates on the English constitution.

8. Part of London's sewer system

There are two locked cages under Putney Bridge that prevent access into two storm relief sewer outlets. These were built to cope with overflow from one of the southern intercept sewers built in 1858 by Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Bazalgette designed London's sewer system and had the foresight to include around 30% extra capacity to account for the city's growth, but London has far outgrown his estimates and so relief outlets were built for when there is particularly heavy rainfall or additional sewerage.

An old Putney myth that the cages were being used to drown criminals is, fortunately, untrue.

Photo: David Henderson

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