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London Bridge

A brief history

A qualified City of London tour guide.

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Crossing the Thames - How London Bridge was built.

The River Thames was a very much wider river in the early days of London. When the Romans saw it for the first time it was around five times as wide as we see today. Because of the width, it was also much shallower, with small islets forming when the tide was low. It is only man claiming the banks back over the centuries that has narrowed, and deepened the river. This explains why certain areas of London have such a high flood risk, being somewhat lower than the level of the water now. There is no doubt that the conquering Romans must have had a bridge crossing the river somewhere near today’s site. It may have started as a floating pontoon, then a more permanent wooden structure. Either way, they needed one for crossing, as well as defence purposes.

”London Bridge is falling down

Falling down, falling down

London Bridge is falling down

My fair lady.”

Old London Bridge

The early bridges

Last of the ferrymen

In these early years there must have been many bridges erected and destroyed. The construction, I should imagine, was pretty primitive, especially after the disciplined army of the Romans left in 410 ad. Apart from the strong tides, the risk of fire was always there with which must have been wooden structures. Then there were the armies queuing up to invade Britain, via London.

On one of the many invasion attempts by the Danes, in 1014, Ethelred the Unready, helped by King Olaf of Norway pulled down the bridge to divide the Viking forces. This gave us the song written by a Norse poet of the time:

London Bridge is broken down

Gold is won and bright renown

Shields resounding

War horns sounding

Hildur shouting in the din

Arrows singing

Mailcoats ringing

Odin makes our Olaf win

The more familiar version at the top of this page only came about in the mid 17th. century.

There can be no way that the exact number of times rebuilding of the bridge took place during these early years, but the last one was erected, apparently, in 1163 and was probably made of Elm. In 1176 a priest and architect, Peter Colechurch, started building a bridge of stone over the Thames. The bridge he built was to last for centuries.

In medieval times there was a ferry across the river near the site of the bridge. When the last ferryman, John Ovary died, his daughter Mary Ovary donated all her inherited wealth to build a convent on the site which was later to become known as St. Mary of the ovaries. This was later turned into a college for the priesthood, and the priests set about building a wooden bridge across the Thames. They were also responsible for the maintenance of the said bridge. The church was later named St. Saviours, and in 1905 became what we know today as Southwark Cathedral. The earliest reference I could find for this bridge was dated 984 ad. A woman found guilty of witchcraft was ordered to be taken to London Bridge, and be drowned. Ten years after that, in 994 AD, King Ethelred defended London against an invasion by the Danes with the help of King Olaf. They pulled it down with long boats to stop the Danes crossing How long the bridge had been standing before these events I am unable to say. The battle is the origin of the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down”.

St. Thomas’s Hospital

A bridge of stone

In the centre of the bridge was placed a church, by the side of the roadway, built upwards from the base of the supporting pier. This was named St. Thomas’s, after Thomas Becket who was murdered a few years earlier by soldiers who had heard King Henry II muttering that he wished him dead. They unfortunately took the words seriously! There were also gatehouses with drawbridge and portcullis. The money for the building work was raised by various taxes, and also payment from allowing the erection of many buildings along its length. It was completed in 1209, and who would have imagined that it would stand for a period spanning six hundred years before being replaced?

The construction work was started just west of the old bridge in 1176, with the wooden bridge left standing until the work was finished. This was just as well really, as the stone replacement took over thirty years to complete! It must have been a major feat of engineering, when you think what was involved without the aid of modern day plant and machinery. The course of the river had to be diverted by the digging of massive trenches, from Radriffe to Patricksey (Battersea), in order to lay the foundations. Even so, they still had to pile drive from floating barges. This may have had a bearing on the uneven measurements, it must have been impossible to maintain a position while fighting the tides, even with the diversions in place.

Underneath the arches

There were nineteen arches contained in the structure, none being of the same dimensions. Whether this variation in widths was due to the unevenness of the river bed preventing equal placement of the foundations, or just bad workmanship, I cannot say. I personally don’t believe the latter theory, not on a job of this size and importance, anyway.

More disaster

London Bridge burns

In 1282, seventy years after the fire, the bridge suffered another disaster. Though this one did not claim any lives. During a bad winter with heavy snowfalls and thick frost, the elements attacked the main arches of the bridge. This caused five of them to completely collapse. Over the next few years it deteriorated and became too dangerous for general use. In 1381 the bridge was repaired using money raised by the churches. This was the same year that Watt Tyler, and the rebels from Kent, as Stow called them, entered into London by way of the bridge. Apart from widening of the roadway in the eighteenth century, the bridge remained unaltered until work was started on a new one in 1825, over 600 years since the building of this one.

On the night of July 10th. 1212, only three years after the completion of the first stone bridge a fire broke out in the borough of Southwark, on the south side of the river. People ran across the bridge to help quench the flames, but this action was to be regretted. Bear in mind that by this time, numerous buildings had been erected upon it. A strong wind fanned the flames, and sent sparks across the river. This caused the buildings at the other end of the bridge to ignite, trapping the people in the middle of the bridge. There was only one way out left, over the side into the Thames where a large number of boats had gathered hoping to be of assistance. The vast number of townsfolk attempting to board the vessels caused some of them to sink. The number of bodies recovered was around 3,000, but this did not include the people incinerated in the fire, who's bodies were never found.

Widening the bridge

John Rennie’s bridge

Throughout the latter part of the 19th. century there were repeated calls for the bridge to be widened. These demands were due to the ever increasing volume of traffic chaos caused by the vast numbers of vehicles using it. They were all ignored however, for reasons of finances, and the wish not to spoil the architecture. In 1902 plans were finally put into action and the bridge was widened. The alterations added four and a half feet to each footpath, and two and a half to the road.

After many plans were submitted for tender the proposal by John Rennie was accepted. Although his design was used, it was his son, Sir John Rennie who actually saw it through to completion. His father, unfortunately died before the building work was even started. On June 15th 1825 the first foundation stone was laid. The first stone to be laid, on the City side of the river, was in December 1826. Once again, the old bridge was left standing while work was in progress, after a few alterations to some of the arches to allow water flow not to hinder the operation. It would allow access to traffic until demolished on completion of the new structure. It was completed in 1831, and William IV officially opened it on August 1st.

A new bridge - The old one goes to America

In 1967 it was decided to replace the bridge again. There were reports of cracks appearing and general decay during the previous forty years. Modern design technology allowed the bridge to have only two supporting piers in the water, making a much wider space for the water borne traffic. The way they tackled the task this was to build the two outside lanes either side of the old bridge. The old bridge was then dismantled and the two centre sections put into place.

When news of the intended demolition of Rennie’s bridge was announced there were protests from many quarters. Some even suggested restoring it to its old form including the buildings that were once part of it. An American representing McCulloch Properties put in a bid of £1,025,000 and purchased it to take to the USA. It was divided into sections and marked out by numbers. The sections were then dismantled and shipped across the Atlantic. It arrived in California on July 5th 1968. After a 240 mile journey to its final destination the first stone was laid by the then Lord Mayor of London,  Sir Gilbert Inglefield on September 23rd. 1968. It is still there today in Lake Havasu City, halfway between Phoenix and Las Vegas. It was falsely rumoured that the Americans thought they had bought Tower Bridge!


London Bridge gallery >>

London Bridge gallery