London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
The popular nursery rhyme would have you believe that the river crossing here has had some issues. But as there has been a bridge over The Thames at this location for 2,000 years it’s unsurprising that it has had to be replaced a few times. (The rumour from the nursery thyme that child sacrifice was needed under the bridge foundations has not been proven.)
A quick note to confirm, you know London Bridge is not Tower Bridge, right?
London Bridge History
The Roman bridge was probably destroyed by Boudicca, the Queen of British Celtic Iceni tribe who conquered the Romans in AD 60. This would have been later rebuilt but fell into disrepair with the end of the Roman rule in the early 5th century.
Saxon & Norman
Æthelred the Unready built a new bridge in the late 10th century but the Viking leader Olaf Haraldsson pulled it down in 1014. A Saxon bridge went up next and, following the Norman Conquest, King William rebuilt the bridge in 1066. (This is the same time that the Tower of London was built.)
A tornado in 1091 destroyed the bridge so it was replaced. Then it was destroyed by fire in 1136 so was rebuilt again. And in 1163 London Bridge was built for the last time in timber.
Henry II commissioned a new stone bridge in 1209. He included a stone chapel on the bridge to his martyred friend Thomas Becket, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. The Chapel of St Thomas on the Bridge was near the centre and used for religious purposes until Henry VIII’s Reformation in 1548. The building remained in secular use until the mid 18th century.
The old London Bridge had some structural issues as it apparently crumbled in 1281 (due to ice damage), and again in 1309, 1425 and 1437. (Seeing that list it really is no surprise we have a song about the bridge falling down!)
But, with repairs, the medieval London Bridge lasted for 600 years from 1209 to 1831. It was the only river crossing for most of that time as Westminster Bridge, the second bridge over The Thames, wasn’t built until 1750.
The Old London Bridge
The bridge had 19 narrow arches which must have been a problem for river traffic. Each end of the bridge had a gatehouse.
The northern gatehouse held a display of heads on spikes. Traitors were dipped in tar and boiled to preserve them so people could come and see the spectacle. Apparently, the gruesome tradition began in 1305 with the head of William Wallace and continued for over 350 years. In the Elizabethan era, the Drawbridge Gate was dismantled for Nonsuch House to be constructed (see below) and the heads on spikes moved to the southern end of the bridge. The fearful act is now remembered with a simple 16 m Portland stone ‘spike’ near the location called the Southwark Gateway Needle.
The gatehouses also collected tolls from those who wanted to use the crossing. This paid for the bridge repairs and replacements. Incredibly, the organisation set up in 1282 is still running today (it collects profits from Tower Bridge). City Bridge Trust is the funding arm of Bridge House Estates. It was established to make use of funds surplus to bridge requirements and provides grants totalling around £20m per year towards charitable activity benefitting Greater London.
Buildings on the Bridge
Buildings on a bridge now seem like a bizarre idea in London but the medieval bridge is recorded as having 138 shops by the mid-14th century. While buildings can be found on bridges elsewhere, thankfully you won’t find the toilet/latrine system that was used here which was essentially space to hang your bum over the edge.
Some buildings were as much as seven storeys high. They would overhang the river and the street making a dark archway for traffic to pass through. It’s said it could take an hour to cross the bridge because of the congestion.
Built in the 1570s, Nonsuch House was a four-storey wooden building and the largest on the medieval bridge. Intricately carved and with gaudy paintwork, the Dutch craftsmen who created the palace-like prefabricated building didn’t use any nails as it fitted together with wooden pegs. During the construction, one of the bridge’s arches was removed and replaced with a drawbridge to allow taller ships to pass. Nonsuch House survived until 1757 when it was demolished for the road-widening scheme below.
The buildings became a fire hazard and the bridge was damaged by fire in 1633 but was saved from the 1666 Great Fire of London as the previously destroyed section created a fire-break. Another fire in 1725 destroyed many of the homes so something had to be done.
The London Bridge Act 1756
The London Bridge Act 1756 allowed the City Corporation to buy the leases of all the properties on the bridge, and work on dismantling the houses in the centre section, including the Chapel House. Work started in February 1757. A temporary wooden bridge was erected beside London Bridge so there was still a river crossing while the buildings were removed.
