When a bridge was first built over the Thames in the early part of the first century AD, it was a wooden structure designed to allow the Romans to cross the river at its lowest point, where the land allowed for a structure to be built.
A wooden bridge would span the river for the next thousand years give or take a few Viking raids where the bridge was inevitably torn down as the raiders dealt with the Saxon defenders using it as a defensive rampart. (You would think they would have taken the hint after the first drenching and rebuilt the bridge out of stone but no wood it was and no wood it would stay. I guess this also explains why they ended up with a king who was stupid enough to look up as the arrows came down at Hastings).
The stone bridge made famous in the paintings and drawings of Abraham Hondius and Giovanni Canaletto and the etchings of Claes van Visscher had its first foundations laid in 1176. when it was completed in 1209. It was around 900 feet long, 20 feet wide and had nineteen arches of varying width. These were supported by piers called Starlings.
The bridges arches became a bottleneck which channelled water through at an increased rate. This meant that anybody travelling up or down the river had to trust in luck or the skill of the ferryman (usually luck) to get them through the arches safely. This became known as shooting the starlings.
In the centre of the bridge stood the chapel of St. Thomas, dedicated to Saint Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury murdered in 1170. The chapel jutted out sixty feet over the east side of the Thames and was supported by a pier thirty five feet wide.
The bridge also acted as one of the entrances to London, which was during the middle ages a walled city. As such it had heavily fortified gates at both the north and south ends of the bridge as well as a drawbridge in the middle.
The houses and shops the old London Bridge was famous for appeared pretty much from day one. With its trades always vying for business, London Bridge was as much a market place and social hub as it was a thoroughfare. This was great if you were a shopkeeper but probably not so much fun for medieval commuters was they struggled to traverse the Thames (it was to be the only bridge on the Thames for several hundred years, so there was no option but to brave the chaos every time you wanted to travel over the river unless you had the money for a weary in which case you could pay someone to row you across. Of course this is of limited use of you have a cart or cattle).
One of the unexpected consequences of the bridges design was the advent of the frost fair. This happened when a winter was cold enough for large chunks of ice to form in the Thames. They would get caught up in the narrow arches, restricting movement and causing the flow of the river to decrease. This would mean that the water would inevitably turn to ice and the river became one long ribbon of wintery fun. In the winter of 1683 industrious Londoners took advantage of this by placing tents, stalls and shops across the Thames from temple to Southwark. Coaches and sleds transported people, including King Charles the second, around the makeshift market until the weather turned and the weather started to defrost. This was the point when people left the Thames for fear of becoming a sudden, permanent part of it.
One of the greatest fears of Londoners in general but for residents of London Bridge in particular was fire.
Whilst the bridge was made of stone all the buildings on it, with the exception of the chapel of St Thomas, were wooden. As such fire was always a constant hazard. There were basic forms of fire fighting at hand but, essentially, if a fire started you were screwed.
Residents worst fears were realised in 1638 when a fire tore through forty three houses, decimating the northern third of the bridge. Some of the buildings were replaced in 1651 but a large section of the bridge was left empty. This was to prove a blessing in disguise as this gap provided a firewall in the Great Fire of 1666 that stopped the bridge from being completely decimated.
A New Bridge For A New Time
As the centuries passed it became clear that the old bridge was no longer fit for purpose (to use a modern phrase), so in 1800 a committee was set up to examine plans for a new bridge. Designs were submitted by the top architects of the day but no decision was made.
In 1822 a new committee was set up (presumably without members of the old committee who would probably have been paid very well the first time for not doing an awful lot). A design by John Rennie, who had previously built Waterloo and Southwark Bridges was settled on and work started on the new bridge on June 15 1825 and was completed in 1831. Tragically John Rennie died before his bridge was completed but his sone, John Rennie junior, saw it to completion.
Needless to say as soon as it was open it was filled with traffic. This would not have been so bad except that the Railway had found its way to London and had decided to place a terminus at the southwark end of the bridge. within four years nearly eleven million passengers were using the bridge to enter London. So much for forward planning.
At the start of the Twentieth Century the bridge was widened to accommodate the extra levels of traffic but this was only a stop gap measure. Over the years various observations were made showing the bridge was slowly deteriorating. By 1962 it was obvious cracks were beginning to appear (so much for Victorian engineering) and, in 1967, The London Bridge act gave the Corporation of London the powers it needed to demolish the bridge and build a new one.
Here and Now
The current London Bridge was started in 1968 and was a tricky endeavour as it required the simultaneous construction of the new bridge whilst taking the old bridge down brick by brick. This was successfully completed and on March 16 1973 Queen Elizabeth the second opened what we see today crossing the River Thames.
What happened to Rennie’s Bridge?
Working on the premise of waste-not-want-not, Rennie’s bridge was sold to Robert P McCulloch, an American businessman, for £1,025,000 ($2,460,000).
The bridge was taken to Arizona and reconstructed over Lake Havasu, where it can be seen today.
The rumour that Robert P McCulloch bought this bridge thinking he was buying Tower Bridge are scandalous and completely untrue. Probably.