If you copy anything from this essay, please quote:
Also, please quote any other details that are given there, such as the names of the photographers, and of the people who provided the photos and the information (usually described as the Source). Thank you.
Unless otherwise stated, the photos are by Janet Gyford.
Above. The brick bridge in 1988, when it was 218 years old. Taken from the north in the morning sun (my ref. W881). This is one of the more successful of my photos, and it has often been copied.
Next week (26 September 2022), a refurbishment of the bridge will be started. So I’ve just managed to finish expanding this essay in time. It’s taken much longer than I expected.
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” (ERO Q/SO 11, p.303).
£100 was the equivalent of about £20,000 today. The ‘county’ were magistrates meeting in Chelmsford. They would be particularly concerned for the welfare of travellers using the bridge as a route between other parishes. It was sometimes described as being “between Maldon and Braintree” (e.g ERO Q/SR 117/39).
The County’s free gift seems confident and straightforward. But behind it, there was a long and difficult history, some of which will be described below.
The old “Horse Bridge” was a narrow one made of wooden planks, so its poor condition had often been in the news. There had been many times during the 1590s when it was said to be “decayed”. Then in 1615 it was described as “the bridge between the house of Serj’t William Towse and the parish church”, and it was again “decayed”. Five years later, it was the footpath that was “in decay”, and the parish was told to repair it [TNA ASS 35/57/2,35/62/2]. We don’t know what improvements were actually made all this time, if any.
Serjeant William Towse, mentioned above, was a lawyer who lived at Witham Place, a large 16th-century mansion which stood almost next to the bridge (two older names were Bacons, and Petworths). Only two traces of this house remain above ground today – the amazingly long front wall, dating from the 16th century, and the room at Spring Lodge Community Centre, formerly part of the mansion and now called “the Barn”.
Above. The front wall of the mansion of Witham Place, still standing in Powershall End (taken in 1972 , my ref. W71).
Below. Inside the surviving room of Witham Place (now known as “the Barn” at Spring Lodge Community Centre). It was farmer Robert Bretnall senior who demolished the rest in the early 1800s, and began using this room for storage (my ref. P115/1, taken in 1997). (Coller, The People’s History of Essex, 1861)
William Towse’s wife was Dame Katherine Barnardiston, and when she died in 1633, she left him “my Coache and my Fower Coache horsesfor life” (TNA 11/163/25) It must have been very difficult for them to live next to a narrow wooden bridge, only wide enough for a horse, which their coach could not cross.
I wondered why they weren’t able to use their influence to get a bigger bridge. Serjeant Towse was a well respected lawyer, so he might have had some good contacts. But Dame Katherine was a very determined Puritan, and so not likely to impress the respectable Essex decision-makers. Many other occupants of the mansion were from the Southcott family. Most them were Catholics and so they also had only limited powers of persuasion. (Janet Gyford, Public Spirit, pp 99, 66, 159).
The bridge continued
In fact, one of the greatest obstacles to bridge maintenance everywhere seems to have been a failure to agree who was responsible. Our bridge was no exception. It lay in the manor of Witham (aka Chipping), which had belonged to the Crown since before the Domesday survey of 1086, until Queen Maud had granted it to the Knights Templar in 1136. But her grant didn’t include any obligations towards the bridge, so they still belonged to her. So during the 1580s and 1590s it was reported to the Quarter Sessions several times a year that Queen Elizabeth was responsible for it. For instance
“That Chipping Witham bridge is in great disrepair and the Queen God save her Grace is proper owner and Mr Harvey is farmer [tenant] and we do not know who should make it but the Queen
“That a certain bridge at Chipping Witham in Witham aforesaid is decayed and whether the same ought to be made by the Queen or the country we know not.
These quotations come from Quarter Sessions records in 1580 and 1581, and are included in Maurice Smith’s booklet, Witham River Bridges, 1972, which includes some very helpful detail about the responsibility for bridge maintenance. The Quarter Sessions were the County’s magistrates, meeting quarterly.
During the following three hundred years, necessity gradually produced compromises all over Essex. One at a time, Quarter Sessions (the “County”) adopted many difficult tasks, where no-one else could be found to take responsibility. This included Chipping Hill bridge. Parishes were ordered to do the smaller tasks.
