The city of Cambridge: Bridges

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

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'The city of Cambridge: Bridges', A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959), pp. 114. British History Online [accessed 16 June 2024].

. "The city of Cambridge: Bridges", in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959) 114. British History Online, accessed June 16, 2024,

. "The city of Cambridge: Bridges", A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959). 114. British History Online. Web. 16 June 2024,

In this section


The Great Bridge.

The origin of the Great Bridge—Magdalene Bridge as it is called today— goes back, as has been seen, (fn. 65) to 875 at latest. Though the survey of 1279 asserts that the responsibility for its upkeep lies on the whole county, (fn. 66) the list of lands liable for pontage from 1236 to 1752 (fn. 67) shows that in fact the liability was confined to landholders living in villages west of the Cam. (fn. 68) It was reported in 1279 to be in very bad repair so that the carts of those crossing it fell into the river. (fn. 69) This was all the more scandalous since, as the inquest of 1275 had shown, the sheriff had exacted an abnormally heavy pontage of 2s. on the hide, promising to rebuild the bridge with stone. Instead of fulfilling his pledge he had merely repaired the fabric with hurdles and timber, whilst the keeper of the prison in the castle had made 100s. by pulling planks out of the half-built bridge and making those entering the town pay him for ferrying them across the river. (fn. 70) In 1348 when the bridge was again ruinous, an inquest alleged that the community of Cambridge was bound to repair the eastern bridgehead. (fn. 71) Commissions for the repair of the bridge were issued at frequent intervals. (fn. 72) Clearly no material more durable than timber was used, and to the wear and tear of weather and flood were added the depredations of townsmen and others who carried off stones and timber. (fn. 73) When the bridge was rebuilt in 1483 the contributions of the pontagers were supplemented by the levy of tolls. (fn. 74) In 1494 rent was payable to the town treasurers for a house built upon the bridge. (fn. 75) If Lyne's map is accurate the bridge standing in 1574 had five arches. (fn. 76) Cole describes the duckingstool that hung from the centre of the bridge; as a boy he had seen a scold ducked. (fn. 77) This last wooden bridge was replaced in 1754 by a stone bridge designed by James Essex at the cost of £1,609. The pontage, levied at the rate of £6 a hide, brought in £442 17s. 9d.; the balance was made up by subscriptions, the Corporation chest contributing £30. (fn. 78) But by 1799 this bridge also was ruinous, according to the presentment of a grand jury. (fn. 79) Not until the present iron bridge was built in 1823 (fn. 80) does the problem of a safe crossing seem to have been solved.

The Small Bridges.

Though today there is only one bridge to carry Silver Street, formerly known as Small Bridges Street, across the Cam, as late as 1574 two distinct branches of the river had to be bridged at Newnham. Lyne's map shows the handrail on one of the bridges. (fn. 81) An early date for them is suggested by the fact that the two sides of the river are in one parish, (fn. 82) but the Small Bridges are first mentioned in 1396, when the Bishop of Ely granted an indulgence to all who should contribute to their repair and attend service in the bridge chapel. (fn. 83) A hermit who lived just west of the crossing was responsible for their upkeep and was allowed to take tolls for the purpose. John Jaye is mentioned as hermit in 1399 and Thomas Kendall in 1406, and in 1428 the hermit was permitted by town ordinance to take willows for the repair of the road by the bridges. (fn. 84) The Reformation ended this system; in 1589 the site of the hermitage was leased to Oliver Grene, (fn. 85) and in 1593 the town spent £35 17s. 4d. in repairing the old bridge by the mill and building a new one. The Corporation rebuilt the bridge in 1773. In 1813, however, they were indicted for failure to repair it. (fn. 86) They then restored it for £299 10s. In 1841 the timber bridge was replaced by the present iron one at a cost of £1,956 15s. (fn. 87)

Garret Hostel Bridge.

