Above: Looking at the west side of the present Battersea Bridge from the Battersea side of the Thames.
Today’s Battersea Bridge is the second on the present site. The first bridge on the site was erected 1771-73 as a toll-bridge at the expense of Earl Spencer, who lived in Battersea. The bridge replaced the Chelsea Ferry which was in the form of a wherry used to row passengers across the Thames. The bridge structure was made entirely of wood, with 17 narrow arches, supported on wooden pilings and with a pronounced hump in the middle. The appearance was picturesque and became the subject of several paintings – particularly by Whistler and Turner.
In 1799 oil lamps were installed on one side of the bridge. At that time there were no street lights in London and crossing the bridge by night in almost pitch-black conditions would have been very perilous. The oil lamps were replaced by gas lamps in 1824. In 1879 the bridge was made free of tolls when it was taken over by the Metropolitan Board of Works – along with all the others crossing the Thames in London.
Above: Old Battersea Bridge. The clumsy-looking wooden bridge had a wide point at the centre to allow Thames sailing barges (with their masts lowered) to pass through the structure.
By 1881 the old bridge had become unsafe and it was closed. It was the last wooden bridge crossing the Thames. On 21 July 1890 a new bridge, built of iron, was officially opened by the Earl of Roseberry. The new bridge was sited a short distance east of the old one. The engineer was Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the work was supervised by his son. That bridge remains today. It has five spans with cast iron ribs. It is 40 feet (12 m) wide between parapets making it now London’s narrowest surviving road bridge over the Thames. In 2004 it was the fifth least-used Thames bridge in London. The bridge is 725 feet (22 m) between abutments.
The present bridge has had more than its fair share of accidents. The bridge is at the end of a long straight length of the Thames before the river suddenly bends south as it passes Battersea. Being on a sharp bend in the river, the bridge still presents a hazard to navigation. (1) In 1948, the MV Delta jammed under the bridge, and its master suffered broken arms and needed to be rescued from the smashed wheelhouse. (2) On 23 March 1950, the collier John Hopkinson collided with the central pier, causing serious structural damage, leaving the tram tracks as the only element holding the bridge together. The London County Council was concerned that the entire structure would collapse and closed the bridge until January 1951. (3) Another serious incident took place on 21 September 2005, when the James Prior, a 200-ton barge, collided with the bridge, causing serious structural damage costing over £500,000 to repair. The bridge was closed to all motor vehicles other than buses while repairs were carried out, causing severe traffic congestion; it eventually reopened on 16 January 2006.
In 1983 the bridge was designated a Grade II listed structure. In 1992 English Heritage oversaw a project to renovate the bridge, which for some years had been painted blue and red. Paint samples were analysed and photographs from the time of opening consulted. The bridge was restored to its original appearance of dark green, with the spandrels decorated in gilding. The lamp standards, which had been removed during the Second World War, were replaced with replicas copied from the surviving posts at the ends of the bridge.