Prior to 1834 the only way for foot passengers to cross Portsmouth Harbour to and from Gosport was by small rowing boats in the hands of the watermen. Horses, carriages or carts faced a fourteen mile trip round the entire harbour, known, according to Gates as "Going round the Victory" which was not conducive to efficient trading between the two communities. A horse ferry boat was introduced in 1834 but this did not put off a group of local businessmen who decided to introduce a superior link across the water in the form of a Floating Bridge.
147 people applied for shares in the new Floating Bridge Company, most of them coming from Portsmouth or Portsea, though there were also a few from Gosport. Among the directors of the company were Daniel Quarrier J.P., Colonel Charles Menzies, Andrew Nance, John Lindegren and Sir Francis Austen, brother of Jane Austen.
In order to set up the bridge the company had to obtain an Act of Parliament and this presented the watermen with the opportunity to quash the project which it was estimated would throw eleven hundred of them out of work. They sent a petition to Parliament in support of their cause to no great effect partly because they were not backed by the local population who were genuinely excited by the prospect of uniting the two sides of the harbour.
In the meantime, the Directors appointed a noted engineer, Mr. Rendell, who had previously designed a floating bridge across the Itchen, to draw up plans for this venture. His earliest plan showed the proposed position of TWO Floating Bridges. The northern one was to finish at the old Gunwharf to serve Portsea, and the southern one would run to Point for the convenience of the population of Portsmouth.
The Admiralty opposed the building of two Bridges, but it was left to the inhabitants of the Town to choose which route was the more acceptable. The Hampshire Telegraph gives detailed accounts of the meetings set up to discuss the matter which appear to have been extremely heated and chaotic.
Portsea claimed that four-fifths of the population lived in Portsea, and therefore was the more suitable site. Portsmouth rejoined that the Customs House, Bonding Stores and Banks were in their area, whilst High Street was wider than Queen Street for the use of carriages, and in fact all the best inns were there. Mr. Rendell reported that it would be much more difficult and expensive (£3,000 more) to convert the Gunwharf into a suitable landing stage, and that the journey to it would be 200 feet longer.
In complete uproar, and after a recount, an amendement was passed by the meeting allowing the Directors and Shareholders the right to choose the site in the best interests of the Borough. They chose Portsmouth which resolved one problem but it was not the last.
There had been complaints from the local watermen that the amount of beach required for the landing stages would seriously affect their business, and there must be suitable landing places for their use. This request was upheld by the Corporation and the area was inspected by Captain Brandreth, of the Admiralty, who suggested that the Company buy part of Mr. Lindegren's premises at the end of Point which could then be used to extend the slipway, and recommended a depth of 32 feet on the Northern side. The Board did not object (including Mr. Lindegren) but resolved that twenty one feet nine inches would be sufficient width.
Sir Francis Austen had an interview with the Admiralty and reported back to the Board that they should buy the greater amount of 32 feet on the Northern end next to the Harbour. This would involve the demolition of the Lindegren's living quarters which had up until this time occupied half the width of Broad Street (See Andrew and John Lindegren). This final provision of public land was written into the third reading of the Bill which was then passed. In practice this issue did not directly affect the landing stage for the Floating Bridge which was on the other side of point. The watermen however had to wait a further 6 months after the opening of the bridge before they had access to the widened slipway.
A further difficulty arose in that the company, Acramans of Bristol, chosen to build the Bridge, including the machinery and the chains failed to meet several deadlines, not delivering the bridge until the Spring of 1840. The first bridge traversed the harbour on May 4th 1840 to the delight of local residents who could now cross for the sum of one penny. Even a horse or carriage was only 6d.
In it's first six month's existence the bridge carried 220,000 passengers, 13,965 carriages, 3,964 horses and 1,763 cattle. The 1840 Guide to Portsmouth reported "This immense fabric is propelled by two steam engines of 16 horse-power each, and runs across the Harbour over two chains which have balance weights attached to each end so that in the roughest weather no motion is perceptible to those on board".
The Floating Bridge and it's successors supplied a valuable service to the communities on both sides of the harbour, operating almost continuously until 1959. Since then there has been no service across the harbour for motor traffic and once more they had to go "Round the Victory".
How Does a Floating Bridge Work
The Bridge was essentially a barge through which passed two heavy iron chains which straddle the entire width of the harbour. At each end the chain is attached to a heavy weight which is lowered into a deep shaft, enabling the chain to be held in tension at all times. Aboard the bridge, the chain passes through a watertight trough to a cross shaft carrying a mortice wheel which is turned by a steam engine. Each chain passes over a chain wheel, also carried on the cross shaft, which is so shaped as to accommodate the links smoothly, so that as the shaft turns the bridge hauls itself across the harbour on the chains.
The chains were designed to be as heavy as possible, both to ensure their durability and to maximise the angle at which they left the bridge and entered the water (up to 50 degrees). This latter factor was important in order to allow other users of the channel to pass over the chain as it lay on the harbour bed. This system remained in use throughout the life of the bridge, though the bridge itself was replaced on a couple of occasions.
"The House on the Point" by Cynthia Sherwood
"The Portsmouth That Has Passed" by William Gates
"Crossing the Harbour" by Lesley Burton and Brian Musselwhite
"The Engineer", periodical published in September 1892