London Bridge can trace its roots back to when the Romans first arrived on our shores and developed a settlement along the River Thames over two thousand years ago, calling it Londinium. The Romans built a wooden bridge close to the site of the present London Bridge, in fact the original structure was located 60 metres downstream of the current structure, a pier support was excavated in 1981 on the northern bank of the Thames.
For the next six hundred years the wooden structure that was built by the Romans fell into disrepair and the crossing varied from ferries to timber constructions.
After the construction of three more timber bridges a priest named Peter de Colechurch decided to construct the bridge in stone, the bridge took 33 years to build, during which three reigning monarchs, Henry ll, Richard the Lionheart and King John served on the throne, it was to stand for some 622 years.
The new bridge was supported by 20 gothic arches and had a span of 26 feet (8 metres) and was 300 yards (275 metres) in length, in order to withstand the tremendous weight of London Bridge on the soft river bed, each arch was supported on either side by enormous starlings (supports for the bridge and shaped to ease the flow of water), these acted as giant ‘feet’ and allowed the culvert load to be spread, preventing the bridge from sinking into the mud. These starlings also varied in size and became far more substantial than was entirely safe. The consequences of these arches, was that water-speed slowed significantly along the Thames, causing it to freeze during harsh winters. Also when the tide was on the way out, the culverts became ‘white-water’ rapids and exceptionally hazardous to navigate.
Boats generally stayed up-river of the bridge, or down-river. As the saying went London Bridge was for “wise men to pass over and for fools to pass under“. Though what was called “shooting the arches” was attempted by the brave, foolhardy or drunk, often resulting in disastrous consequences.
By the late 1400’s there were over two hundred buildings on the bridge some were seven stories high, others overhung the river by over six feet while others overhung the road of the bridge which formed a dark tunnel for travellers to pass through. The shops were on the ground floor with window displays, and the traders lived in the quarters above. Each would have a sign to display the goods on offer for the illiterate, which would be hung at a height allowing riders on horseback to pass beneath. London Bridge with its tightly knit community became a small village within a city.
Navigating London Bridge during this period was a time consuming exercise, taking up to an hour to get from one side to the other and by 1722 congestion was becoming so serious that it was decided issue an order to all carts, coaches and other carriages coming out of Southwark into the City to keep along the west side of the bridge and all carts and coaches going out of the City keep along the east side of the bridge, many believe this was where the practice of traffic in Britain driving on the left originated from.
From the south side of London Bridge you were met with the imposing South Gate which was three stories high and became the scene of one of London’s most notorious and hideous sights through the practice of attaching the heads of executed prisoners on to spikes on top of the building, the heads would be preserved in pitch and then speared by a pike. There was over 20 heads at a any giving time positioned on this structure, it eventually petered out in the 18th century.
Although the bridge escaped any serious damage during the great fire of London in 1666 concerns were being raised about the stability of the bridge and the lack of access for ships, leading to the unloading and reloading of the cargo to access the other side of the Thames.
By the mid 1700’s an act of parliament of parliament decreed that all buildings be demolished, allowing the opportunity for engineers to remove two of the central arches and replacing it with a larger opening thus improving navigation along the river for shipping. A wooden temporary wooden bridge was erected on the west side of the bridge during this time and was used both for pedestrians and carriages. A year after being built the wooden bridge was deliberately set on fire another temporary bridge was erected a month later.
With the works now completed, the church of St Magnus the Martyr, which was located at the north end of the bridge projected so far over the foot-way that it was deemed necessary for a passage to be made under the steeple and with the supervision of Sir Christopher Wren arches in the tower were opened to accommodate the footpath.
After nearly six hundred years London Bridge was falling into decline and it was decided a new bridge was required. A competition was set up to see who would come up with the best design for the new bridge. The competition was won by John Rennie with his design of 5 arches.
The new bridge was positioned 100 feet (30 metres) upstream and was completed in 1831 the old bridge which had remained open during the construction of the new bridge was sadly demolished, bringing to an end one of the most iconic sights in London.
John Rennie’s bridge did last the test of time in comparison to the old bridge, by the 1960’s plans were in place to build a new modern bridge. The old bridge was basically sinking into the London mud and was unable to cope with modern traffic.
The bridge was put up for sale and sold to an American from Arizona for over 2 million dollars, plans were then put in place to move and rebuild the bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Each piece was marked with four numbers, indicating the span, the row of stones, and the last two numbers indicated which position in that row. While dismantling the bridge it was discovered that there were code numbers on each stone when it was originally built indicating that John Rennie must have used the same system when he was drawing the stone from the quarry.
The New London Bridge was opened on the 16th March by HM Queen Elizabeth II who arrived by river at the quay of the adjacent Fishmongers’ Hall, where the Water men lined up to greet her. She saw then a temporary exhibition on the long history of London Bridge. A plaque on the bridge commemorates the opening.
The new bridge is concrete and has a huge hollow water tight chamber which allows essential services to cross the river and is the only hollow bridge crossing the Thames, the bridge has polished granite panels and a wide stainless steel hand-rail sweeping across its whole width, as well as heated pavements for winter.
The new bridge continues the long history of a bridge over the Thames close to this spot and where as many as ten bridges have crossed the river and played a key part on London’s eventful history.
Did you know?
A battle that took place in 1014 between the Norse King Olav and the Danish invaders, led to the wooden bridge being pulled down after King Olav attached cables to the bridge and their boats. The famous nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is falling down’ came as a result of this battle.
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down
My fair lady.
William Wallace was the first man to have his head displayed on London Bridge in 1305.
The Normans invaded in 1066 and rode over London Bridge from the south, King William I gave the city a charter to rule itself.