An engineering and business failure but romantic and heritage triumph
As a business venture connecting traffic and transport business between Chelsea and Battersea the Albert Bridge was a monumental failure. It did not pay its way.
The crossing was in the wrong place for commuting traffic.
In any event with the development of municipal local government, toll charging was not what the ratepayers of a fashionable and modern suburb of London wanted.
And working people, many of whom travelled from South London to the North, resented having to pay extra on their bus and taxi fares or even when simply walking.
In engineering terms it was a problem from its opening in 1873.
The iron rusted. Repairs started in 1884.
The traffic when motorised in the early 20th century became too heavy for it. A five ton limit was imposed even before the turn of the 20th century. In 1935 this was reduced to two tons.
The perfect mark of a suspension bridge’s lack of success apart from total collapse, is the construction of two concrete piers under its middle span in 1973 to stop it from falling down.
Dan Cruickshank wrote in 2022 that they were unsightly.
That means technically it is no longer a suspension bridge. It has become a beam bridge.
The cable-stayed Albert Bridge was designed for a quieter, more gentle and sedentary age of bicycles, single horse cabs, and feet in ankle boots. As Cruickshank says: ‘Clearly the bridge’s delicate construction was struggling to deal with modern heavy traffic.’
London buses could never use it on any regular route. Its maintenance, repair costs and inadequacies as a river crossing meant continual rows about whether it was time to replace it with something more functional.
But the artists, actors, and poets of Chelsea, including Sir John Betjeman, Dame Sybil Thorndike and Laurie Lee fought for its survival.
It was subject to resonance frequency when there were any regular rhythmic vibrations; particularly from troops marching in step from the Chelsea Barracks or Royal Hospital.
And the shaky suspension bridge effect has given rise to the ‘phenomena of misattribution of arousal’ concept in psychology; in simple terms confusing feelings of love with fear.
Nevertheless, it became the bridge that people fell in love with, fall in love on, and cherished too much to see it go.
It was the bridge where couples would propose and film directors would choose for dramatic and emotional backdrops. You will see it mise en scène in Flack, A Clockwork Orange, Sliding Doors, Absolute Beginners, and Maybe Baby.
And when it lost its regular off green colour to take on the pastel pink, blue and yellow hues to aid river navigation, it began to resemble the icing decoration you might expect to see on eccentric wedding and birthday cakes.
For thousands of children from 1951 and the Festival of Britain, the Albert Bridge would be the way to Battersea Fun Fair.
It would be the last bridge Chelsea’s legendary Doctor Richard Castillo would drive over in 1961 when lured to a false emergency call in a row of studios in the Albert Bridge Road which would become the scene of his unsolved murder from multiple stab wounds at the age of 72.
Albert Bridge’s history symbolises in human terms how Chelsea changed
As a project the Albert Bridge was the ‘modernism’ of the Victorian age. It was named after the late Queen’s consort who was central to the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the idea of Great Britain being the centre of the world for progress in trade, industry, science and design.
The future of Chelsea in 1865 was summed up in the simple expression ‘Want of a bridge.’
Londoners knew the age of the Waterman rowing you across the Thames for business or pleasure belonged to the past. They wanted a bridging by road connecting Chelsea, Brompton, Kensington with Battersea Park, Clapham and South London generally:
‘To supply this highway desideratum a Company has been formed, and an Act of Parliament obtained, and the works for a new Bridge commenced at Chelsea. Its position will be in a straight line with Oakley Street, leading from the King’s Road, Chelsea, to Albert Road, Battersea Park. In its construction the Albert Bridge will be quite a novelty as compared with any that has been built over the Thames as it will be on the principle of rigid suspension patented by Mr. Ordish, C.E. of the firm of Ordish & Lefeuvre Great George Street, Westminster, who are the engineers for the new bridge. It will consist of three spans, the centre being 500 feet in the clear, and the side spans of 145 feet each, thus presenting a wonderful contrast to the decayed old timber abomination to be seen tottering about a quarter of a mile further up the river, and which ought to have been removed long ago. The width of the roadway will be 27 ft. 6 in. at each side- making a total of 41 ft 6 in. between the longitudinal girders which form the balustrade. The chains which are to support the spans are to be made of steel the effect of which will be that they will present an unusually light and graceful appearance, while they will be of ample strength. The contract for the whole of the works has been taken by Messrs. Holbrook of Chelsea by whom they will be executed. They have for their superintendent, Mr. Alexander Smith C.E., who has had considerable experience in carrying out the plans of similar stuctures.’
