The Bridge of Sighs

The Bridge of Sighs

The Bridge of Sighs

The Bridge of Sighs is an iconic feature of St John’s College, and one of the most recognisable pieces of architecture in Cambridge.

Built nearly 200 years ago, it is the only covered bridge to cross the River Cam, and the only College bridge built in the Victorian Gothic style.

Since its construction in 1831 it has featured in thousands of photographs and artistic projects, as well as appearing in films including The Theory of Everything (2014) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). It has even had a car suspended from its arches, not once but twice, thanks to the ingenuity of student pranksters. Luckily on neither occasion was the bridge (a grade I listed building) damaged.

Suspended car
A student prank in 1963. Photographer unknown

St John’s College (founded in 1511) was already more than three centuries old when the Bridge of Sighs and the connected buildings of New Court were constructed in the nineteenth century. Until then, all of the College buildings in Cambridge were situated on the east side of the river – making St John’s the first College to expand its accommodation westwards into the area known as the ‘Backs’.

Aerial view, 1855
'A Bird’s Eye View of St. John’s College, Cambridge', engraved by H. Hyde, 1855 (ARCH/2/7), showing the west expansion

The new buildings and bridge were designed in 1827 by the architect Henry Hutchinson, a pupil and business partner of the Gothic revivalist Thomas Rickman. Being the newest part of the College, the expansion was named ‘New Court’. The entire project was completed in 1831, just a few months before Hutchinson’s death.

The bridge connecting New Court on the west bank with the seventeenth-century Third Court on the east bank was officially named ‘New Bridge’. However, it soon became known anecdotally as ‘the Bridge of Sighs’ – a reference to the famous enclosed bridge that connects the ducal palace to the prison in Venice, Italy.

Bridge of Sighs 1829
Engraving after R. B. Harraden, 1829 (ARCH/2/5)

As Boyd Hilton has noted in St John’s College Cambridge: A History (ed. Peter Linehan, 2011): ‘With its graceful arch and open Gothic fenestration, barred to prevent students from climbing in, [the New Bridge] bore no resemblance in either form or function to its Venetian namesake, but the steep and sombre buildings that rise on either side of the narrow stream at that point give off a not dissimilar atmosphere of romantic menace, allowing punters for a few nautical metres to imagine themselves gondolieri.’

The first known photograph of the new bridge was taken by pioneer photographer William Henry Fox Talbot, around 1844.

Photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot
Photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot, c. 1844. Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Two bridges

St John’s is one of the only Cambridge Colleges to feature two bridges on its main site. The second bridge is the ‘Wren Bridge’ (also known as ‘Kitchen Bridge’), which runs parallel to the Bridge of Sighs.

Both bridges
The Bridge of Sighs and Wren Bridge in 1916. Photographer: Harold Jeffreys

The Wren Bridge was constructed more than a century earlier than the Bridge of Sighs, to replace a pre-existing wooden bridge. There had been a wooden bridge in this location since the early days of the medieval Hospital of St John the Evangelist, which preceded the College on the same site.

Christopher Wren had submitted designs to St John’s for a stone bridge in the 1690s, but building work did not commence until 1709. The Wren Bridge was completed in 1713. Its construction was overseen by Robert Grumbold, a local master stonemason and architect who was also responsible for building the Wren Library at Trinity College. The bridge reflects Wren's design, although in his original drawings he had suggested urns and pyramids, which were never added.

Kitchen Bridge, 1865
Watercolour drawing by The Revd Sir Hubert Medlycott, 1865 (ARCH/5/33)

Historically, the Wren Bridge formed part of a public footpath which led through the College’s grounds to St John ’s Street, and was used by city dwellers and traders transporting their goods into Cambridge. Today, the bridge forms part of the visitor route through the College, while access to the Bridge of Sighs is restricted to students, staff and Fellows of St John’s. This enables visitors to enjoy an uninterrupted view of the Bridge of Sighs.