The Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD. Their soldiers built a road called Watling Street from the Kent coast to Canterbury, through Rochester and on towards the Roman capital of Londinium (modern day London). The army needed to get across the River Medway at Rochester so the Roman engineers built a bridge. The bridge was made of stone and you can find out more about it here.
When the Romans left Britain at the end of the 4th century AD, the local people carried on looking after the bridge at Rochester. Eventually, in about the year 960, the ancient bridge was so dangerous that they pulled down the top part and rebuilt it with wood.
During the Middle Ages, the bridge was used by many pilgrims on their way to visit the shrine of St William of Perth in Rochester Cathedral. Local merchants used the crossing to transport their goods to market. Knights and soldiers needed to cross the bridge to travel to the coast to board ships to take them to fight in France in the Hundred Years’ War.
In the winter of 1381, the River Medway froze solid. When the weather got warmer and the frozen river began to thaw, huge pieces of ice pushed against the old Roman bridge until eventually it collapsed. Rochester needed a new bridge urgently.
Two rich and powerful men paid for a new, stone bridge to be built. Their names were Sir John de Cobham and Sir Robert Knolles. In 1399 they asked King Richard II to set up a special charity (now called the Rochester Bridge Trust) to look after the bridge. They asked their friends to give the Trust money and land for farms so that the bridge could be looked after forever. One of the people who gave money was Dick Whittington.
Sir John de Cobham also built a Bridge Chapel on the bank of the river near the new bridge. Pilgrims and other travellers would stop at the chapel to pray and give thanks for a safe journey.
Over the next 450 years, kings and queens, soldiers, pilgrims and merchants used the stone bridge to get across the river safely. The Rochester Bridge Trust looked after the bridge – making sure that it was cleaned and maintained.
From about 1760, the Industrial Revolution began with steam engines and machinery replacing many traditional crafts and jobs. The demand for materials such as bricks and cement from the River Medway to build factories, roads and canals increased dramatically. From the turn of the 19th century, steam powered road and river traffic grew so much that a new bridge was needed.
The new bridge was designed by Sir William Cubitt and had three arches and a swing bridge made of cast iron. It was opened to traffic in 1856. The Rochester Bridge Trust needed to remove the old medieval bridge which was still in the river and was getting in the way of the boats. They asked the Royal Engineers to blow up the old stone bridge using gunpowder!