A natural obstacle in the way of developing public transport services in Southampton was for many years the River Itchen. Although a much more formidable barrier than the ancient Bargate solving the problem caused much less fuss.
For many years three routes existed for the traveller to make his way to the far side of the Itchen. Most notable was the Floating Bridge opened in 1836 by the Southampton and Itchen Floating Bridge and Roads Company to connect Woolston on the east with Chapel on the west shore. This chain ferry was set up in active competition to the proprietors of the Northam Bridge which had held the monopoly to crossing the lower Itchen by road since 1796 and who had to cut their tolls by some 75% in consequence. The third link was Cobden Bridge, opened in 1883. However it was the opening of the Itchen Bridge in 1977 – 100 years after public transport arrived – that finally allowed the development of the fully integrated transport service across the river.
Further new services started in 1927 to Newtown and the routes became very popular as links to the Floating Bridge at Woolston. Woolston Floating Bridge was rapidly becoming the focal point for bus operation on the eastern side of the Itchen and on 31 January 1927 another new service linking the Butts Road area was linked with the terminus at Woolston. In 1929 service numbers were introduced to various bus routes and the Houndwell to Woolston service via Northam Bridge became Route 1. In 1933, route 3 was introduced using single deck buses for the village of Sholing and linked the Woolston Floating Bridge.
The old established Floating Bridge was brought into a closer partnership with the tram and bus services when, on 29th September 1934 the Southampton and Itchen Floating Bridge and Roads Company was purchased by the Corporation. In this was Southampton Corporation Tramways became one of the few transport undertakings to own and operate a “maritime division”.
Floating Bridge was purchased on 29th September 1934 and played a prominent part in the development of bus services, as it formed a link in many circular routes and due to its capacity had a high density of traffic throughout the day. It was not until the 1920’s that a bus service of any sort was provided for the eastern side of the Itchen. Certainly the western side boasted an electric tramway and various horse bus routes. The first motor bus operation was not entirely successful but following more developments a new service did link the City side of the Floating Bridge with Millbrook using six Thornycroft buses.
By 1948 there were bus services 1, 3 from Southampton Floating Bridge to Woolston Floating Bridge, serving Heath Road (Route 1) and Middle Road (Route 3) with the Butts Road (now Routes 11 and 12) operating from Woolston Floating Bridge to Butts Road and extended to Bitterne, the city and onto Hill Lane, Borough Hospital (now known as General Hospital) and Millbrook. Additional service 8 operated from Woolston via Peartree Avenue to Chessel Avenue (now served by Route 9A) and the city.
By the mid 1970’s most of the buses that operated between the two Floating Bridge points were operated with one man Atlanteans and stayed that way until their demise in 2004. Buses to Shirley on Routes 7, 9 and 17A were also introduced and operated from the City Floating Bridge side and had replaced the original tram route 5.
Hants and Dorset had established its own garage on the Woolston side of the Itchen and operated services to Fareham or Hamble and Netley.
A major problem in the development of a transport system in Southampton was the difficulty of crossing the River Itchen, for the main bridges at Northam and Cobden, as well as the Floating Bridges between Woolston and Southampton were owned and controlled by various private bridge and road companies who also controlled the adjacent toll roads. Plans to link Woolston with Southampton with a fixed bridge finally came to fruition in 1977 with the opening of the Itchen Bridge. This at last enabled bus services east and west of the city to be fully integrated. This event saw the most drastic revision of services throughout the city which finally removed the pattern of routes inherited from the trams.
In 1977 the Floating Bridges were replaced by the new construction of the Itchen Bridge, bringing to a close the old chain ferry operation. It was officially opened July 13th, 1977. Bus routes for the first time could then run east to west and vice versa linking many areas of the city with Woolston, Sholing and Weston and all Hants and Dorset services that terminated at Woolston were extended into the city with the subsequent closure of their garage at the Floating Bridge.
The Itchen Bridge is a high-level Reinforced Concrete Hollow Box-Form bridge. The bridge spans 870 yards (800 m), is 92 feet (28 m) at its highest point and weighs 62,000 tons. At the Woolston end of the bridge is a toll booth which is operational every day of the week. Southampton City Council levies a variable toll, which depends on vehicle type. The toll was originally charged in order to help pay the £12.174 million it cost to build. The bridge was opened by HRH Princess Alexandra, The Hon Mrs Angus Ogilvy on 13th July 1977; although it had been open to public foot traffic since 31st May 1977 when Mrs Edith Parks became the first person to cross it.
The history of the Floating Bridge can be found Here.
How the area looks now (2012)