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The Swinford Tollbridge


Although beautiful and historic etc, the Bridge causes serious traffic delays and pollution, particularly at morning and evening rush hours, and even more so when there has been an accident on the A40 or A34 anywhere nearby. So many local people are agitating for an alternative (system or bridge) - click here for more. Click here to sign a petition calling for David Cameron (local MP) to help get the toll scrapped.
In May/09 the Tollbridge was put on the market at £1.6 million with the aim of attracting a business buyer - some 4 million vehicles cross annually, giving a gross income of £200,000 year. Campaigners called for the County Council to take the rare opportunity to buy the bridge.
The Swinford Tollbridge, half a mile from Eynsham, was opened in 1769. It's been described as the finest of the many bridges over the Thames - it was built in the golden age of Georgian architecture, when both design, materials and craftsmanship were all very good.

It wasn't just for crossing the river of course - it was part of a long-distance route from London to Gloucester, Wales and Ireland (via Fishguard). To make the bridge worthwhile, other bits of road had to be improved.

The Eighteenth Century was a great time for road-building - this was the era of the Stagecoaches, highwaymen and turnpikes. Turnpike Trusts were organisations which built high-speed roads for carriages - and then charged the users tolls to get their money back (and make a profit). Before that, each Parish was responsible for its own roads - and since they couldn't charge anyone for their use, and they only covered a
short distance, there wasn't much incentive to spend money on doing them up. The results were often impassable. The Turnpikes changed all that; coach and carriage travel flourished - in the 1760s, twenty-four stagecoaches passed through Burford in each direction every 24 hours. Although open to much abuse (high tolls and bad roads), the Turnpike system did generally produce much better roads - though also many complaints.

But of course there were gaps - and the bit between Witney and Oxford via Eynsham was one of them. In order to avoid the river crossing at Eynsham and low-lying land through Botley, carriages used to go from Witney to Blaydon (along the A4095), and then turn south to Oxford past Campsfield. Horse-travellers though (like today's rat-runners), used to take the short-cut via Eynsham and the ferry at Swinford - despite the hazards - see boxed stories.

Four drowned

In the winter of 1636, some of the Welsh sheriffs were bringing up their Ship Money to Charles I and, "as they were to be transported by Ensam ferry, by reason of the...tempest, & unrulynes of some horses & overloading of the boate, 3 or 4 were drown'd, £8OO lost for a time, & 8 persons with some horses escaped by swimming."

John Wesley nearly drowned

In 1764 John Wesley narrowly escaped a similar fate when riding from Oxford to visit friends at Witney. "Between twelve and one," he says, "we crossed Eynsham Ferry. The water was like a sea on both sides. I asked the ferryman, 'Can we ride the causeway? He said, 'Yes, sir; if you keep in the middle'. But this was the difficulty, as the whole causeway was covered with water to a considerable depth; and this in many parts ran over the causeway with the swiftness and violence of a sluice. Once my mare lost both her fore feet, but she gave a spring, and recovered the causeway: otherwise we must have taken a swim, for the water on either side was ten or twelve feet deep. However, after one or two plunges more, we got through, and came safe to Witney."

But the Thames was not the only hazard on the Witney-Oxford section of the road. Once across the Thames, travellers had to cross Wytham hill, not only a steep climb and descent, but also used frequently by highwaymen.

The alternative route, round the hill to the south, was the Botley Causeway - which was basically impassable to wheeled vehicles. Farmers bringing their produce to Oxford markets had to unload their carts onto packhorses; the "road" was 10 ft above the adjoining fields and there was no fence or rails to stop people falling off. And there were 7 separate bridges that needed repair and widening (the whole track was only 14 ft, and the bridges were much narrower than that).

Clearly the whole improvement (Bridge and causeway) was going to cost a lot - both to build and, later, to maintain.

But in those days it was very difficult to raise money for building bridges - Magna Carta specifically (and bizarrely) protected people from being asked to pay for bridges “where never any were before”. So everyone was very pleased when the Earl of Abingdon was persuaded to cover the cost. He owned a lot of property on both sides of the river, and perhaps he thought the tolls would turn out to be an investment (they didn't).

Unusually the Act of Parliament which finally gave the go-ahead, gave the ownership of the Bridge and its tolls to the Earl, “his Heirs and Assigns for ever”. This was unusual at the time (the Turnpike Trusts which built other roads had a time-limited life), but nobody wanted to be responsible for the upkeep of the Bridge, and this was a way of lumbering it on the Earl for good.

The Act also said that he had to pay all the taxes that the Ferry had previously paid (like Land Tax), but no other taxes. Since Income Tax hadn't then been invented, this meant that the tolls were income-tax free - and remain so to today.

This seemed a neat arrangement at the time - people were quite used to paying tolls, and didn't want to be responsible for the maintenance. But more recently (at least since 1905), there have been various and continuing attempts to abolish the tolls - click here for more on the current one.

Work started on the Bridge soon after the Act was passed in 1767 and it was completed 2 years later - at the same time the Botley Causeway was improved. On August 5th 1769, although the road wasn't quite completed, the first coach left Oxford along the new Botley Causeway and crossed the Swinford Bridge. Originally there was large inn at the Oxford end of the Bridge, but it was never opened, and eventually it was demolished.

More on this in:

Swinford Bridge 1769-1969, by E de Villiers, a booklet published by the Eynsham History Group to celebrate the Bridge's bi-centenary. It is available in the Eynsham History Group's Library.

Ferries of the Upper Thames - by Joan Tucker - Amberley Publishing -2012. This book is especially good on the early history of the pre-bridge Ferry.