OK, so what is the Bridge to Nowhere and how did it get this name? The bridge has somehow come to symbolise Burgess Park, together with the butterfly, the Camberwell Beauty. Between them, they reflect both the industrial heritage and the natural aspect of the modern park, created after World War 2 by clearing a busy industrial and residential area. Although now ‘going nowhere’, the bridge was once a vital artery connecting a community split in two by the wide, busy canal traversing the entire length of what is now Burgess Park. Actually – the bridge really is going somewhere, now that it’s been renovated by Southwark Council!
When the Canal first opened in 1811, the area was mainly agricultural, with meadows and market gardens on either side, and few roads. An old lane ran north-south approximately where Wells Way lies now, and another footpath further east between the Old Kent Road and Peckham, now Trafalgar Avenue. Both these routes required a canal crossing, and were initially supplied with small wooden swing bridges, which were later enlarged.
As the park area became more and more built up in the 19th century, having only two crossings for almost a mile of wide canal became more and more problematic. The banks of the canal and land either side had become crowded with houses and businesses divided by the canal. Judging by the number of drownings in the canal, some people were trying to wade or swim across, and one wood-yard near St George’s Church had taken to rafting across with their goods.
By 1894, public meetings were being held, and Camberwell St Giles Vestry (the local council) agreed that an additional bridge was required, and took on the task. (Not the canal company, interestingly, who might be thought of as causing the problem!) However, things moved slowly, and it was not until 1902 that the Board of Works of the now Camberwell Borough Council put forward a scheme for a footbridge, in a choice of two locations, linking St Georges Way on the south side of the canal with Neate St on the north, between Wells Way and Trafalgar Avenue.
Discussions took place with the Surrey Commercial Dock Company, who had their own stipulations, and with London County Council, who oversaw infrastructure for the borough councils in the capital, and could finance such a project. Agreements were reached and a loan for some of the estimated £7000 costs found. Slight wobbles were overcome by 1904, such as several people (including the Town Clerk) proposing a vehicle rather than pedestrian bridge (a wholly different proposition), and ratepayers objecting to the spending (‘no urgency has been shown for the need of such a bridge’). The bridge was designed by the Borough Engineer and plans approved, together with a recommendation to use local unemployed labour where possible, in November that year.
In early 1905, the LCC paved the way for compulsory purchase of the properties on either side of the canal (costing £2,848), to allow access to the bridge, and the construction work was tendered out. The lowest tender was from a firm in Monmouth, but the Works Committee’s recommendation was overruled and the Council went with the second lowest quote of £3,969 from Henry Woodham and Sons of Catford. This was a local road builder, still going in the 1950s, when their steamrollers were a familiar sight in the area (see https://runner500.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/henry-woodham-sons-and-the-catford-steamrollers/ )
The Council minutes of 19th July 1905 report that work had commenced, and the Borough Engineer told the January 1906 meeting that the bridge would be ready to open on 29th. The following month’s Council meeting heard a full report of the opening ceremony, which took place at 3.30pm on Monday 29th January 1906. As well as a large number of local residents, 18 Aldermen and Councillors were present, together with the Mayor, who declared the bridge open. The usual thanks were issued to one and all, especially the Borough Engineer, William Oxtoby, and his department.
The bridge was described as, and still remains:
A steel lattice girder bridge of 3 spans, total length including approaches – 410 feet [125m]. The central span over the canal and towpaths each side is 80 feet [24m]. [The canal here was said to be the widest in Camberwell at 70 feet.] The bridge is floored with oak planks [7ft, 2.2m above the water] and the approaches with asphalt and stone cobbles. An additional access road to the canal was built from St Georges Way. The bridge was tested with 75 tonnes and found to flex in the centre by 3/8 inch [about 1cm]. It was completed 2 months ahead of contract, and under budget.
The bridge features in a film made by pupils of Walworth School in 1962 – ‘Two Bobs’-worth of Trouble’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9iTsUrEgzw&ab_channel=LondonsScreenArchive) – search for 20 minutes in. You can see first the northern approach from Neate St, then the southern exit to St George’s Way.
The canal was closed between 1960 and 1970 and filled in, the factories and houses demolished to make way for the park, and the bridge eventually left stranded in a sea of green. It became progressively less safe and the steps and deck closed to the public in the early 1990s.
That the bridge still stands is a tribute to Camberwell Council, and also to Southwark Council who have just done a beautiful job of renovation, at considerably higher cost than the original, of course. This should ensure that it lasts well into the future, not as an entirely useful bridge, but more as a sculptural reminder of the industrial heritage and amazing transformation of the Burgess Park area. You can read about the renovation on our website here.
A version of this article appeared in Camberwell Quarterly, Summer 2023 edition. With thanks to the staff of Southwark Local History Library and Archives for supplying the Minute Books.