First, let’s deal with the obvious: London Bridge survived two major fires, and parts of the bridge collapsed twice – in 1281 and 1437 (it also required constant repair and modification later in its life) – but it did not fall down. The well-known rhyme about the bridge exists in many European languages and many versions, each referring to a different structure. The London-focused song, first printed in England in the 17th century, probably accompanied a May Day game in which two players linked hands to form the ‘arch’ of the bridge, raising and lowering these to capture or release other players at the words ‘down’ and ‘up’.
The bridge itself, though, was robust. In fact, the very solidity of its construction was the reason for its ultimate demise; it was replaced in the 19th century because its narrow arches were a barrier to the free flow of river traffic. The medieval crossing was constructed about 150ft east of the present London Bridge, replacing – in stone – an earlier wooden bridge at a time when masonry bridges were becoming common in England. (Indeed, the bridge at Kingston-upon-Thames was rebuilt in stone at exactly the same time.) Dendrochronological analysis of timber used in the southern abutment showed it had been felled in 1187/1188, and a stone dated 1192 was found in a surviving stretch of archwork in a Thames-side cellar on the northern end of the bridge in the 18th century.
A feat of engineering
Royal accounts credit Peter of Colechurch as the individual who oversaw the early stages of the bridge’s construction, but in 1202 King John wrote to city officials to commend ‘our faithful, learned, and worthy Clerk, Isembert, Master of the Schools of Xainctes [Saintes, north-west France]’ as the best civil engineer to complete the task. Isembert is credited with having built bridges at Saintes and La Rochelle, but whether the king’s advice was accepted, we do not know.
Constructing a bridge over a tidal river as wide as the Thames (some 926ft across at the time, compared with 750ft today), with a powerful tidal flow, was a major undertaking – on a par, says Dorian Gerhold, with building a castle or a cathedral. Timber piles were first driven into the sand and gravel of the riverbed at low tide to create an enclosure, which was filled with rubble, thus forming the bases of the 19 bridge piers. These also served as a working platform for the construction of the cutwaters (known in civil engineering as ‘starlings’), with much deeper iron-tipped piles; these massive structures were designed to protect the relatively shallow foundations of the piers from being undermined.
The scale of the starlings was such that they reduced the width of the river to 508ft at high tide and 237ft (just a quarter of its full width) at low tide. The bridge was in effect a dam, with a difference in height of up to 5ft between the upstream and downstream river height. Later generations enjoyed ‘shooting the bridge’ in small boats, and Ned Ward (1667-1731), author of The London Spy, described in 1700 the ‘frightful roaring of the bridge water-falls’. The force of the river flowing through the arches meant that the starlings required constant maintenance throughout the life of the bridge, but nevertheless they were solid enough to endure the river’s flow for more than half a millennium.
The piers were linked by arches averaging 24ft in width (quite wide at a time when the average bridge arch was less than 18ft). The arches and vaults provided the solid supports for the bridge platform above, which was continuous from the City bank to the Southwark bank, except for one gap with a drawbridge to allow masted boats and ships to pass through.
It was always envisaged that houses would be built on the bridge, and this was far from novel: inhabited bridges were commonplace in Europe, and the rent provided the revenue for their maintenance. One of the first structures to be completed was the chapel, and it was the ‘brethren and chaplains ministering in the chapel of St Thomas’ who took on responsibility for the administration of the bridge and the collection of rents, as well as tolls levied on carts crossing the bridge and boats passing under the drawbridge.
In 1282, the administration passed to two bridge wardens, chosen from the citizens of London, who headed an organisation called Bridge House. Its rent books, accounts, and leases are the main sources for our understanding of the history of the bridge. Bridge House still exists, and its investments are today used for the support not only of London Bridge, but also Southwark Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge, Tower Bridge, and the Millennium Bridge.
There are visual records of the bridge dating back to the 16th century, one of the earliest being Anthonis van den Wyngaerde’s panorama of London of 1544. These show one exceptionally large pier (the ninth from the northern bank) jutting out beyond the other piers and starlings supporting the chapel. The drawbridge tower sits on the 13th pier from the north, and there is a stone-built defensive gate at the Southwark end (the 18th from the north, second from the south).
