by Frank E Earp
History, not archaeology: The line carrying Nottingham’s newly extended tram network south to Clifton, crosses the River Trent via the Victorian Wilford Toll Bridge. It is by the reuse of this old bridge that the modern tram-works encounters history beneath the track rather than archaeology. How many of the passengers of the trams using the bridge will be aware of the fact that people have been crossing the river hereabouts for thousands of years?
Ancient ford: Wilford developed as a village divided by the River Trent and takes its name from a combination of the name of its principle founder and the ford connecting the two halves. The Domesday Book of 1086 lists the village of Wilford as ‘Willesforde,’ literally translating as Willa’s ford later corrupted to Wilfrid’s ford, confused by the dedication of the parish church. It is likely that there has been a ford at Wilford since prehistoric times. Now identified as being Roman, a paved ford bounded by oak post was found in the Tent a little way up-stream from the bridge in 1900.
The Ferry: From around the end of the 16th century a ferry began to operate crossing the river around the site of the bridge. It was Edward III who gave the ferry royal approval, which proved somewhat lucrative for the ferryman who was also given an alcohol licence for the ferry-house on the Wilford side of the river. The ferry-house became a very popular resort in its own rights and grew into the Ferry Inn.
The ferry boat, a kind of flat-bottomed punt, was originally hauled across the river by a system of ropes and pulleys attached to both banks, latter adapted to using iron chains. This made the boat very cumbersome to operate against the fast flowing stream and rather a dangerous crossing for the passengers, especially in bad weather. However, people form Wilford and other villages south of the river wishing to get to and from Nottingham market, continued to flock to the ferry rather than walk downstream to the safer crossing via Trent Bridge. It is this ferry which features in the legend of the Fair Maid of Clifton where Margaret, the Fair Maid, takes her milk and other dairy products to market and is ferried across the river by her lover Bateman.
Hazardous as it was, the ferry continued in use for over 300 years. We have no record of how many accidents happened in the early years of the ferry but in July 1784 disaster overtook the ferry and its passenger. The regular boat was out of use and under repair when 11 passengers embarked in the stand-in vessel all eager to get to Nottingham. A sudden gale midstream capsized the boat midstream an all were cast into the river. Most managed to cling onto the iron chain and raise themselves out of the swirling flood. However, in the confusion a man on shore mistakenly let down the chain and those clinging to it were swept away by the current. Only five survivors were eventually rescued from the waters.
A similar incident occurred exactly 35 years later when in July 1819 a party of 15 revellers from the Ferry Boat Inn climbed on-board the ferry for their journey home. This time it was not the weather which caused the accident but the chain which suddenly jammed when the boat was halfway across. One of the passengers was thrown into the water and drowned. The ferry was linked to another fatal accident on the 10th January 1837. A Wilford farmer by the name of John Oakley and two of his farmhands attempted to cross the river using their own boat further upstream. Caught by the current the boat drifted into the ferry’s chain and capsized.
Ever increasing traffic using the crossing led to calls for a bridge to be built and sanctioned by an Act of Parliament in 1862, a temporary wood structure was thrown across the river and the ferry went out of use. However, the Ferry Boat Inn, – now served by the new bridge, – continued to be a popular watering-hole as it is today.
here is an old Nottingham legend which states that the River Trent between Trent Bridge and Clifton was only safe to cross in any year after 4 lives had been lost. In 1862, those crossing the newly built, but temporary wooden bridge at Wilford, must have felt reasonably safe. Whatever the reservations of those using the bridge, traffic continued to increase, pushing it beyond its safe capacity. By 1868 it was time to be thinking of a more permanent replacement.
THE TOLL-Bridge: The task of paying for a new bridge fell to the local MP, Sir Robert Juckes-Clifton 9th Baronet. This however was no altruistic gesture on Sir Robert’s part. In 1868/69 his company, – ‘The Clifton Colliery Company, – sank two shafts for a new colliery on the north bank of the river – Nottingham side almost opposite to St. Wilfred’s Church. A new and safe bridge was therefore essential for conveying workers and other traffic to and from the colliery. The Wilford Bridge Act of 1862 licenced the wooden bridge which replaced the ferry, to exact tolls for its use and this same Act was applied to Sir Robert’s new bridge.
Sir Robert’s bridge was manufactured of cast-iron by Andrew Handyside & Co. of Derby. The fine red-brick toll-house on the Nottingham side was designed by E.W. Hughes. Sadly, Sir Robert did not live long enough to see either the colliery go into full production or the opening of the bridge. He died of typhoid at the age of 43 on 30th May 1869. A tall statue of Sir Robert, erected close by the toll-house, was unveiled when the bridge was opened to traffic on 16th June 1870.Punch Magazine was later to say of this statue that it had the ‘worst pair of sculptured trousers in England’.
The bridge, which was popularly known as the ‘half-penny bridge’, continued to be owned and operated by the Clifton family until 1969 when it passed into the hands of Nottingham City Council. The passing years had not been kind to the structure and it was found to be in poor condition and was closed to traffic in 1974. In 1980 the bridge took on a new lease of life when the centre span was demolished and replaced by a narrower foot bridge of steel girders and a reinforced concrete deck slab, becoming a footpath and cycleway to Wilford and beyond.
Like a Phoenix, the half-penny bridge has risen once again to the new challenges of its life in the 21st Century. Without losing any of its original charm and character, the central portion has been strengthened and widened to 12.2m allowing it to carry a two-way tram system as well as pedestrian and cycle paths. Sir Robert would be proud to know that the new tram lines will convey passengers from Nottingham over his bridge through Wilfred and past Clifton Hall, his ancestral home, to the terminus at Clifton. How many of those passengers will know that they are crossing the Trent where others have crossed for thousands of years?
I finish this article with a table of tolls for the bridge, as exacted under the 1862 Act: ½ d. – for foot passengers. 6d. – for every horse or other beast drawing any Coach or Stage Coach, Omnibus, Van, Caravan, Sociable, Berlin, Landau, Chaial, A-Vis, Barouche, Phaeton, Chaise Marine, Caleche, Carricle, Chair, Gig, Dog cart, Irish Car, Whisky, Hearse, Litter, Chais or any little carriage. 4d. – for every horse or other beast drawing any Waggon, Wain, Cart or other Carriage. 1½. – for every horse or mule, laden or unladen not drawing. 1d. or 6d. a score (20) – for every Ox, Cow, Bull or Neat cattle 1d or for a score 6d.
One cannot but wonder how much it would be for a fully leaden tram?