The Sheppey Crossing and Kingsferry Bridge History (from Action Forum June 2006)
As the completion of the new bridge for the Sheppey Crossing fast approaches it seems timely to consider the history of the link between the Island and the rest of Kent.
Before 1860 when the first permanent structure was built there existed three separate ferries between Sheppey and the mainland, two for foot passengers and a larger one, Kings Ferry, for travellers with horses and luggage. The right to levy a toll on all strangers visiting the Island had been granted by Henry IV in 1401 to help with the upkeep of the road and ferry. Gradually this right changed to include all those who crossed and also included cattle, sheep and lambs, packhorses, carts and other vehicles. The toll was finally removed on June 30th 1929 and although not everyone approved this certainly led to an increase in visitors to Sheppey in summertime. The first permanent link was constructed on behalf of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway Company, so that a branch line from Sittingbourne to Sheerness could be laid. This was officially opened on June 19th 1860. Two railwaymen who lived in a house on the bank of the Swale had to see the trains across, maintain the structure and raise the middle span of the bridge, a moveable viaduct, by hand to allow craft free access along the Swale. Foot passengers were still rowed across the water by boatmen for many years after the opening of this bridge, partly because of the frequent breakdowns often caused by ships colliding with the structure.
By 1904 the bridge needed replacing, it had been unsafe to lift since 1901 and the railway company hoped to replace it with a fixed bridge but the Waterway Conservators would not contemplate that and another lifting bridge had to be built to keep the Swale open to shipping. The resulting Kingsferry Bridge was a bascule bridge, that is onc that has the deck hinged around one horizontal axis with a counter balance working mechanism; this was originally operated by hand but later by electricity. Traffic rattled noisily across the wooden planks of the roadway and as this platform of the tin bridge lifted to an angle of 45 degrees when open it could be clearly seen from many view points in the area. One of my earliest memories of this bridge is whilst having a fami ly picnic, it could have been at Motney Hill. We watched the bridge open to allow a boat to pass up to Ridham Dock. It was time to go home and my mother confidently announced we would wait just until the bridge went down. An hour later we gave in as the bridge remained defiantly open. It stayed like this for the next few days as it had once again been struck by the passing ship and could not drop down until major repairs had been completed. These incidents became more and more frequent as the bridge aged and by the late 1950s it was obvious that this was not an adequate solution for the people of Sheppey.
In 1956, during my first year at Sittingbourne Grammar School, I remember the staff making hurried arrangements for the 'Island Girls' to go home with friends who lived on the mainland as once again the bridge was stuck. This all changed on 20th April 1960 when the 'new' Kingsferry Bridge was officially opened by HRH The Duchess of Kent. The object was to provide reliable access to the island but this bridge also had teething problems and had to close for repairs a couple of years later. The bridge, constructed by John Howard & Co. Ltd, was 650ft long and lifted the 450 tons road and rail section vertically by counterbalance mechanisms housed in the four towers. There is only one other bridge of this design in the world. A new road had been constructed across the marshes finally eliminating the ancient bends and turns of the old road which was said to have followed the ancient trackways created by animals following the driest route across the wet lands. The new bridge dwarfed the old bridge as may be seen in our front cover picture and as the railway had also been diverted across the new structure the old bridge was soon demolished.
Nearly fifty years on and this Kingsferry Bridge was no longer adequate for modem needs and so finally a fixed four lane crossing, two in each direction, has been built 20 metres above the Swale sweeping over and dominating the old ferry crossing. Work began in the Spring of 2004 and Transport Minister David Jamieson ceremoniously broke the ground using a mechanical digger for the foundation of the first bridge pier on 29th April 2004. Work on the £100m bridge part of the larger £300m improved M2/A249 road schemes is now almost finished and it is hoped will provide a very welcome boost for thc economy of the Isle of Sheppey. Early in 2006 the Highways Agency announced a competition to name the new bridge. From 700 entries Mr Reginald Grimwade, agcd 80 years and a life long resident of the island, at present living at Minster on Sea, was chosen as the winner with his suggestion of 'The Sheppey Crossing'. During the two years ' construction period the progress of the new bridge has been eagerly watched by many.
Of particular interest was the period in late 2005 when ajacking mechanism was used to push the steel skeleton of the road deck steadily into place from each end of the working site. Finally in October and Novembcr 2005 the last remaining sections of bridge deck from piers 7·8 and 15-17 were lifted into place and the new dual carriageway structure was complete. The 1960 Kingsferry Bridge will be maintained for use by British Rail as trains are unable to cope with the steep incline of the new fixed bridge. The bridge will also keep a road across for local traffic to use and new pathways and cycle tracks will be created for pedestrian and cyclist use, as for safety reasons they cannot use the new bridge. I wonder how long it will be before yet another bridge is needed.