When nearly seventy years ago the old Salford Bridge, over the Irwell, near the Cathedral, was taken down, after a life of over four and a half centuries, there disappeared from view one of the most interesting relics of the early days of the town.
Before the days of bridges fords were in general use, and excavations made more than a century ago seemed to point to a ford having crossed the river where the Victoria Bridge of today stands. Succeeding the ford was a wooden bridge, some of the supports of which were discovered more recently by workmen engaged in digging out foundations on the Salford side. After this came the stone bridge of three arches, between which were built small angular recesses. The bridge was only wide enough for one vehicle to pass over at a time, and the footways being very narrow the recesses served as retreats for foot passengers.
The earliest recorded reference to the bridge is dated 1368, when Thomas del Bothe, a yeoman, residing at Barton, in the Parish of Eccles, in his will directed the payment of £30 to the Salford Bridge. In addition to this we are told that during his lifetime Botlie or Booth built, at his own expense, a little chapel that stood on the bridge. Travelling being dangerous in those days, in chapels like this travellers offered thanks for the completion of a journey or prayed for safety during one in which they entered, thus:
"Three times tell an ane bead,
And thrice a Paternoster say;
Then kiss me with the Hold Rood
So shall we safely wend our way."
In 1538 the bridge was seen by John Leland, the antiquary, who thus describes the Manchester of his day, thus:
" Manchestre, on the south side of the Irwel river, standeth in Salfordshiret, and is the fairest, best builded, quickest, and most populus tounne in all Lancastreshire, yet is in it one Paroch chirch, but is a College, and almost thorowhowt dobleilyd. There be divers stone bridges in the towne, but the best is of three arches over Irwell. This bridge divideth Manchestre from Salford, the which is a large suburbe of Manchestre. On this bridge is a praty little chapel."
CHAPEL CONVERTED INTO A PRISON.
At the time of the Reformation the little chapel or chantry was closed, and in course of time there being no prison in the town, it came to be used as such. In the records for 1573 we therefore read that: " What person soever shall be found drunken in any alehouse in the towne shall be punished all night in the Dungeon, and pay sixpence to the poor," And further that if the drunkard could not pay the fine, the publicans had to pay it for him." The dungeon was still in use as such up to 1628.
On September 25, 1642, the Royalists under Lord Strange commenced the siege of Manchester. Lord Strange approached from the direction of Stretford to Deansgate, and Sir John Tyldesley attempted to force a passage of the bridge from Salford. This was continued for a week, at the end of which period the besiegers raised the siege and left the neighbourhood.
MANCHESTER'S FIRST IMPROVEMENT ACT.
At this stage a period of a century passes without any record concerning the bridge. During this interval the population of both towns steadily increased, as did consequently the traffic passing over the bridge. This led to important changes. In 1775 an Act of Parliament was obtained for the purpose of widening several of the streets in the town and for laying out new ones. This was the first improvement Act granted to the people of Manchester, and in accordance with it the first street improvement scheme in the history of the town was commenced. It seemed to be a natural development of this policy that the only thoroughfare for vehicular traffic between the two towns should be improved.
Aston, writing in 1804, says that until 1778 "...it was highly dangerous for foot passengers to meet a carriage; and it was often a work of labour for persons not very active to get over the bridge on a market day, as they were often obliged to take refuge in the angular recesses which at that time were on both sides of the bridge, to escape from impending danger." Therefore it was that in the year named the bridge was widened on the side nearest to "th' owd church." The dungeon or prison was removed, and the approaches to the bridge were widened.
Of the dungeon which stood on the arch nearest to Salford a few more words should be said. It was of two-storeys, the lower one of which was below the level of the bridge, and was haunted by rats, and it was said that one man confined there on a charge of drunkenness had his toes eaten away by them. The flooding of the river was also a source of danger to prisoners, and about 1760 a man was found drowned in the prison, the only opening into the lower room being the doorway from inside. The bridge having been widened, it continued to be used until 1837, when it was decided to take it down and build a more modern one. On September 7 it was finally closed to traffic, and the work of four centuries' before was demolished. For the convenience of foot passengers during the period of reconstruction, a temporary wooden bridge was erected.
THE MODERN BRIDGE.
On March 3, 1838, the first stone of the present bridge was laid by Mr. Elkanah Armitage, boroughreeve of Salford. This was on the Manchester side, and three months later the first stone on the Salford side was laid by Mr. J. Brown, boroughreeve of Manchester. In the columns of the "Manchester Guardian " for March 27, 1839, appeared the following statement, which will give some idea of the rude and primitive manner in which the old bridge had been constructed:
" On removing the keystone of the arch on the Salford side the whole of the masonry from the keystone to the centre pier fell over at once in to the river, precipitating three or four of the workmen into the river. but, fortunately, none of them received any more serious injury than considerable fright and a thorough ducking. On examining the centre pier it was found to be quite untouched and unshaken, each of the three arches having merely pressed upon or rested against the outer surfaces of the pier and abutments."
One wonders how the old bridge had stood so long.
The progress of the erection of the new one suffered several delays. Thus on October 16, 1838, much of the stonework was washed away by a flood, and Mr. Gannon, the contractor, endeavouring to save the centres of the arch, had his leg broken; and on January 7, 1839, the centres were thrown down during a tremendous gale. On March 23, of the same year, however, the keystone was set by Mr. Humphrey Trafford, and on June 20 the bridge was opened with a grand procession. It was christened after the young Queen, the second anniversary of whose coronation was celebrated on the opening day. The total cost was £2O,8OO, and the first vehicle to cross the bridge was a wagon belonging to Messrs. Lupton and Adamthwaite, brewers, Cook-street, Salford. It was not until 1851 that the Queen passed over the bridge. On October 10, coming from Worsley, she entered the city, being received by the Mayor on the bridge, an arch sixty feet high having been erected on the Manchester side.
Prosaic and commonplace as the bridge may appear to the passer-by, its site, as we have seen, has witnessed many changes, and through the various stages of the city's development has played an important part.
Below is a view of the old Salford Bridge:
An increasing number of other highly interesting extracts will be made available as the website expands. An interesting comment in the above extract mentions Lord Strange, who obviously gave his name to Strangeways Prison. There is a mention of this prison and its area in the book "Different Times" - as detailed on this website.
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