The Battle of Cobden Bridge

Cobden Bridge was originally built by the National Liberal Land Company and it was opened to the public in 1883. The company, who had just constructed the brand new Bitterne Park housing estate nearby, named the bridge after Richard Cobden, a liberal politician who had died in 1865. Connecting at St Denys, the bridge spanned the River Itchen and linked the new estate with Southampton.

In 1885, the same year Southampton Football Club was formed, Cobden Bridge and its environs became the scene of a riotous street battle. Whilst the Hampshire Advertiser journalist may well have relied on hearsay and exaggerated some of the scenes, their report is worth reading in full:

‘The neighbourhood of the new Cobden Bridge, erected over the Itchen at St. Denys, was the scene of a riot on Sunday, and it appears to have arisen this way. Some few weeks since, on a Sunday, boys from Southampton went over to Bitterne “primrosing”, and this seems to have annoyed the boys of the latter place, who considered the “townies” were trespassing on their preserves, and after a slight “skirmish” drove them back over the bridge and into the borough. The news of their having been thus routed was spread about, and on Sunday week between 200 and 300 roughs from Kingsland-place, Northam, and St. Deny’s, armed with weapons and bludgeons of various kinds, “engaged” a similar number of roughs from Bitterne, Woolston, and the neighbourhood, with the result that two dogs were killed and several of the “combatants” injured. It was expected that that would end the “campaign”, but not so. On Thursday evening the 1st Hants Artillery Volunteers had a march to Bitterne, and the “war” was then renewed, the wall at the Itchen Bridge Company’s Tollhouse at Northam being pushed down by way of a commencement. En route there were several free fights among the roughs who accompanied the corps and those who met them, with the result that several persons were injured with stones, one young man receiving a very bad “star” wound in the forehead from a stone. This led to increased bad feeling, and also to a “battle” being arranged for the following Sunday. No secret was made of this in Southampton, and on Saturday the “Kingslanders”, as they were termed, were busily engaged in getting ready their weapons, which included old knives tied to sticks, swords, bars of iron, &c., while one provided himself with a revolver, but whether he loaded it or not we cannot say. On Sunday afternoon about 400 young men, youths, and boys assembled, and marched through St. Deny’s, intending to proceed over the Cobden Bridge to meet the “Bitternites”, who numbered some 200 or more, yelling and shouting as they approached the bridge. However, they were greatly surprised to find that Mr. Superintendent Breary and several stalwart borough constables were waiting to receive them, and these officers, with stout sticks, gave them a warm reception. They charged the mob, disarmed some, and, belabouring the others in true military fashion, the would-be combatants at once saw that their plans had been frustrated, and they fled in all directions – most of them down the road and over the reclaimed mudlands into the thickly populated parts of the town. Some of them, however, managed to cross the water – in boats and by way of Northam Bridge, and they “engaged” the “enemy”, but the county police from Bitterne appeared on the spot, and stopped the battle, capturing two prisoners, named James Heller, a middle-aged man, and James Budd, a much younger one, who were marched off to the Police-station at Bitterne. They were brought before Colonel Grimston on Monday, on a charge of assaulting the police, and remanded until Friday next. It is reported that arrangements have been made, to re-commence “hostilities” on White Monday, but we are quite sure that the action of the magistrates and the borough and county police will prevent the “foe” from meeting then, and causing serious injury – probably accompanied with loss of life, which no doubt would have been the case on Sunday but for the presence of the police. We would remind those who take part in these disorderly proceedings of the heavy sentences passed not long since at Winchester County Quarter Sessions on some young men who were the participators in a riot at Bishop’s Waltham, and we have no doubt when some of the older inhabitants read this it will recall to the recollection of many the fights which used to occur now and then years ago between the “Kingslanders” and “Houndwellers”, the then potato field in front of St. Mary’s-place, and where the noble game of cricket is now indulged in during the summer months, being generally then the scene of the “conflict”.’

Cobden Bridge, the scene of the battle. From a postcard in my collection.

The original Cobden Bridge, the scene of the battle. From a postcard in my collection.

