11 February 2022
By Daniel Walker
Daniel Walker inspects Barnes Bridge from a different angle.
Barnes Railway Bridge, which Christopher Dodd’s The Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race describes as “the ugliest crossing of the Tideway” is a significant landmark on the Championship Course, crossing the Thames from Barnes to Chiswick about 0.7 miles before the finish of the Boat Race. Typically, the crew that leads at Barnes Bridge, goes on to win.
Barnes Bridge today is actually two bridges. The first Barnes Bridge was designed by Joseph Locke and built from cast iron in 1849. However, by the 1890s concerned were raised about the long-term reliability of cast iron and a replacement structure, this time built of wrought iron, was commissioned.
The new bridge, designed by Edward Andrews, was built alongside Locke’s bridge and re-used the existing brick piers although they were substantially widened to accommodate it. Locke’s original carried two rail tracks, each track supported from below by a pair of cast iron arches, thus four arches per span. Three of those four arches can still be seen on the upstream side of the bridge. Comparing the designs, the most striking difference between the old and new bridges is the change from the use of supporting arches below the rail deck to bow string arches above the deck in the new bridge. Rowers passing under the bridge can look up and see the two generations of bridge, however, I suspect few racing crews admire it particularly closely.
The brick piers which support the bridge in the river had to be considerably extended when the new bridge was built. The photograph below, taken at low tide shows the difference between the rather coarse original brickwork and the new which incorporates a culvert on the right-hand, downstream, side. At the same time the opportunity was taken to add a pedestrian footbridge on the same side, making Barnes Bridge one of just three combined foot and rail bridges in London.
Few reliable pictures seem to survive of Locke’s original Barnes Bridge, though one picture that does is discussed later in this article. However, Locke also designed the contemporary Richmond Railway Bridge which is described as similar to Barnes. Richmond Railway Bridge itself was also replaced, for similar reasons, but in this case the replacement retained many elements of the original design. Accordingly, Richmond Rail Bridge today can give us a good indication of the appearance of the original Barnes Bridge:
Today, Barnes Bridge is closed to spectators on Boat Race Day but it was a popular viewing spot for many years, and in the late 1800s, the French graphic artist Gustave Doré featured the scene in one his pictures.
The picture was published in 1872 in the book London: A Pilgrimage a social commentary on 19th century London produced with journalist Blanchard Jerrold.
Doré and Jerrold were primarily interested in social history, with the industrial, poverty-stricken London of the 1860s and 1870s, but they also visited society events like the Boat Race and so there are a number of images with rowing interest. According to Wikipedia, Doré was paid the extraordinary sum of £10,000 a year for five years (roughly equivalent to £1.2 million each year in today’s money!) for his work on the book. Notwithstanding, this fantastic rate of pay he does not appear to have hesitated to use considerable artistic license when producing his pictures.
I am intrigued by the story the picture is telling. From the presence of large seated and standing crowd and the marquees on the righthand side the picture is clearly showing the Surrey bank and the Surrey or no. 3 arch of Barnes Bridge on Boat Race Day. However, there is no way that the exceedingly bold spectators who have clambered into the ties of the bridge will actually be able to see the crews as they pass: the short and to the point rules of the University Boat Race state: “… both boats shall pass through the centre arches of Hammersmith and Barnes Bridges …”.
Looking back through the arch, the racing crews and the following steamers, with a worryingly large number of passengers, can be seen approaching Barnes Bridge and although both crews have taken a very wide course (and are perilously close to a clash), they are on a line that will take them through the centre arch.
The crowd shows a wonderful range of emotion from the calm, rather genteel seated young lady (who slightly reminds me of Queen Victoria) to the eager gentleman watching intently whilst perched precariously on the edge of the wharf. What thoughts are passing through the minds of the spectators under the bridge?
The structure of the bridge itself as depicted by Dore, also seems to have grown substantially – from the two pairs of spans (one per railway track) in real life to four pairs in the engraving, presumably to allow the artist more leeway in illustrating the crowd.
All in all, a fascinating image but one I feel that communicates atmosphere rather than fact.