The Many Versions of London Bridge

by Rebecca Richerson

Figure 1. London Bridge.

Spanning the Thames River in London, England, London Bridge is a mandatory stop for every tourist. The modern, somewhat plain stone bridge does not seem remarkable. Indeed, it is the history of the earlier London Bridges that draws visitors to the modern structure. A recent trip to England has convinced me that it is the history of the many versions of London Bridge that visitors will remember. Most tourists know something of the nineteenth-century Old London Bridge. This structure supplanted earlier bridges that linked London not only to fertile farms of the southern countries but also to the rest of Europe (De Mare 71).

The first London Bridge was built around A. D., 80 near the Southwark settlement. A large town, that became London, grew up at the northern end. The bridge, most likely built of timber and Romanesque in design, fell into disrepair. Londoners crossed by ferry and temporary timber bridges. The next record of a bridge being in place was in 984 when a report was recorded of the story of a widow and her son. The widow and her son were accused of driving pins into the image of a man, similar to a voodoo doll. As punishment, the widow was taken to London Bridge and drowned. Her son escaped (Fowler 45).

Other timber bridges replaced London Bridge. One was swept away completely in a storm in 1091 and replaced by second, and then by a third built in 1163. A priest named Peter de Colechurch built the latter and vowed that his next bridge would be built of stone. To that end William Rufus levied a tax for building a permanent stone bridge. Work began during the reign of Henry II, under the direction of Peter de Colechurch. This bridge took thirty-three years to build, spanning the reign of three monarchs, Henry II, Richard-the-Lionheart, and John. Contributions for the bridge were made through Bridge House Estates, a charity established as early as 1097. Large donations were given "to God and the Bridge."

The new bridge had a road 20 feet wide and 300 yards long and was supported by 20 arches. Constructed in the Gothic style, it was completed in 1209 and stood for over 600 years. The structure had a drawbridge, gatehouses, and street houses. Rent provided for the upkeep of the bridge. This practice continued with the sides of the buildings projecting far out on both sides of the bridge with the overhang supported by timbers. The joining together of the buildings on each side of the roadway made the street much like a dark tunnel in places (Fowler 47).

Two events in history inspired the famous melody, "London Bridge is Falling Down." The first event occurred in 1014 when the Danes held London. The Saxons, under King Ethelred the Unready, were joined by a band of Vikings from Norway led by their King Olaf. Together they sailed up the Thames to attack the bridge and divide the Danes. In defence, the Danes hurled spears down on the open ships below the bridge.

King Olaf and his men protected their ships with the thatched roofs pulled from local cottages. They rowed up under the bridge and put their cables around the piles supporting the bridge. They rowed off, pulling the bridge down. That event informed the refrain of the famous song, "London Bridge is Falling/Broken down."

The modern version of the song, known by my generation, tells a different story. The song was composed in the 13th century when the unpopular Queen Eleanor was given the tolls from the bridge as a present from her husband Henry III in 1269. She had a habit of frittering away her money and used the toll for herself instead of spending it on the bridge. Because of her, the bridge fell into serious disrepair. It was returned to the control of the City of London in 1281. That winter, heavy ice pushed against the bridge and the poorly maintained structure suffered severe damage. Five arches collapsed into the water. A temporary timber bridge had to be built to replace this section. The song was revised with its angry, sarcastic criticism of the Queen in the verse, "London Bridge is Falling Down, my Fair Lady."

From 1304 to 1678 traitors' heads were placed on poles projecting from the roof of a Stone Gate House on the bridge. Oliver Cromwell's head was displayed here in 1658, within this time period.

Jousts were sometimes held including one in 1390 between Lord Welles, the English ambassador to Scotland, and Sir David De Lindsay, a Scots knight, who had quarrelled over who was the most gallant of their countrymen. Sir David De Lindsay, the victor, was later made ambassador to England. Sir John Hewitt, Lord Mayor of London, lived in one of the finest houses on the bridge. It is said that his little daughter fell out of the window into the river and Edward Osborne, one of Sir John's apprentices, jumped into the Thames to save her. The little girl grew up and was desired by many but her father insisted that she marry Edward Osborne who became Lord Mayor of London (Richards 33).

On July 5, 1450 the bridge was defended against attacks by Jack Cade and his rebels. Houses were burned and hundreds were slaughtered. The rebellion was eventually put down and Cade's head was stuck on a pole over the drawbridge. In 1577, Nonesuch House was built to replace the New Stone Gate. It stretched across the bridge and had a tunnel running at street level. The south end of the bridge was then used for the traditional display of the heads and limbs of traitors (Richards 33).

Nonesuch house had a framework of timber similar to other houses. However, it also had elaborate ornamentation assembled in Flanders, transported up the Thames, and reconstructed on the bridge. Not one nail was used to construct the house and it is believed that for a time it was used as a residence for the Lord Mayor of London.

A wooden drawbridge on the bridge let ships pass and was used for defence against hostile forces such as foreign invaders. The foundations of the bridge were formed by driving piles into the mud and erecting within them stone piers that were protected by vast timber starlings. This created a raging torrent between the starlings at high and low tides, and going through them at these times was dangerous. Attempting to go through was called "shooting the bridge." Thames watermen needed expert skill to get through unharmed. Passengers normally left the boat upstream and rejoined downstream at Billingsgate. Water wheels were first used to grind grain but in 1582, larger waterwheels erected by Peter Morris at the northern end of the bridge, supplied London with its first water piped from the Thames.