By 1759, the roadway was widened from 12 ft to 46 ft and its two centre arches were replaced by a single wider span, the Great Arch. Sadly, this weakened the structure which led to ongoing repairs until the decision was made to replace the bridge.
With no buildings along the sides, these decorative stone balustrades were added for pedestrian safety.
A New London Bridge
John Rennie designed a new four-pier five-arch stone bridge and it was built by his son from 1824. Constructed of Haytor granite from Devon, the new bridge opened on 1 August 1831 and the old bridge was demolished.
Sold to An American
It was the busiest crossing in London and surveys in the early twentieth-century showed the bridge was sinking. To cover some of the cost of building yet another bridge, the Common Council of the City of London put the bridge up for sale. In 1968 it was purchased by Robert P. McCulloch to be taken to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, USA, where it was rebuilt over the Bridgewater Channel canal in 1971. The London Bridge stones were numbered as they were taken down and used as cladding on the American bridge so we don’t need to worry about further structural concerns.
It’s a popular tale to suggest the ‘dumb American’ thought he was buying the more beautiful and iconic Tower Bridge but that is totally untrue. Want to see the American London Bridge? Have a look at their webcam.
London Bridge Today
The current London Bridge was completed in 1972. Don’t be concerned if you see that that it’s closed to traffic right now. This is for a £5 million essential waterproofing project that should be finished by the end of October 2020.
Where to Find London Bridge Remains
Now we know the history of there being multiple bridges crossing here and two stone bridges demolished (the medieval one and Rennie’s bridge), you may be intrigued to hear that some of the stones can still be found. As with many interesting artefacts, some are often hidden in plain sight.
The marvellous IanVisits blog discovered these granite coping stones from Rennie’s bridge on Tooley Street, opposite London Bridge station, close to the current bridge. I’m sure few people realise what they are even though the Southwark Heritage Association have added a plaque.
Carry on down Tooley Street and take the first left as if going to the London Bridge Experience entrance. Before you go in the tunnel, look on the ground as there’s a line marking where the old London Bridge crossed.
That tunnel is actually one of the arches from Rennie’s 1831 bridge that was never removed. Today it is part of the current London Bridge. Walk through and the steps (seen on the left in the photo below) are also part of Rennie’s bridge but better known as Nancy’s Steps as they were the location of the murder of Nancy in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
On the other side of the tunnel is Glaziers Hall where more of Rennie’s bridge was recently uncovered during renovations (hat tip to @IanVisits).
Continue along Montague Close, when you can turn right and get closer to the water, there is another stone from Rennie’s bridge embedded into the pavement with an inscription. The odd-shaped blocks of granite stopping traffic on this area of land are from Rennie’s bridge too.
Also close to the original site, there is a coat of arms above the door of the King’s Arms on Newcomen Street in Borough. This was the coat of arms that had been added to Stonegate – the bridge tollgate – during rebuilding in 1728 but was demolished in 1760.
Another remnant in the area, this stone alcove is in the grounds of Guy’s Hospital. The wooden bench inside has a bronze statue of the poet John Keats as he trained at Guy’s as a surgeon. The Portland stone niche was purchased for 10 guineas in 1861 as part of the sale of the old bridge stones after Rennie’s bridge opened in 1831.
There were fourteen of these domed alcoves, seven at each end of the Medieval bridge added to provide shelter after the buildings were removed in the 18th century. Two more stones alcoves can be seen in Victoria Park in Hackney, east London. They are close to Cadogan Terrace and are even marked on Google maps.
A fourth alcove can be found in East Sheen, west London, in the grounds of the Courtlands Estate, a cluster of low-rise apartment blocks. The London Remembers blog visited and took a photo of the Bridge House Estate logo on the alcove.
There was another alcove found at Adelaide House in 1921 – a Grade II listed office block on the north side of London Bridge – but this was deemed too expensive to preserve and was destroyed. A stone was kept and is can now be seen in the churchyard of St Magnus the Martyr church.
