Above: Looking at the east side of London Bridge (with the City end on the right). The model of the bridge represents some time after 1550. The structure on the large pier shows the original chapel after it had been converted into a shop.
Many books have been written about the almost 2,000-year history of London Bridge. In addition, there are numerous maps and prints that provide visual information revealing this interesting subject. No blog – containing a few paragraphs – can possibly do justice to the subject but if you are not aware of its long history then what follows will hopefully give you an introduction to what is one of most interesting subjects in London’s long history.
The original site of London Bridge was a short distance east of the present site. It is generally believed that the Romans built the first crossing, linking two Roman roads leading from the banks of the Thames. A few wooden piles from the original Roman bridge were discovered by archaeologists in the 20th century. It is assumed that the bridge was also constructed from timber. Having a length of just over 900 feet, the bridge would have been at the limit of Roman bridge construction. How many bridges the Romans built while they were in London is not known. Because the Thames is tidal at that point and because it often froze during the winter months the bridge may have collapsed every now and then.
In the Roman town of Londinium (now part of the City of London), the route that led north from the bridge has now become today’s Fish Street Hill and Gracechurch Street. On the south side of the Thames, the route of the Roman road became today’s Borough High Street. The curious line of today’s street was because it originated as a series of causeways linking small islands of gravel. The thoroughfare leading south from today’s Borough High Street bears the name ‘Newington Causeway’ – as a reminder of the marshy ground in the area.
Whether the bridge across the Thames remained in working order after the Romans left London in AD 410 is unknown. It may have lasted for some decades and then collapsed. It is not known if the Saxons who occupied London and land to the west rebuilt it or managed without a bridge. Alfred the Great re-established English control of Lundenburgh (the Saxon name for the land of the City of London) in AD 886. We do not know if London Bridge was still in existence or if it needed to be rebuilt at that time.
We know there was a bridge in existence in AD 963 because it is mentioned in the Saxon Chronicle. A fund was set up in 1008 for the repair of the bridge which is its earliest local mention. In 1014 Ethelred II, who had fled to Normandy in 1013, returned to England. He sailed up the Thames with Haraldson of Norway in covered ships which were tied to the wooden bridge. By rowing the ships downstream, the bridge was pulled down, causing Canute and the Danes to surrender.
The bridge was damaged in 1135 by fire in the City and it was later repaired. At that time it is possible the bridge was constructed of wood but it may have had at least two stone arches. A new wooden bridge of elm is known to have been rebuilt in 1163.
The First Stone Bridge
A relatively short time after the last rebuilding, plans were made for a new stone bridge which was constructed between 1176 and 1209. It was an ambitious plan – with 19 islands (called ‘starlings’) being constructed in the river and 19 arches built on top – carrying an almost level roadway. A drawbridge was built, instead of the 20th arch – to allow ships with tall masts to pass through the bridge. Three particular starlings deserve mention. They are numbered from the Southwark end of the bridge. At the southern (Southwark) end, was a Stone Gate (on the second starling). The Drawbridge Gate (on the seventh starling) was built to raise and lower the drawbridge. On the largest starling of all (the eleventh) was built a chapel. The man who supervised the work was a priest called Peter of Colechurch who, when he died in 1205, was buried in the chapel on the new bridge.
As time went by, shops were built onto the stone bridge with rooms above where the owners lived and their servants made the items sold in the shops. It became a sort of ‘shopping precinct’ – selling fine clothing, silver and gold ornaments, jewellery and rings, as well as many other items. It was not unusual to build a chapel on a bridge in medieval times. Four other bridge in England had one and also several in what we would today call Europe. Shops and or houses were also built on some of those bridges.
In 1536 Henry VIII closed the monasteries in England and the chapel on London Bridge was also forced to close. It was not taken down but, instead, it was used as a large shop. Its exterior was altered to make it look like a non-religious building on the orders of the king.
In 1633 a disastrous fire destroyed a third of the wooden buildings at the northern (City of London) end of the bridge. The fire proved to be a blessing in disguise because repairs had not been completed by the time of the Great Fire of London, in 1666, and so the fire in the City did not spread south to burn down Southwark. That meant that the bridge was able to be used as an escape route for City residents.
Above: An enlargement from the Rheinbeck Panorama (1806-07) showing the ‘Great Arch’ formed by removing one pier and making an easier passage for shipping. Unfortunately, the panorama has an incorrect number of arches. Being a small part of the whole panorama it may be that the artist thought nobody would notice.
The strong river currents and the occasional freezing of the Thames, over the centuries, caused the stonework to give way on occasions and many repairs had to be made as a result. In 1759 one of the stone piers (number nine) was removed and a Great Arch was built on piers eight and ten to allow larger boats to pass more easily through the bridge.
Above: Painting of the opening day of the second stone bridge. The view shows the western side of the bridge (with the City end on the left). Part of the old stone bridge can be seen through the arch on the far right.
Second Stone Bridge
By the 1820s the medieval bridge was over 600 years old and the City decided to build a new one. To take it down and leave pedestrians, carts and carriages without a bridge at that point on the Thames was unthinkable. A solution was found by building a new bridge on a new site – just west of the first one. That site is on the site of today’s modern bridge. Work began in 1824 for the new stone bridge and it was officially opened on 1 August 1831 by William IV.
In Southwark, because the site of the new bridge was further west than the medieval one, the northern end of Borough High Street had to re-aligned with the new bridge. This work required removing part of the churchyard of Southwark Cathedral. In the City, Gracechurch Street and Fish Street Hill had aligned with the medieval London Bridge. To fit in with the new bridge, King William Street was created (as a new thoroughfare from the Bank interchange to the new bridge) with a curious curve, which still remains today, allowing traffic from the new bridge to travel north and to join up with Gracechurch Street.
Above: View of the east side of the third bridge – which is the bridge that is there today. The City is at the far end.
Third Stone Bridge
By the 1960s the second stone bridge was in need of replacement. By that time engineers knew how to build a new bridge on the site of the old one. The western part of the old bridge was removed and replaced by a new bridge – while the traffic continued to pass over the eastern remains of the old bridge. The traffic was then re-routed over the new part of the bridge while the other part was removed and the rest of the new bridge was constructed. It was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 17 March 1973.
The first stone bridge had 19 arches and a wooden drawbridge. The second bridge had just five arches and today’s bridge has only three arches – standing on two piers. It may well be that, in another 100 years, the next bridge will have just one span without requiring any piers.
Note: Some aspects of London Bridge were covered in the blog dated 6 November 2015. Other blogs related to London Bridge are ‘A Stone Tablet from Old London Bridge’ (on 8 June 2016) and ‘Peter of Colechurch and his Seal’ (on 6 January 2016).