Confidence, optimism, and a sense of going forward gracefully, elegantly and with so much hope is exuded in this newspaper advertisement. But the two lane suspension bridge concept was already outdated and an insufficient engineering technology to cope with the population growth and urbanisation of what was becoming the biggest and richest city in the world.
The fate and problems associated with the first metal suspension bridge across the Thames on the border of Chelsea and Pimlico and crossing to the east side of Battersea Park should have been a warning.
This Illustrated London News picture of the Vauxhall, Victoria and old Battersea wooden bridges in 1859 shows how a slower moving river (pre-Bazalgette embankment) was populated with mainly rowing and sail powered vessels
Completed and opened in 1858, the first ‘Chelsea Bridge’ then named ‘Victoria Bridge’ was too narrow, two unsafe and too unpopular. It would be renamed ‘Chelsea Bridge’ in case its collapse would be a disaster nobody wanted associated with the reigning monarch.
It would be demolished and replaced between 1934 and 1937.
Illustrated London News picture of the Victoria Bridge (renamed Chelsea) in 1858.
But Albert Bridge would survive with all its problems.
As it was made of metal it needed painting and that is something largely working-class people had to do with all the precarity that involved in climbing the structure at great height and wielding paint brushes on little platforms fastened by rope; come rain, sunshine, snow and strong winds.
The building of the Bazalgette embankment had the purpose of carrying a new sewage system, preventing flooding, and supporting a new river arterial road transport system.
This transformed a wide mainly shallow and slow moving river into a narrow, faster flowing one with many more treacherous currents.
And there would be decades when horse-drawn traffic moved side by side with much more powerful and faster motor cars, vans, lorries and buses.
Ordinary people would become the casualties and their fate often tragic would unfold underneath and around the Albert Bridge.
In 1873, the Albert Bridge would not have its originally planned christening and opening by Prince Albert’s eldest son, the then Prince of Wales, Prince Albert Edward- the later King Edward VII.
The ceremony would take place six years later one Saturday afternoon to mark an official Royal opening of five metropolitan bridges constructed by private capital- Lambeth, Vauxhall, Chelsea, Albert and Battersea Bridges.
The ritual took place at Lambeth, the weather was fine, many people assembled at the approaches to each of the bridges and the Prince of Wales said: ‘I thank you in my own name and in that of the Princess of Wales … and I can assure you that it gives us both sincere pleasure to take a part in this day’s proceedings. The opening of the five bridges westward of Westminster is an important event in the annals of the metropolis, and I rejoice you have chosen the Queen’s birthday to declare them free. (Cheers.) It is a source of great gratification to us to hear the announcement that the other bridges will before long be opened to the public. Free communication across the Thames will be a boon to all classes, and it is our earnest hope that you will be enabled to carry out your promised work. Let me say, in conclusion, that the Princess and myself are always ready to assist in advancing any object which identifies us with the population of London -(cheers)- and tends to promote the interests of the public.’
It’s 1891, the Chelsea Embankment has been finished, the new Battersea Bridge is in concrete and stone, the Albert and Chelsea (Victoria) suspension Bridges are already subject to metal fatigue and steam powered river traffic on a faster flowing River Thames is making ‘Chelsea Reach’ a more dangerous water thoroughfare.
When 24 year old Thomas Moon set out to work from Chadwell Heath to paint the Albert Bridge on the morning of 9th November 1926 he may well have thought about the dangers awaiting him.
The job that day was to wash down the panels of the parapet. They had a 9 inch wide board to stand on supported by two iron brackets neither of which were fixed and lay loosely on the parapet.
It is not clear whether Thomas and his mates knew that the painting company employing them, J.J. Hamilton of Louth, Lincolnshire, hired a Thames waterman with a rowing boat in case any of the workmen fell into the Thames from the Bridge.
