21 January 2016
For two days I’d stayed indoors apart from strolls up and down to the village for milk and newspapers. A winter cold of the hacking cough, sneezing uncontrollably, constantly running nose kind left me feeling rather sorry for myself. Annoyingly the weather had been bright and clear, with sharp early morning frosts, just the sort of thing for walking. Today I decided it was kill or cure, wrapped up warm and went out anyway.
A post on the Southampton Heritage Facebook page had me itching to get down to the river to see a new piece of public art that has appeared there in the last few days and I thought I’d combine this with a long put off write up about Cobden Bridge. CJ is suffering with the same cold and, of course, blaming me loudly. While I was putting my boots on he said he’d come too to get some fresh air. We took some granary crusts to tempt the black swan cygnets and set off into the cold.
In no time at all we were at Bitterne Park Triange looking at the clock tower. The tower is probably one of the best known city landmarks on the east side of the Itchen and it’s odd to think it stands in the middle of the Triangle more by accident than design. The forty three foot, gothic style clock tower, designed by Sydney Kelway Pope and built by Garret and Haysom, was a gift to the city, bequeathed in the will of Mrs Henrietta Bellender Sayers “in evidence of her care for man and beast,” as a drinking fountain and trough for horses, cattle and dogs. It was unveiled in 1889 at the junction of New Road and Above Bar.
For almost thirty years the cattle trough at the foot was used by horses and cattle passing along Above Bar, the small troughs on the north and south sides were used by dogs and the drinking fountain on the west side was used by thirsty Sotonians, who could also check the time while they drank. Slowly times changed. In 1916 the mass use of a cup on a chain was deemed unhealthy and the water supply to the drinking fountain was cut off. Cattle were no longer driven through the city centre streets and horses gave way to cars. By 1929 the Civic Centre was under construction and motor traffic had increased to such a degree that the tower was in the way.
Rather than pull it down it was dismantled piece by piece in 1935 and moved to Bitterne Park Triangle where the wooden hut, used as an office by National Land Corporation agent Alfred Chafen, once stood. It may have been less in the way but the Triangle was hardly an ideal spot. The soil was soft and, slowly, over the years, the tower began to lean. These days it’s leaning downhill to the west by around seven inches. Sooner or later it will fall unless someone does something. For now, it remains the leaning tower of Bitterne Park.
The tower leans towards Cobden Bridge, which was, in part, what we’d come to see. Its tale began six years before the clock tower was built, in 1882, when the National Liberal Land Company bought a tract of land on the east bank of the Itchen intending to build houses on it. They knew the land would be far more valuable if they built a bridge to connect it to St Denys on the other side of the river, giving easy access to Southampton Town Centre two miles away. Before they could build though, they had to obtain a grant from the Crown to drive pillars into the foreshore, which, as the river is tidal, the Crown had a right to. They were eventually granted permission, for a yearly rent, with a covenant to keep the bridge in repair. If it became unsafe and caused a danger to navigation or the public, the Crown reserved the right to remove it.
By 1883 an iron bridge was built and, in clear competition with the toll bridge at Northam, it was advertised as ‘free to the public for ever.’ It was named Cobden Bridge after Richard Cobden, a Liberal politician, campaigner for free trade and founder of the Anti Corn Law League. It was opened by Thorald Rogers, another Liberal Politican, chairman of the Land Company and friend of Cobden.
After the bridge was built development of the area began. A road was built to meet the bridge on what was then the country side connecting with St Denys Road on the Town side. It was called Cobden Avenue after Cobden. Slowly, houses and more roads were built, Thorald Road was named for Thorald Rogers, Bullar Road, heading for Bitterne, was named after John Bullar, the Land Company Chairman’s former schoolmaster, and others named after prominent Liberal Supporters Sir William Harcourt and Joseph Whitworth.
Crossing the bridge today and looking at the sun sparkling on the rippled water and gulls gliding in the cold air it’s hard to imagine the old iron bridge or the furore it caused shortly after it opened. Strangely, connecting St Denys and Bitterne was not perceived to be a good thing by some local residents and the bridge became the scene of several skirmishes that would become known as ‘The Battles of Cobden Bridge.’ The exact reasons for the resentment between the two villages has been lost in the mist of time although some say it began when people from St Denys crossed the bridge to pick primroses on the Bitterne side. More likely is the tale that St Denys lads had come to Bitterne to chat up some local girls. Either way, it all ended badly.