These structures and the houses in-between are all considerably wider than the bridge. They appear to hang over its sides with minimal support. The width of the roadway and bridge, and the width, depth, and breadth of the houses, were recorded by William Leybourn, the surveyor, in 1683. Leybourn’s measurements show that the road across the bridge varied in width, from 12ft 5in where it passed beneath Nonsuch House (just wide enough for two carts to pass each other) to 18ft 5in close to the Southwark bank. ‘Knowing the full width of the bridge,’ says Dorian Gerhold, ‘tells us something important: the houses were not firmly founded on the bridge itself, just slightly overhanging the edge, but instead had only a toe-hold on the bridge, occupying anything from 2 to 5 feet of its width on each side.’
Many of these were substantial properties up to five storeys high, with cellars, shops, halls, kitchens, chambers, and garrets. Only a few feet of their depth rested on the bridge stonework, and the houses extended up to 34ft from the bridge – so how were they supported? Some of the structures straddled the width of the bridge, with two separate properties to the east and west but a party wall and a common roof. This was true of roughly every alternate house along the length of the bridge, so that travellers would have experienced a constant alternation of dark and light as they passed into and then emerged from the ‘tunnels’ created by the cross-buildings. These structures would have also enhanced the stability of the properties, especially when the bridge was buffeted by high winds, but they alone would not have provided the means to hold the buildings upright and prevent them toppling backwards into the river.
The leases tell us that the buildings on the bridge rested on a platform of timber running parallel to the bridge (north–south), supported by diagonal braces that sprang from stone corbels built into the piers. Smaller houses had just one hammer-beam, towards the back of the house, while larger houses had two. The use of hammer-beams was not unique to London Bridge: Exeter’s Exe Bridge had a similar arrangement, and the Krämerbrücke, at Erfurt, Germany, still has them today. What was special about this bridge was the size of the piers, the length of the hammer-beams, and their use along the whole length of the bridge on both sides.
Rental documents dating from 1358 give us our first insight into the earliest structures on the bridge, of which there were 140 in total – the largest number in the recorded history of the bridge, since many plots were later amalgamated. Like the plots of a medieval new town laid out either side of a main road, these roughly standardised plots had a narrow footprint, at around 10ft in width, which was more generous than the 7ft plots in Cheapside (London’s prime shopping area) but not as wide as shops in Poultry (13ft 6in) or Broad Street and Cornhill (15ft to 20ft). Rents were highest at the northern end, closest to the City.
Trade and commerce
Five types of trader dominated the bridge in the 14th century, accounting for 80 per cent of the traders: haberdashers (who sold a very wide range of goods, from combs and purses to hats and clothing, and from spectacles to parchment and paper); glovers (who probably also made the purses and pouches sold by the haberdashers); cutlers (who sold cutlery, knives, edge-tools, and weapons); bowyers (longbows and crossbows); and fletchers (arrows). Additionally, there were armourers, spurriers (spurs), a furber (weapon repairs), a goldsmith, and jewellers.
These were, in the main, shops selling goods that were bought only occasionally and for which customers would travel to a specialist trading area where they could compare the offerings of competing outlets. The character of the trades on the bridge changed in succeeding centuries as specialist traders moved to other areas of the city and became more widely dispersed. Food and drink for immediate consumption were not sold, perhaps to avoid the use of fire, and the bridge was too narrow for street traders to be tolerated.
That this was prime commercial territory is indicated by the fact that properties were rarely vacant. By the end of the 16th century, all but the haberdashers had moved elsewhere, and the gap was filled by drapers, mercers, clothworkers, and merchant tailors. In the 17th century, the distinctive textile character of the bridge was further enhanced by the addition of hosiers and silkmen. There were booksellers, too (who came and went selling Bibles and religious works, as well as broadsides, novels, and almanacs), joined from the 1670s by stationers, who sold a variety of papers, as well as ink and quills. By the 18th century, the age of the buildings and the development of new shopping districts in London’s West End saw rents remain static. There was a much greater variety of retailers on the bridge compared to previous centuries, but a suggestion that the shops there were regarded as downmarket: Pennant’s trade directory recommended the shops of London Bridge to ‘oeconomical ladies’ who wanted to make ‘cheap purchases’.
Regal and religious structures
There were three major buildings on the bridge, all of which seem to have been part of the original design. Chapels were common on medieval bridges, designed to encourage divine protection for the structure and for travellers at the start and end of their journeys. In accordance with the wishes of Henry II, the London Bridge chapel was dedicated to St Thomas the Martyr, following Becket’s canonisation in 1173. Numerous pilgrim badges have since been recovered from the Thames around the chapel site, suggesting that the chapel was seen as marking the official start and end point for pilgrimages to and from Canterbury. In 1540, following Henry VIII’s condemnation of the Becket cult, the dedication was changed to St Thomas the Apostle.