Could another reason for delay have been technical ? But in Mesopotamia there was an oft-quoted brick arch built in 1400 BC. And Witham was no stranger to bricks – look at the walls in Powershall End, and at the Grove.
Then I noticed that the brick-built Appleford bridge, about two miles away in Great Braxted, dated from 1767, the year before the grant to Witham. And that on a much grander scale, on the Oxford canal, building the brick bridges started in 1770 (there were over 100 by the mid-19th century) Brick Bridges (weebly.com). So perhaps 1770 or thereabouts was just a “moment”, when several things combined to make brick bridges a good idea everywhere.
By 1770, everything was ready in Witham, and the “commodious” new brick bridge started to take shape.
Below is the working drawing which was submitted to the County for approval (courtesy of the Essex Record Office, ref. Q/SBb 255/18).
It was built by two Witham bricklayers, Samuel Humphreys and Charles Malyon. They completed it in three weeks, between 6 August and 29 August 1770 (ERO D/P30/18/7).
Both men were in the habit of buying property, particularly in Newland Street, and then selling it within a few years (ERO D/DBw M82, index to manor court rolls of Newland and Chipping). Charles and another man bought the large house at the Grove and then sold it within a year (1785-86). It seems probable that, as bricklayers, they were rebuilding or refronting properties, and then selling them in their new finery.
Samuel had a distinctive building style, using a mansard roof with windows, which we can see as he moved around (e.g. nos. 64, 66, 87 Newland Street). He was also one of Witham’s two Overseers. They were responsible for funding and caring for the poor, and they often had many other duties too (ERO D/P 30/14/1). So he must have been well-known in the town, and a good choice for building the bridge.
I still had queries, as one aways does, so I consulted Michael Hammett of the British Brick Society. He sent these very helpful comments
“I share your doubt that bricklayers, however experienced in general building work, i.e. housebuilding and modest public and commercial buildings, would have the necessary knowledge, skill and expertise to design and construct bridges for vehicular traffic, particularly over waterways that would entail the preparation and building of submerged foundations and abutments.
“My opinion is that a civil engineer would be an essential contributor to the enterprise because the work would necessitate the structural design of the arched structure and the foundations; also the construction would involve the use of specialised techniques, e.g. caissons, or cofferdams, to facilitate building the foundations (assuming temporary diversion of the river was not practical).
“Information on the internet about the Chipping Hill bridge states that the County was responsible for its maintenance so possibly the design and supervision of the construction work was provided by the Council and the “two bricklayers” were contracted to build the bridge under the direction and supervision of the Council’s technical staff.
“I would expect that the bricks were made comparatively locally and although the photograph is not detailed enough to permit identification their general colour does not suggest otherwise.
“Regarding your question about what might be identified as changes in brickmaking or brick usage at that time and might be a factor in the incidence of several brick bridges of similar date, my only observation is that the period between the 1770s and the 1830s is regarded as the “Golden Age” of British canal building, bridges were a frequent feature and brick was the predominant building material used.
Below are my attempts to take close-ups of the bridge and the brickwork. The photo above, right at the beginning, is perhaps more useful, in that it shows the ‘legs’ more clearly. But in all of them we can see that English bond was used, with a row of bricks laid longways (stretchers) alternating with a row of half bricks (headers). This is thought to be the strongest arrangement. There seems to have been quite a lot of patching up over the years; I believe the latest renovation was in 2016. The results were often rather untidy, but I suppose it has always been more important to keep the bridge standing than to make if look beautiful.
Perhaps the brave people who are about to carry out the renovation will discover more, such as where the bricks came from. And those “legs” – are they brick all the way down, and how deep do they go, and how has the bridge been supported by them all this time. Perhaps something could be found by studying other Essex bridges in the documents, for instance about the role of “civil engineers”.
