Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

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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.

Fun and Miscellany – my 100th blog!

Thank you so much for subscribing to my little publication – especially those of you who have been with me since the very beginning almost two years ago.

For the first anniversary I included things that I had come across that had made me smile and I want to do that again this week. I want as well, however, to include a few items that I thought were interesting but didn’t fit under any broad heading.

One of the great pleasures of doing research is the occasional joy of serendipity. I recently discovered that encouraging people to cycle to work is nothing new and magazines were being published almost 40 years ago which included maps to help cyclists navigate.

I came across this persuasive cover of On your bike! magazine from 1982 …

And now something a bit more surreal, a piece of art that was on display at the Guildhall art Gallery until a few weeks ago …

Marcello Pecchioli’s eye-catching stained glass Alien Priest was part of the Gallery’s ‘Visionary Artists’ exhibition. I like the flying saucers in the background.

Next up is this picture in the Gallery entitled Garden of Eden by Hugh Goldwin Riviere (1860-1956). Painted in 1901, it depicts a young man and girl walking in a misty, wet park with a horse-drawn cab rank in the background.

I like it because to me it’s one of those pictures that immediately gets you making up a back story to the characters. Surely this is an assignation – a secret lovers meeting, he clasping her hand and she gazing lovingly into his face. Then it struck me: Garden of Eden! A place of dangerous temptation and banishment!

Apparently guides point out that this picture is actually about a mismatch between a wealthy woman who has fallen for a man much below her station: note his clumpy shoes, lack of gloves and his rolled up trouser bottoms. Also the way he’s carrying not one but two umbrellas, intertwined like the two lovers. There are tiny raindrops hanging from the black branches. Surely they represent tears to come? Or am I getting completely carried away? Another commentator has said that she is simply a smartly dressed maidservant on her day off, out walking with her beau.

In Cullum Street I was stopped in my tracks by this stunning sculpture by Sarah Lucas entitled Perceval

Part of the ‘Sculpture in the City’ initiative – EC3M 7JJ

It’s a large-scale replica of a traditional china ornament of the kind that took pride of place on many British mantelpieces forty years ago. Perceval was a knight of the Round Table and apparently there is fertility symbolism in the giant concrete marrows on the cart. You can read more about this work here.

Also for us to admire as part of the Sculpture in the City project is this example entitled Crocodylius Philodendrus by Nancy Rubins at 1 Undershaft (EC3A 6HX). I love it because it’s completely bonkers …

See how many animals you can spot

I keep meaning to spend some time in the Blackfriar pub on Queen Victoria Street recording the brilliant brasses there (EC4V 4EG) but I still haven’t got around to it. So in the meantime, here is the advice on one of them …

‘Don‘t advertise – tell a gossip

Don’t forget to look down when crossing the Millennium (‘Wobbly’) Bridge and see if you can spot some of the witty work by the artist Ben Wilson. He has painstakingly painted literally dozens of pieces of discarded chewing gum …

I have written more about him in my earlier blog Tales from City Bridges.

There is a Banksy rat painting in Chiswell Street that has been altered by another artist. Banksy’s piece originally depicted a stencilled ghetto rat holding a placard which read ‘London doesn’t work’ …

Photograph taken by ‘Noodlefish’ 26 August 2006

However, Robbo, Banksy’s rival graffiti artist, reworked the placard by adding his name in red letters. Robbo was known for leaving his mark on many Banksy pieces but I read in the interesting Londonist blog that Robbo died in 2014, bringing the rivalry to an end.

I haven’t been able to find out more about the strange ‘Life is beautiful’ figure next to it.

It is hard to imagine now but many of London’s roads were once paved with wood. However a map of London by Bartholomew’s in 1928 shows clearly the expansive reach of the wooden block road paving method. In the map excerpt below, the yellow roads are all paved with wooden blocks …

Read more in the excellent blog ‘Ian Visits’

Many were destroyed in wartime bombing and many also dug up by local residents for burning as heating. Since they were impregnated with tar they burnt furiously and, of course, made a major contribution to London’s filthy air.

For some people this was an entrepreneurial opportunity. This is Alan Sugar being interviewed for the Daily Express in 2010 about when he noticed old blocks being uncovered when roads were being resurfaced …

The workers showed me the blocks, which were impregnated with tar, and they chucked a couple onto the fire – they burned like a rocket. Bingo! It occurred to me that these discarded wooden blocks could be made into fire-lighting sticks. I could cut them up into bundles of sticks and flog them.

