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02/17/2004 Archived Entry: "Beggar's Bridge"
I recently took my son on a nostalgic walk around Glaisdale in the Esk Valley to show him where I was born and brought up and we stopped to rest on the beautiful old hump-backed bridge across the river. As I related the old story of how the bridge came to be built, I thought others might be interested to know of its fascinating history.
The ancient and graceful stone arch of Beggar's Bridge, which spans the River Esk at Glaisdale some ten miles upriver from Whitby, is well known to historians and tourists alike. It is the stuff of legend because this beautiful bridge is the focus of a highly romantic love story set around the time of the Spanish Armada.
It involves a pretty young maid of Glaisdale who yearned for her lover's return from an adventurous and perhaps piratical life on the high seas. He was a suitor her father had rejected because he had no money. However, happily, the young man made his fortune and returned in triumph to claim his bride. Later, when married to Agnes, he became very successful and was elected Lord Mayor of Hull and was three times warden of Trinity House, the City's maritime training centre.
The man was Tom Ferris, the son of a poor sheep farmer, and his bride was Agnes Richardson, daughter of a wealthy Glaisdale landowner. Tom managed to persuade Richardson to permit the wedding if he, Tom, became wealthy. Richardson agreed, perhaps thinking it would never happen. If you visit the bridge, which is very close to Glaisdale Railway Station and almost hidden between a road bridge and a rail bridge, you'll see a headstone in the parapet. A careful examination of that stone will reveal the initials T.F. and the date 1619, the date he completed the bridge.
The romance of the story tells how the youthful Tom, wary of Richardson's antagonism, visited Agnes in secret, walking from Egton to Glaisdale for their trysts. This meant crossing the River Esk near the bottom of Limber Hill and the story says that when Tom received his orders to join the English fleet, he went to inform Agnes, but could not get across the river because it was in flood. Thus he departed without even a goodbye kiss. She waited and, so the story goes, he returned as a rich man whereupon he decided to build a bridge so that future lovers could cross in safety.
This enduring tale is a wonderful mixture of fact and fiction. Tom Ferris did exist, probably being born at Lastingham and his name is spelt in other ways, eg Ferries, Ferres or Firris. Agnes existed too, as did her father. Aged 14, Tom was apprenticed to a Hull shipowner and spent some off-duty time with relations at Egton, meeting Agnes at a fair, perhaps at Whitby. Tom sailed from Whitby on May 8, 1588 after which he served with Sir Francis Drake as he beat the Spanish Armada only ten days later, then sailing to the West Indies where he engaged in piracy. On a captured vessel, he returned to London in 1592, still aged only 24, sold the ship and went to Glaisdale as a wealthy man to claim the hand of Agnes Richardson. The couple then went to Hull where Ferris established a thriving shipping business, becoming sheriff in 1614, lord mayor in 1620 and three times warden of Trinity House. He died in 1630 aged 62 and Holy Trinity Church in Hull contains a memorial to him. He gave money to Lastingham church for a re-roofing project, and built a school there, then in his will he bequeathed money to Glaisdale church (at the time, a chapel of Danby parish) together with an annual payment to the vicar.
Agnes died in 1618; it was a year later that Ferris decided to build his bridge at Glaisdale and so, instead of being a romantic gesture to enable lovers to cross the flooded Esk, the bridge may have been a memorial to her. It was completed in 1619 - but, in fact, Ferris remarried in 1620.
There is just a possibility, however, that this was not the first bridge to cross the Esk at that point. There is a very similar bridge higher up the river, spanning the Esk below Danby Castle. This is now known as Duck's Bridge in honour of George Duck who restored it during the eighteenth century, but in earlier times it was known as Castle Bridge. This bridge dates to the fourteenth century, being built in 1345, and it bears a crest on a headstone, probably that of the Latimers of Danby Castle.
But who actually built Duck's Bridge? I wonder if it was the same person, or group of persons, who built the first Beggar's Bridge? It is just possible that Tom Ferris actually re-built Beggar's Bridge because one authority claims that the original collapsed in the 16th century, and was re-built by Ferris. The coping stones are said to date from the 14th century and I quote from "The North Riding of Yorkshire" by Joseph E. Morris (Methuen, 1920) - "The old fourteenth century coping is still in its place, surviving to attest the date of the original bridge", and Morris then quotes his source as LXXII S.S.401, S.S. being the initials of the Surtees Society.
Whoever built the original Duck's Bridge and the original Beggar's Bridge did a wonderful job because both have stubbornly survived floods which have demolished other structures. As a child in Glaisdale, I was told that the cement of Beggar's Bridge had the whites of hundreds of eggs mixed with it, hence its strength but I do wonder if the same person originally built both these graceful, twin-like pack-horse bridges.
NB For other romantic stories and legends of this area, read Folk Tales from the North York Moors by Peter N. Walker (Hale 1988).