The calmly flowing river Wye, as seen by visitors to the Marches in summer, bears little resemblance to the wayward and tempestuous river known to our forefathers. River catchment control and regular monitoring of water levels today has brought this ‘wandering spirit’ to heel, although even now as witnessed in 2019 and early 2020, it occasionally rises to threaten farmlands, roads and homes of the locality.
Previously though, it was an unpredictable force to be reckoned with, especially in periods of sudden thaw and heavy rainfall. At such times the river burst its banks to sweep across the low lying meadows, carrying trees, live-stock, haystacks and even people along with it.
It would subside leaving its fine silt over the fields and ensuring a rich sward in the following spring. On occasions its force was so great that it carried large tracts of land away, such as at Glasbury in 1660 when the old Church was swept away. Again in 1720, it was another great flood that cut off Whitney old Church leaving it on the opposite bank of the river to which it had originally stood.
With such an unpredictable river it is not surprising that Bridges across it were few and far between. For most of its course between Hereford and Hay, the only ways of crossing were either by fording at shallow places or by small boat or raft at ‘safe’ crossing points.
In the stretch of river between Hay and Bredwardine there were five, possibly six, fording places; at Clifford Castle, Rhydspence, Whitney Ford (to the east of the bridge), Clock Mill Farm, possibly Turners Boat and Glebe Field at Bredwardine.
Later there were ferries at these points, two of which, Rhydspence and Clock Mill, were operative until this century. It is possible to locate most of these crossing points today and the one at Whitney is easily seen from the Toll Bridge.
This Whitney ferry was oar operated and charged a penny a crossing.
At some point during its history a heinous robbery took place here, whereby the old ferryman was followed home by two men, who had previously used the ferry and were aware of the old man’s taking that he kept in a pot. The men violently mugged and murdered the old ferryman.
They made off to the Rydspence drover’s pub a mile down the road. When the locals saw the men paying with the coins from the old ferryman’s pot, the two were seized and arrested.
The old man’s body was found, and the murderers were tried and hanged at Gallows Tump, Hereford.
Need for a Bridge
From the time of the great flood in 1730 onwards it was an even greater problem to the Whitney villagers, for the river had cut them off from their common grazing land. Livestock were often left on the ‘wrong’ side of the river for days, when the water levels were too high to drive them across. The commercial carriers of Hay and Hereford found their business impeded by the deficiencies of the Whitney ferry and added support to those already agitating to have a Bridge built at this point.
So, in November 1773 the owner of the ferry, Tomkyns Dew, Lord of the Manor of Whitney, was instrumental in presenting a Bill to Parliament for the construction of a Bridge at Whitney.
The investors or ‘undertakers’ as they were called came from Hay, Clifford and Whitney. An Act of Parliament was issued to them in 1774 stating that they had to build the Bridge in stone within three years, and compensate Tomkyns Dew for the loss of his ferry. They were given permission to take stone, gravel and sand for the building and repair of the Bridge from the manorial land of Tomkyns Dew free of charge. They were also given the land near the Bridge on which a Tollhouse could be built.
The Building of Whitney Bridge
In 1774 the first Whitney Bridge was constructed.
At this time barges full of Forest of Dean coal were regularly coming up the river as far as Glasbury and often these barges would be lashed together for the return journey so that they could carry whole tree trunks down to the river mouth.
It is not surprising therefore, that the barge owners were made fully responsible for any damage that their craft might cause to the Bridge.
As it turned out it was not the barges or rafts that caused the downfall of the Bridge but the force of the river itself. Perhaps the need to construct the Bridge rapidly and make some return on their capital led the ‘undertakers’ to site the first, second and third Bridges poorly and to use inadequate materials.
The first two bridges fell fairly rapidly under the Wye’s onslaught. The third lasted somewhat longer.
The country was consumed in a great freeze, with snow and ice and even the Wye was frozen. There then followed a very fast thaw with sudden movement of huge volumes of water and ice during what was probably the Wye’s greatest recorded flood. The third stone bridge was no match, succumbing to the ferocious power of the water on February 22nd 1795.
After the loss of three Bridges in barely twenty years the original undertakers were ruined and so they withdrew. The need for the Bridge was increasing so a new group put their minds to finding a structure which would stand up to the river.