And you can still see a section of wooden road today at the junction of Chequer Street and Bunhill Row EC1 …

Looking over the wall on the Embankment one day I noticed these lions heads with mooring rings …

They were sculpted by Timothy Butler for Bazalgette’s great sewage works in 1868-70 and it is said that, if the lions drink, London will flood.

And to end with, two more items with watery themes that make me smile.

Firstly, a famous satire on the quality of the Metropolitan water supply in 1828. An elderly lady displays her horror and shock on looking at a speck of Thames water through a microscope …

Copyright: British museum

It’s by the artist and caricaturist William Heath (1795-1840) and is entitled Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water being a correct representation of that precious stuff doled out to us! You can read more about the efforts made to get fresh water to Londoners in my blog Philanthropic Fountains.

And finally I always say hello to this miserable dolphin on The Ship pub in Hart Street (EC3R 7NB). I also tell him to cheer up – the pub is a listed building and therefore so is he …

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City of London – Then and Now

In some respects, parts of the City of today look remarkably like they did decades ago whilst others are changed almost beyond recognition.

I shall start with the entrance to the Guildhall as painted in 1905 and attributed to William Luker Junior (1867-1947). I like the intimate family group with the little girl glancing back at the authentic flapping pigeons …

I felt I just had to write a few words about the painter.

The son of a famous artist who fell on hard times, young William (‘Willie’ to his doting mother) caused consternation when, in 1888 at the age of 21, he made a family servant pregnant. He did the honourable thing and married her, albeit secretly, which caused even more anguish to his poor mum. Records of the period show his new wife to be Margaret Stadowicka, a Polish immigrant eight years his senior. The greater responsibility seems to have prompted him to mature quickly as an artist and he became a very successful painter of animals.

This is the Guildhall entrance today …

The view from Fleet Street to St Paul’s Cathedral was slightly improved by the removal in 1990 of the London Chatham & Dover Railway bridge that used to span Ludgate Hill. Here is the view at the turn of the last century …

This view (from Gillian Tindall’s book A Tunnel Through Time) shows the railway bridge in more detail …

And here is a more recent image. The bridge may have gone but modern buildings do intrude …

This is a photograph of the Wren church of St Alban Wood Street circa 1875 …

Picture taken for the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society and now held at the Bishopsgate Institute.

And here is the view today. Only the church tower remains as the area was devastated by Second World War bombing …

The name Cheapside comes from the old English term for a market (ceapan – ‘to buy’) and the a street with this name was here long before the Great Fire of 1666. Here is a picture taken around 1890 looking east when there were about 11,000 hansom cabs and 500 horse-drawn buses in London. By 1910 they had all virtually disappeared to be replaced by taxis and motor buses …

Picture taken for the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society and now held at the Bishopsgate Institute.

And here is a view from about the same point taken in May 2019 …

Apart from the tower of St Mary-le-Bow, the south side of Cheapside has changed dramatically with the construction of the office and retail space One New Change. On the north side at the junction with Wood Street, however, stands a little treasure …

The shop on the corner in an anonymous drawing from the 1860s

The rebuilding of the City after the Great Fire took over forty years, but the little shop on Cheapside, along with its three neighbours to the west, were some of the earliest new structures to be built as the City recovered. The site is small and each of the shops in the row consists of a single storey above and a box front below.

The plaque in the churchyard attached to the Cheapside shop’s northern wall confirms the age of the building …

This is how the corner looks today …

Copyright Katie at ‘Look up London’

You can read lots more about the little shop and its fascinating immediate surroundings in my earlier blog: A Shop, a Tree and a Poem. And even more here: Hidden Gems.

Some of Fleet Street has hardly changed at all. Here is a view of St Dunstan-in -the-West around 1910 …

Picture taken for the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society and held at the Bishopsgate Institute

And here is a picture taken in May this year. Some of the Journals changed their names – the Dundee Advertiser becoming the Dundee Courier and the Sunday Hours becoming the Sunday Post. The Post has now become famous as the last newspaper to leave Fleet Street. They turned off the lights for the final time on 5th August 2016.

I came across this fascinating picture whilst doing my research. It was published in 1975 in the book The City at War by Ian Grant and Nicholas Maddren. Looking west along Fleet Street towards the Strand, it was taken in 1944 and shows the smoke arising in the distance from a recent hit by a V2 rocket …

The caption in the book reads: ‘Passengers getting off the bus hardly break their stride’.

