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No.22: Albert Bridge, London

Issue 51 Oct / Nov 2009

Sharon Stammers continues her world tour exploring the best architecture that is built with light. This issue, Sam Neuman looks back fondly to a welcome sight from his childhood

As a boy returning in a cramped Ford Cortina Mark 4 from our wet British summer holidays, the warm twinkle of this river crossing against the sodium street lights and the blackness of the Thames signalled that at last the journey’s end was in sight. From afar the strings of festoon lights suggested the big tent of the circus or the promenade of a seaside town. I remember looking up and wondering with a boys mind how long it would really take to change all bulbs and who would do that job? I also liked how the lamps temporarily lit up the inside of the car revealing the journey’s debris of sweet wrappers, empty drink cartons and orange peel. The golden glow of the crossing evokes the same feelings and memories in me today. But with my ‘professional’ lighting eyes, I admire the lighting to Albert Bridge for slightly different reasons. The lighting is uncomplicated yet elegant, the play of cool white light on the outside face of the bridge, the warm white glow from the halogen festoon lamps and the carefully positioned luminaires picking out the form and construction of the supports. It takes time for a place to pass into the everyday psyche and become part of the landscape but in my view the night-time treatment to the bridge has kept its bygone old fashioned charm and stood the test of time.
Sam Neuman – Sam Neuman Lighting Design Ltd.



Albert Bridge is a Grade II* listed road bridge that spans the Thames from Chelsea to Battersea. Its conception came about when in 1860, Prince Albert (who’d have guessed it?) suggested building a new tollbridge. Roland Mason Ordish was appointed to design the bridge. Ordish was a leading architectural engineer who had worked on the Royal Albert Hall, St Pancras and Holborn Viaduct. The bridge was built using the Ordish–Lefeuvre Principle. The design resembled a conventional suspension bridge in employing a parabolic cable to support the centre of the bridge, but differed in its use of 32 inclined stays to support the remainder of the load. The stays were suspended from four octagonal cast iron towers, with the towers resting on cast iron piers. The finished bridge was 12m wide and 220m long topped by ornate pagodas and lanterns. 

The revenue raised by toll charges was not enough to maintain the bridge and in 1879 Albert Bridge became toll-free. The bridge tollbooths remain in place and are the only surviving examples in London.

Albert Bridge was nicknamed “The Trembling Lady” because of its tendency to vibrate when large numbers of people walked over it and concerns about the risks of mechanical resonance effects on suspension bridges, following the 1831 collapse of the Broughton Suspension Bridge led to signs being placed at the entrances (still there) to warn troops from the nearby Chelsea Barracks to break step whilst crossing.
In 1884, Sir Joseph Bazalgette strengthened and modernised Albert Bridge and his modifications made the structure more like a conventional suspension bridge. At the same time a five tonne weight limit was imposed on crossing vehicles. 

In 1926 the bridge was reccommended for demolition but the plan was not carried out because of a shortage of funds. After World War II the Victorian bridge was too weak to bear the increased weight of modern traffic so in 1957, demolition was again announced and after a huge outcry from the Chelsea conservationists, led by Sir John Betjeman, Albert Bridge was saved. The bridge’s condition continued to deteriorate however, and in 1970 the Greater London Council carried out strengthening work.

In early 1973, the Architectural Review submitted a proposal to convert Albert Bridge into a landscaped public park and pedestrian footpath across the river. The proposal proved very popular with the area’s residents, and a campaign led by John Betjeman (he loved that bridge!), raised a petition to support the proposal. However the Royal Automobile Club campaigned vigorously against this with a publicity campaign fronted by actress Diana Dors (?!). A public enquiry recommended that the bridge remain open to avoid causing congestion on neighbouring bridges so the bridge was reopened after two concrete piers were constructed under the main span to give the bridge added support and the weight limit reduced to two tonnes. 

As a result of all these modifications the bridge is an unusual hybrid of styles and is one of only two Thames road bridges in central London never to have been replaced. It is the second least busiest Thames road bridge, used by approximately 19,000 cars per day. The bridge’s condition continues to degrade as the result of traffic load and severe rotting of the timber deck structure caused by the urine of dogs (?!) taken by owners to nearby Battersea Park.

For most of the twentieth century Albert Bridge had been painted in green but after a brief spell of yellow, in 1992 it was given a facelift. The bridge is painted in pink, blue and green, intended to increase visibility in fog and poor lighting conditions and reduce the risks of shipping colliding with the structure.
“... shining with electric lights, grey and airy against the London sky; it is one of the beauties of the London river.”
John Betjeman agrees with Sam and I do too. I know why this is Sam’s choice as I stood next to him one night when the sun was sinking into a pink sky and the lights (4,000 in fact) on the bridge came on and shimmered in the Thames below.


Albert Bridge


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