Perhaps they followed the working man’s motto when operating at great heights to never look down.
The people painting the bridge knew that the staging was not reasonably safe.
One of them said: ‘It wasn’t safe but we have to do our work.’ They would not report their feelings to anyone ‘because they would just laugh at me and think I was frightened.’ Even Thomas said to his workmates ‘One of us will be going in the drink soon.’
On the fateful morning Charles Hodgins was underneath Thomas Moon. He heard a crack when the metal bracket holding the 9 inch wide plank broke. Thomas fell past him with the plank he’d been standing on.
He thought there should have been life-saving equipment on the bridge and he had told the clerk of the company previously the situation was risky and ‘umpty.’ He had refused to work on the staging and would never do so even if they paid him £10 an hour.
Hodgins said it had been raining on the day and the job was ‘a deathtrap.’
Jerry Ward the foreman painter was aware one of metal brackets had been repaired and he thought there should have been at least six lifebuoys on the bridge.
Alfred Larner was the licensed waterman employed by the contractors to be on the river in case of emergency. He was about a hundred feet from the bridge when he saw Thomas fall. He rowed furiously to the spot and made a grab at him as he was sinking, but only succeeded in clutching his cap.
There was a lifebuoy on the boat, but Thomas ‘went down like a stone and never came up again.’
Many days later his body was found down river near Blackfriars Bridge.
By extraordinary coincidence a news photographer actually photographed the painters climbing their ropes and working on the bridge 1st October 1926. I wonder if Mr Moon is among them.
‘Six Men Climbing Up A Rope Beside One Of The Pillars Of The Albert Bridge, London, On Which They Are Working.’ Credit: Fox Photos / Stringer Editorial #: 2672583 Collection: Hulton Archive Date created: 01 October, 1926
Five years later in August 1931 22 year-old painter Harry Pepper also lost his footing on Albert Bridge when lighting the signal lamps. He plunged thirty feet directly onto the foreshore as it was low tide.
Ironically this saved his life. The mud was soft and acted as a cushion. Had it been high tide he may well have drowned in the deadly swirling currents.
A Thames police boat had just been passing when he fell into the foreshore mud and helped to get his limp unconscious body into an ambulance.
When taken to the casualty of St Luke’s Hospital in Sydney Street his injuries were two or three severe cuts about the face, severe concussion and abrasions on the knees.
He recovered consciouness the following morning. We sometimes forget the sacrifice working people in the past made to do jobs which are now so protected with health and safety legislation.
I can’t help thinking of the Albert Bridge painters in times past and the nerve and risks they took to paint it.
A calm and slow river turns fast and treacherous
Before Bazalgette’s embankment was built, generations of Chelsea and Battersea people used the Thames for recreation. It was a place to play- to swim and mess about in rowing boats.
It was mainly young people who would pay the price of learning how the river would change.
Deeper hulled and faster steam-boats hauling trains of barges generated powerful swells with the risk of capsizing the smaller vessels and their occupants.
Another problem is that there were no formal facilities and programmes to teach young people to swim. William Bell from Clapham Junction was only five and a half when he jumped into the water on the Battersea Park side of Albert Bridge in August 1900.
10 year old Elizabeth Rye was on the bridge and saw him undress and jump into the river. He had no one with him and she shouted out but he disappeared beneath the surface. Labourer John Lowe from Keppel Street, Chelsea had seen William struggling in the water, but by the time he had run down the steps from the Albert Bridge, he was nowhere to be seen.
There was another boy bathing in the same place and the tide was running up at the time. Poor little William drowned. The river took him to Chester Wharf, Pimlico and he was found there the following day.
The Coroner said ‘lads like this one who had such an attraction for the water should be taught to swim.’ He noted that at the Serpentine in Hyde Park, boats were specially commissioned and were ever ready during bathing hours to render immediate assistance, but on the open river this kind of help was not at hand.
Drowning accidents in the Thames after the completion of the Albert Bridge in 1873 were truly terrible.
In August 1882, 32 year-old Chelsea carpenter James Lott Franklin drowned when his rowing boat capsized. He was with his brother and two friends who hired a dinghy to see the last heat of the Chelsea Free Waterman’s Regatta.
