The Bridge at Cowbridge

Jean Purkis (Riddell)

Cow Bridge (after Luppino)
Port Hill Bridge from West, c. 1050s. Railway engine shed arch on the left.
Jack Waldock

Any of us who have ever written, or even thought, about the inconvenience of road or building works hindering both wheeled traffic and pedestrians will be amused, perhaps, to read that members of the public of over 140 years ago had the same feelings and expressed surprisingly similar views as might be expressed today. Also, as sometimes happens now, although very articulate they are not all keen to sign their names.

This episode was started by a small paragraph in the Hertfordshire Mercury of 30th June, 1860, presumably written by a reporter or the editor:

“The Bridge at Cowbridge. – The public has just reason to complain of the slowness with which the works proceed, and at the continued obstruction to traffic. The task of demolishing the old bridge has been painfully protracted to the great inconvenience of the town and neighbourhood. The temporary road for vehicles is past Hartham Lodge, round by the station of the Hertford, Luton and Dunstable Railway, and under one of the arches of the bridge over the railway at Port-hill, and is most inconvenient. For foot-passengers a plank bridge has been erected about fifty feet from the old bridge. The yawning gulf, formed by the partial demolition of the old bridge, was for some time extremely dangerous, from the absence of lights. The public have a right to ask that efficient barriers should be put up, and that the works of the new bridge should be pushed on with reasonable speed.”


(To the Editor of the Hertford Mercury.)Sir, – I have just heard that you have called the attention of the good public to my needlessly protracted dissolution. Thanks, – thanks! for your good intentions. At this supreme moment of torture, but with my last pang in prospect, I thank you, – I cannot say from my heart, for that is gone; but from the ends and centres of my remaining nerves, I thank you.

It is cruel to dismember me so slowly. If my destruction be necessary, why not destroy me out of hand. Wretches that used to be broken on the wheel by barbarous hands, met a swifter death than I. The coup de grace terminated their minutes of suffering, before torture became unendurable. What have I done that my agonies should be prolonged for weeks? This is England, not Naples. We have Victoria reigning over us, not Bomba! If they must dismember me, why, I ask, do they do their work so slowly? three or four labourers hacking at me for weeks! Why not twenty, thirty, aye, forty men to do the business quickly. It were cheaper and better done, and the sympathizing public would be spared witnessing my protracted pains. But it is nearly over. That last was a sharp blow of the chisel, but it must be nearly the last! My bones (or rather bricks), piled before me, seem to be receding. My eyes grow dim. My pulse is almost gone. Ha! they cannot torture me much longer! I defy them. From my very foundations I loathe them; and if they are as slow in putting together the limbs of the Frankenstein they are going to put up in my place, the public will loathe them too.

Yours thankfully, in last agonies, THE OLD BRIDGE AT COWBRIDGE

River’s-edge, June 30.”


“(To the Editor of the Hertford Mercury)

Sir, – I think you hardly said enough in your last, of the inconvenience caused to the public by the slow progress of the works at the new bridge at Cowbridge, and the insufficiency of the provision for the traffic which has been diverted. Being greatly inconvenienced myself, and much to my annoyance, a frequent witness of what is going on, you will perhaps allow me to add a word or two to your brief statement.

“In the first place let me speak of the footbridge. It is better now than it was. At first they placed over the river a single plank, with a rail. There was some remonstrance, and then a second plank was put down, which made the bridge a little more secure. Then a gas lamp was lighted near, and this completes the arrangements up to the moment at which I write. But to make the bridge tolerably safe tor the many foot passengers of all ages, who go that way, additional rails are required on either side the planks, for any one may slip under the single rails into the water, which is often very deep.

Next, as to the carriageway. The traffic is, as you stated, carried round by the Railway station in Hartham under the railway bridge into the old Port-hill road. This is a most inconvenient route. Vehicles from Bengeo have to drive over the bridge, and then turn short round into the old closed road, and under the bridge. They might have been much better provided for at a very slight cost. There is a new road made for a certain distance through what used to be, in old times, the kitchen garden of Cowbridge house; and, if a way had been knocked through the wall at the end of the garden, a good straight road might have been made at once on to the premises of the railway company not far from the station.