These new undertakers, Longfellow the principal carriers of Brecon, together with a John Phillips of Hay, bought the bridge property and rights from the widow of one of the original promoters and set about presenting a new Bill to Parliament in July 1796.
Their proposal was for a bridge with a stone span either side of three central wooden spans supported on oak wood pillars standing on ‘islands’ of large stones in midstream, believing this combination would be most likely to withstand catastrophic floods.
A new Act was issued in 1796 allowing for a Bridge to be built of timber and stone within a time scale of two years.
‘Greenheart’ timber was reportedly used and has been proved adequate over the intervening years. The structure has been repaired often, and expensively, but its beam and tressle construction has lasted over 200 years and today forms a picturesque and necessary part of the local landscape.
With the new Bridge the opportunity was taken to increase the tolls and to add some new categories such as ‘Asses or Dogs drawing’ at two pence each.
Tomkyns Dew, ‘his heirs and assigns, proprietors or occupier of the Mansion House of Whitney Court; his family, servants, horses, cattle, carriages and all matter and things liable to Toll’ were exempt from all tolls on the Bridge. This apparently clear exemption seems to have been capable of much variation in its interpretation so that it became the cause of a bad-tempered dispute lasting over 50 years. Finally, in 1854 an agreement was reached out of Court between Tomkyns Dew and the Bridge owner, a Mrs. Caroline Taylor (nee Longfellow) that seemed to settle the matter.
By the 1800s other threats to the economic viability of the Bridge had appeared.
In 1810 the Hay Tramway (a horse drawn tramway) was proposed to take the tram tracks over the river by a new suspension bridge a little way upstream of the Toll Bridge.
This Bridge was never built because the Toll Bridge owners successfully maintained that the wording of the 1796 Act of Parliament gave them the exclusive privilege of a crossing of the river at this point. After an acrimonious dispute the Tramway owners agreed to lay their tracks over the Toll Bridge itself and to pay the Bridge owners £100 a year for the usage.
Forty years later the steam railway posed the next threat and the 1859 Railway Act to build a railway from Brecon to Hereford was bitterly contested. The railway, however, needed a much stronger bridge to support its trains and it was obvious that the Toll Bridge was in no way suitable for this kind of traffic.
In 1862 the Railway Company was allowed to build its bridge a short distance upstream. In recompense it agreed to guarantee the tolls on the toll bridge up to the sum of £345 a year.
The railway was used mainly for goods transportation such as coal and wool, but as times changes and industry moved away, the line and the Whitney Railway Bridge was finally shut and pulled down in its 100th year.
In the floods of 2020 a huge tree was washed down the Wye and dredged the river bed at the site of the old railway bridge. One of its huge original metal supports was dislodged. This beautiful piece of Victorian industrial engineering is now on display at Whitney Bridge.
Railway Bridge 1860s and what remains today – view up steam from Bridge
For the next fifty years or so the Toll Bridge entered another ‘quiet period’ until the coming of the motorcar made the roads important once more.
In the early 1900’s the state of the bridge was giving the county authorities some concern and plans were drawn up for a new bridge.
These were not implemented and possibly remained on the shelf until 1928 when public attention nationally was focusing on these ‘ancient relics’ of the transport system.
Early in that year talks took place between the Herefordshire County Council and the Hereford Chamber of Commerce over the remaining Toll Bridges in the County. These were listed as: Whitney, Moccas, Holme Lacy, Horwithy and Kerne Bridges, with Whitney Bridge stated to be the most important of them all. Nearly 70 years later it is still the only one under private ownership!
In the early 1930s the ownership of the bridge, although still within the Taylor family, had been so much divided and subdivided among succeeding generations that there were 32 co-owners!
The Bridge, having been for so long in the possession of one family, even if that possession was fragmented, meant that there were quite a number of disputes over aspects of its rights and operation. Fishing rights at the end of the last century had to be settled legally with the neighbouring riparian owners, and there were of course, many occasions when the tolls were hotly contested.
