HERITAGE - 34: LONDON BRIDGE, Far From Falling Down

The landmark celebrated in song was directly under the present one here

This London Bridge is a long way from falling down. Opened 17th March, 1973 - to replace an earlier one rebuilt at Lake Havasu, Az, complete with red double-decker London buses - its longest span is 341.2 ft or 104m.
This London Bridge is a long way from falling down. Opened 17th March, 1973 - to replace an earlier one rebuilt at Lake Havasu, Az, complete with red double-decker London buses - its longest span is 341.2 ft or 104m. | Source

The London Bridge you see above is the most recent - opened to traffic in 1973 - of the bridges that spanned the river from when the Romans built the first one in the first century of colonisation. Beyond the bridge is the Borough of Southwark

It is of box girder construction, built of concrete and steel that replaced one built in the first year of William IV's reign, 1831. A stone bridge preceded that, having seen London traffic for over 600 years from 1125. A palace, dwellings and shops had been built on it down the centuries, the road - beneath the palace and residences and between the shops - provided the only artery of road traffic until more bridges spanned the Thames in the 19th Century.

Immediately to the east of the bridge is the Pool of London, where down the centuries merchant ships berthed and unloaded or loaded their wares. Its position is 98 ft or 30 m upstream of the original alignment. Before Putney Bridge opened to traffic in 1729, London Bridge was the only road crossing downriver of Kingston-upon-Thames around 25-30 miles away. An independent charity, Bridge House Estates maintains the bridge, overseen by the City of London Corporation. The road it carries now is the northern section of the A3, itself maintained by the Greater London Authority (GLA).

Early London Bridges

Londinium, AD 85-90 - the first London Bridge spanned the Thames to carry Watling Street, the Roman road that linked Rochester with London and Chester
Londinium, AD 85-90 - the first London Bridge spanned the Thames to carry Watling Street, the Roman road that linked Rochester with London and Chester | Source
An ally of Aethelred, Olaf Haraldsson's ships pull down London Bridge in AD 1014 at the time of Svein Forkbeard's invasion to claim the throne
An ally of Aethelred, Olaf Haraldsson's ships pull down London Bridge in AD 1014 at the time of Svein Forkbeard's invasion to claim the throne | Source
Another view of Olaf's ships as they pull away from the bridge with cables attached to the bridge timbers. They had used the rooves of dwellings from Greenwich to shelter from the arrows.
Another view of Olaf's ships as they pull away from the bridge with cables attached to the bridge timbers. They had used the rooves of dwellings from Greenwich to shelter from the arrows. | Source
Early blue plaque marks the entrance through the churchyard of St Magnus the Martyr to the Old London Bridge of AD 1175-1831 when the predecessor to the modern London Bridge was built
Early blue plaque marks the entrance through the churchyard of St Magnus the Martyr to the Old London Bridge of AD 1175-1831 when the predecessor to the modern London Bridge was built | Source

Roman Bridges

The first bridge was built by the Roman military, probably of pontoon construction. Around AD 55 this temporary feature was replaced by a more permanent, piled structure. A small settlement grew at the northern end of the bridge by enterprising traders, and a smaller one was added at the southern end. This bridge was probably destroyed in Boudicca's attack on Londinium (around AD 60), although both settlements were quickly re-established and Londinium grew in status, to become the Roman capital of 'Britannia Major'

Early Mediaeval

The Romans withdrew early in the 5th Century owing to pressures closer to home. Londinium was gradually depopulated and the bridge fell into disrepair. The Saxon incomers felt the city was populated by ghosts and settled to the west in the area between the River Fleet and the Strand, northward to Holborn.

When the Danes came in the late 9th Century the Middle Saxons withdrew behind the walls for defence, ignoring their earlier fears of the gigantic structures left behind by the Romans. The bridge is likely to have been rebuilt at the time of Aethelred II, 'Unraed' in AD 990. The earliest contemporary written reference to a Saxon-built bridge was made in AD 1016 when the Danes under Knut occupied the city and Aethelred's Norse ally Olaf Haraldsson pulled it from its moorings by grappling irons attached to his three ships. Although no mention is made in chronicles about it being rebuilt, it is inconceivable that Knut would not have had the bridge replaced, London being a centre of commerce and a certain amount in taxes would have been due to him as king. A sizeable portion of trade would have come across the bridge from the south and south-east (Sussex, Kent, Surrey), after all.

