10 April 2007

Heroes of Hammersmith Bridge

There has been a river crossing at the modern site of Hammersmith Bridge for centuries. Before the first modern bridge was built, the crossing site was served by generations of ferrymen. Then in 1827 William Tierney Clark built a permanent two-lane crossing supported by tolls, which endured for 60 years.

Tierney Clark's bridge was replaced in 1887 by Joseph Bazalgette's bridge, which remains in place and in use today. Resting on the same piers constructed for the original bridge, Bazalgette's bridge is an ornate affair, its two pairs of towers decorated with the gilded coats of arms of the Metropolitan Board of Works and of Middlesex, Kent and Guildford. Critics were divided on its architectural merit, according to Barbara Denny in her 1995 book, Hammersmith & Shepherd's Bush Past:

Thomas Faulkner considered the 1827 bridge to be 'one of the most magnificent works of art that modern ingenuity and skill have produced'. On the other hand, the architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, condemned Bazalgette's bridge for its 'atrocious, portly gilt pylons crowned by little Frenchy pavilion tops with elephantine ornaments on its approaches'.

Today the bridge is a busy thoroughfare linking the heart of central Hammersmith with the affluent suburbs of Barnes and Richmond. But the history of the second bridge has also involved two noteworthy acts of heroism that few modern-day users are aware of.

Lt Charles Campbell Wood

Two days after Christmas in 1919, Lt Charles Campbell Wood of the Royal Air Force earned a small place in history, but he earned it the hard way. One of an estimated 3000 South Africans who served as airmen for the British cause during World War I, young Campbell Wood was a native of Bloemfontein in the Free State.

Near midnight on a cold London winter evening Campbell Wood heard a call for help from the Thames. Rushing onto the western, upriver side of the Hammersmith Bridge, he saw a woman in peril, caught in the river's flow and in dire danger of expiring. Diving into the river to rescue her, Campbell Wood saved the woman's life. But in so doing, he also severely injured his head, and this eventually brought about his death in hospital from tetanus.

Today the only reminder of his story is a small brass plaque on a handrail, which marks the spot on the bridge where Campbell Wood dived into the Thames to risk his life to save the life of a complete stranger.

Maurice Childs

The second hero of the bridge was Chiswick hairdresser Maurice Childs, who was using the bridge to walk home early on the morning of 29 March 1939. The Irish Republican Army had chosen Hammersmith Bridge as a target for a campaign of bombing on the British mainland, and that morning two explosive devices with timers had been planted to damage or destroy the structure. Childs’ account reports that he spotted an abandoned suitcase on the bridge, emitting smoke and sparks. The curious hairdresser opened the mysterious suitcase to find a bomb within. He flung the suitcase into the river, whereupon it exploded, sending up a plume of water. Shortly afterwards the second bomb exploded, knocking down some bridge girders and breaking some windows in nearby buildings.

The bridge was only superficially damaged, and Mr Childs was later awarded an MBE for his actions. The two IRA bombers were captured, and received jail sentences of 20 and 10 years respectively.

Below: Bomb damage to Hammersmith Bridge, March 1939. Photo from Denny, 1995.

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