St Neots Bridge & The River Great Ouse

The River Great Ouse and the St Neots Bridge in Huntingdonshire

The River Great Ouse forms the original boundary to the west, where the river first enters the old borough of Huntingdonshire, before flowing due north to the town of Huntingdon. The Hen Brook and Gallow Brook formed parts of the original northern and southern limits. Ouse is derived from the Celtic word meaning ‘water’

From the beginning this was a crossing point for the River Great Ouse, with many important tracks, later to become roads converging here, from Huntingdon, Kimbolton and Bedford coming to cross from the west, and Godmanchester, Cambridge and Sandy from the east side. Originating as a fording point, then a ferry crossing point. King Charles I in 1638 gave Spencer and his heirs sole right of the ferry and passage in this section of the Ouse. In 1677 this right passed to Nathaniel and John Jemmat who had married the granddaughters of Spencer, Elizabeth and Anne. In 1680 Nathaniel and Elizabeth let the then half of the income or "moiety", of the incomes that was theirs to Harry Ashley. In 1694 John and Anne let their moiety to Charles Perkins, but both couples still retained ownership of this right. Not until 1869 where the entire rights in perpetuity sold by the Jemmat descendants to Mr F M Bendall, who sold them on again in 1893 to Mr L T Simpson who still owned them into the beginning of the last century. A small example of the history of this important river crossing and how it generated income over the centuries.

In time a bridge was built, but it could also be referred to as a causeway as it spanned not only the main river bed, but was also raised above the low lying water meadows, this ensured that access would be possible during the winter and times of flooding. With 73 wooden arches this was a substantial structure, which would have required a high level of maintenance.

In 1180 it was referred to as High Bridge, when there is a record of William de Ferrers, Earl of Derby being thrown from his litter onto the bridge. As already mentioned this large structure would have required regular attention, in 1293 an indulgence was granted for the repair of the bridge. But again by 1388 it was in a ruinous state, with King Richard II granting the men of St Neots and its bailiff the pontage for two years (money from tolls etc) in order to pay for vital repairs.

The bridge was still in its timber form in the 16th Century. Legacies were left for its repair in 1517, 1526, and 1548. By 1588 an inquisition (survey) was held into its state of repair, which showed it had lately been largely rebuilt by Edward Payne, bailiff of the manor at a cost of £583 1 shilling an enormous sum of money at this time. By now it was still mainly timber, but stone had been used in the lower sections up to the water line with timber on top. Tolls once again were the main source of revenue to fund the works carried out.

1606 an order for 200 tons of timber to be felled in Bedfordshire was granted, to supply materials for yet more repairs. This must have been a vital crossing point to justify the continued outlay of funds on repairs, and very busy to create the tolls that were causing people to invest time and effort in its upkeep.

In 1616, £1,000 was collected and in 1617, £2,000 was collected towards repairs.

1629 and the Ouse was made navigable, increasing trade in corn and incoming coal for the breweries and mills. Other industries followed in 1735 a bell foundry was established along with other engineering works.

Being repaired and altered throughout its history, with a major widening taking place to the stone bridge in 1885.


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