In mediæval times, bridge chapels served an important function as wayside chapels for pilgrims. Mediæval bridges were often the only way of leaving a town …
While local townships and parishes were responsible for their roads, bridges were a different matter. For one thing many rivers were boundaries, providing endless scope for disputes between the townships on each side: both could deny responsibility. And for another, while travellers could make progress even on poorly-maintained roads rivers presented a sometimes impassable obstacle.
Accordingly the provision and maintenance of bridges on major routes became the responsibility of the county authorities (the Justices in Quarter Sessions), codified in the “Statute of Bridges” of 1531 – except that a bridge in a town or city was the responsibility of its citizens. In addition to the actual bridge, this responsibility extended also to the highway for 300 feet from each end thereof.
In fact the number of bridges that counties maintained was at first relatively small, for despite the statute, often only bridges on major highways through the county were maintained at the county expense, They also excluded bridges which had been built by, for example, a local landowner onto whom responsibility to maintain them could be pinned. In Middlesex in 1786, for example, there were only three; while in Staffordshire in 1792 the Justices spent a mere £298 on all the bridges in the county.
However, in the famous Glasburne Bridge case of 1780 the West Riding was indicted for not repairing a bridge; the County denied liability, maintaining that the bridge had been erected by the township to replace another which it had always maintained. The Court ruled, however, that “if a man build a bridge and it becomes useful to the county in general, the county should repair it”. And thus counties became responsible for more and more bridges, resulting in an Act of 1803, which greatly extended the role of Counties in bridge inspection and maintenance. (Not sure if Glasburne is an old form of Gisburn(e) in Craven.)
County-maintained bridges had markers to denote this status, many of which survive.
By the 19th century many bridges were unsuited to the needs of the growing amount of traffic, and needed widening, strengthening, bypassing or even demolishing and re-building. These “improvements” were often commemorated with plaques, etc.
In this section you will find articles on the different kinds of markers, plaques, etc to be found on our Yorkshire bridges.
Source: Sidney & Beatrice Webb: The Story of the King’s Highway (1913)
RWH / updated June 2020