There has been a tradition of Wardens and Assistants managing Rochester Bridge for more than 600 years. Although often known locally as bridge wardens, the proper name for the charity is ‘The Wardens and Assistants of Rochester Bridge in the County of Kent’ or its alternative formal name of ‘The Rochester Bridge Trust’.
Overseeing the work of the Rochester Bridge Trust is the Court of Wardens and Assistants. Although local people may think of them as the bridge wardens, the focus of their attention is much broader than the Trust’s existing bridges, and includes managing the investment property estates, finance, archives, grants and education projects.
As a charitable trust the organisation must carry out certain duties to ensure it meets its primary objective.
In the case of the Rochester Bridge Trust the primary objective is to provide a free crossing of the River Medway at Rochester in perpetuity, which means much of the Wardens’ focus is on ensuring there is the funding and capability to maintain the bridges and replace them when the time comes.
In 1383 when the first Warden, Robert Rowe, was appointed, plans for the medieval bridge were well under way. The crossing was eventually completed in 1391 and money and lands were donated to the Trust to pay for the ongoing maintenance of the new bridge – the previous, Roman, structure having collapsed during severe winter flooding. Mr Rowe was joined in the role of Warden (there are always two) by Peter Cat in 1398 and much of their responsibility would have related to the maintenance of the bridge and the management of those early donations to ensure the necessary income was generated.
Much has changed in the 636 years that have passed since Robert Rowe’s appointment and so the Trust’s range of activities has evolved, but two things remain the same: the requirement to provide a crossing and the need to manage the estates and investments that generate the income and reserves to fund that work.
The two Wardens we have today are supported by a group of 11 Assistants, and together they make up the Wardens and Assistants of the Rochester Bridge Trust, who, in modern terms, are a board of charity trustees.
Thinking of them as trustees can make it a little easier to understand. Each trustee (Warden or Assistant) is a member of one or more committees, which are responsible for making decisions on different elements of the Trust’s work. Each committee is chaired by the Senior Warden or, if they are unavailable, the Junior Warden.
So how does one become a Warden? The usual practice is for an Assistant to be nominated to serve as Junior Warden, a post they will hold for two years before being elected as the Senior Warden for a further two years. This gives the Junior’ an opportunity to get to know the complexity of the role before taking on the prime position.
However there are times when the two-year cycle is not followed, most notably when the Trust is in the middle of a major bridge project when it would not be advisable to change leadership. For instance when the 2019-20 Rochester Bridge Refurbishment Project was under way, the Junior and Senior Wardens were re-elected in their same roles, to ensure continuity of decision-making for the duration of the scheme.
So what do the Wardens do?
Although a very interesting role, it can be a little onerous. The Wardens chair all meetings of the five committees (Bridge, Education, Grants & Archives, Property, and Resources), plus the full meeting of the Court of Wardens and Assistants. They also attend regular meetings with the Bridge Clerk (Chief Executive) to discuss ongoing business, as well as responding to ad hoc matters. Any large payments have to be approved by them, and they represent the Trust at events.
In normal times (ie when there isn’t a major refurbishment taking place), the trustees’ time is split approximately: 20% bridges, 10% investments, 40% estates, 20% grants, education and archives, and 10% governance. For the two Wardens this equates to around five days a month of their freely given time. Half of that will be spent at meetings, a quarter representing the Trust at events, with the remaining time directed towards decision making with the Bridge Clerk, and other activities.
After six centuries, Robert Rowe may recognise many elements of the role of Warden we have today, but he could never have envisaged the scale of the works now carried out – nor the technology utilised in the process. What he would see is that an organisation he was a founder member of is continuing to follow the aims and objectives that were first outlined during his tenure. Which is a pretty remarkable legacy to have left.
You can find out more about the history and works of the Rochester Bridge Trust by exploring this website.