Kew Bridge

Kew Bridge joins Brentford on the north side of the Thames with Richmond on the south. Until 1759 the only way across the Thames at this point were two ferries owned by Robert Tunstall. The foot ferry for pedestrians ran just west of the present bridge. And the King's Ferry which could take horses and vehicles was further west, probably at Ferry Lane. But with the Royal Family owning Kew House, across the river opposite Brentford, the pressure grew for a bridge to link the main road west from London to Oxford and Gloucester with Richmond and Kew on the south side of the river.

In 1757 an Act of Parliament was passed to allow Tunstall to build a bridge linking Brentford in Middlesex with Kew in Surrey. It was intended to run along the route of the King's Ferry but local objections relocated it to the line of the foot ferry. A new Act was required and in 1758 Tunstall commissioned John Barnard, master carpenter on a proposed wooden bridge at Westminster, to design Kew Bridge. Construction began in April 1758. The bridge had eleven arches, two at each end were of stone joined by seven wooden arches across the main span of the river. As the builder and ferry owner Tunstall was allowed to charge tolls to cross - from a halfpenny for pedestrians up to one shilling and sixpence for a coach and four horses. In today's money that would be about 30p on foot and 10 for a coach and four. The bridge was dedicated to George, Prince of Wales and his mother Augusta. The Prince inaugurated the bridge on 1 June 1759, driving across it with his mother. It opened to the public three days later on 4 June 1759. It is said that 3000 people crossed the bridge on the first day. That evening a banquet for local gentry was held in the Rose & Crown at Kew with a bonfire and illuminations on Kew Green. In the same year the Physic and Exotic Garden was founded in the grounds of Kew House, the start of the Royal Botanic Gardens.

The print at the top shows the bridge shortly after it was finished. It is probably taken from the south bank of the Thames and shows Strand on the Green through the arches.

The image above, taken from a book published by Alexander Hogg in 1784, shows the bridge towards the end of its life. The view is from Strand on the Green with Kew village beyond. St Anne's church can be seen with its tower. The original bridge was located about 40m upstream (west) of the present bridge debouching onto what is now Bush Road.
Robert Tunstall died soon after the bridge was finished and it was inherited by his son Christopher before his early death and his younger brother Robert became the owner while still a child. The wooden arches of the first Kew Bridge needed a lot of maintenance and in 1782 Robert got permission to replace it with a new stone bridge. The designer was James Paine who was also responsible for Richmond Bridge which had opened in 1777 and still stands. Because the Kew Bridge crossing was so popular, the new stone bridge was built about 40m downstream (east) of the old wooden bridge to avoid disrupting traffic. It was a good decision. Begun on 4 June 1783 it took more than six years to complete.
While it was being built, this map was published still showing the old bridge - discernible by the proximity to Brentford Ait and the kink in the road to take it round St Anne's church.
Kew Bridge was a major crossing to Richmond and Kew off the main road from London to the west. It is shown on this map published as part of Paterson's British Itinerary in 1785. Gunnersbury House is marked 'b' Syon House is marked 'c'. Chiswick was then the small area around what we now call The Mall. Turnham Green, now part of Chiswick High Road, was a separate village.
On 22 September 1789 the second Kew Bridge, built entirely of stone, was opened by George III, 30 years after he opened the first bridge when he was Prince of Wales. A celebration dinner was held at the Star & Garter hotel on the northeast corner of the bridge. The Star & Garter building still stands, though much altered and extended and now used as offices. The new bridge was to stand for more than a hundred years.
One of the earliest images of the second Kew Bridge is shown above. It is taken from Strand on the Green and the structure seen through the arches appears to be the remains of the old wooden bridge. Later evidence indicates that this representation is not completely accurate, exaggerating the steepness of the bridge and misrepresenting its smoothly curved shape.


Another engraving from its first decade was published in 1799. Showing its original ink coloration, this image is taken from Strand on the Green looking south-west and showing buildings in Kew village in the distance. It appears to show Oliver's Ait in the middle of the river. 


