Halfpenny Bridge: The Bridge Over Nothing

If you walk down Union street in Plymouth, just before you come to Devonport you will come across what looks like a bridge. Called Stonehouse Bridge, it comes from a time when Plymouth had a very large river/lake separating Devonport and Plymouth-Town. Originally to get across the creek to what was then known as Plymouth-Dock, you had to take the pedestrian ferry, or go all the way up to Mill bridge. So in 1767 Lord Mount Edgcumbe, who was lord of the manor of East Stonehouse, and Sir John Saint Aubyn, Lord of the Manor of Stoke Damerel, obtained an act of Parliament authorising construction of a bridge. The idea was to allow for a more direct link between Plymouth-Dock and East Stonehouse. It made sense when in the Act they described the old ferry as ‘narrow and could only be used by foot passengers’.

Stonehouse Bridge, Plymouth, engraved by W.B. Cooke 1836 Clarkson Frederick Stanfield 1793-1867

The man who designed the Eddystone Lighthouse, that now stands on Plymouth Hoe, John Smeaton, was invited to design the bridge. The bridge charged a toll to get across it, like many bridges of the time, and it was fixed by the act of parliament. It cost 2d return for a 1-horse drawn vehicle, 3d for  a 2 horse vehicle, and 6d for wagons drawn by more than 2 horses. The nickname ‘Halfpenny Bridge’ was from the halfpenny it cost for pedestrians to cross, also it was sometimes pronounced ‘Ha’penny Bridge’. Interestingly it absolved the owners from paying any public or parochial rate or tax.

The old 5 horse car at the halfpenny gate

Opened in 1773, the approach to it was via Stonehouse lane (now known as King Street) and the High Street, rather than Union Street. in 1775 the first carriages began to be hired between Plymouth and Plymouth Dock, over the new bridge. Carriages were popular but Stonehouse lane was described as ‘ruinous’ and a new road was needed. A further Act of Parliament was obtained in 1784 to create the Stonehouse Turnpike Trust. In 1815  Union Street was finally opened, as a turnpike, the users paid a toll to use the bridge, that went to the upkeep of it.  So users now had to pay for the bridge and the road leading up to it. Turnpikes were very popular in the 18th and 19th century and are basically a toll road. In 1828 the bridge was raised while Devonport hill was lowered. This meant that hackney carriages could now be used to provide a route between Plymouth and Devonport the following year.

Stonehouse Bridge from Richmond Walk.

Both Plymouth and Devonport tried many times to purchase the gate, but the bridge, along with Stonehouse Mill bridge were sold in February 1890 to the General Tolls Company Ltd for £122,000. The company (with the Earl of Mount Edgcumbe and Lord Saint Levan had shares in) was registered on February 12th 1980. The idea was for the owners to collect the tolls rather than auction them, which was more common at the time. From October of 1917, servicemen and nurses could get across the bridge for free.

Stonehouse creek before being filled in, from the bridge

After long negotiations, an Act of Parliament in 1923 allowed Plymouth Town Council to buy the toll rights for £100,000. This meant that the Council could have charged tolls and collected than money for up to ten year. Instead, on April 1st 1924, the Mayor, Mr Solomon Stephens, and council visited all the toll houses and declared them free.

Stonehouse Bridge Freeing Ceremony, 1924 looking towards Devonport. From a postcard

The upper end of the creek, near the Pennycomequick, was known towards the end of the 19th century as Deadlake. St Barnabas Terrace, a road now adjacent to the park, was marked on 19th century maps of the area as Deadlake Lane. Toward the end of the 19th century, culverts were made to channel the streams that ran into deadlake, and the swampland was filled in with rubble from the quarries at Oreston and Cattedown. To celebrate queen Victoria’s reign, Victoria Park, along with the park-keeper’s lodge, was formally opened to the public in 1903.

Looking down the filled in fields, towards Stonehouse

Between Mill Bridge and Stonehouse Bridge, the creek was filled in in 1972, when 600,000 tons of ballast and rubble were used to create 19 acres of land. Now a set of pitches for Devonport High School for Boys (previously the royal naval hospital) and the pitch for Devonport RFC. When you walk along it you can see some areas, especially close to the bridge where all the rubble has been added. On the water side of the bridge you can see where the arches have been filled up. Stonehouse bridge is now more of a dam, but one with some important history for Plymouth.

Halfpenny Bridge, on the side of the creek

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