But, after all, what we have most to complain of is the slowness with which the works are being carried on. It has been tedious to witness the efforts of two or three men to pull down the old bridge, a task which if it had been seriously set about with a sufficient number of hands, might have been accomplished in a few days, instead of extending over weeks. If things are to go on in the same way, winter will come upon us before we have a bridge to pass over. And while all this is going on, heavy wagons are compelled to go round by Ware. How long is this to be? Surely there must be some means of accelerating the work, if we did but know who to appeal to. A private man, building a house for himself, may take as much time about it as he pleased; but there ought to be somebody to see that the public convenience is not sacrificed by unnecessary slowness in the prosecution of a public work. It is only a question of whether three or twenty men should be employed. there are plenty of skilled workmen in Hertford and the neighbourhood, who, if they had but the chance would soon show that they could pull down an old bridge and build a new one as well and as quickly as any men in the kingdom. Why then does this work linger on? As a burgess of the town, I submit that our Town Council should see whether they cannot do anything in the matter. An unnecessary interruption of traffic, or a dangerous bridge, is a matter clearly within the powers of the police to deal with, and the Corporation or at least those of them forming the Watch Committee are administrators of police. If it should be found that they have not the necessary powers, it will be time for us to consider whether steps should not be taken to obtain power, so important, for future use.

Hoping I have not trespassed too much on your space

I am, Sir, yours, &c., XX Hertford July 4.”.


“(To the Editor of the Hertford Mercury.)

Sir,- The numerous persons whose business take them over Cowbridge, will thank you for hinting that there ought to be more haste in pulling down the old, and erecting the new bridge. The public of course know nothing of the conditions on which the contractor has undertaken the work, and will not therefore blame him, since he may be faithfully adhering to the terms of the contract. Still this interruption of traffic is a serious matter; and, with the prospect of its being indefinitely prolonged, we ought to be able to look somewhere for assistance. Has the parochial Surveyor no power to interfere to procure the acceleration of the work, or must we look to the Corporation, or to the Commissioners of Paving? Surely there must be somebody who has a right to interfere in behalf of the public, to regulate and keep up the public ways.

I write these few lines for the purpose of calling the special attention of our local authorities to the subject in the hope that they will, if they have the power, take some steps to promote the public convenience and safety. – I am, Sir, yours obediently, A RATEPAYER. Port Hill, July 2, 1860”


”(To the Editor of the Hertford Mercury)

Sir, – When you formed the article which appeared in your last week’s paper, ….you must, I think, have awoke from a ten-days’ trance, having dreamed that six months had elapsed, or you conceived in the possibility of pulling down and re-erecting the Cowbridge within eight days.

”Reflecting upon me as the contractor, I will admit the possibility of your possessing a better knowledge than myself of the business in which I have been brought up, and I shall feel most grateful for any services you can render me. But I think, with all humility, that you were a little premature in crying out so vehemently: for when you did so, scarcely ten days had passed since the barriers were erected, and the demolition of the old bridge commenced.

“Now, according to my contract, I am allowed until the 30th of September to complete my work. Under such circumstances I cannot see, from June the 29th, there can be an obstruction to the traffic, and the great inconvenience to the town and neighbourhood, by what you call the painfully protracted task of demolishing the old bridge. If two months had· elapsed beyond the time specified for the finish of the works, by December your article might have been just; but it is certainly most unjust, unfair, and untrue, ten days after the commencement. l might, with equal propriety, publish on Friday, a statement that the readers of your paper were much inconvenienced, because your last week’s type was not distributed on Thursday.

”There are many other just remarks I have a great desire to add, had I the leisure time of so little value as the space in your paper that were occupied with slanderous intentions. – I am Sir, yours obediently, CHARLES COLLINS Castle St., Hertford July 5, 1860″


”[We are always ready to publish the statements of any persons who may think injustice has been done them, by remarks which we, in the performance of our duty, have made in these columns. Mr. Collins seems to be aware of this, or he would probably not have addressed us, especially as he has really forfeited his claim to vindicate himself, by publicly abusing the proprietor of the Hertford Mercury in the streets. Mr. Collins has mistaken our remarks altogether. We made no complaints against him, nor against any person in particular, because we did not know who was really responsible. We merely – in compliance with the reiterated appeals of professional men and others – noticed that the works were proceeding with extreme slowness, to the great inconvenience of the public. It is not of the slightest consequence whether four weeks or four days have been occupied in the demolition of the old bridge, if a quarter of the time would have sufficed for the work. The real ground of complaint is the small number of workmen employed, and the consequent slowness of the operation.

”Mr. Collins informs us that he is allowed by his contract until the 30th of September to complete the bridge. This is his justification; but surely the public have a right to complain that the traffic on an important route is impeded for between three and four months, when, by the employment of a sufficient number of workmen, the new bridge might have been built and the thoroughfare restored in less than half the time. If six workmen can pull down and rebuild a bridge in three months, 18 would accomplish the work in one. Why, then, should not eighteen be employed? The County Magistrates never intended that the Cowbridge road should be stopped up from June to September, for the convenience of any individual. – ED. H.M.]

NB I am indebted to Barry Graves, who knows a great deal about the railway line in question. There were five tunnels under the Port Hill Bridge; the large exiting one for the double track at that point, and four smaller for cattle, a siding, an engine shed and a roadway. These four have since been covered by brickwork.

This page was added on 12/01/2022.

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