Anyone interested in the long history of our town will know of it’s somewhat turbulent beginnings.
The harbour was the dividing line…at times literally the front line of the ‘war zone.’
Modern day Weymouth started life as two completely separate towns very much at odds with each other. Old Weymouth straggled along the harbourside of the Nothe with Wyke Ridge behind and Melcombe Regis, their dastardly opposition, faced them across the waters.
In a nutshell, these two opposing settlements just did not get on, they fought about harbour dues, who was in charge, in fact absolutely everything and anything.
Every so often (frequently if truth be told,) a complaint would be sent to Queen Elizabeth I about such matters. In the end, so frustrated with the endless bickering and having to constantly sort them out she decreed that the only way to settle it was for the two to be united.
Two became as one in 1571, the borough of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, but old scores ran deep, and it took many years for both sides to be able to work together amicably.
In the local archives are 2 draft documents addressed to the Privy Council dated 1572, they tell of the continuing fierce disputes and how
‘ murder is likely to ensue.’
and so the squabbling went on..and on…and on.
As early as 1575 it was suggested by the visiting local Justices brought in to resolve these matters
‘that a bridge should be erected as a likely help towards agreement.’
Eventually a bridge was constructed, which united the two sides of the harbour.
An excerpt from my well-thumbed copy of Eric Ricketts excellent book, ‘The Buildings of Old Weymouth; Part One,’ describes the historical time line of transport across the harbour, (I can highly recommend the series of books he wrote, you’ll see so much more history in Weymouth buildings that you ever noticed before.)
Anyway, I digress, back to the town bridge, Eric wrote
‘The first bridge was built in 1597 a timber affair with a central drawbridge “of two reeves.”
Come 1617 and orders for the maintenance of the harbour were drawn up, ‘
A ship requiring “one or both leeves (of the drawbridge to be) drawne, is to pay 12d going up, nothing coming down.’…‘ Every cart or wain, with iron-bound wheels, crossing the Bridge is to pay 4d.’
Eric was an avid and knowledgable local historian and loved to draw sketches of things that still existed in the area, or indeed many sketches of his interpretation of what had gone before, below is such an illustration taken from his book mentioned above.
He goes on to say that
“Major repairs or rebuilding took place in 1713 and 1741 but by 1769 the increase in the number of ships moored at Custom House Quay, Melcombe, (between the Royal Oak Inn and the bridge,) was so great that cargoes had to be hoisted with much inconvenience ‘over several other vessels,’ thus it was decided to build the New Bridge on the Chapelhay steps-St Nicholas Street, (Melcombe,) axis and by so doing increase the length of the Melcombe Quay. The new bridge was of timber, the gift to the town by J Tucker Esq. M.P. “…“For a visual record of the bridge we must visit our museum and study Uphams picture of it from the Weymouth side.”
(The new Weymouth museum has an excellent display outside on the landing showing the development of the harbour, well worth a visit.)
But it seems that many didn’t like this new positioning of the town bridge, no longer feeding off the main St Thomas Street, consequently come the start of the 19th c and a new bridge was planned, this time returned to its original position, to stand once again where many others had before.
The old wooden bridge had slowly fallen into disrepair, so in 1821 plans were made to build its replacement of stone with a swing section that opened to allow the taller sailing ships to pass through into the backwater area of the harbour.
Events of the previous year, (1820,) might well have had a big influence on that decision, the ‘inhabitants of Dorset’ (i.e. Weymouth,) were being taken to court by no less than the King!
‘The King v The Inhabitants of Dorset.-this was an indictment against the inhabitants of the county of Dorset for not repairing Weymouth Bridge.The defendants pleaded that under the statute of 22 Henry 8, ch 5, the inhabitants of the borough and town corporate of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis ought to repair the bridge, it being within the limits of that towns corporate. Upon the trial, the Inhabitants of Dorset were acquitted. The charge of the repair, which it is understood will be very heavy, is now thrown on the inhabitants of the said town, and will oblige them to apply to Parliament for an act to raise tolls on the bridge, and to increase port dues, in order to maintain the quays and wharfs.’
What were they to do, with little in the town’s coffers, the Corporation had to think laterally, then they came up with a grand scheme to raise the money…ask the general public for it; an add appeared in the papers in April of 1821.
They must have raised the necessary money because work started that August of 1821, and as tradition dictated, the ceremony to lay the first stone was a big affair for the more elite members of the town.
‘The foundation stone of the new bridge at Weymouth was laid with Masonic form on Monday last-The Mayor and Corporation assembled at the Guildhall; the friendly societies at their rooms; and the officers and their brethren of the lodges in the province, the R. W. P. G. M. for Essex, and other visitors at the hall, where the Grand Lodge was opened by Wm Williams, esq., M.P. and Provincial Grand Master, in ample form, from whence they proceeded to church, followed by the band of the Guards. The Rev Brother Deason read the service, and the Rev Brother Burgess delivered a most excellent masonic discourse. From the church a most splendid procession, attended by two bands, marched to the end of the Esplanade, and from thence to the spot where the foundation stone was to be laid, where the concourse of people was immense. The craft in the bay were decked with their colours, the rigging of the vessels, the galleries erected, the windows, the house tops, and every eminence likely to afford a view of the ceremony, was taken possession of. The P G M accompanied by the D. G. M., Parr, his G. S. and T. W.’s, Elliott and Percy, and the other officers of the Grand Lodge, the Mayor and the Architect, the Contractor, and seven operative masons,descended on the pier, the stone was raised, and the G. T. deposited the Coins and the Plate, on which was a suitable inscription. After a hymn and prayer, the procession returned to their respective places of entertainment.’