When Duke William first approached Lunden Brycg in late October after defeating Harold on October 14th he brought with him five hundred mounted knights only, thinking he would be welcomed by all and sundry. He was wrong. A young man named Eadgar 'the aetheling', distantly related to the old king Eadward, was made king - as yet uncrowned - by the Witan, the king's council. Several survivors had come back from Caldbec Hill near Hastings and with newly arrived earls from the north, As Harold's stallari (marshal) and shire reeve of Middlesex, Ansgar led the Middlesex fyrd at the Southwark end of the bridge with an impenetrable shield wall. After several charges, during the last of which the Normans set fire to the nearby houses in order to intimidate the defenders, William gave up with heavy losses. According to the Peterborough Chronicle (E)

"... This battle was fought on the day of pope Calixtus: and earl Willelm returned to Haestingas and waited there to know whether the people would submit to him..."

William had the bridge replaced during his reign. A freak wind in AD 1091 tore it away again, however. William 'Rufus' had it repaired or replaced and it was destroyed again by fire in AD 1136. King Stephen saw it rebuilt again, and Henry II established a monastic guild known as 'The Brethren of the Bridge' to oversee its maintenance.

Old London Bridge

After the death of Thomas a Becket, originally Henry's Chancellor and then Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry II commissioned a new stone bridge as a mark of penitence. A chapel dedicated to Becket the Martyr was located midway. This chapel became the official start of pilgrimages to the Canterbury shrine of St Thomas. Building commenced in AD 1176. An attempt at self-funding for the bridge was made by taxes on wool and sheepskins, to be continued well after Henry's death until John's reign. In 1209 after 33 years of continuous work. To increase funds John licensed building plots on the bridge. In AD 1284, in exchange for loans to the royal exchequer the City of London acquired the Charter for its maintenance, based on toll rights and duties of the 'Brethren of the Bridge'.

By 1358 the bridge was already crowded with 138 shops, the buildings becoming a major fire hazard and potential obstruction. In 1212 a fire had broken out at both ends simultaneously and a major fire in AD 1633 burned away the northern third of the bridge structures. This 'break' helped thirty-three years later when fire destroyed much of the City.

The southern gatehouse saw the display of the severed heads of traitors on its battlements, that of William Wallace being the.first in 1305. The 'tradition' would continue for another 355 years, seeing an end with the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. In 1758-62 all the remaining residences on the bridge were demolished by Act of Parliament, the two centre arches also being replaced by a single span that eased river navigation (boatmen had until then 'shot the rapids' where a drop had developed in the flow of water between the piers. This measure would also see the end of the Frost Fairs, where the slowed flow allowed the river to freeze upriver, even allowing the lighting of bonfires for skaters to warm themselves and to cook food).

The New 'Old London Bridge'

By the end of the 18th Century the 600 year-old London Bridge was in dire need of replacement. A competition was held in 1799 for replacement designs, won by John Rennie with a conventional design of five stone arches. It would be built 100 ft (30 m) west, upstream of the original site and work commenced in 1824. The foundation stone was laid in 1825 and the old bridge was demolished after the new one opened to traffic six years later. In 1896 this bridge was widened by 13 ft using granite corbels, although subsequent surveys suggested the bridge was settling. By 1924 the east side had sunk about three or four inches lower than the west. Removal and replacement would have to be seriously considered.


London Bridge

A markerLondon Bridge, London UK -
London Bridge, London SE1, UK
[get directions]

The site of the present London Bridge, on the same alignment as the original Roman bridge (that collapsed through lack of maintenance after AD 410)

