Above: Looking north at the south side of the bridge and Deptford Creek.
One of the most unusual features of the old London and Greenwich Railway was the lifting bridge constructed to carry the two tracks over Deptford Creek. The entire railway was constructed on a viaduct, nearly three miles in length, made up of brick arches. Being on a viaduct, the arches were high enough to allow for traffic using the existing roads to pass underneath. The brick arches over roads are still serviceable today. The viaduct also had to cross the Grand Surrey Canal where extra-wide arches were constructed. Although the canal has been filled in, those arches are still in use. The most challenging part of building the railway line was where the lines passed over Deptford Creek, which is the northernmost part of the River Ravensbourne.
Constructing a bridge over Deptford Creek would have presented no problems if had been built of brick arches. However, the Creek is tidal and, at high tide, it is relatively deep. It is also quite wide which means that Thames sailing barges could use the Creek, proceeding as far south as Deptford Bridge. Such barges have a tall mainmast and, because they had been using the Creek for several centuries, they had right of way over trains using the new railway route. Any bridge crossing the Creek was required to be either a swing bridge or a lifting bridge. For a swing bridge at the height of the viaduct, there would have been considerable problems with its construction. A lifting bridge was, therefore, decided on – to raise the rail section above the height of a high-masted vessel. This proved to be rather complicated and, therefore, it held up the completion of the railway line to Greenwich Station. The London and Greenwich Railway ran from London Bridge Station to Deptford Station in December 1836 but the line over Deptford Creek to Greenwich Station was not completed until 24 December 1838.
The First Lifting Bridge
The lifting bridge over Deptford Creek was made of iron and had a central section that also carried the two railway lines. In order to open the bridge, bolts had to be removed from the fish-plates securing the two railway lines so that the bridge section could be raised high enough for a sailing barge to pass underneath. The bridge was then lowered and the bolts securing the movable part of the track were replaced. It was completed by November 1838, consisting of a complex system of pulleys and chains, sliding rods and counterweights, which needed eight strong men to operate it. Three blasts on a train whistle had to be sounded before it was crossed.
The whole procedure to lift the bridge probably took between 30 minutes and an hour to complete, maybe longer if a problem was encountered. When a passenger travelled down to Greenwich Station from London, it was quite usual to consult a tide table because train services from London Bridge Station could be seriously disrupted around high tide on Deptford Creek. Similarly, if somebody was meeting a passenger from a train at Greenwich, they faced a long uncertain wait for delayed trains if the bridge over the Creek was lifted.
The requirement to lift the bridge was enshrined in an Act of Parliament. Any failure on the part of the railway, or its staff, to raise the bridge in a prompt and timely manner was a criminal offence. The Act was not abolished until the 1980s.
Later Lifting Bridges
The original lifting bridge of 1838 was replaced in 1884. When this bridge was opened – to allow a vessel to pass – there was an equally cumbersome procedure. Even the rails had to be completely removed and no less than twelve men were required to carry out the task.
The 1884 bridge was replaced in December 1963 and is the one that is in place today. It was an electric lift-bridge, designed by A H Cantrell, Chief Civil engineer of BR Southern Region and built by Sir William Arrol & Co of Glasgow. Thames sailing barges passing through at high tide were required to book a time slot in advance for the bridge to open.
The rail authority, Network Rail, manages the bridge. It is now a listed structure and will, therefore, remain in situ. Network Rail is considering removing the lifting mechanism, which has fallen into disrepair after 30 years of no use.
The central span weighs 40 tonnes. About 2000 it was welded shut in the ‘down’ position. Continuously welded rails have been laid across the bridge. Although it is a rather ugly structure, it is well-known to locals who would be sad to see it demolished. They regard it as part of Deptford’s industrial heritage and rightly so. What would improve the structure is a coat of paint. The bridge is black – either due to the rusting iron or because it was last repainted in that colour. A more sympathetic colour would not only preserve the structure but it would also make it more attractive for those viewing it when close to it or from afar.