And finally, I am publishing again this painting by Harold Workman now on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery and entitled Chaos on London Bridge. It was probably painted some time in the 1930s or 1940s …

And here is a picture I found of London Bridge circa 1870 …

Taken from a stereocard in the B E C Howarth-Loomes Collection [Ref BB83/05717B]

I think London Bridge and its history might be worth a blog on its own and I shall explore this idea.

You can find more great ‘Then and Now’ pictures (including some of the above) here on the Spitalfields Life blog.

Pictures of London at the Guildhall Gallery

The Guildhall Art Gallery in Guildhall Yard (EC2V 5AE) is one of my favourite places in the City. The reason for this is that the Gallery’s collection of London paintings opens a window onto unusual, memorable and colourful scenes from the City’s history. Dating from the 17th century onwards, they provide a vivid record of civic events along with street, market and crowd scenes which capture the look and feel of city life. What adds to the enjoyment of a visit is the remains of the Roman Amphitheatre which were discovered during redevelopment in 1987 and are now incorporated into the lower levels of the building.

Here is a selection from the pictures I like best.

And we think congestion is bad now …

‘Chaos on London Bridge’ by Harold Workman (1897-1975)

It has, apparently, not been possible to date this picture. The buses look a bit like the once very familiar ‘RT’ that was introduced to London in 1939/40. Here is a picture of one (note the white roof) …

I can’t really be certain though. If you want to research more about London’s buses this is a great website to start with.

London had become the most important City in the world when Niels Moeller Lund (1863-1916) painted this view from the roof of the Royal Exchange in 1904 …

Entitled The Heart of the Empire, the artist looks down on Bank junction which seethes with the commercial life of a City that felt very secure at the Empire’s focal point. With the Mansion House on the left, the sunlit Victorian buildings draw our eye towards St Paul’s Cathedral and the Empire beyond. I like the flock of pigeons rising in the foreground.

This painting, showing an event on 9th November 1789, captures the pageantry of the City at the time and also the way St Paul’s dominated the skyline …

‘Lord Mayor’s procession by water to Westminster 9 November 1789 ‘ by Richard Paton (1717-1791) and Francis Wheatley (1747-1801)

Paton’s story is interesting since he was brought up in poverty. According to one account, while Paton was begging on Tower Hill, he attracted the attention of Admiral Sir Charles Knowles (died 1777), who happened to be passing that way, and who, taking a fancy to the boy, offered to take him to sea. He was assistant to the ship’s painter on Knowles’ ship, gaining knowledge in both painting and seamanship. The second artist, Francis Wheatley, led an ‘irregular and dissipated’ early life and ended up fleeing to Ireland to escape his creditors. He eventually regained respectability and ended his life a Royal Academician.

Here is a more intimate picture of City pageantry and its participants (with some splendid beards on display) …

‘A civic procession descending Ludgate Hill, London 1879 ‘ by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902)

Born in France, Tissot was originally called Jean-Jacques, but he took the name James as an expression of his Anglophilia. Following his alleged involvement in the turbulent events of the Paris Commune (1871) he moved to London, where he lived from 1871 to 1882. He was just as successful there as he had been in Paris and lived in some style in fashionable St John’s Wood: in 1874 Edmond de Goncourt wrote sarcastically that he had ‘a studio with a waiting room where, at all times, there is iced champagne at the disposal of visitors, and around the studio, a garden where, all day long, one can see a footman in silk stockings brushing and shining the shrubbery leaves’.

And finally, from pomp and pageantry to everyday hard work in the markets …

Billingsgate Market in 1962 by Ken Howard (born 1932)

Billingsgate Market relocated to Docklands in 1982.

There has been a livestock market at Smithfield for over 800 years …

Smithfield Market in 1968 by Jacqueline Stanley (born 1928)

The London Evening Standard has just reported that Smithfield meat market could now be leaving London. A former oil refinery site in Thurrock, Essex, is on a shortlist of four locations for a vast, new mega-market which could also house Billingsgate fish market and New Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market. The other three potential sites are at Barking power station in Dagenham, Silvertown near City airport in Docklands, and Fairlop in Redbridge.  The City of London Corporation wants to amalgamate the three historic markets in a purpose-built facility to free up land for housing.

If you visit the Gallery don’t forget to go downstairs to see the remains of the Roman Amphitheatre …


You can get a sense of the scale of the building even before you enter the Gallery. An 80 metre wide curve of dark stone in Guildhall Yard marks out the area it covered …

In the Gallery there is also an artist’s impression of what the amphitheatre may have looked like …



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