Later Mediaeval to late Georgian

Old London Bridge stood between the late 12th and early 19th Centuries, in time built on with Nonsuch Palace, other residences and shops
Old London Bridge stood between the late 12th and early 19th Centuries, in time built on with Nonsuch Palace, other residences and shops | Source
Old London Bridge fell victim to the Great Fire of London in 1666, during the reign of Charles II. Soldiers frantically tried to destroy the bridge from halfway to prevent the fire from spreading to Southwark
Old London Bridge fell victim to the Great Fire of London in 1666, during the reign of Charles II. Soldiers frantically tried to destroy the bridge from halfway to prevent the fire from spreading to Southwark | Source
Late Stuart era, 'Great Frost Fair Lotterie' - wintertime social life extended to the river near London Bridge
Late Stuart era, 'Great Frost Fair Lotterie' - wintertime social life extended to the river near London Bridge | Source
A map of the City of London dated 1720, when the old bridge still stood, severely damaged for another hundred-and-eleven years
A map of the City of London dated 1720, when the old bridge still stood, severely damaged for another hundred-and-eleven years | Source
The last ever Frost Fair, 1814. This was during the late Regency, the year before Waterloo. In another seventeen years we would see a new London Bridge
The last ever Frost Fair, 1814. This was during the late Regency, the year before Waterloo. In another seventeen years we would see a new London Bridge | Source

Preparing the way for the modern London Bridge

In 1967 the Common Council for the City of London put the bridge onto the open market, and in April 1968 it was sold to an American, the Missourian entrepreneur for US$2.46M. The claim that he thought he had bought the more picturesque Tower Bridge was denied Whilst the bridge was dismantled each component was numbered precisely before being shipped through the Panama Canal to California for onward transit to Lake Havasu, Arizona (along the course of the Colorado River).


William IV to Elizabeth II

The bridge built in 1831 (William IV) and relocated in 1973 to Lake Havasu, Az (someone thought they'd bought Tower bridge?). Seen here looking from SE1 towards the City early 20th Century
The bridge built in 1831 (William IV) and relocated in 1973 to Lake Havasu, Az (someone thought they'd bought Tower bridge?). Seen here looking from SE1 towards the City early 20th Century | Source

The London Bridge you see now was.designed by architect Lord Holford and engineers Mott, Hay & Anderson, built by John Mowlem & Co. between 1967 and 1972, the new bridge opened unofficially for traffic whilst construction work was ongoing and Rennie's earlier bridge completely dismantled (and taken to the US). Queen Elizabeth officially opened the bridge on 17th March, 1973. The two bridges share the same 'footprint'.

The structure comprises three spans of pre-stressed concrete box girders, altogether 928 ft or 283 m long, the cost of replacing the old bridge at £4M (£42.1M as of 2013) being met by Bridge House Estates. Nearby London Bridge Station was given a thorough overhaul at the same time, rail traffic surprisingly maintained almost at peak levels, whereas road traffic was seriously delayed in the surrounding area on both sides of the river.

On Wednesday 13th June, 1984 when Leander class frigate HMS Jupiter collided with the bridge noticeable damage was done to both ship and bridge. Part of the additional amount.quoted above was required for remedial work, both to make the structure secure and to replace damaged elements. .

Follow London's fortunes from early days, the Romans, Saxons, Danes, Normans and on through the times of Chaucer and Shakespeare to the Commonwealth (Cromwell), Restoration, Georges... It's an ongoing story

Sheep on the bridge? Ask a Woolman...

Freemen of the City of London exercise their right to drive sheep across London Bridge, 27th September, 2015 (last weekend in September)
Freemen of the City of London exercise their right to drive sheep across London Bridge, 27th September, 2015 (last weekend in September) | Source

The stories and legends are many around the 'right to drive sheep across London Bridge', maybe as many as there are livery companies. Most likely may be that Freemen were allowed to drive their sheep to market in the City over the bridge without having to pay the burdensome wool taxes on their flocks.

Other than that, it may be the way the Guilds controlled work standards and the suitability of traders to be apprenticed to a master. If a tradesman's work did not measure up to the required standard the Guild responsible would have their tools destroyed, as well as their work, Ever heard of the phrase "being sent to Coventry?" This is where the phrase stemmed, in that sending a craftsman to Coventry was to banish them from the City to the nearest place their bad name would not follow, i.e., one hundred miles away in Coventry. No mention of not talking to them, although in the days before telephones and skype it would have been hard to talk to someone even fifty miles off.

It is likely, then, that the Freemen in the Middle Ages had the right to bear their proven tools into the City across London Bridge: their flocks. As one of the oldest Livery companies in the City of London it is plain to see how tools and sheep might become synonymous, as they exercised their right on their way to sell their stock in the City (and this, coincidentally, is the origin of the term 'stock market').