One such example occurred in 1939 when the then owner, Mr. G. D. Taylor and his wife, were brought before the Courts charged with unlawfully demanding and receiving toll from an army officer on duty. The Army Act of 1881 gave free passage to army personnel on duty over any toll bridge in the kingdom. On this occasion the bridge owners sought to distinguish between the officer and his car in demanding a toll for the vehicle and then became somewhat ‘flustered’ when he rightly refused to pay. At any rate Mrs. Taylor assaulted the Major whilst her husband flung brooms and a ladder on the car and had to be restrained by the Sergeant who was travelling with the Major.
Considering that the owners were both well into their eighties when this happened one might assume that the lifestyle of toll keepers in those days led to longevity, if not to equanimity!
Their willingness to take immediate action probably did not surprise the locals who knew that the pair lived separately on either side of the tollgate, for there was another cottage opposite the present one at the time. So, when the house in which Mr. Taylor slept burned down in 1940 with him inside there were those who knowingly shook their heads about the ‘accidental’ nature of the event. The building has never been replaced.
The Toll House & Toll Bridge Cottage late 1800
Changes of Ownership and their Custodians
1796 - 1981
In 1981 one member of the original Taylor family, owners since 1776, a Mr. George Taylor, managed to buy-out all the other family ‘shareholders’ and restore the bridge to a single owner.
On his death, the sole ownership of the bridge passed to his daughter a Mrs. Margison, who in turn bequeathed it to her husband on her death.
Mr. Margison then living in Australia, found the long distance management of the bridge quite difficult and tedious and so decided to put the whole concern on the market for the first time in its history.
1981 - 1990
It was thus in 1981, after over 180 years, that Mr. and Mrs. C. J. Bryant, became the first owners of the concern to have bought it outright.
After approximately 9 years, on 17th August 1990, Mr. Bryant was successful in his application to increase the “standard” toll from 30p to 50p.
Subsequently, in November 2009 a further application was approved by the Department for Transport for an increase of toll fee from 50p to 80p.
1990 - 2000
On the 1st.December 1990 the Toll Bridge was purchased by a Mrs. Smith from Warwickshire intending that the ownership would be retained within her immediate family for the foreseeable future. On inspection it became clear that the Bridge was suffering from many years of neglect and lack of maintenance.
Therefor in 1992 Gifford & Partners, a specialist firm of Chartered Engineers, were instructed by the owner to commission a programme of complete restoration for this historic Grade II listed structure.
Work began in late 1992 and in early 1993 the four main foundation pier bases were refurbished and made safe. In the summer 1993 the local company of Capps & Capps Ltd. were instructed by Gifford & Partners to commence the complete restoration of the Bridge timbers using the original “Greenheart” specification.
The Bridge was closed during the months of September and October whilst the main spars and decking timbers were replaced or restored. The cost of the restoration was in the region of £300,000.
1990 - 2002
The ownership of the Bridge changed again in 2002 when it was purchased by a Mr. B.E. Howard of Bedford.
2002 – 2018
Whitney Bridge changed hands once more in January 2012 with Grahame Penny and Maggie Taylor taking ownership.
Maggie and Grahame saw the need to provide alternative income to supplement the tolls moving into the future. They secured planning for a café and visitor centre and for lodges on the site.
Maggie also believed in the legend that every Bridge has a troll which lives under the arches. Whitney Bridge is no different and Walter the friendly troll, introduced himself to Maggie in the summer of 2013 and now features in a children’s books based at Whitney Bridge, though cleverly peeping in at the Hay Festival 2014.
Today the standard fee for crossing the bridge is £1, which was ratified by the Secretary of State for Transport on June 29th2015.
2018 – Present Day
On July 4th 2018, the glorious Whitney Bridge again changed custodianship when Peter, Sarah, George and Ellie Crouch fell in love with the site.
Confronted by two major floods and the Coronavirus, their spirits have not been dampened.
Feeling blessed to be able to continue the ongoing development here at Whitney Bridge, the site has been continuously improved and invested in and after 250 years, has enabled the site of the old ferry crossing and the toll bridge to be united.
The addition of its own canoe company and fabulous glamping pods has created a new vibe at the site. Looking into the future, the completion of the café and visitors centre in 2021 is very exciting.
It is certain that the historic and beautiful Whitney Bridge will prosper for another 250 years.