The original chapel was rebuilt after the fire of 1212, which started in Southwark and spread to the bridge as far as the chapel. Nothing is known of this early building, nor of its successor, but the chapel was rebuilt again in Perpendicular style between 1387 and 1396. This 14th-century building is depicted in various prints and engravings both before and after its conversion to a house in 1549, thereafter being known as the Chapel House or Stonehouse.
The Stone Gate (or Great Gate) at the Southwark end of the bridge, with its portcullis, royal coat of arms, and statues of monarchs, was designed to defend one of the main approaches to London. The final line of defence was the drawbridge; its tower, as well as containing the wheels for raising and lowering the timber bridge, also displayed the heads of executed traitors – a grim warning to those who would foment rebellion. By 1481, few ships could have been passing upstream of the bridge because an order was given only to raise the bridge when absolutely necessary, such as for the defence of the city. The last two occasions on which the bridge was raised – in 1485 and 1500 – were both to allow Henry VII’s barge to pass through.
In 1577, the drawbridge tower was replaced by a remarkable structure that features prominently in subsequent views of the bridge: Nonsuch House, so-called because of its resemblance to Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace of 1539-1545 (which in turn was so-named because of its unique character, there being ‘no other such house’). This was the largest structure on the bridge, measuring 75ft (from west to east) by 25ft (from north to south), with four-and-a-half storeys and onion-domed corner towers. Designed by Lewis Stockett, Surveyor of the Queen’s Works, it had one of the first classical façades, and the architectural details were enhanced by ‘oyle colers’: jasper (a brownish colour) is documented, while white lead and green were probably used as well.
Palatial in appearance, Nonsuch House consisted of two properties, initially let to grocer William Clayton (western house) and vintner Thomas James (eastern house). The subsequent occupants – haberdashers, mercers, drapers, a drysalter (selling glue, varnish, dyes, colourings, and food preservatives), and a stationer – mirror the more general fortunes of bridge properties.
Latrines and waterworks
Some of the other structures associated with the bridge are worth singling out. There were public latrines (called ‘common sieges’) at each end of the bridge. Disaster struck in 1481 when one of them – presumably built of timber – collapsed into the Thames ‘whereof five men were drowned’. Close to the Stone Gate at the Southwark end was a cage for imprisoning felons and a set of stocks. An ingenious water tower was erected on the western side of the northern end of the bridge by Peter Morris, a Dutchman, in 1582, which used a waterwheel placed under the first arch of the bridge to drive a pump that raised water to the top of the tower for distribution via wooden pipes to nearby houses and conduits. And, in 1590, two water wheels were set up spanning the two starlings on the western side of the southern end of the bridge, where poorer citizens could bring their own corn to be ground at a moderate charge. By the end of the 18th century, these wheels were pumping water to supply Southwark.
Remarkably, both waterworks continued to operate until 1822, thus surviving the great rebuilding of the medieval properties and the transformation of the bridge that took place between 1683 and 1696, prompted by the need to widen the roadway to cope with wider vehicles and increased traffic. Dorian Gerhold points out that the rule of confining wheeled traffic to one side of the road was first established on the rebuilt London Bridge in 1722, but that the ‘keep-left’ rule was originally a ‘keep-right’ rule, dating from 1675 and enforced by beadles at each end of the bridge. Wagon drivers, who walked or rode alongside their horses, preferred to be on the team’s left; the change to driving on the left, applied to all roads in Britain by the Highways Act of 1835, came about with the growing numbers of coaches, which were driven from a seat on the vehicle.
Despite the rebuilding, the narrowness of the roadway led to the removal of all the houses on the bridge by midsummer 1761, and the widening of the bridge to 45ft. For the first time in more than 500 years, London Bridge stood clear without any buildings on it, and in this state it continued to serve the city as a crossing for a further 70 years. However, the cost of maintaining the piers and the starlings, and the hindrance to river traffic, eventually led to the passing of an Act of 1823 to build a new five-arch bridge (designed by John Rennie) west of the medieval one. When this opened to traffic in 1831, work to demolish the old bridge began, taking three years to complete and removing all visible traces of an important part of London’s history.
London Bridge and its Houses c.1209–1761
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