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The Story of Bridge Street

Learn more about the history of Shakespeare's town with us at the Shakespeare Birthplace

Miranda Gleaves

A guest post by Miranda K. Gleaves, who has been helping us prepare for our Heritage Open Days event on 12 & 13 September.

I have recently been researching the history of Bridge Street in order to create a display for Heritage Open Days. It’s a lot more interesting than it sounds!

The thoroughfare began life as a Roman road running down to the ford across the river Avon. In 1196 it was built into the planned town - crucially, it was kept very wide so that it could act as a marketplace. Stalls were set up in the middle of the street, and over time these became permanent shops. Eventually the shops were transformed into houses, and by the fifteenth century ‘Middle Row’ (as the buildings became known) was established down the centre of Bridge Street.

Bridge Street
Photograph, reprinted as a postcard, of Middle Row, Bridge Street, from the bottom of Bridge Street, C. 1855

Until the 19th century, Bridge Street remained divided by Middle Row into Fore Bridge Street and Back Bridge Street. However, as tourism to Stratford increased, Bridge Street became the main route into town, and it was felt that Middle Row and its associated makeshift shops did not give the best first impression to visitors. An ‘improvement’ scheme was initiated for Stratford, which led to the widening of Clopton Bridge and to the removal of Middle Row. The first houses were demolished in the 1820s and by the late 1850s no trace of Middle Row remained.

As part of the Victorians’ efforts to improve the image of the town, many of the houses in Bridge Street were rebuilt or given a new frontage. These were mainly done in the Regency style, to keep Stratford in line with the more fashionable nature of nearby Leamington. The rebuilding process began in around 1815 and continued well into the 1840s. However, it is interesting that the black granite frontage of no. 7 Bridge Street is at odds with the rest of the street. The explanation is simple, however - it was constructed as a Burton's store in 1933, and so the black granite is in keeping with stores built by Burton's in other town centres.

Burton's, 6-10 Bridge Street, South Side, c.1978 ©Joe Cocks

Perhaps the most striking part of Bridge Street is the Market Cross building, now Barclays Bank, which sits at the very top of the street. It has an intriguing history. The old Elizabethan market cross was demolished in 1821 and replaced by Market House, and the foundation stone was laid as part of celebrations marking George IV’s coronation. The building was originally open on the ground floor. However, it was felt that the space was under-used by market stalls on market days and was consequently later filled in. It was converted into a bank in 1908.

Another interesting aspect of Bridge Street’s history is that it was once home to Stratford’s war memorial, which was originally unveiled in 1922. However, during the inter-war years traffic greatly increased on Bridge Street and it is thought that a truck crashed into the memorial, which was then moved to the Bancroft Gardens next to the RST, where it remained until the Garden of Rememberance was opened near Holy Trinity in 1954, in which the memorial currently resides.

war memorial
Antona postcard showing the War Memorial, Bridge Street, after its unveiling on 12 February 1922.

To find out more about Bridge Street, come along to Heritage Open Days on 12th and 13th September to see the full “Bridge Street Through Time” display and learn more about the archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust!