Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

Month: June 2019

The bridges of London Bridge – Part 2

For the first half of the 18th century the river remained London’s main thoroughfare. The watermen’s cry of ‘Oars! Oars!’ as they looked for customers constantly rang out in riverside streets. One Frenchman, who hadn’t quite mastered the language but had heard of London’s immoral reputation, thought this an invitation to try a quite different service.

But things were about to change.

By the mid-1750s the bridge was clearly failing in its purpose to provide an adequate river crossing, but the building of a new bridge nearby was constantly blocked by the strong waterman lobby and riverside businesses. Bridge residents showed their objection to a nearby temporary wooden bridge by persistently trying to burn it down.

But something had to be done, the bridge being …

Narrow, darksome, and dangerous … from the multitude of carriages … with frequent arches of strong timber crossing the street from the tops of houses to keep them together and stop them falling into the river.

Thomas Pennant writing in 1750.

A compromise was reached in 1757 by pulling down all the houses on the bridge as well as the chapel of St Thomas the Martyr. The bones of the cleric who oversaw the earliest building of the bridge in the 12th century, Peter de Colechurch, were interred there and some accounts say that, when they were uncovered, the workmen unceremoniously tossed them into the Thames.

St Thomas’s chapel is commemorated with a stained glass window in St Magnus-the -Martyr church. I like the sleepy monk on the right …

But the bridge continued to be congested and, for a growing port, increasingly seen as an obstacle to trade. The momentum for change was unstoppable and the old bridge was doomed …

Demolition of Old London Bridge as seen from the Southwark side 1832 Guildhall Art Gallery

Few tears were shed over its destruction. As Bernard Ash writes in his fascinating book The Golden City : ‘This was not a sentimental generation. It looked forward not backward. It saw no picturesqueness in the narrow, inconvenient ways of its forebears or in the narrow, inconvenient and often makeshift things they had built’.

But the river was no longer the highway of London – private carriages and hackney coaches were taking over. As Ash eloquently points out, all the watermen’s traffic had ‘run away on wheels’.

A new bridge designed by the Scottish engineer John Rennie (1761-1821) was decided upon. The work went ahead in 1824 under the supervision of his sons, John Rennie the Younger and George. In order to keep the old bridge open for traffic during construction it was decided that the new one should be on a different alignment, about one hundred feet upstream.

Construction took seven and a half years at a cost of two and a half million pounds and the lives of forty workmen, many perishing in the fast flowing water caused by the continued existence of the old bridge.

The opening (depicted below) was described in The Times as …

the most splendid spectacle that has been witnessed on the Thames for many years.

The opening of London Bridge by William IV on 1st August 1831 by Clarkson Stanfield (1793-1867) – Guildhall Art Gallery

The King arrived at about 4pm and the red carpeted stairs where he landed can be seen leading up to the bridge on the far side of the river. A huge pavilion where a sumptuous banquet was held had been erected on the bridge. The royal standard can be seen flying from the pavilion at the north end. The King was accompanied by his wife Adelaide – hence the name of the 1925 Art Deco office block on the north east side of the bridge that you can see today.

Here’s a view of Adelaide House from the Thames path …

London’s growing prosperity led to increased traffic and more congestion problems for the bridge …

London Bridge circa 1870. Taken from a stereocard in the B E C Howarth-Loomes Collection [Ref BB83/05717B]

By 1896 the bridge was the busiest point in London, and one of its most congested – on average 8,000 pedestrians and 900 vehicles crossed every hour. Subsequent surveys showed that the bridge was sinking an inch every eight years, and by 1924 the east side had sunk some three to four inches lower than the west side. Clearly the bridge would eventually have to be removed and replaced.

The bridge in the 1930s – Adelaide House is on the right

In 1967, to many people’s astonishment, Rennie’s bridge was put up for sale and, to more astonishment, was bought on 18th April 1968 by the Missourian entrepreneur and oilman Robert P McCulloch for $2,460,000. Under no illusion that he had bought Tower Bridge (as some papers mischievously reported) he moved it piece by piece to Lake Havasu City Arizona – all 10,276 granite blocks individually numbered.

The bridge is dedicated in its new home in 1971

I think it looks great …

You can read more about Lake Havasu here along with the 50th anniversary last year of the bridge’s purchase.

The London Bridge we see today was constructed between 1967 and 1972 and opened by Queen Elizabeth on 17th March 1973. I like this nighttime picture …

Now there are security blocks in place as a result of the terrorist attack in June 2017…

I hope you have enjoyed these short histories of the bridges that have been known as ‘London Bridge’. Incidentally, if you do a Google search for ‘London Bridge images’ you will see that, on most American sites, you’ll be shown pictures of Tower Bridge!

