Above: Photograph of a model of the medieval bridge, on show in the Museum of London. The view looks along the bridge at the eastern side.
“Upper Thames Street – Part 17”
It is believed that soon after the Roman invasion of Britain, in AD 43, the Romans established a township where today’s City of London now stands. The Romans called it Londinium. Within a short time of Londinium being established the Romans are also believed to have constructed a wooden bridge across the Thames which at this point is about 900 feet wide. Timbers have been found nearby in the ground which are thought to have been part of the foundations of that first bridge.
How many wooden bridges were constructed by the Romans and then by the Saxons is not known. It may be that a new bridge had to be constructed as often as every 100 years but we just do not know. It was not until 1176 that the Normans decided to construct a stone bridge which was not completed until 1209. It had a large gateway at the southern end, a gatehouse with a drawbridge near the southern end and a chapel built on the bridge near the centre. It was a remarkable structure and about 100 years after it opened timber-framed houses were built onto the stone-work. The bridge lasted until the early 1800s, occasionally needing repairs to its stonework.
Above: Sketch map showing the site of old London Bridge (on the right) and of the bridge that replaced it on a site a short distance up-river (on the left — west of the old one). The Southwark bank is at the bottom and the City of London is along the top.
Because the old London Bridge was only 20 feet wide, it was becoming a traffic bottle-neck by the late 1700s and in the 1820s plans were devised to build a new bridge. The traffic still needed a river crossing so a new bridge was built on a new site, just up-river of the old one, which allowed the traffic to cross the old bridge until the new one was completed. The new bridge was officially opened in 1831.
That bridge remained in use until the 1960s when it was felt that a third bridge should be constructed. Due to modern building methods the third bridge was built on the site of the second one while the traffic was kept moving in spite of all the construction work that was in progress. The third bridge — the one we have today — was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973.
The history of the three stone bridges is a very large subject and the number of prints, paintings and photographs is almost endless. Only a brief outline of the complex history of the three stone bridges has been given in this article. Other articles on London Bridge will be written in the course of time.
This article completes the survey of the 17 places of interest along the length of Upper Thames Street. It is a street that has been associated with the remarkable story of the City’s trade with many locations all over northern Europe. With the creation of the dual-carriageway, requiring the widening of the street, most of its historic charm has been lost. That, as they say, ‘is progress’.