2020: Awaiting the Four Oarsmen of the Apocalypse

At Hammersmith Town Hall, Old Father Thames masks up. He is a minor deity but it seems like his more powerful colleagues are determined to smite all rowing activities: climate change has impacted on clubs and events for some time; Covid-19 continues to change rowing and non-rowing life as we know it; now, one of the world’s great rowing courses has been cut in two.

1 September 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch feels that the Gods are angry.

2020 is the year that keeps on taking. I had prepared a little historical piece for posting after 28 August, the date that British Rowing set for the final part of the phased return to rowing in England as Covid-19 rules are relaxed. Singles, pairs and doubles have been afloat since 1 August, two weeks later coxed and coxless fours and quads were allowed out and, starting on the 28th, eights and octuples could take to the water. I planned to compare what I imagined would be a busy scene from Putney to Mortlake on that day with the formal processions that marked the ‘Opening of the Metropolitan Rowing Season’ in times past. As shown below, the start of the 1866 season seems particularly well documented.

The 1866 Procession of Boats at the pre-1886 Hammersmith Bridge.
The 1866 Procession reaches Barnes Bridge.
The scene outside the White Hart pub, just upstream of Barnes Bridge.
“The Illustrated London News” reports on the opening of the ‘1866 London Boating Season’.

Returning to 2020, Thames Tideway rowing on 28 August turned out to be not just a damp squib, but a totally saturated one, more squid than squib. Because of unrowable water conditions with wind against tide, the river was deserted. Of course, this will happen from time to time, particularly on a tidal river. However, even if the Tideway had done one of its rare impressions of a millpond, boating activities along the famous stretch of rowing water would have been severely truncated as no river craft has been allowed to pass under Hammersmith Bridge since 13 August when the Victorian structure was very suddenly declared to be in danger of imminent collapse. Vehicles have not been allowed on the bridge since April 2019, but now not even pedestrians and cyclists can go over it and no boats can go under it.

London Bridge may not be falling down but, 12 miles upriver, Hammersmith Bridge is. Each of the bridge’s arches currently displays three red lights in a downward triangular pattern indicating that they are closed.
There may be alternate routes for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists – but not for rowers.
The bridge’s suspension chains (shown above the banner here) are a big part of the problem. Usually, suspension bridges hang on cables with many parallel strands of wire where a large number of the strands can break before there is any danger. However, at Hammersmith every chain-link has to be sound for the bridge to be safe.
These pictures from the ‘New Civil Engineer’ website were taken on 6 April and 13 August and apparently show dangerous widening of cracks in the bridge over that short time.
Hammersmith Council’s summary of events on display at the closed bridge entrance.

The bottom line is that Hammersmith Council wants £141 million from Central Government. Previously, in June, the government had refused to give money for Hammersmith Bridge from a new fund for so-called ‘shovel ready’ infrastructure projects. Strangely though, in early August Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that one of his ‘big ideas’, a 28-mile, £20bn bridge between Britain and Northern Ireland, was still planned. Some have ridiculed the idea as a stunt and a vanity project – others suggest that Johnson gets Mexico to pay for it.

A statement from British Rowing on 14 August summarised the problems that the ban on rowing under Hammersmith Bridge will cause the sport:

This morning, the Port of London Authority issued a Notice to Mariners closing the River Thames under the whole of Hammersmith Bridge and 15 metres to either side, following the closure of the bridge itself to all traffic including pedestrians and cyclists by Hammersmith and Fulham Council. 

We fully recognise the need for this closure given the very real safety concerns, however, we will be calling on the relevant stakeholders to find a safe resolution as quickly as possible. The closure of the river at Hammersmith Bridge splits one of the busiest stretches of river in the country for rowing. The Tideway stretch of river encompasses 75 clubs serving over 9,000 members. The closure of the river at Hammersmith also puts the running of a number of the major national head races in jeopardy. These races attract over 10,000 competitors to the London area from across the country and beyond each year.

At present, the Mortlake to Putney ‘Fours Head’ is still officially scheduled for 22 November.

Eleven Putney and Fulham clubs are ‘trapped’ downstream by the bridge closure.

The clubs downriver of Hammersmith are London RC, Putney High School BC, King’s College School BC, HSBC RC, Dulwich College BC, Crabtree BC, Westminster School BC, Vesta RC, Thames RC, Imperial College BC, Barn Elms Rowing Centre and Fulham Reach BC. They are now restricted to the two miles between Putney and Hammersmith Bridges. It is possible to go downstream of Putney to Wandsworth but safe navigation is difficult there and the water is often unsuitable.

The British Rowing statement did not mention the most high-profile event that would like to pass under Hammersmith Bridge in seven months time: the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race. Here, the 2016 Women’s Race approaches the structure groaning under the weight of spectators.

Hammersmith Council states ‘Engineers are working on plans to reopen the bridge to pedestrians and river traffic ASAP. It is not yet clear that this is possible’. If the bridge was not at least ‘stabilised’ by Boat Race Day, would the event be given exemption to go ‘Putney to Mortlake’ unhindered or could the race start upstream of Hammersmith Bridge?

Two powerful 20m, 800HP crane barges (‘Seadog’ and ‘Gundog’ ) are moored near Hammersmith Bridge, one upstream and one downstream, ready to pick up dangerous floating debris (presumably the deck timbers) should the span collapse.
The first Hammersmith Bridge, here pictured on a Boat Race Day in the 1870s. When this river crossing (which stood between 1827 and 1887) was no longer thought strong enough, it was demolished, and the current bridge was built in its place. Will today’s decision makers be brave enough to totally replace the existing Grade II listed span?
It is true that the current Hammersmith Bridge was built for the sort of road traffic expected in 1887, not 2020, but there are several other London bridges and viaducts that are much older but that are still in good shape.
A peaceful and sturdy Hammersmith Bridge pictured before the First World War.
Hammersmith Bridge has had a hard life, not least suffering three bombing attempts by the so-called ‘Irish Republican Army’. This picture shows the results of an IRA bomb in 1939 (there were others in 1996 and 2000).

What is next? Investigations into what is exactly wrong with the bridge continue. Transport for London’s proposal for a temporary foot and cycling bridge, to be placed adjacent to the existing bridge, has been ‘paused’ due to the transport body’s financial problems caused by the pandemic. The possibility of a passenger ferry from bank to bank (perhaps by an amphibious vehicle) is under investigation.

The London councils of Hammersmith, Richmond, Wandsworth and Hounslow all have an interest in Hammersmith Bridge functioning properly, as does Transport for London, the Department of Transport, the London Mayor’s Office, the London Assembly, Historic England and Central Government. The Port of London Authority will be vocal in wanting the river open. It is reminiscent of the old joke about responsibility involving Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. The rowing community will carry little influence in the matter but, if a national institution such as the Boat Race is affected, this may help the cause.

Looking to apportion blame for years of apparently poor maintenance is probably pointless but, ultimately, a large amount of money must come from somewhere. The prognoses for the 133-year-old structure cannot be good.

One comment

  1. A fascinating article. I had no idea you couldn’t even go under the bridge these days.

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