Celebrating 200 Years of Windsor Bridge

The 200th anniversary of the official opening of Windsor Bridge on June 1, 1824, is nearly upon us! Many of us walk into Windsor over this bridge, often taking for granted the structure that allows us to cross the river. There has been a bridge at this site ever since William the Conqueror built his castle at Windsor, but the current bridge was completed in 1824. It is the oldest iron arch bridge still standing over the River Thames. For hundreds of years, this was a toll bridge, and fees were required to either cross it or sail beneath it.

The story of Windsor Bridge begins almost 1000 years ago when William the Conqueror established a fortification on the chalk ridge known as Clewer Hill, which later became the castle we know today. This history of the Castle and the town is detailed in other articles on the Windsor Web Site, but it can be imagined that the relocation of the court from Old Windsor, at Kingsbury, to ‘New’ Windsor around the castle, would have necessitated a wharf and some form of crossing to the northern bank, which would become Eton. Ferrymen likely met this need for several years, but the first wooden bridge was probably constructed in the 1100s.

In 1172, records show that Osbert de Bray, a farmer from Windsor, earned £4 33p from tolls levied on vessels passing beneath the bridge. River travel was a popular mode of transport during this period when roads were nearly nonexistent. Alfred the Great reportedly traveled from Oxford to London by river in 875, and the Domesday Book, compiled two centuries later, records river transport of goods since the time of Edward the Confessor (1050). River cargoes to the court at Old Windsor included wine, iron, ropes, royal baggage, and even prisoners, with some ships granted “freedom from molestation” by royal decree. Thus, the river was a crucial highway from London, Hampton Court, Richmond, and Staines to Windsor, extending to Oxford and the Midlands.

In 1242, permission was granted to fell oak trees in Windsor Forest to construct a new bridge between Windsor and Eton. The original bridge likely suffered frequent damage from floods and collisions with barges, making repairs futile. At some point, a winch was installed near Windsor Bridge to help drag laden barges upstream against the current, a complex maneuver that even required the horse to swim from The Cobbler, at the end of what is now Romney Island, to the south bank.

This cycle of repair and rebuilding persisted through the ages until 1819, when the wooden bridge had deteriorated so significantly that constructing a new, sturdier bridge from modern materials became necessary.

The Decision to Build the Bridge We Know Today

Some 60 years earlier, in Ironbridge, a new material—cast iron—was discovered, offering much greater strength and durability than wood. The Ironbridge structure, the world’s first metal bridge, still stands today as a testament to this durability. Inspired by this innovation, the decision was made to build the new Windsor Bridge using cast iron, ensuring a robust and lasting construction.

In 1820-1822, Charles Hollis, the bridge’s designer, utilized cast iron for the pillars and roof supports while rebuilding the Parish Church in Windsor. Cast iron was considered stronger and stiffer than timber and significantly more robust than masonry for columns and arches. Naturally, the Windsor Corporation chose this new ‘wonder’ material for the reconstruction of Windsor Bridge, and an Act was passed to permit its reconstruction.

A local newspaper from the time reported on the event, stating, “The Corner Stone was laid in 1822 by the Duke of York with Masonic Ceremonies. The expectation excited by the usual splendor of Masonic ceremonials, and the assurance that the Duke of York would be present on the occasion, attracted a great number of strangers to the town. The very limited area prevented the accommodation of spectators to see the ceremony, excepting those gentlemen forming the procession for whom a platform was built.” (Express, July 13th, 1822). The silver trowel used for this ceremony is preserved among the town plate.

The construction of Windsor Bridge was initially undertaken by Mr. William Moore, who unfortunately passed away before its completion. His executor, Mr. Baldock, oversaw the project’s completion. During the construction, several challenges arose. A barge collided with the works and sank, and some cast iron ribs sourced from Wales were found to be defective, breaking during unloading. These defective parts had to be replaced in London, while others were repaired on-site. Tragically, a laborer working on the piling was crushed to death by the descending hammer, leaving behind a wife and several children (Express, May 25th, 1822).

To maintain connectivity during construction, the council operated a ferry service. William Quarterman, a collector for the ferry, was paid thirty shillings a week but had to supply his own coal and candles.

Charles Hollis was the architect, and renowned engineer Thomas Telford provided advisory support, particularly regarding the foundations, although there is no evidence he visited Windsor during the construction.

The project faced numerous issues, as suggested by an Express article dated July 6th, 1823, which reassured the public: “We have much pleasure in having authority to relieve anxiety relative to the building of Windsor Bridge. The rumours that the foundations of the new structure are being washed away by currents as fast as they are put in are without any foundation!”

An Express report from August 3rd, 1823, noted that “the contractor is employing 4 chain pumps and a steam engine and 40-50 Scots Fusilier Guardsmen.”

Despite these problems, it appears the construction challenges were gradually overcome. However, the deep riverbed supports and the replacement of damaged cast iron sections posed significant hurdles, reflecting the complex nature of such a project—challenges not unlike those encountered in modern construction projects.

The bridge was constructed with three arches supported by two massive granite pillars set deep into the riverbed. Each pillar was flanked by seven cast iron supporting arches. In 1830, a critic of cast iron, Mr. Eaton Hodgkinson, revealed that cast iron was only one-sixth as strong in tension as it was in compression. This discovery alarmed Windsor Corporation, which had just completed its cast iron bridge over the Thames. They believed they had taken every precaution, even consulting the great Thomas Telford, though his advice primarily concerned the foundations.

Fortunately, the Corporation’s fears were unfounded. Windsor Bridge is an arch bridge, meaning the cast iron is primarily under compression, which it handles well. The bridge’s subsequent 150 years of service proved its adequacy. While the bridge did develop cracks over time, these occurred in areas under tension. Despite this, the bridge endured heavy traffic far beyond what the original designer could have anticipated.

Compare listings