The ‘Blue Bridge’ (never its official name) opened on 1st June 1969, and is the fifth bridge since 1806 to cross the east entrance to West India South Dock. Its design is based on traditional Dutch drawbridges, and at the time of its opening it was the largest single-leaf bascule bridge in Britain. Its hydraulic machinery is based on that used by the former ‘Glass Bridge’ (the high-level footbridge over the Millwall Inner Dock). Although built for economy and efficiency – it can raise or lower in one minute – it is an attractive bridge that was immediately liked by Islanders.
The Early Bridges
The first bridge was made of timber. It spanned the 45 feet wide entrance of what was in 1806 the City Canal, a canal that crossed the Island and met the river in the west at the location of the later City Arms. It is represented in this section of an 1802 painting by William Daniell (see An Elevated View of the New Docks & Warehouses now constructing on the Isle of Dogs near Limehouse).
In subsequent years, the canal would be enlarged to become the West India South Dock. The timber bridge survived until 1842, when it was replaced by an iron swing bridge.
Due to the increasing sizes of ships it was decided to widen the dock entrance from 45 ft to 55 ft. Construction took place from 1866 to 1870, along with the construction of bridge no. 3, another iron swing bridge.
The Noisy Bridge
Ever increasing ship sizes meant the lock had to be enlarged yet again in the 1920s. At the urging of Poplar Borough Council it was also decided to move the bridge a few yards to the east at the same time because, as can be seen in the following map, the bridge was crossing the middle of the lock. This meant that the bridge had to remain open until the entering or exiting ship had completely cleared the locks. ‘Bridgers’ (The Islanders’ term for the traffic delay due to a raised bridge) lasted a very long time in those days.
The following (much later) map shows the situation after the bridge was moved to the right and is outside of the lock. The arrow shows the original path of Manchester Rd, still followed by Glen Terrace to this day.
Bridge No. 4
Bridge no. 4, the Blue Bridge predecessor, was a so-called double-rolling bascule bridge, of a type invented by William Scherzer in Chicago. It was placed in 1929 and was known for being incredibly noisy, with a ‘groaning’ sound that could be heard many hundreds of yards away.
I remember this old bridge very well…we used to live in Rugless House, East Ferry Rd, and you could actually hear the bridge when it was raised up – John Tarff
The bridge was slow and unreliable, and was frequently breaking down. For the Port of London Authority (PLA), this was an incredibly important bridge as it crossed the south dock entrance, the only way for ships to get in and out of the West India and Millwall Docks – the iron swing bridges at Kingsbridge and in Preston’s Rd having ceased operations a few years before (the Preston’s Rd bridge did still open on occasion but the lock there was capable of handling barges only).
When the PLA was faced with its latest repair and maintenance bill of close to £200,000, they decided in 1967 that it would make more sense to build a new bridge. This would not only be more cost-effective, a new bridge would also be faster and more reliable, thus increasing the speed at which ships could clear the lock. This was also of benefit to Islanders as they would spend less time waiting for bridges to open and close (mind you, bridgers were one of the most effective excuses for being late for school).
Bridge No. 5 – The Blue Bridge
The bridge parts were manufactured in Glasgow (ironic, considering the number of steel and bridge construction firms of Scottish origin that were operating on the Island until a few years before) and the bridge was assembled in a yard next to the entrance lock.
The old bridge had to be removed in order for the new bridge to be put in place. This meant that, for many months, no road traffic was possible over the only exit/entrance in the east of the Island. Bus passengers would disembark on one side of the lock, and then walk over the lock gates before catching another bus on the other side.
I remember…forever having to cross the lock to get a bus to Poplar scary at 12 years old – Becky Hobson
I am sure I lost property as we walked over those locks – Jill Leftwich
I was terrified of walking over that bridge. You could see the water through the wooden slats. Urgh! – Joan Reading
I remember when I was young we had to walk across the lock to the other side to pick up the bus to Poplar always thought I was going to fall in the water – Shelia Doe
My dad was lock foreman at the bridge, some times if I was there he would get me a lift on a tug through the docks and drop me off at the wooden bridge. I always wanted to work on the river, my dad said in the late 60’s don’t bother it’ll all be gone, how right he was. – Keith Charnley.
I can remember getting bridgers when I went to secondary school at poplar – Lorraine Waterson
I remember at Sir Humphrey Gilbert school the kids coming in late to school “Sorry Sir gotta bridger” – Ted Whiteman
Leslie Stephens: my sat nav directs me up glen terrace turn right then left to go over the bridge, lol, should really get it up dated but I like this little quirk it has.
Peter Wright: Ah so thats why my sat nav says it!
Leslie Stephens: Yours as well?
Peter Wright: Yeah
Not many years later and the Blue Bridge was one of the sites selected for protest during the 1970 Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) of the Isle of Dogs (see It Was All a Bit of a Joke). Protesters picketed the bridge, preventing ships from entering and exiting the docks for a number of hours.
In 1976 I was fortunate enough to sail from the docks to the Netherlands (a trip organized by George Green’s Youth Club). The Blue Bridge had to be raised to allow our sailing boat to leave the dock. For the first time I was, in part, the cause of a bridger instead being held up by one. A rare experience. Also coincidental: a bridge based on Dutch design being raised to allow a ship to sail to the Netherlands, where I am as I write this, over 35 years later.