His brother Charles said: ‘My brother was rowing, and all at once he said, “Come along Charley and have a row.” I got up to take an oar, and slipped, and we all went over. The wash of the steamer made us go over. We were all thrown into the water. I went under three times and then caught hold of the boat. There was just the one steamer going to the pier and it had left a considerable swell.’
He did not see what happened to his brother whose body was recovered from the river at Vauxhall later in the day.
One year later in August 1883, the three Kimber brothers from Chelsea died in a boating accident witnessed by hundreds of people on the Embankment. They had been out on a pleasure trip between Battersea and Albert Bridges.
Charles Kimber was 30 years old and a wheelwright. William was 27 and had just left the Army having served seven years in the 3rd Dragoon Guards. They wanted to cheer up their youngest brother Richard who was 22 and had been ill for sometime. They thought a row on the river would do him some good.
But when a steamer had just passed them, throwing up a swell, they decided to switch places and as one of them stood up, the boat capsized. All three were thrown into the water. Two were seen clasped together before sinking beneath the surface. All three drowned.
Again almost a year later 19 year-old Wallace Munn lost his life when out on a pleasure trip on the other side of Albert Bridge with his sister Alberta and 17 year old Albert Rudd from Riley Street Chelsea. The fast rising tide threw their rowing boat against barges.
They panicked and tried to climb out. But Wallace was unable to hold his grip and was carried underneath the barge and drowned.
In 1889 two fifteen-year-old boys, Harry Randall and Ernest Mitchell, drowned when their rowing boat capsized after two steamboats had passed opposite them making the water very rough with such sudden force against them at the bridge, this ‘shot the bow of the boat down.’
Saviours and heroes
For every tragic story of death on the river at Albert Bridge there are heroic ones of brave people intervening to save lives.
Carpenter Michael Sherlock from Wiltshire Close was 22 in 1992 when he dived off the Albert Bridge to rescue a woman in the Thames below who was in difficulties. He would receive a London Fire Brigade bravery award for swimming out to her and putting her on a passing boat.
In 1957 John Flook, then working for the Port of London Authority, rescued a man struggling in the water beneath the bridge and revived him with artificial respiration.
Many police officers on traffic point duty at the Chelsea end of the bridge have been commended through the ages for doing their best to save lives, including PC Bench 570B in 1916 from what was then the King’s Road police station who the Coroner said ‘performed a very gallant act going into the water on a dark night in full uniform, and heavy police boots, running a great risk to himself.’
He would be recognised by the Royal Humane Society and thanked by the father of the young woman he tried to save.
The traffic police officers at the top of Oakley Steet controlled what was actually a six way junction- Chelsea Embankment east and west, Oakley Street and Albert Bridge north and south, and merging Cheyne Walk from the west and Chelsea Embankment Gardens from the east.
There was a good reason they had their own blue police box with telephone connection to New Scotland Yard and Chelsea police station.
They would also bear witness to the dangers of increasingly faster moving traffic powered by internal combustion engine mixing with the age of horse and cart.
A very sad example took place in 1918 when 14 year-old David Hodgson from Fulham, clinging to the tailbord of a single horse van, was suprised by the klaxon of an overtaking motor-vehicle driving at speed.
The loud noise made him jump off the axle to get to the pavement on the other side, but he was run over and killed.
This would not be the last fatality there. Serious and indeed, awful collisions still happen even in the present age of surveillant cameras and high tech traffic light systems. In July 2022 Olivia Riley, who was 41, was killed with her three dogs when run over by a driver intoxicated by drink and drugs travelling at 60 miles an hour where there was a speed limit of 20.
The Romantic Bridge
In 1956 there were moves to have the old suspension bridge replaced to answer the clamour for a bigger and more stable crossing with four lanes instead of two. The Albert Bridge was apparently doomed.