In 1455 Henry VI granted to the Mayor and burgesses of Cambridge a garden called Henabbey, which he had acquired seven years previously from the Priory of Anglesey. This was to enable the town to make a common way from Milne Street to the river to replace Salthithe Lane which the town had granted to the king for his college. (fn. 88) Responsibility for the upkeep of this lane, that ran between Garret Hostel and Trinity Hall, was accepted by Trinity Hall in 1544. (fn. 89) Until 1769 the bridge at the end of the lane which is first mentioned as 'Pons Gerardi' by Caius in 1573, (fn. 90) was kept in repair jointly by Trinity Hall and the town. Garret Hostel Bridge was rebuilt in 1591, 1626, and 1646. (fn. 91) The timber bridge built in 1769 was designed by James Essex and known as the Mathematical Bridge. (fn. 92) Half of its cost was paid by Trinity Hall on condition of being freed from all future claims, (fn. 93) so the town bore the sole responsibility for rebuilding it after its collapse in 1812. (fn. 94) The reconstructions of 1814 and 1821 were all in timber, but in 1837 the present iron bridge was erected. (fn. 95)

Victoria Bridge.

Victoria Bridge, by which the road between Jesus Green and Midsummer Common is carried across the Cam to link Chesterton Road and Jesus Lane, was built in 1890 to meet the needs of the rapidly expanding residential areas north and south of the river, and to direct some of the traffic from the old line of the Roman road.


  • 65. See above, p. 2, and n. 8.
  • 66. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 392.
  • 67. Lib. Mem. de Bernewelle, 238 sqq.; Cooper, Annals, iv. 286 sqq.
  • 68. A. Gray, Dual Origin of Town of Cambridge, 12, 28.
  • 69. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 407.
  • 70. Ibid. i. 49, 50, 55; Cam, Liberties and Communities, 44.
  • 71. Flower, Medieval Public Works (Selden Soc.), i. 34 sqq., 38.
  • 72. 1362, 1383, 1391, 1394, 1413, 1423, 1478, &c. Cooper, Memorials, iii. 271. For commissions after 1600 see Camb. City Archives, Pontage Bk.
  • 73. Camb. Univ. Libr., MS. Baker, xxv, 110, 112 (1413, 1422).
  • 74. Cooper, Annals, i. 224.
  • 75. Ibid. 243.
  • 76. Clark and Gray, Old Plans of Cambridge, pt. ii, map 1.
  • 77. W. M. Palmer, John Layer, 100.
  • 78. Cooper, Annals, iv. 289, 292; B.M. Add. MS. 5813, ff. 227–8.
  • 79. Cooper, Annals, iv. 464.
  • 80. Ibid. 542. The Corporation contributed £150, the University £600.
  • 81. Clark and Gray, Old Plans of Cambridge, pt. ii, map 1.
  • 82. Gray, Town of Cambridge, 20.
  • 83. Cooper, Annals, i. 143.
  • 84. Ibid. 145, 151, 180.
  • 85. In 1790 the site was granted to P. Beales on a long lease, and his nephew bought the reversion from the town. The house built there, at one time a guest house, was in 1956 occupied by the third women's foundation, New Hall.
  • 86. Cooper, Annals, iv. 368, 505; Memorials, iii. 263.
  • 87. Cooper, Annals, iv. 648.
  • 88. P.N. Cambs. (E.P.N.S.), 45; Willis and Clark, Archit. Hist. i. 212 (Henneabley); Cooper, Memorials, iii. 352–3 (Henably).
  • 89. Willis and Clark, Archit. Hist. i. 213.
  • 90. Ibid. 215.
  • 91. Cooper, Annals, ii. 493; iii. 198, 404.
  • 92. Ibid. iv. 503.
  • 93. Ibid. 360; Willis and Clark, Archit. Hist. i. 214.
  • 94. The Corporation was indicted in 1813 for failure to repair it: Cooper, Annals, iv. 505, 509.
  • 95. Ibid. 608.