Twenty years later the bridge is seen from the diagonally opposite bank looking through to Strand on the Green with two malthouse chimneys clearly visible. The image was engraved in 1819 by J Greig for Excursions through Surrey published by Longman and seems to exaggerate the steepness of the bridge.
In 1824 an Act was passed for a new bridge at Hammersmith. The Hammersmith Bridge Company set down lower tolls for animals and vehicles than those at Kew and Richmond.  Robert Tunstall was concerned he would lose business and put Kew Bridge up for auction. It was bought for 20,000 - around 1.5 million in today's money - by Thomas Robinson.
This 1833 image of the bridge clearly shows the semi-circular arches reflected in the water. Originally done for Eighty Picturesque Views of the Thames and Medway, published in London by Tombleson in London 1833-34, the engraving was by H Winkles and J Tingle. This later reproduction has been heavily coloured. This image is the earliest accurate depiction of the bridge, showing the arches and the slope as they were later captured in photographs. Earlier prints exaggerate the steepness of the bridge and seem to hark back to its predecessor - or perhaps ideas of what a bridge should look like. Some are reminiscent of Richmond Bridge itself.
In 1869 Parliament passed an Act to free London bridges from tolls. The owners of Kew Bridge were offered 39,000 to buy the bridge and make it toll free. They demanded 70,000 and it took five years to reach a compromise figure of 57,300 - about 4.5 million in today's money. Although the amount seems huge compared with the 20,000 paid in 1824, the increase was just 2.13% a year over the 50 years when Thomas Robinson and others owned it.

At a grand public ceremony on 8 February 1873 the Lord Mayor of London unlocked the toll gates with a mediaeval key and firemen carried them off. The procession then crossed the bridge went round Kew Green and returned to the north side for lunch at the Star & Garter. Click here for a full account of when Kew Bridge went toll free

Kew Bridge was now owned by the Corporation of London and the Metropolitan Board of Works. This photograph of unknown date but probably from the 1880s seems to be taken from the Brentford bank (NE) showing Strand on the Green along the same bank through the semi-circular arches.


This photograph, also of unknown date, could be from the opposite corner (SW) with Brentford through the arches.


The image here, published in 1893, is clearly from the south-west corner but closer to the bridge. It is a photogravure of a painting by W Luker which shows a father and son fishing on the south bank. Opposite is the western end of Strand on the Green. 

Taken from London City Suburbs As They Are Today by Percy Fitzgerald published by Leadenhall Press.

This engraving taken from the river shows the second Kew Bridge with the water tower behind. The date of the image is not known but it is probably from the 1880s.


Six years later the bridge still stands but its fate is already sealed. The Kew Bridge Act of 1898 gave Surrey and Middlesex councils the power to rebuild the bridge at an estimated cost of 250,000 - about 22.5 million in today's money. This watercolour by J S Ogilvy is dated 1899 shows Strand on the Green on the right. This image was published in a book in 1914.


This view by Grace Harriet Hastie (1839-19??) is dated 1898. It shows Kew Bridge in the year that Parliament agreed to its replacement. The water tower is clearly shown. This view from the same spot is by Edward C Clifford (1858-1910) and was painted just seven years later in 1905. The wider flatter arches of the new bridge are clearly seen.
The pressure to replace the bridge came from its users. The carriageway was just 18 feet wide, barely enough for two coaches to pass comfortably. The approach at both sides was steep as the bridge got its strength from its curved shape, which made it trying for horses pulling heavy loads. The new bridge was built from Cornish granite with a 56 ft wide carriageway and the slope was reduced by building long tails above the height of the surrounding banks. The three elliptical arches give the bridge tremendous grace as well as strength. 
This postcard is dated 1903 shortly after the bridge was opened by King Edward VII.


The opening ceremony on 20 May 1903 was a tremendous pageant with the King and Queen the first to cross the new bridge lined with soldiers and watched by a huge crowd. This image looks south across the bridge from the corner of Kew Bridge Road with Strand on the Green.


This postcard from 1910 shows Kew Bridge from the south bank looking east with Strand on the Green through the arches.


This image taken in June 2006 from Strand on the Green foreshore looking west shows Kew Bridge head on with the elliptical shape of the arches clearly shown. Brentford Ait is seen through the centre arch. The bridge is now a Grade II listed building.


This image is taken from the area in front of Pier House, Strand on the Green in February 2007.


From a distance with the sun behind it, Kew Bridge is lost among the tall buildings from the second half of the twentieth century.


But with the sun on it in the morning it still presents a charming sight from Strand on the Green foreshore.


Further reading:, Brian Cookson, Crossing the River London 2006, G E Cassidy Kew as it Was 1982, Rev. T Tunstall Haverfield 'Kew Bridge, Green, Church, and School.' Leisure Hour 13 December 1862

Kew Bridges version 1.2, 15 April 2007

Strand on the Green front page

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All material on these pages is Paul Lewis 2007