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River Itchen floating bridge

Story of the River Itchen

The history of Southampton is dominated by the River Itchen. For many years the only way for vehicles to cross the river was at Northam, north of the town centre. A bridge had been built there in 1799, near the site of a Roman village. This was several miles outside the town and was inconvenient for people travelling from Southampton to the villages on the other bank of the river. The solution was a floating bridge.

Southampton in the 18th century

Boats unloading at Itchen 

Magnifying glass  Boats unloading at Itchen 
For many years, dinghies and small sailing boats crossed the River Itchen between the Chapel area of Southampton on the west bank, and the village of Itchen Ferry on the east bank, now known as Woolston. They provided a key link for people wanting to travel between Southampton and Portsmouth.

The railway line from London reached the town in 1840 and sparked a major development boom. Many new buildings were built, including the first docks and thousands of workers came to the town to work on the construction sites. New houses were built to accommodate them; first in the Chapel area and then on the east bank of the Itchen.

Planning a bridge across the Itchen

The authorities knew that expansion of the town was coming. The existing boats could not cope with the current traffic between the town and Itchen Ferry so plans were announced for a new bridge across the river at that point. The fishermen of Itchen Ferry objected because they were fearful of losing their livelihood. The Northam Bridge Company feared that they would lose their monopoly on road traffic over the river. The Admiralty - the government department that controlled naval affairs - also objected. They claimed a bridge would interfere with the many ships that used the Itchen.

Ferry boat at Itchen 

Magnifying glass  Ferry boat at Itchen 

Faced with this opposition, the Admiralty came up with the idea of a floating bridge. Recently invented, a floating bridge was like a large barge and could carry several vehicles, as well as passengers. It was powered by steam and made of wood. Chains were laid across the river bed; machinery on the bridge used the chains to pull the bridge across the river.

The floating bridge would cost £23,000 to build (over £1.2 million today) and tolls would be charged for vehicles and passengers using it. This was to be a temporary measure, lasting until opinion had changed and a proper bridge could be built. Unknown to them, the floating bridge was to last for over 140 years.


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