The first bridge to span the Thames at this point was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In 1841, not long after work on the suspension bridge over the Avon Gorge in Bristol had came to a halt, Brunel accepted the commission to build a suspension footbridge across the Thames.
The engineer could not refuse any opportunity to test his ideas. Named after Hungerford Market on the north bank, Brunel’s suspension bridge was built to provide a pedestrian crossing between the market and the south bank.
Opened in 1845, the bridge had distinctive Italianate towers, through which passed its four cast-iron chains. Measuring 1,462 ft long the bridge comprised two side spans of 343 ft and a centre of 676 ft – longer than was needed for the Avon Gorge. The footpath was 14 ft wide. The structure saw great use and was a huge financial success. Considerable revenue was raised from using the piers as landing-stages by the steam-boat companies, then running regular services on the Thames. The opening of Waterloo station in 1848 significantly increased the foot traffic.
When Hungerford Market closed, the site was sold for the proposed Charing Cross railway station. In 1859 the South Eastern Railway (SER) bought the footbridge so that it could to extend a railway line from London Bridge to Charing Cross, bridging the Thames at the same site.
At the time Sir John Hawkshaw, the resident engineer of the SER, was working on the completion of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, in memory of Brunel who had died on 15 September 1859. The engineer devised a ingenious plan whereby the chains and other suspension elements of the Hungerford footbridge were used to complete Brunel’s more famous bridge, which finally opened in 1864. Hawkshaw dismantled the Italianate towers but the abutments and two brick piers were used for the new railway crossing.
Work started on the Charing Cross railway bridge in 1860 and the iron girder structure opened in 1864. The new bridge was cantilevered out to support the two toll footpaths which the SER was obliged to maintain. In 1878 the tolls were abolished and the bridge was widened in 1882, it upstream footpath was used incorporated as track. In 1980 – 81 its iron girders were replaced by steel but Brunel’s brick piers still support the bridge.
Hungerford Bridge is the only London crossing to combine rail and foot traffic.
In 2000 a £50 million project was begun to create two new suspension footbridges in place of the single footbridge, and Brunel’s original Surrey pier was restored. Designed by Lifshutz Davidson, with the WSP Group as engineers, there are two footbridges and two link bridges to connect the South Bank to the Surrey pier. The two multispan footbridges are 320m long and 4.7m wide, and the decks are suspended from sets of cable stay rods from inclined steel pylons.
These elegant new footbridges have created a stunning new landmark on the Thames. The structure has also opened up new upstream views towards Westminster and provides one of the best views of London’s riverscape, particularly at night.