Fire struck the bridge in 1633 when a maidservant left a pail of ashes under wooden stairs. Forty-three houses were destroyed and many of the shops were also burned and damaged. The bridge escaped the Great Fire of 1666 because the fire years before had left a gap so wide that the flames were unable to reach the rest of the bridge. The Great Fire lasted four days but only the new houses at the end of the bridge were burnt. London was then rebuilt and the new Baroque style of architecture was also adopted for the bridge. The ancient timber houses were replaced by new stone structures so "modern" that they even had roof gardens (Richards 34). In 1722 traffic was ordered to keep to the left to avoid congestion. This order, to keep to the left, became an established rule of the road.

By 1763 all of the houses on the bridge were pulled down. The bridge was widened and partially rebuilt with a wide central arch. A problem arose when the torrents of water concentrated at one point. This started to tear away at the existing piers and made the bridge unstable.

In 1800 there were proposals to replace the old bridge completely. It was not until 1821 that a committee was appointed by Parliament to consider the condition of the bridge. The arches had been badly damaged by a cold winter called the Great Freeze, so it was decided to build a new bridge. A competition was held producing many designs. In 1824 John Rennie's plans were selected. The bridge was built 180 feet west of the old Bridge and for a time Londoners could see both the old bridge and the new side by side (Croad 16). On June 15th, 1825, the Lord Mayor of London, John Garratt, laid the first stone. John Rennie died in 1821 and his second son, also named John, took over the work.

The new London Bridge was built out of granite which was quarried on Dartmoor. It was a structure with five arches. The overall dimensions were 982 feet long and 49 feet wide. When the new bridge was finished and opened by King William and Queen Adelaide in 1831, traffic switched to the new structure and the destruction of the old bridge began. John Rennie was knighted for his work.

During the 1960s plans were made to replace the structure with a modern bridge. The old bridge had sunk about a foot at the southern end when it was finished and continued to sink unevenly about one inch every eight years after its completion. The bridge was no longer adequate for modern traffic.

The Bridge House Estates, which administers the bridge, dates from 11th century. It has provided funds to build, manage and maintain London Bridge along with Tower Bridge, Southwark Bridge, and Blackfriars Bridge. Today the charity has a portfolio of commercial property worth £500 million. Its logo is one of the oldest in continuous use and can be found carved into stonework in many places along the riverfront.

Robert McCulloch of Arizona learned that the British Government was putting the bridge up for sale. He put in the winning bid for almost 2.5 million dollars and plans were drawn up to move and rebuild the bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona as a tourist attraction (Richards 37). There is speculation that the investors were under the mistaken impression that they were buying Tower Bridge.

Once the London Bridge was removed a new bridge constructed by John Mowlem and Company was built on the same spot without any interruption of traffic. The old bridge was carefully dismantled to transport to Lake Havasu City, Arizonia, near an area that had a population of 40,000.

The modern London Bridge, dating from 1967 to 1973, is concrete with huge hollow caissons that allows traffic to cross the river. It is the only hollow bridge crossing the Thames and is very useful for this purpose.

The price of £4 million was paid for with monies from the sale of Rennie's bridge and the Bridge House Estates. The bridge has polished granite panels and has wide stainless steel handrails sweeping across its whole width, and heating for the pavement during the winter. It allowed for passage over the Thames at a point on the river where as many as ten earlier bridges spanned the river

During my stay in London, I took time to visit the London Bridge. Commodious walkways with handrails were located on each side of the bridge. The walkways are wide enough for heavy pedestrian traffic, although I only saw a handful of people on the bridge, mostly tourists taking pictures.

I looked for some sort of plaque with the history of the bridge but found there was none. There was a cement structure on the southern side of the bridge with "London Bridge" engraved in capital letters surmounted by a griffin or dragon that holds a shield bearing the crest of the city.

While the physical appearance of the Bridge hardly compares to the quaint designs of earlier bridges, it is a landmark. The building of so many bridges at this location demonstrates that a London Bridge is vital to the city. The many examples of London Bridge have had great historical significance and add luster to the most recent version.

Works Cited

BBC History, "London Bridge".

Croad, Stephen. London's Bridges. London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1983.

De Mare, Edward. The Bridges of Britian. London: B.T. Batsford, 1954

"London Bridge." Winkinfo.

Murray, Peter and Mary Anne Stephens. Living Bridges, The Inhabited Bridge: Past, Present and Future. Munich and New York: Prestel, 1996.

Richards, J. M. The National Trust Book of Bridges. London: Jonathan Cape, 1984.

Stegenga, Elizabeth. "A Gothic Tour of Victorian London."

Tyler, Simon. "London History." home_feat_local_londonbridge_history.asp

"Views of the City of London".

Woodbury, Chuck. "London Bridge is Tourist Bait in Havasu, Arizona

Figure 2. Sculpture at the southern end of London Bridge.
Figure 3. London Bridge in Arizona.