Penwortham Old Bridge dates from the Georgian era and was built to connect Penwortham with Preston. Before its construction, people wanting to cross the River Ribble at this point had two choices: the ferry or the fords. The ferry had been in existence since Medieval times. Evidence from a written record from 1388 shows that the Vicar of Mitton (near Clitheroe) had given money so that the ferry would be free for travellers to use. This was on the provision that they prayed for the soul of Henry de Lacy, who had been the Earl of Lincoln and Lord of Penwortham.
The area where the bridge is located is called Middleforth, literally ‘middle ford’. Further up the river the other crossable point would be at Walton le Dale, where the Romans built a bridge for their industrial site (see our page here). Downstream towards the sea, there was a sand route crossing between Hesketh and Freckleton (see our page here).
At Middleforth there seems to have been two fords. The first one was where the bridge stands today. The second is just a short distance away where the raised areas (at low tide) known as the Great Holme and the two Little Holmes were. The reliance on the fords was proving dangerous, as this account from the Georgian era shows. It states that the fords were “so much worn and become so deep and founderas that his Majesty’s subjects even at low water especially in the winter season, cannot pass the same on horseback or with carts or carriages without imminent danger, and several persons have lost their lives in endeavouring to pass the said river“.
In 1751 an Act of Parliament was passed to allow the building of a bridge “between the townships of Preston and Penwortham, near a place called Fish House“. The bridge was completed in 1754, but the following year one of its central arches collapsed into the river. A further Act of Parliament was required for a new bridge, which gave the commissioners the authority to receive £2000 from the county for its construction. This resulted in the bridge that we see today, which was completed in 1759. The commissioners were able to level a toll for its up keep.
With the new bridge in place, the ferry and fords began to fall out of use, although both continued to be used for a several decades, perhaps as a way to avoid paying the bridge tolls.
Just over a hundred years after its construction, the bridge was deemed to be too narrow to cope with the amount of traffic on it. This was the main route south from Preston, taking travellers to Leyland, Southport and Liverpool. In 1882 a series of suggestions were put forward for the location of a second, new bridge. The Penwortham Bridge Act was passed in 1885 allowing Justices of the Peace to construct one. When this did not happen in the given allotted time, the legislation elapsed and it looked like there would be no second crossing in the Penwortham area.
However, another Penwortham Bridge Act enabled the County Council to begin work on a new bridge in 1912. Sited a half mile down stream from the original old bridge, it is a much larger structure. It was completed three years later and is known as Penwortham New Bridge.
Visiting Penwortham Old Bridge Today
The bridge is now used for pedestrians and cyclists only. It has five unequal size arches, which rise towards the centre of the structure. Parapets descend to form ‘V’ shaped cut waters below, and pedestrian refuges above, on both side of the bridge. There are excellent views of the Ribble, and the site is quite dramatic when the water is high.
On the Penwortham side of the bridge is the strategically positioned Bridge Inn built in 1826. Interestingly, for many years this was also a farm, which was not uncommon for many inns as they could not make enough revenue from innkeeping alone. The inn had a total of 21 acres of land used for agriculture. Only in 1900 could it generate enough money to dispense with farming. Times change, and like many pub buildings it has now closed. The building is currently used as a children’s nursery.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2020
Park at Penwortham Holme car park. Turn left out of the car park and walk a short distance down Leyland Road to see Penwortham Old Bridge.
Penwortham in the Past, Alan Crosby (1988) Carnegie Publishing
Penwortham Heritage Trail : Lower Penwortham Circular Walk, (undated) South Ribble Borough Council, available online as a pdf here