Above. From the south. This was drawn by Mrs Clarissa Bramston in about 1840, when she first came to Witham. She was a very talented woman, who had travelled far and wide with her father when she was young. Her husband was the Reverend John Bramston, Vicar of Witham. Clarissa died in 1844, but John stayed here until 1872. (reproduced by courtesy of the Essex Record Office D/DLu 17/4). (My ref. E7)
The long building behind the left-hand part of the bridge, is the mill. It had burnt down in 1775 – five years after the new brick bridge was built – but was rebuilt immediately with the help of a “public subscription”. The two grey gable-ends to its left are part of Witham Place, the left-hand one being the end of what is now “the Barn”. The squarish white house is Spring Lodge farmhouse, and further left on this side of the road is a house on the site of what is now number 6.
Above. From the east. Looking from Chipping Hill village down to Chipping Hill bridge (with a small tree to its right), and to the wall of the former Witham Place (above left of the bridge, with an opening part way along).
In the foreground are – on the left 51-55 Chipping Hill and the former tithe barn, on the right 32-34, demolished in the 1930s. The picture was painted in 1999 by the late Ray Brown for the front cover of the book “Public Spirit”. It’s based on a black and white postcard which probably dated from between 1910 and 1920 (my ref. M1741).
Above. From the east. Postmarked 1923. Looking down to the bridge from near the Church. With a motorbike and sidecar, and a horse and cart. Sent to Brighton by Kitty, who was staying at the White Hart in Witham. She said it was “lovely here today”. (The original belonged to June Clarke. Publisher unknown. My ref. M2902).
Above. Perhaps from the south. Photographed in 1937 by Winston Alderton. It belonged to his son Simon. (My ref. M1183). What are they doing ?
Above. From the west. Behind the trees in the centre-left is the Mill house (1 Powershall End). Further left, half hidden, with shutters, is Spring Lodge farmhouse (number 3). In front of it is a bungalow that has since been demolished. On the right are what are now numbers 6-8. I think the small diagonal white stripe in the road is the right hand parapet of the bridge, which is at a angle to the part of the road we can see. Date, before 1932 (obtained from publishers’ numbering). (The original belonged to the late Mike Wadhams. My ref. M250).
Above. From the west. A quiet road. Taken in 1972, so just before the wooden footbridge was added on the right. Chipping Hill ‘village’ is in the background (my ref.W57).
The bridge measures fourteen feet from side to side, between its brick walls (4.3 metres) (interestingly, this was the usual width of a roman road). 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.
However, it must still be remarkably strong, as we can see from this next photo, taken in about 1970.Above. From the west. This is a traction engine from Suffolk, taking on water at the bridge. A bus waits behind. The hose bringing water from the river is being held by the man sitting on the parapet (photo by Edward (Stan) Phillips c. 1970. My ref. M1580). Seeing this, it’s quite hard to imagine the little boy Douglas Springett quietly fishing for eels here, as he did in the early 1900s. He lived in the house next to the bridge.
Below. The bridge was chosen to have an Ordnance Survey bench-mark in 1874. The mark can still be seen on the inside of the southern parapet wall, and is shown in the photo below [My refs DSC_00456, P193/05, taken in August 2010].
The crucial part was the horizontal line at the top. The surveyor would obtain its height above sea-level by taking barometric readings (or nowadays, by GPS). The three lines below form an arrow (I used to think that all the lines together represented a surveyor’s plane table but perhaps not).
Below. This Ordnance Survey map, the first edition 1:2500 scale, was a result of that 1874 survey. We can see the little arrow inside the bridge pointing to the southern parapet, which is where the bench-mark still is. Written to its left are the words B.M.71.1, giving its height in feet and inches above sea-level.
The map shows that on the west end of St Nicolas church, there was another bench-mark, which is still there, just to the right of the west door, a bit blurred by now. It’s higher than the bridge, of course, at 85.9 feet (if I’ve read it right). Churches were considered to be unmoving and permanent, so they were popular sites for bench-marks.
Tempting though it is to embark on a study of the map, especially the Chipping Hill mill and its mill race, I’ll return to the bridge now.
The First World War carvings
Something that makes this bridge very special is the carving on the parapet, shown below. They are hard to see, but this very useful photo was taken in 1965 by the late Harry Loring, who highlighted the markings with chalk (Harry’s ref.9/6A, my ref. M828).
