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Eastham Bridge in 1930s taken by Worcester County Council surveyors (WPS 2895)

The new Eastham Bridge is now open, and is the latest in a series of crossings over the Teme in the area (hence the name of this blog – Eastham Crossings). The first bridge was created in 1793/4.

Why was the bridge built? Rivers are difficult obstacles to cross, but people need to cross them to visit people, transport goods and livestock, buy produce and many other reasons. On early maps bridges and fords are often highlighted as they were important local landmarks people would want to know about. Local people we’ve spoken to in Eastham have identified some possible fords near Eastham, but these could be dangerous and to negotiate safely would sometimes be dependent upon the weather and height of the river. Parish registers record two drownings at crossings in the 1790s, but there may have been other travellers who died too.

We are fortunate in knowing a lot about the story behind the bridge through the survival of an amazing set of documents which were kept in the church chest, and from the investigation of local historians.

In 1790 Eastham residents were discussing the possibility of creating a bridge. It may be that it had been talked about for many years, but 1790 is when Rev Christopher Whitehead arrived in Eastham as Rector. Not only did he join in the discussion but he took an active role and kept the letters and minutes produced which means we know what happened. They also reveal the local politics and concerns and hint at the characters of the people involved.

Building a bridge (and approaching road) required the support and permission of the landowners, just as it does today. The main landowners were Sir Edward Winnington, MP and Lord of the Manor, and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. Sir Edward was in support of the project and said he was happy to gift the land for the benefit of the local community.

Constructing a bridge is never cheap, and money would be needed to pay for it, even if the land was given. It was estimated that it would cost £300, with another £300 for a toll house. Christopher Whitehead drew up a proposal for local people to gain their support and to encourage them to support the project financially. In it he stressed the benefits of the bridge, and how it would increase the value of the land of the southern (Eastham) side of the Teme, as villagers would have easier access to the road on the other side so they could transport their goods easier and cheaper. It was also said that the only current crossing for five miles was starting to become impassable. The document included the proposal that people buy shares for not less than £50.

There was a question as to whether it was legal to charge a toll without an Act of Parliament, or whether it should be free once the costs were paid off. It was reported that people already paid one shilling per team of animals to cross the ford, so they shouldn’t mind paying to cross the better bridge. The legal aspect was overcome by asking the Turnpike Trust to take charge, and they split the money from the tolls 50:50. The tolls would pay for repairs, ensuring that those involved wouldn’t be responsible for upkeep and repairs, a big consideration and one which meant many roads around the county were never properly maintained.

Whitehead also drew a sketch plan of the proposed new road, and where the bridge would be. It would cut across land called Mr Barnes Hopyard, owned by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners (it is thought Mr Barnes was the agent) and farmed by Mr Whitcomb, whose family had farmed in Eastham for a number of generations and rented land off Winnginton too.

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Sketch of proposed route and bridge by Rev Christopher Whitehead

A list within the documents shows the subscribers, which consisted of the main local residents, recorded by Whitehead who was treasurer. Contributions started at two guineas, with the largest payment £50, by Whitehead himself. As shares were supposed to be at least £50 it is not known if they changed the rules or if lost documents show subsequent payments. A share entitled someone to free passage, although this led to some future disputes as they tried to clarify what had been originally agreed.

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List of subscribers

Now the bridge had the go ahead and the funding to build it. James Brasier and Joseph Harris, agents of Sir Edward Winnington, took on the role of finding an architect. Mr Rose was appointed, and with his help they sought a builder. Thomas Nelson of Newport St, Worcester, tendered, and it was offered to him when his quote came in at £283, just under the estimate. In the days before good roads, lorries, and B&Q, materials were sourced locally whenever possible. Once again we are fortunate in having the documents to help us identify where the materials came from – stone from Jack Green’s Quarry (known as Quarry Hill even today), bricks made from clay dug close by, and lime also found locally.

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Details of stonework

The building appears to have gone smoothly. There is a drowning at the location, Whitcomb’s Ford (probably names after the local farming family), just after the work began. Roger Morris, when writing the history of the bridge, wonders if this is an accident by one of the labourers, or whether it might just be an unfortunate traveller. A couple of letters from Brasier to the Rector suggest that Whitcomb, who rented the adjacent fields, was becoming a bit frustrated by the effect of the works, and was having to pay for fencing himself. Brasier says he’d like to pay for this so the matter is resolved quickly and Whitcomb isn’t inconvenienced.

The bridge was due to be completed September 1793 according to one letter, and this date is often used in books. The documents may tell a different story as there are receipts throughout 1794, the last being 27 December 1794 for lime, suggesting it was finished later 1794 or early 1795. The impact on Eastham must have been great, as crossing the river was now so much easier.

The fantastic collection of documents which Whitehead left behind were passed on the Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service last year as a deposit, and are kept in The Hive for safekeeping and are available for people to use. They have already been well used by the archaeologists who were recording the remains of the bridge and much of the archaeology matched the historical record.

In future posts we’ll look at the later history, including arguments over the tolls, and the partial collapse in the 1890s.

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