Even those ladies attending were dressed in masonic colours for the occasion.
‘At the ceremony of the laying of the foundation stone of the new bridge at Weymouth, all the ladies are to appear in aprons and blue scarfs in compliment to the masonic costume of the gentlemen.’
One might even assume that as the Masons had such a big part to play in the ceremony, so perhaps they did too in funding the scheme.
The building engineer was a Mr. G Moneypenny, Esq. and D Macintosh,Esq. the building contractor, the firm Messrs Fowler and Jones constructed the mechanism that opened the swing bridge.
An update on construction affairs was penned in 1823,
‘ The works of the Weymouth new bridge are advancing rapidly; it is the only construction of the kind in this kingdom-a stone bridge of elliptical arches, with a drawbridge centre, designed upon the principle of that proposed by Perronet, for the River Neva, at St Petersburg, but upon a rather smaller scale. The masonry of the bridge is considered a masterly performance; particularly light for its appearance, yet so very massive and closely united, that the on the striking of the centre was not observed to settle even a sixteenth of an inch.’
Finally completed by January of 1824, the inhabitants of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis witnessed the grand opening of their new town bridge.
(image of the new town bridge c1820’s ©Dorset County Museum; Channel Coast Observatory)
Consequently, early, very early, in fact…4 a.m! on that cold January morning in 1824, the first customer (they still had to pay a toll in those days to cross it, here’s hoping the present day town council don’t pick up on that one ) ventured forth.
The lucky ‘customer’ first over the bridge was a Mr G P Scott in his Magnet coach. He had obviously come well prepared for this grand, momentous occasion, his horses were beautifully bedecked with ribbons and evergreens. I’m not too sure that they were too happy with being covered in their flowing finery as they were described as
It seems that some people had predicted that the bridge would be a failure, that no animals would be willing to step across the iron central panel, but cross they did. Mr Scott’s gaily bedecked carriage was swiftly followed by two large wagons full of strong beer, these were from Colonel Bower’s Brewery at Dorchester, and thereafter a stream of other traders passed to and fro.
Mind you, perhaps some animals were a tad flighty when it came to stepping out on suspect metal surfaces, in 1825 came this report
‘On Wednesday night as the Rev M Moles, of Ilminster, accompanied by his mother, was driving his carriage over Weymouth Bridge, his horse took fright and galloped off at full speed. Near Gloucester Row the carriage upset and both the lady and the gentleman were severely hurt.’
I wonder if that was before or after he’d paid the toll?
The old swing bridge served the town and harbour well for the next century its central section being widened and altered slightly in 1885, from an arch to a flat construction as depicted here in William Pye’s print above dated c1890.
(image © Dorset County Museum courtesy Channel Coast Observatory)
Below an early photograph of the old bridge © the Dorset County Museum archives.
Sketch of the arch way under the bridge with railway lines before this was widened to allow easier rail access.
Come 1930 and it was time for a new bridge to be constructed to deal with increased traffic both on land and water.
Nowadays it’s the boats of the pleasure seekers who pass through it’s portals. Crowds line the harbourside in the summer to watch the bascule bridge raise and a procession of vessels enter and depart the harbour.
In the evening constantly changing colours of its lights adorn its parapets, sending a kaleidoscope of bright reflections across the waters.
I wonder what Weymouth’s next bridge will look like?
Enjoy a bit of good old Weymouth tittle tattle? why not read Nothe Fort & Beyond, full of drama.
Those love and hate relationships between resident soldiers and locals, mayhem, murders and mysteries. Lots of Weymouth and Portland families mentioned and their dealings with military men (and wives) with their misdeeds.
Available at the Nothe Fort and Weymouth Museum bookshops.
Shop local to support local.
- 1824; Weymouth, the Great Storm (susanhogben.wordpress.com)
- Weymouth’s Victorian bandstands. (susanhogben.wordpress.com)
- Why Weymouth and me? (cannasue.wordpress.com)
- 1873; The battle for Greenhill gardens;2013. (susanhogben.wordpress.com)
- 1899; Thwarted love…never cross a woman! (susanhogben.wordpress.com)
- Weymouth’s harbour area; Brewers Quay (susanhogben.wordpress.com)
- 1872; Chesil Royal Adelaide shipwreck; part 2. Armageddon! (susanhogben.wordpress.com)
- 1879; Tragedy at the George Inn, Weymouth. (susanhogben.wordpress.com)
- 1877; Weymouths shipping trade (susanhogben.wordpress.com)