Freemen were excused the toll levied on others who crossed the bridge in recognition of their standing as local traders. 'Foreigners' was the word (derived from the French) used to describe those not Londoners, 'aliens' described those of other nationalities. It is not known for certain when the last sheep were driven across the bridge to market (at Smithfield), but widespread use of motor vehicles would have signalled the end of the practice, if it had not been curtailed already.

However, lately the tradition of driving sheep across London Bridge has been re-introduced, if only as a token gesture. In September, 2008 the World Traders organised an event where sheep were led across on halters. In July 2009 the Lord Mayor at the time, Ian Luder, CBE, arranged for a similar event to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the bridge linked to a Bridge Fair. In 2011 the Red Cross planned an event which had to be cancelled. In 2012 a fundraising event was successful, where stuffed sheep on wheels were pushed across.

Further events involving celebrities and politicians' wives were organised over the following years, amongst which the actor Stephen Fry was made a Freeman and appeared in a documentary about the City and its Freedom, in which he led a sheep across the bridge with a woman companion. In 2013 the Worshipful Company of Woolmen arranged the first 'drive' of sheep, an event that has been retained through its initial success on the last weekend in September..

To look further into this phenomenon click on the link below:

Also associated with Old London Bridge - and new - Doggett's Coat & Badge waterman's race

A Granger illustration of the rowing race in the 18th Century
A Granger illustration of the rowing race in the 18th Century | Source
Five recent Doggett's Coat & Badge winners line up at London Bridge
Five recent Doggett's Coat & Badge winners line up at London Bridge | Source

Doggett's Coat & Badge is the prize and name for the oldest rowing race in the world. Up to six apprentice watermen and lightermen - although with all the bridges that span the Thames these days the need for rowed ferries is purely ceremonial - have competed annually since 1715 on a 4 mile, 5 furlong (7.4 km) course on the winding Thames from London Bridge to Cadogan Pier at Chelsea. They pass under eleven bridges - road and rail - on the way and the prize is the waterman's red coat with silver arm badge that displays the Hanoverian horse insignia. These days the qualifiers are those who work in the London docks as lightermen (on barges towed by tugs) as well as the various motorised ferries that ply between the piers downriver, taking tourists and commuters as far as the Barrier at Silvertown. Upriver these ferries will go as far as Hampton Court.via Richmond, Twickenham and Kingston-upon-Thames.

London Bridge - think you know it?

Hands up everyone who's mistaken London Bridge for Tower Bridge (and vice-versa)?

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3 comments

annart profile image

annart 9 months ago from SW England

I've heard often that the American thought he'd bought Tower Bridge but have never been sure if it was true. Though Tower Bridge does have some grandeur, I prefer the original London Bridge with its houses and shops - rather like the smaller Pultney Bridge in Bath, Somerset - more graceful.

Interesting and informative history here and I enjoyed the read, thanks Alan.

Ann


BlossomSB profile image

BlossomSB 9 months ago from Victoria, Australia

Love your article on the long history of London Bridge. A cousin of my husband was involved with the building of the new one. When we visited in 1970 he was working for Mowlem & Co. as a stone-mason. He took my husband over the bridge and under it. When they went under on a boat there were traffic lights for the river traffic - I have a photo of them. Part of the contract was that it was to be kept open during construction. The new one was also heated to make it safer in cold weather. The same cousin also took us to his home and showed us the plans they had used when he worked with his father, also a stone-mason, on the restoration of the Houses of Parliament after the bombing during the war. On that second day, he took us there and showed us how they continually monitor the beautiful old beams for the ravages of the death-watch beetle. Finally, after our year in the UK, he gave my husband a box of fragments of stone from those places and some other interesting projects he had been involved in, it became one of my husband's treasures that he loved to show our guests. I've since given it to a son-in-law who is an architect.

Thank you for a lovely reminder of our time there.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 9 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello Ann, The people who bought the older London Bridge denied they thought they'd bought Tower Bridge. After all, however picturesque Tower Bridge might be, it hasn't the history.

Blossom, that's a good human interest story that could be modified for a Hub-page if you've got the time. Not many can say they own fragments of history (like those who bought bits of the Berlin Wall).

Both of you, I've added another few pictures and some info, a) of the Frost Fairs and b) about the Waterman''s Race, Doggett's Coat & Badge.

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