Above: Today’s Southwark Bridge, the second one on the same site, seen across the river from Bankside in Southwark.
“Upper Thames Street – Part 9”
Compared with some of the dates for places of interest along Upper Thames Street, which often go back to medieval times and beyond, Southwark Bridge is a comparative newcomer. Long before the bridge was built there were a collection of streets, on the City side, leading from the Guildhall to the bank of the Thames. After the Great Fire of London the City Fathers decided that a new thoroughfare should be laid out, in line with the Guildhall, so that when the occasion demanded it, the Lord Mayor of London, with his retinue or Aldermen could process to the river and board State Barges and usually be rowed up-river to Westminster.
In the 1670s, therefore, two new streets were cut through the tangle of narrow alleyways in the City and they remain today — in the form of King Street and Queen Street. At the riverside there must have been some sort of floating pier or river stairs to allow people to board the boats, although there are no prints of any object like that in existence.
Moving from the 17th to the 19th century, a bridge was built 1814-19 across the Thames, to designs of John Rennie (Elder), in line with Queen Street. Named Southwark Bridge, it was opened without ceremony by lamplight at midnight on 24 March 1819. It was a toll bridge, 28 feet (8.5 m) wide, constructed of three cast-iron arches, the centre one being 240 feet (73 m) wide, which gave it the name of ‘Iron Bridge’. It was bought in 1866 by the Corporation of London and freed of tolls. It was later widened in 1910.
Being aligned with Queen Street, it looked to the casual observer as though the street was built at the time of the bridge. Of course, on the south side of the bridge a new road had to be constructed. It still bears its original name of Southwark Bridge Road and extends from the bridge to Elephant and Castle.
A second bridge (the one we have today) was built 1919-21 on the same site. The architect was Sir Ernest George and the engineer Sir Basil Mott. Its official opening came in 1922. The bridge is a five span steel arch type, 55 feet (17 m) wide and 708.5 feet (216 m) between abutments. It is the only one of the four City road bridges that are today permitted to carry heavy or long lorries across them.