With millions of drivers crossing Dunham Bridge every year, it’s become a bit of a landmark on the Lincolnshire road network. The bridge, which runs over the River Trent, connects the county to Nottingham, its sister in the East Midlands.
It’s the only toll bridge in Lincolnshire, which is itself the only county without a motorway. The toll booth operators – playfully nicknamed ‘highwaymen’ after romantic stories of robbers sticking up carriages – see about 1,000 drivers on their eight-hour shifts.
Glyn Holmes, a supervisor, said he reckons between 70,000 and 80,000 go through each week. Operators take cash or card and can deal with queuing motorists in seconds and just a few taps on their screens.
Today, many toll roads are automated. But Dunham Bridge operators say that drivers tell them it’s nice to get a chance to speak to a human.
Like many Lincolnshire landmarks, there’s a strong sense of tradition. The bridge was formally opened in 1832, but the idea was first developed in the 1820s.
Stephen Betteridge, a retired civil engineer who now serves as one of the directors at the Dunham Bridge Company, said that before the bridge was installed, ferries used to take passengers between the two counties. The only other way to cross the Trent locally was via bridges in Gainsborough and Newark.
He said: “If you wanted to head west from Lincoln, you had to go by ferry. They felt that a bridge somewhere between those two points would be beneficial.”
An Act of Parliament was passed in 1830 and the businessmen backing the idea began putting together the funds. They were quoted around £20,000, which would be £1.8m in today’s money.
Each shareholder put forward £50 each. A competition was held, which Mr Betteridge said was not uncommon, to determine the design of the bridge.
Its rather humble design was picked out of a shortlist of three, spurred on no doubt by the fact it would have been the cheapest. According to an article in the Nottingham Journal, dated April 20 1907, the first person to cross the bridge was Eliza Woolas of Laneham.
While it may have seemed like an easy investment, shareholders didn’t see a penny in dividends for decades. The costs ended up exceeding £20,000 and they had to borrow a further £5,000 from the bank.
That debt was eventually paid off in 1884, and the first dividends were paid out to shareholders around 70 years after the bridge opened – several generations after work began. Mr Betteridge said: “Those who thought they were going to make millions didn’t.
“For the next 70 years, it covered its cost but it hardly declared a dividend. It made enough to wash its face, and that was it.”
The share prices plummeted and it wasn’t until cars became popular forms of transport that the bridge started to really pay off. The director said: “From thereafter, it has paid a dividend – depending on traffic levels and expenditure.
“Some years it hasn’t, when the expenditure has been too great.” Initially, the company didn’t even hire operators: people could put a bid in to operate one of the booths and keep any excess profits, similar to how fast food chains run franchises.
That practice ended around the First World War. Now, it has around 30 main staff in rotation, running the tollbooths through day and night, come rain or shine.
One of the more eyewatering years was 1979, when the superstructure was replaced to account for an increase in traffic and weight. But the humble bridge has stood the test of time, with the original stonework still in use below the reinforced beams and joints.
The last major change to the bridge was in 1994, when the toll plaza was expanded to accommodate the increasing number of vehicles using it. In July this year, the management increased the charge for all vehicles, citing increasing costs and wear-and-tear.
The next major bit of work, Mr Betteridge says, will be the total resurfacing in several years’ time. With Dunham Bridge sitting between the two counties, there is some debate as to which it belongs to. If you ask Mr Betteridge, he says Lincolnshire.
In around 2003, the bridge suddenly began shifting to the east. No one knows why, Mr Betteridge said, and it stopped as suddenly as it started, having moved about three inches.
He said: “It has obviously decided it wants to be more associated with Lincolnshire.”