Brockweir Bridge

in Dibden v. Skirrow (1907)

The Tale of a Ferry, a Bridge and Some Judges


Nowadays when crossing the River Wye at Brockweir various thoughts may come into your mind. One is that the junction with the A466 is a bit of a pig and it's amazing that you got around it safely without being hit by something coming in the opposite direction at roadspeed (50 mph). Another is that the bridge is rather narrow and there isn't really room for you or the car coming the other way to pass. Then there's the fact that the bridge is quite high and impressive and gives a good view up and down the Wye and down on the quay at Brockweir. Before you fall into the Wye you remember that you're driving, and concentrate on negotiating the steep ramp into Brockweir without killing too many people or smashing up the front room of a neighbouring house. Of course, many people will also want to know why they are crossing the Wye at Brockweir when the little village, a mile to the north of the more noted village of Tintern, is somewhere which they've never had the slightest intention of visiting.

What is unlikely to cross your mind is the question of how people managed before this bridge was built, since it takes some thought to realise that the bridge wasn't always there; indeed, it is barely more than a century old. It was built to link a village which was already complete (and therefore had little room for the approach road) with the main road between Chepstow and Monmouth on the other bank of the river. Before the railway came to Tintern station, which was also on the other bank of the river, Brockweir was a small port and transshipment point, as this is the upper end of the tidal section of the Wye and the furthest seagoing boats could go. Road traffic crossing the river could unload here, but if you wanted to take your cart from Brockweir to Tintern or Llandogo then you had to go upriver to Bigsweir, where a bridge had been built in the early 19th century as part of the toll road which now forms this part of the A466.

If you didn't want to take your cart across the river, however, there was a ferry - a small boat with a Royal Charter, a history dating back to "time immemorial" and a fare of 1d per head to cross the river. This successful service had been in the same family for generations and crossed from the northern end of the quay to the opposite bank of the river, where there is now a bramble bush. Although it had once been of great help to the local economy, it was now more of a bottleneck, and so around 1900 some local landowners, led by a Mr Skirrow, decided to cut their costs and increase the prosperity of the area by building a bridge.

The new bridge was high, as it had to clear the masts of ships coming up from Chepstow. It was built in a similar style to the Wireworks bridge at Tintern, suggesting that the WVR was asked to provide plans. It could carry farm carts and those new-fangled motor cars. People could walk across it. And quite a lot of people did, because it was completely free.

The law report of the time noted:

"A committee of landowners, represented by the defendant, built a bridge twenty feet wide for vehicular and passenger traffic across the Wye, sixty yards below the plaintiff's ferry, with the result that the public altogether ceased to use the plaintiff's ferry, and from the day the bridge was opened the plaintiff never had a paying passenger to ferry across the river."

([1908] 1 Ch. 41)

The response from the ferry owner was to dig out his 'exclusive right to ferry' paperwork, instruct his solicitors, and take his case to the courts. He was arguing unfair competition and breach of his exclusive right to ferry. This involved trundling off to the Court of Chancery between the 18th and 24th of January 1907 to enter the Law Reports with the simple reference code of [1907] 1 Ch. 437 and have his case pleaded in front of Judge Neville, J., who found against him.

Basically, Dibden's case was that his long-running service gave him a franchise, entitling him to go on for ever more as the exclusive carrier across the river. Previous cases had held that running a competing ferry service was illegal, and Dibden was arguing that the bridge counted as another ferry. He had to comply with lots of regulation (fixed tolls, running his ferry at reasonable hours, not building a bridge) and he didn't think it was legal that anyone else could drive him out of business without having to comply with all this. He was going to be deprived of his livelihood.

The defence, meanwhile, pointed out that the Wye Valley Railway had opened along the other bank of the river some 30 years previously and there was still no means for the citizens of Brockweir to get their goods to the station at Tintern, which was almost within stone's throw of the village (of Brockweir - Tintern was another mile downstream). The growing community made the bridge all the more essential to allow residents to access the station and associated towns and villages on the other side of the Wye.

Dibden appealed and his case was sent to the Court of Appeal, where it was heard by Judges Cozens-Hardy M.R. (the Master of the Rolls - head of the civil justice system), Fletcher Moulton and Farwell L. JJ. The appeal took place over the 4th and 5th of November 1907 (being an appeal it was naturally done much more quickly) and the judges found against him again, on pretty much the same basis as the original judge. Bridges were distinguished from ferries and an exclusive right to ferry was just that - a monopoly on ferry services. Unfortunately it was not a monopoly on everything crossing the river at that point - well, unfortunately for the ferry owner. It is unlikely that the landowners would have been ordered to demolish the bridge if he had won, but they would have been expected to pay a sizeable sum of compensation. It was also noted that, while when the ferry service was launched it might have been a major boost for the area and in need of protection, that was now a long time ago and to continue to maintain the ferry's monopoly would strangle the local economy rather than allowing it to grow further.

One notable comment from Fletcher Moulton stands out in light of subsequent developments in road transport however:

"The other circumstance is that this ferry was not a ferry for vehicular traffic at all, and, therefore, a bridge could certainly be built for vehicular traffic; and I cannot think that the principles of law would lead us to such an absurdity as saying that you may build a bridge for vehicular traffic, but you must not allow foot passengers to go across it."

([1908] 1 Ch. 41)

This isn't such an absurdity now - in fact, over 2,200 miles of road in Britain comply with this absurdity. They're called motorways.

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Page written using case reports from online database "Westlaw"