In 1768, the county of Essex agreed to give £100 to Witham “as a free gift … towards the expense of building a strong and commodious brick bridge for carriages over the river at Chipping Hill … instead of the Horse Bridge (of wood) now standing there”.
That horse bridge had been a narrow one made of wooden planks, so its poor condition had often been in the news. In particular, there were several times during the 1590s when it was said to be “decayed”. The main problem was that Queen Elizabeth was technically responsible for it, and it was not very high on her list of priorities.
The new brick bridge was built by two Witham bricklayers,Samuel Humphreys and Charles Malyon. They completed it in three weeks, between 6 August to 29 August 1770. This is the ‘five-eyed’ bridge which we have today.
It is fourteen feet wide (4.3 metres) and in the past, it accommodated one carriage easily. But in the 21st century, the fact that it can only take one line of vehicles at a time makes it very inconvenient, and indeed, dangerous.
During the First World War, thousands of soldiers from the Midlands were billeted in houses in Witham and the surrounding area, for training. For some time, we had men from the Warwickshire regiment. Their rifle ranges were at the far end of Powershall End. One day in 1915, two of the wardens who looked after the ranges, stopped at the bridge as they passed, and carved their names on the parapet, together with a regimental badge. It is thought that Private Edwards was killed in northern France in 1917. Private Baylis may have survived.
A small boy, Walter Peirce, sat astride the parapet and watched them. He told me many years later that he thought one of the men must have been a stonemason, and took off his cap to copy the regimental badge. It shows the importance of preserving graffiti, as it is now a valued and moving memento of a terrible time. The photographer in the 1960s added chalk to make the carving visible. In fact it is much neater than it looks here.
There is a Victorian Ordnance Survey bench mark on the inside of the parapet. These are interesting and obsolete signs of the work of the diligent land surveyors of the past. This one was used for the first large-scale map in 1875.
In the early 1900s Douglas Springett caught eels in the river here, when he lived in the nearest house as a boy.
In 1973 a wooden walkway was added for pedestrians on the south side – before that we had to walk boldly in the roadway with the cars. Now we can lean over the edge and admire the fish and the birds and the greenery of the River Walk.
From the top, the photos were taken in 1988, c.1965 (by Harry Loring), and 2002.
The Essex Record Office has the original builders’ drawing for the bridge, as submitted to Quarter Sessions, who were paying for the work (ERO Q/SBb 255/18).
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in August 2010.