The bridges of London Bridge – Part 1

When I discovered that, at one time, the London Bridge authorities employed a Keeper of the Heads I was inspired to write about the many reincarnations of London Bridge since the Romans built the first crossing about AD 50. The relationship between the bridges and London is fascinating and so I want to do it justice with two blogs.

There is an artist’s impression of Roman London, including the bridge, on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery …

The picture reflects the fact that the river was very much wider then (about five times what we see today) and consequently much shallower. The bridge was probably built of oak and, being the only fixed crossing below Staines, it became a major contributor to the prosperity of London which soon replaced Colchester as the Roman capital.

The earliest written reference to the bridge (Lundene brigce) appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of AD 984 when mention is made of a woman being taken there to be drowned for witchcraft. From 1176 a new stone bridge was constructed under the leadership of a cleric, Peter of Colechurch, and was to last for well over 600 years.

This painting by Samuel Scott (1702-1772) gives some idea of what the bridge looked like around the middle of the 18th century. People in the houses had a magnificent view and could fish from their windows as the buildings overhung the water by several feet. In the mid-1750s, the naturalist Thomas Pennant also observed that …

People living on the Bridge soon grew deaf to the noise of the falling waters, the clamours of the watermen, or the frequent shrieks of drowning wretches.

Copyright Corporation of London – Guildhall Art Gallery

Do pop into St Magnus-the-Martyr on Lower Thames Street (EC3R 6DN) and have a look at this splendid model of the Bridge (a photo really doesn’t do it justice) …

The bridge was supported by 18 boat-shaped ‘starlings’. These effectively blocked half the river and tidal surges and the build up of waste made the current notoriously uneven. The drop in water level could be as much as eight feet and navigating the arches was known as ‘shooting the bridge’. Wary passengers would alight on one side and be picked up by their boat on the other – assuming their waterman had not drowned, which many of them did, hence the 1670 saying …

London Bridge was made for wise men to pass over, and fools to pass under.

Such was the proliferation of buildings, people crossing the bridge for the first time (which could take an hour) often did not realise they were not in a normal street. At some points it was only twelve feet wide.

I have to mention the heads.

Beheading was a common form of execution at the time and reserved for higher-born individuals since it was swifter and less barbaric than hanging or burning at the stake. Heads also became available when individuals suffered the terrible death of being hanged, drawn and quartered (usually for high treason).

From ‘Visscher’s Panorama1616

Between 1305 when the first head was placed atop a pike over the Drawbridge Gate, and 1678 when the practice was stopped, there was a near-permanent display of decapitated heads grinning down from their spikes that pedestrians would have passed beneath. There was a plentiful supply, a visitor in 1592 counted 34 ‘heads of persons of distinction’.

The first head to be displayed in this way was the Scottish patriot and rebel William Wallace in 1305 after he had been hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield. The Bridge authorities employed a Keeper of the Heads who maintained security since relatives of the deceased were often desperate to reclaim the head in order that it could be reunited with the body (thereby restoring the immortal soul). When the flesh had rotted away the Keeper usually tossed the skull into the river.

I am indebted to the historian Heidi Nichols for her research – read her full article here.

The width of the river, its slow current, and the obstruction caused by London Bridge all contributed to the river frequently freezing over for two months at a time. This enabled the famous Thames Frost Fairs whose heyday was during the Little Ice Age between the 17th and early 19th Century (although the river had frozen before – Henry VIII travelled the river from Westminster to Greenwich by sleigh in 1536).

This picture, The Thames During the Great Frost of 1739, shows the Frost Fair in the foreground and figures inspecting the incomplete piers of Westminster Bridge on the right. In the distance is a view of the City of London including St Paul’s Cathedral and spires of the City churches …

Painting by Jan Griffier the Younger (1688-1750) at the Guildhall Art Gallery. It was reported that ‘The Thames floated with rocks and shoals of ice; rising everywhere in hillocks and huge rocks of ice and snow‘.

Between 1607 and 1814 there were a total of seven major fairs. There were football pitches, bowling matches, fruit-sellers, shoemakers, barbers… even a pub or two. To keep the shopkeepers warm, there were even fires within their tents. During the four days of the final 1814 Fair an elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge.

A Frost Fair in full swing (from the Londonist blog) …

The fairs ended as the weather became warmer and their possibility finally eliminated when the old London Bridge was demolished in 1831.

Demolition of Old London Bridge as seen from the Southwark side 1832 Guildhall Art Gallery

I will write about the bridges that subsequently replaced it next week.

In the meantime, if you visit St Magnus, pause outside for a few minutes. Firstly, you will be standing on the pedestrian approach to the old bridge …

And under the arch you will see this piece of wood …

Two remnants of the medieval bridge sit within the church gardens; originally part of the bridge’s northern archway, these stones now lie unmarked …

My next blog about the bridges will take us up to the present day.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén