Peter Christie concludes his history of Bideford Bridge in World War 2
More notes from Frank Whiting’s reports.
That the Allies were winning the war is shown from an entry in April 1944 which reads, ‘Now that the Government have given sanction for all the sign posts to be re-erected again, I see no reason why the bronze tablet to commemorate the widening, should not be refixed again.’ Evidently the authorities had ordered its removal, probably back in 1940, to ensure invading Nazis didn’t know where they were. A few months later, in September, 1944, Whiting was asking the Trustees to ‘consider the lighting of the Bridge’ after the black out regulations were lifted.
By 1945 it was clear that the war was being won – and long delayed repairs to the Bridge and the Trust properties began to be noted. Thus in April ‘Various lengths of the Bridge coping of the parapet have been pointed in during the month.’ The May report then notes the painting of the ‘Lamp Standards’ on the Bridge, another harbinger of peace.
This May entry also notes a wonderful example of a ‘Jobsworth’ and how Whiting outsmarted him. He records ‘Knowing you would like the Bridge lights on as soon as possible I sent a reply paid telegram to the Secretary of State asking if we could put them on for 1½ hours on VE [Victory in Europe] Day. The reply was by wire was: “Bideford Blackout Area Lighting not permissible. Home Security”, which was rather what I expected. On May 11th, three days after VE Day, the Blackout ban was lifted in Bideford and all coastal areas, and I asked the Gas Company if they could get the lights on that evening. At 5 o’clock they told me they were ready to put them on but the Inspector would not allow it, as it would be contravening the Fuel & Power order that street lighting should not start till July 16th. The Gas Company told him that the Bridge was private property, and he was surprised to hear that the Bridge paid for the lighting, but even so it was public lighting according to the law and he could not sanction it. I went along and saw him and pointed out that after 5½ years the lighting would have to be tested, and I could not see why this could not be done at night as well as the day time, and further that a light each end were [sic] navigation lights and as the ban on shipping coming up the river at night had been lifted, these two would have to be on from sunset to sunrise. He accepted this and I believe the lighting was very much appreciated and quite a number of people went to the Bridge to see it.’
A month later he records how he had asked the ‘Regional Allocation Officer’ in Bristol for two masons and one labourer to carry out repairs to the Bridge – but the gentleman had cited the need to prioritise work on housing as a reason for rejecting his request. Not to be thwarted he then wrote to the ‘Director General of Ministry of War Transport’ – who approved his request but told him to find the men himself.
On July 26th he asks the Trustees to bear with him as his architectural office ‘is going through a rather difficult time owing to the amount of Post War Housing to be done.’ He did, however, manage to survey the Bridge arches and in a very worrying reference notes that the ‘concrete cantilever between the arches Nos.8 & 9 on the South Side’ was cracked to such an extent that ‘I hardly know what is holding it up.’ One wonders if the lack of maintenance during the war was a contributory factor to the later collapse of the Bridge arches in 1968?
I have saved one intriguing entry to the end. During the war salvage drives for paper and metal were common often being carried out by local school children. This may be put forward as an explanation why Bideford has so few original pre-war railings. Such losses were very visible but one wonders how many historical records were sent for salvage when we read from July 1943, ‘Mr.Langford has handed over to me the Bridge Rent Roll of 1830 and asked me to present it to the Bridge Trustees on behalf of the Grammar School. The son of Mr.Short of Bridgeland Street found it when looking over the paper salvage.’ There are sizeable gaps in the Bridge Trust archives, and we can only suspect they went for pulping ‘to help the war effort’. Be that as it may, we can be thankful that Mr.Whiting’s reports have survived to give us this glimpse of a traumatic period in Bideford’s history.