The Iron Bridge and the Ha’penny Hatch

The Laban Centre from The Ha’Penny Hatch

The regal-sounding River Ravensbourne starts at Caesar’s Well, in Keston (sorry SoC), near Bromley, but from there on, things go (literally, of course,) downhill. It’s joined by the Rivers Pool and the wonderfully-named Quaggy around Catford, then becomes better known as Deptford Creek at our end. And it has always been a right-royal pain in the arse to travellers. The Romans, when marching between Londinium and the rest of the Empire had to grit their teeth and cross it – as have every other people since – it’s just that bit too long to go round.

Its seen its fair share of history – not least The Battle of Deptford Bridge in 1497, part of the Cornish Rebellion, which I’ll save for another day. All around this little stretch of muddy water new glories of British sea power were created, whilst old ones rotted. It was here the last vestiges of The Golden Hind, Francis Drake’s ship, which after he’d circumnavigated the globe and been knighted by Queen Elizabeth on board, rotted and crumbled to their doom. We’ve never been able to look after famous and important ships round these parts…

Then everything changed. London’s First Railway was to be between London Bridge and Greenwich (another thing for another day…) and the whole thing was coming on apace. They built the first bit relatively quickly in 1836, and the owners boasted to the press that the whole thing would be finished in three months. Then some bright spark pointed out Deptford Creek.

The big deal was that there was a Royal Palace (albeit hardly ever, if at all, used by Queen Victoria) one side of the creek, and a Royal Dockyard the other, officially created by Henry VIII. This meant there was all manner of business, and lots of travellers all around that area. Dozens of ship builders, and other services as well as the comings and goings of a busy fishing port meant that whoever looked after any crossing here was powerful indeed. The tolls charged on a little footbridge brought in about £ 350 a year.

The building of the whole section from well before Deptford Bridge right through to Greenwich was held up while railway company tried to decide whether to build over the river or tunnel under it. They liked the idea of a bridge, because they could let-out the arches underneath at a profit, although they talked more loudly about saving poor cattle who might wander onto the tracks at ground level. But the main problem was as ever – tunnelling has never been a cheap option.

The company was prevented by an Act of Parliament from building a fixed bridge unless all the companies, occupiers, quays and wharves agreed on it. This was like red rag to a bull – a great opportunity for extortion from every Tom, Dick and Harry along the shoreline, not to mention the toll-keepers, who were never going to say yes without a fight.

The railway company tried to push through an amended bill that would just require them to get the permission of ‘interested parties” but no dice. The couldn’t build a fixed bridge and that was that.

A swivel bridge couldn’t be guaranteed strong enough, but that tunnel was still not looking any cheaper. Eventually Colonel George Thomas Landeman, who’d designed the Deptford High Street Bridge (with especially high walls so that the trains’ chimneys couldn’t be seen) came up with a drawbridge, but there were more delays while they waited for someone to come up with the kind of innovative machinery to make it work.

The bridge was finally complete in November 1838, a complex affair of pulleys and chains, sliding rods and counterweights, which needed eight burly blokes to operate it. Three toots of a whistle had to be sounded before it was crossed, presumably so the good folk of Deptford and Greenwich could cover their ears in readiness for the racket caused by metal on metal.


There was still the problem of the tollbridge. The way to get things done in the 19th Century seemed to be by Act of Parliament, which MUST have been a quicker affair than it is now. The tollkeepers secured a bill in 1837 where the railway company had to pay any difference between the toll company’s receipts for that year and what they had earned before the bridge was built. The railway company, to offset this, was able to charge pedestrians to cross the new Ha’penny Hatch.

The first, a wooden affair that, when it was opened on Christmas Day in 1836 was used by thousands of people was quickly replaced by a simple lifting bridge.

According to the old chronicler Alfred Rosling Bennett, in 1912, there had originally been a grand, tree-lined promenade running alongside the railway on either side of the grand railway arches, also a toll road (1d per person), which The Daily Ledger declared, in 1835, would be “incomparably superior to the boulevards of Paris” appealing to “an invalid or family of children” who would be “sent daily to walk on this promenade, shaded by trees and protected by the well-regulated police of the Company,” but it never really took off and was made free very quickly. I’m not sure how much, if any of it, still exists. The Ha’penny Hatch continued charging until 1901, and, from what I can tell, the old one closed in the 1920s.

The official opening of the new Ha’penny Hatch footbridge, all spruced up as part of the whole Millennium Thing, took place in 2002. There’s a puff-piece created by the Environment Agency about the project here


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