Lost London: London Bridge
As much as I try to emphasize how much of the Georgian London remains around us, some parts of old London are gone and sometimes that loss is vast both in terms of physical scale and historical significance. London Bridge is one of those losses and the end of its most magnificent (and inhabited) period came during the 18th century.
The bridge that now joins the North to the South Bank is little more than an ugly but useful advertisement for the properties of concrete, but three centuries ago, London Bridge was a busy village in its own right with a church, houses, shops, gardens, roof terraces and plenty of traffic. The image in the gallery shows the bridge in what was probably its heyday in the mid-17thC and the arrows indicate points of interest, such as the wooden piers protecting the stone ones from the current, the heads on pikes on the south side, the different kinds of river-craft on either side and the location of Billingsgate fish-market on the north side.
The history of London Bridge would make an enormous post, and one reaching from c.993 to present day, so way outside my remit. However, throughout the 18thC the bridge was in decline: the houses were cleared from it in 1758 when the weight of traffic became too enormous and the bridge suffered constantly with gridlock. Despite repair efforts, it was clear that the 19-arch London Bridge was failing and that a new bridge needed to be designed to replace it. A competition in 1799 saw Thomas Telford’s design chosen, although it would take years for it to become a reality.
As soon as plans were announced to replace the bridge, London’s antiquaries got busy, documenting the history of the bridge and recording both the memories of those who knew it, and the artifacts and relics found as the bridge was repaired and later destroyed. It’s easy to think of a rush to preserve the past being an entirely modern phenomenon, but the 18thC saw the beginning of an awareness of, and (more accurate than in earlier periods) recording of London’s history. Many were genuinely sorry to see the beginning of the end for the old bridge, even though it would take almost seventy years to come about. What follows here is a few of the observations made by London’s antiquaries (and published in the Gentleman’s Magazine
) on the passing of perhaps her most fantastic and forgotten thoroughfare.
About 1436, two arches of the south end fell down, with the bridge gate; the ruins of the latter still remaining, one of the locks or passages for the water is almost rendered useless; when it has received the name of the rock lock, which has occasioned it to be taken for a natural rock; these ruins, though they have lain under the water for three centuries, are still as impenetrable as solid rock. At every uncommon low neap tide, such as happened 1716, many hands are employed to remove them, but to no purpose.
The lovers of antiquity must regret the demolition of the singular, and perhaps unparalleled monument, the Chapel of St. Mary Colechurch, in the alterations of London Bridge. It was 65ft high by 20ft…divided into two stories; the upper, in modern times, serving for a dwelling house, the lower for a warehouse. It was in the ninth pier of the bridge. Under the staircase was found the tomb of Peter the chalain and architect, who began London Bridge in 1176.The chapel on the bridge stood on the east side, in the ninth pier from the north end, and had an entrance from the river as well as the street, by a winding staircase; it was also said to be beautifully paved with black and white marble…
In Stow’s time (c. 1525 - 1605) it (the bridge) was partly covered with houses chiefly occupied by needlemakers.On the XI of February (being Monday), 1633, began by God’s just hand a feafull fire in the house of My John Brigges neere tenn of the clocke att night: it burnt doun his house and the next house, with all the goods that were in them, and as I heere that Briggs, his wife, childe, and maid, escaped with their lives….Some ladders were broke to the hurt of many; for several had their legges broke, some their armes, and some their ribes, and many lost their lives.
On February 13th, (1632) the buildings on the north end of the bridge on both sides, containing about forty-two houses, were destroyed by fire. The Thames at this period was frozen over, causing the burning wreck to continue for more than a week. From this period until 1646, the bridge remained in a most desolate state. Deal boards were set up on each side to prevent passengers from falling into the Thames; many of these by high winds were often blown down, and the passage was very dangerous.The houses (c. 1650) were three stories high besides the cellars, which were within and between the piers. Over the houses were stately platforms surrounded with railings, with walks, garden and other embellishments. The south side did not receive these convenient additions, but appeared a mass of awkward structures and narrow passages, the street at this end being not above 14 feet and in some places 12 feet broad (explaining the traffic problems?), whilst that at the other side was 20 feet wide.
In excavating the foundation of the new London bridge, a considerable quantity of Roman coins - gold, silver, and brass - have been foound, and one small silver statue, which has been deposited in the British Museum. A leaden figure of a horse was lately brought up, and is now in the possession of Mr. Knight, engineer. The exectution of the head is admirable…The workmen, who at first considered all the coins they met with as being merely old half-pence, which were worth nothing because they would no pass, soon discovered their error, and have now all become connoisseurs.