St Magnus the Martyr Church
The old medieval London Bridge had St Magnus the Martyr church at the north entrance. This article shows the old pedestrian entrance which still remains at the church tower today even though the current bridge crossing has moved 100 feet upstream.
It’s worth going inside the church too as they have an incredible wooden model of the old London Bridge. Built in 1987 by David T. Aggett, a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers, it’s a recreation of the bridge from the early 15th century and is over 13 feet long. The detail is incredible and it includes over 900 people crossing the bridge so you can get a sense of the congestion. (Mr Aggett had been a policeman so look closely and you’ll find a contemporary model of a policeman on the bridge too!)
Do also have a look at the stained glass windows of the church as they depict scenes from the bridge’s history.
Also on the north side of the bridge, Fishmongers’ Hall has a chair made from the timber of old London Bridge with a seat including a piece of stone from the bridge and a back showing designs of subsequent bridges. Nearby, Watermen’s Hall has a wooden fragment too.
Also in the City of London, there is a piece of granite to see behind the Duke of Wellington statue at Bank. The statue is made of bronze from captured enemy cannon melted down after the Battle of Waterloo. The London Bridge connection is that the Court of Common Council of the City of London agreed to a contribution of £500 toward the cost of the statue in appreciation of the Duke’s efforts in assisting the passage of the London Bridge Approaches Act 1827. The statue was erected in 1844 and the slab of granite from Rennie’s bridge was later embedded into the paving behind the statue when Rennie’s bridge was demolished in 1967.
Some stones from the demolished London bridges made it further afield. Through this blog post, I discovered that a load of huge granite blocks was deposited by persons unknown on a roundabout on the A10 at Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire in the 1970s. These stones are now spread around the Lee Valley Park.
Lee Valley is a 26-mile linear park that stretches from east London to Essex and Hertfordshire. I headed to the Cornmill Meadows car park as it’s between the two stones named Travel and Discovery. The stone came from the base of Rennie’s London Bridge which was demolished in the 1960s. By 1982, the uncarved blocks were erected at either end of the Meridian Walk which had been created in the Cornhill Meadows.
Paula Haughney was commissioned to carve them and her work was completed in 1994. According to this site, ideas for the imagery were suggested by the locality and the Meridian Line itself with its association with time, distance, global connections and travel. Carved navigational instruments on a tomb in the Abbey Church also contributed to the overall design.
This is ‘Travel’ with a world map carved all over it.
And this is ‘Discovery’.
Meridian Walk is about a mile long and it’s a pleasant area for a stroll.
Also in Lee Valley, in Enfield, is Myddleton House Gardens. The botanic gardens here have more stones from Rennie’s old London Bridge. You can’t quite see it in this photo but there are grooves about a third of the way up the stones flanking this bench which was where they were attached to the bridge.
Myddleton House Gardens has more architectural salvage and is well worth a visit (see Londonist’s visit for more info.)
In northeast London, at Gilwell Park in Chingford, you can find the balustrades that were added to the bridge after the houses were removed (seen in the J.M.W. Turner painting above, circa 1794).
Sometimes, you would never know about the origin of the stones without the rumours and research. There’s a bench at Kew Gardens in west London, near the Sackler crossing, that sits on four granite slabs from Rennie’s London Bridge. And over in east London, there are stones outside St Margaret’s Church in Barking.
It’s said the garden wall of these houses on Heathfield Road, by Wandsworth Common in southwest London, is made from the medieval London Bridge. (It’s also in the fabric of at least one of the houses.) The Woodberry Down development near Stoke Newington in northeast London reputedly has some of these stones too.
The same type of stone wall can be seen outside Ingress Abbey in Greenhithe, Kent. Much of the stone from the medieval London Bridge was used on the estate but, apart from the perimeter wall, it can’t be seen as it was used as core stone in the middle of the structure. Some of the follies in the vast gardens are also believed to have come from the old London Bridge but that is unconfirmed by the estate.
A special mention must be included for Vic Keegan who writes about Lost London. He has been researching and recording locations of the remains of the old London Bridges for many years. He has created a helpful Google Map and has this Flickr album too.