The carvings were made during the First World War by Private F E Edwards and Private P Baylis. These were two of the many soldiers who were billeted in Witham and the surrounding areas. They were to undergo training here, before leaving for the front lines to join in the fighting. For a long time, we had men from the Royal Warwickshire regiment here. Their rifle ranges were at the far end of Powershall End, and so to get there from the town, the men had to cross over Chipping Hill bridge.
Privates Edwards and Baylis were Range Wardens, who helped to look after the rifle ranges. One day in 1915, when they came to the bridge, they stopped and carved their names on the parapet, together with the regimental badge.
A seven-year old Witham boy, Walter Peirce, sat astride the parapet and watched them. In 1984 he told me about it; these are extracts from what he said. They are part of two interviews, so I’ve mixed them up into one story.
The full versions are included in the Interviews section of this website, i.e. at
To find more about the wonderful Walter, use a search box. But remember that it’s spelt Peirce, (e before i) – he was very proud of that, and I think it’s the only spelling that works on this website. He said:
“Well, you know the river bridge ? Well, when you get over on this side, get off your bike and when you go over the bridge, there’s kerbing stones on top of the bridge. Well, get off and look at the inscriptions. Now I saw them done. And you’ll see the wonderful carvings that was done there. And just walk, you just, I’d love you to see it really.
The bloke took his cap off [to copy the badge]. Army, they had caps them days, not these skull ones, and he’s got the whole badge of the Warwickshire Regiment. He’s got his name and number and all about the Range Wardens.
And I sat, as a boy, I tell you we used to get round them, and I sat and watched him doing it. He actually copied it off the cap badge, and then he done another square with the Range Warden’s name and all that on, didn’t he?
Walter then showed me his own “jack-knife”, which had been given to him by a Mr Poulton who had been a soldier in the War. Walter said that it was similar to the one that he saw being used by the soldier in 1915.
And I saw that bloke done it with this, this spike, on the big, these big jack-knives they used to have [like this] with a tin-opener on it and one big blade. Now, every soldier had one of them. It’s a horse, the Warwickshire Regiment, that’s the cap badge done, he done it just with this spike on the, he must have been a stonemason in trade, I should imagine. In years gone by.
That would be a dangerous weapon really, if anybody attacked you, wouldn’t it? … It ain’t very sharp, look. I use it to scrape and things like that. That was the tin opener, you see? And of course, they used to have their rations in tins. But as I said – if anybody was attacked with one of them, by Jove you wouldn’t half give them a good tidy poke. Well, it would go through you wouldn’t it?
So I sat on the bridge straddle-legged. He must have been a stonemason, ’cos he’s carved that perfect, and I hope, hope Witham will, will preserve that really.”
The animal shown on the badge is probably an “Indian black buck antelope” called “Bobby”, who was (and is) the regimental mascot, and could easily be mistaken for a horse.
In 1916, the year after the carving was made, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment fought in the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest conflict of the War. More than a million men were killed or wounded on both sides together.
Private Edwards survived, but died soon afterwards, on 4 February 1917, during the British attacks on the Ancre. He was probably one of the thirty men buried by other soldiers locally in Kiboko Wood Cemetery, Biaches. All but one of them were from the Royal Warwicks.
In 1918, after the end of the War, the graves from there and other small sites were taken to the Assevillers New British Cemetery (shown below) which commemorates over 800 men.
Photo by www.cemeteries.com
I have not discovered the fate of Private Baylis. I hope someone will find out more about him one day.
More photos of the carvings
I took some photos of the Witham carvings in 2010, when they were reasonably visible. So I’ll put them here (my refs DSC_450-451, 454, 458, 463-466)
The “new” wooden pedestrian bridge
In 1973 a wooden pedestrian bridge was added on the south side, as shown below. Before that, we used to have 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. But we need to take extra care, because during 2022 the footbridge has developed a mysterious and alarming swaying motion.
Above. The new footbridge, constructed in 1973. (Photographed by Tim Harris, published by Musicraft, 1983-85. My ref M1263.)
I’m very much looking forward to seeing the renovations and hearing about what they reveal.
A much shorter version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in August 2010.