Three days after publishing the above, the Hampshire Advertiser reported on the appearance of James Heller and James Budd at the magistrates’ court:

‘A labouring man, named James Heller, was charged, on remand, with assaulting Police-constable Ames, at Bitterne, on Sunday afternoon. Police-constable Ames stated that on Sunday afternoon, between 3 and 4 o’clock, he was on duty in Lance’s-hill, Bitterne, in company with Police-constable Purchase, for the purpose of preventing a fight between St. Deny’s and Bitterne boys. About 200 or 300 were coming from the direction of Bitterne, and a similar number from the Cobden-bridge, the other side. When the St. Deny’s party arrived at Lance’s-hill they commenced throwing stones and sticks at the other party, witness and his companion being between the two parties, and he was struck by one of the stones. The prisoner was in front of the attacking party, and witness stepped forward and asked him not to go any further, when prisoner struck him with his clenched fist. Witness told the prisoner that he should take him into custody for the assault, and they had a struggle for about ten minutes, when he lost him in the crowd, who took him away. The prisoner was the ringleader, and the crowd pushed witness down the hill. Witness turned around and saw Superintendent Mintram and several constables coming down the hill from Bitterne, and saw them pull the defendant from the ditch, where he was covered with dust. The defendant said he had not been drinking, and had had a drop of beer, or he should not have been there. He did not go there to make any disturbance; he met the crowd on the road. Three of the weapons were produced, and consisted of two thick sticks of formidable proportions, the other being thick wire, doubled twice, all being very ugly weapons. The Chairman said the prisoner was not indicted for the graver offence of being the ringleader of the riot; if so, the bench could not have dealt with him. The assault on the constable was clearly proved. The prisoner most audaciously, as ringleader of the band, attacked him when doing his duty. It was lucky for him that he did not do the constable serious injury. Constables must be protected, as they were only too few to counteract the influences that had been at work. Whether actuated by folly or a more malicious purpose when more than three were brought together and disturbed the peace the bench could not take cognisance of it, but such a case must go before a jury of their countrymen. In the present instance they had a jurisdiction, and they felt bound to exercise it in a manner prisoner would not forget. His sentence would be one month’s imprisonment with hard labour. He (the Chairman) hoped that would be a hint for others not to assemble for such purposes, which must be put down with a high hand. A youth, named James Budd, was then charged, on remand, with assaulting Police-constable Purchase at the same time and place. The officer deposed that he saw the prisoner throw stones and knock some of the Bitterne boys. He went to prisoner and caught hold of him by the collar of his coat, and told him to “drop that.” He was very resolute, and kicked witness on the leg. Witness told him he should take him into custody, when the St. Deny’s boys got him away. He rushed after him, and caught him, and prisoner was taken to the Police-station and locked up. Witness’s leg was hurt, being bruised. By the Bench: A good many young men were there – more than half of them. Replying to the bench, the prisoner said he had no witnesses; it would not do to bring those who were there. The other prisoner was his uncle, and he went after him, when Bitterne boys pitched into him. The bench sentenced prisoner to a month’s imprisonment with hard labour, the Chairman remarking that his antecedents were bad, he having been to a Reformatory, and he had taken part in these unlawful assemblies. They hoped that this would be a warning that the arm of the law was strong enough to repress thousands of them if they dared to repeat such conduct.’

The original Cobden Bridge, the scene of the battle. From a postcard in my collection.

The original Cobden Bridge, the scene of the battle. From a postcard in my collection.

It is not known who won the ‘battle’, whether it was those from east of the Itchen or those from the west. The local police may have even considered themselves the victors.

The original iron Cobden Bridge that witnessed the hostilities was pulled down and replaced with the current concrete bridge between 1926 and 1928.

The concrete Cobden Bridge in 1933. Image: EPW042953

The concrete Cobden Bridge in 1933. St Denys on the left, Bitterne Park on the right. Image: Britain from Above EPW042953

Cobden Bridge today.



Hampshire Advertiser 6  – 9 May 1885