One Sunday in 1884 things came to a head and a group of about a hundred town lads set upon a small group of Bitterne boys near Dyer’s Boathouse on the St Denys side of the bridge. Outnumbered, the Bitterne boys took a sound beating. One lad, the son of Mr Rocket the Bitterne carrier and the brother of one of the girls in question, had both his eyes blacked. Most importantly, village pride was hurt.
The next Sunday hundreds of men and lads from both villages met for a return battle on the bridge armed with sticks and stones. A ferocious fight ensued. Noses were bloodied, eyes were blackened and pride was hurt on both sides. A week later an even larger group came across the bridge from St Denys, some say they numbered thousands but this could be an exaggeration as the population was still relatively small. They marched all the way to Lances Hill, a good mile and a half away. This time the police were waiting for them and the leaders were arrested and sent to Winchester Prison. Even so, resentment between the ‘townies’ and the Bitternites remained for many decades. By all accounts the Bitterne girls in question were very beautiful and well worth all the trouble. Then again, I’m a Bitterne girl so I could be biased.
These days there seems to be peace and harmony between the two sides of the bridge, much as there is on the river below it. We crossed without incident. Our biggest problem was getting across the road. The development in what would become Bitterne Park was a great success and the new roads became increasingly clogged with traffic going back and forth. By the 1920’s the old iron bridge wasn’t up to the job any more and building began on a new concrete bridge in 1926. The bridge we crossed today was opened in October 1928 by Wilfred Ashley, Minister of Transport, and a copper plaque stands on either side giving the details.
Now we were in St Denys and, although there were no marauding gangs of youths, we turned and made our way back across the bridge. St Denys was not the object of this wall, although it may warrant a later visit. One of the things I’d come to see was the new artwork in Riverside Park. I’d heard it was in a tree close to the park entrance and, as we began to cross, I peered across the water hoping to spot it. There was certainly something glittering in a tree but, from this distance, I couldn’t make it out clearly so I turned my attention to the houseboats on the St Denys side of the river. It isn’t often I find myself on the park side of the road at this end of the bridge after all.
The area has been tidied up a bit since August 2014, when I last took photos from this spot. Back then there was a slightly run down houseboat right by the bridge. It had begun to sink and looked in a bad way. Not long after I took the picture someone cleared it away and the area does now look tidier, but I can’t help wondering about the people who’d been living on it.
With a quick stop to take a photo of the Ekco Radio ghost sign on the side of the first shop on the Bitterne Park side of the bridge, we made our way towards the park. There may not be many more chances to see the sign as building work on the land beside the shop looks set to start soon. More luxury flats will almost certainly block out the view of the sign and a tiny piece of history will disappear.
Near the park gate I could see the artwork a little better. There seemed to be a drift of shining birds flying up into a tree filled with balls of mistletoe. The glittering birds seemed to be moving in the breeze. We marched down the slope for a closer look, stopping for a shot of the underside of the bridge on the way.
The grass was wet and muddy but we picked our way carefully across, curious about these strange birds and how they were clinging to the tree. As we got closer I could see they were attached to netting stretched between the trees and the birds seemed to be made of mirrors, reflecting the sky, the branches and the sun. Sadly, my pictures couldn’t capture the movement or the sparkle as well as I’d have liked but they really were lovely.
It turns out Riverside Park is not the first place to be graced by this sparkling piece of art. The work, by Bitterne Park artist Sarah Filmer, was in the garden at Mottisfont last winter as part of ‘the nutcracker’ family trail. It arrived here on Sunday and the birds are snow geese, cut from mirrors. The sun was really in the wrong place for glittering but I loved the way they moved and reflected the sky. Hopefully they’ll stay around for a while.
We’d seen what we came to see, more or less but there was still the matter of the bread in CJ’s pocket and the glimmer of hope that we’d tempt some black swans out of hiding with it…