And Chelsea’s legendary art and documentary photographer John Bignell was anxious to capture it with his camera for posterity. The images he created were combined with captions that were eulogistic:
‘Ever a delight to painters and a thing of beauty to photographers Albert Bridge- on Ordish’s straight chain suspension system- is doomed, to be replaced -so we are promised- in a year or two’s time probably with a “fly over” approach type of structure. Doubtless it will have the nut-and-bolt countenance of Chelsea Bridge. And once again beauty will have been sacrificed to the great god Progress. Built in 1873, Albert Bridge was Chelsea’s last toll bridge. Because of its inability to cope with modern traffic, a load weight limit has long been imposed.’
”Tangled, tetchy, proudly erect yet sullen and apprehensive – the troubling Albert Bridge broods and wonders how long before the rush of civilisation sweeps away this beautiful spot in Chelsea beloved of artists.’
In 1958, an O. Carr from Clare in Suffolk wrote a poem to Albert Bridge:
Slap – slap
Curving – thick
Lamplight curdled water
On the dim flanks
Slap – slap
On the ancient bows
Of barges looming
Enormous out of the water
Slap – slap
On the parapet
Lamplight curdled water
Four silent chimneys
In their infernal beauty
Above the huddled houses
Into the dull
Of the city sky.
And menace sombrely
The green London cabbies’ hut on the Chelsea Embankment at Albert Bridge, and views of the Bridge from Cheyne Walk with modern present day lifebuoys to hand.
Albert Bridge described in the Chelsea Borough Official guide (3rd edition) of 1951
‘The Albert Bridge, opened in 1873, was built by R.M. Ordish for a company that proposed to acquire and rebuild Old Battersea Bridge. The latter, by Henry Holland, dated from 1772 and replaced an ancient ferry that belonged to Earl Spencer through purchase of the manor of Battersea from the St John’s family in 1763. The earl obtained the Act and the bridge was erected and managed by a syndicate. The present [Battersea] bridge- like the Thames embankments- is by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the Board of Works engineer.’
The Albert Bridge is adjacent to the Cadogan Pier: ‘In summer water-buses and up-river steamers ply from the pier. The bridge- which retains the toll-booths that were once a feature of most Thames bridges- gives contrasting views up- and down-stream, the former especially good at sunset, when the clustered shafts of Lots Road are silhouetted against the flushed heavens. Close to the pier is one of the fine Coalbrookdale lamp-columns, with a cornucopia and climbing children ; and looking out to the river from the shrubbery above the bridge is a lovely Atalanta by Derwent Wood, R.A. – a tribute to the memory of the sculptor from members of the Chelsea Arts Club and their friends.’
Albert Bridge described by Reginald Blunt in 1900
The founder of the Chelsea Society and great 20th century historian of Chelsea, Reginald Blunt, was not a fan. He said ‘The Albert Suspension Bridge, a somewhat spidery and unimposing structure- (Baedeker calls it “elegant,” but we cannot so flatter ourselves) – which leads to Battersea Park and Parish.’ In 1965 Hilda Reid wrote that Blunt was in favour of a replacement bridge as far back as 1939 which was capable of taking heavier traffic. She said: ‘Blunt was of the opinion that the disappearance of Albert Bridge would “evoke no tears.” For him beloved Albert was an intruder and an ugly one.’
Damage during World War Two
Despite being on a Thames river bomb run towards the Lots Road Power station westwards and Battersea Power station eastwards, this iconic late Victorian suspension bridge was pretty much unscathed during the Blitz. One incendiary bomb struck it by what was known as the ‘Blue Police Box’ on 9th October 1940. It is presumed this was successfully extinguished and any damage was quickly repaired.
Because of the fear that bombing would destroy the bridges across the Thames, The Royal Engineers built a temporary bridge for troop and service vehicle movements connecting Battersea Park with the junction of the Chelsea Embankment and Royal Hospital Road. This was dismantled in 1948.
Chelsea artist and ARP Warden, Jo Oakman, painted a water-colour sketch of the bridge which has been published by Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea archives/local studies librarian Dave Walker.
The father of alondoninheritance.com author took a picture of the temporary bridge’s demolition.
Other images of this temporary bridge with people on benches looking across it to Battersea Bridge during WW2 and of it being dismantled after the war are also viewable online.
Albert Bridge in 1950- Pathé News report (about one minute)
The Pathé report explains why there are notices ordering troops marching over the bridge to ‘break their step’ to avoid an accumulating vibration and swaying which could damage and destroy the structure.
‘Panning shot along the old Albert Bridge. M/S traffic over bridge pan to notice. C/U notice requesting troops to break step when marching across. Various close shots of the framework of bridge. More shots traffic over bridge. Library shots of the Tacoma Bridge disaster.’
Images presented in slideshow at the top of this posting
- Junction at the top of Beaufort Steet looking to the bridge in the directon of Battersea, June 2022 by Tim Crook
- Traffic with headlamps on queueing from Battersea at dusk, June 2022 by Tim Crook
- Warning to troops on Albert Bridge by Iridescent May 2009 CC BY-SA 3.0
- Warning sign to break step and view of Albert Bridge with traffic queueing for Chelsea, June 2022 by Tim Crook
- View of the Albert Bridge and Cadogan Pier with boat moored from Chelsea Embankment, June 2022 by Tim Crook
- Coloured illustration of the Albert Bridge on postcard circa 1906. View from upper floors of the Pier Hotel. Public domain
- 4,000 bulbs illustrate The Albert Bridge at night. Photo by David Iliff October 2012. License: CC BY-SA 3.0
- Late 19th century postcard of Chelsea Embankment looking towards the Albert Bridge with horse-drawn traffic. Public domain
- Side-view of the Albert Bridge ‘The unusual colour scheme is intended to increase visibility to shipping in poor lighting conditions’ by Iridescent May 2009 CC BY-SA 3.0
- Albert Bridge from Chelsea Embankment by Iridescent May 2009 CC BY-SA 3.0
- Albert Bridge The octagonal tollbooths are London’s last surviving bridge tollbooths by David Iliff May 2015 CC BY-SA 3.0
- View of the Albert Bridge from Battersea Bridge taken late 1940s. On the left it is possible to see the Nissen hut style corrugated iron roof covering the Sir Thomas More chapel which survived the bombing of Chelsea Old Church in 1941. Official Chelsea Borough Guide 1951
- Late Victorian postcard of the Albert Bridge, Chelsea side with cyclists and pedestrians gathering by the tollgates. Public domain
- View of the Albert Bridge from the Thames and moored river boats. Official Chelsea Borough Guide 1946
- View of the Albert Bridge from Chelsea Embankment. Official Chelsea Borough Guide 1946
- Traffic travelling over the Albert Bridge from Chelsea 1928. Chelsea Chamber of Commerce Official Handbook
- View of Cheyne Walk and Chelsea Embankment going west from Albert Bridge with the restored and maintained green hut for London cabbies. Tim Crook June 2022
- View of the Albert Bridge from Chelsea Embankment half way towards Battersea Bridge. Tim Crook June 2022
- View of the Albert Bridge from Chelsea Embankment with rescue buoy at entrance to steps down to riverside at low tide opposite Chelsea Old Church. Tim Crook June 2022
Crossing The Albert Bridge from Battersea to Chelsea in 2016- view from van driver’s dashcam video
Online profiles and briefings about The Albert Bridge, Chelsea
The Albert Bridge- HistoricBridges.org See: https://historicbridges.org/bridges/browser/?bridgebrowser=unitedkingdom/albertbridge/
The Albert Bridge- Wikipedia online. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Bridge,_London
The Albert Bridge- Britain Express Passionate about British Heritage. See: https://www.britainexpress.com/London/albert-bridge.htm
Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea- ‘Chelsea Walk – Chelsea Embankment and Albert Bridge.’ See: https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/vmtours/chelseawalk/vm_cw_chelseaembankment.asp
Night-time perspectives filmed by drone- Idris Iris.
The film above gives the wrong date for the Bridge’s completion and opening. Should be 1874; not 1890.
Current Google Satellite view of The Albert Bridge and Cadogan Pier
Professional photographs and art photography images of The Albert Bridge from Getty Images
Special thanks to Karen White and Chris Pain whose families lived in Chelsea during World War Two and Malachy John McCauley, also brought up in Chelsea, who have very kindly encouraged and assisted my research. Special thanks to Marja Giejgo for editorial assistance. Research and archive facilities from Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council library services, The Imperial War Museum and National Archives at Kew.