Before 1750, London Bridge was the city’s only crossing over the Thames. Its modern avatar may not be beautiful or attractive by any stretch of imagination, but no one can ever deny its rich and varied history.
The current London Bridge is located between the City of London and Southwark also forming the western end of the Pool of London. On its south is Southwark Cathedral and London Bridge station, while the Monument is on the north to the Great Fire of London.
There are evidences of a bridge existing at or near the present site for almost 2000 years. The first bridge was a wooden one built by the Romans sometime around AD 46. The bridge was not paid due attention after the Romans left, although it appears that at some point thereafter it was either repaired or replaced by a new timber bridge. In 1013, King Ethelred burnt down the bridge to split apart the invading forces of the Dane Svein Haraldsson.. The reconstructed London Bridge was destroyed twice again – first by a storm in 1091 and then by fire again in 1136.
Old London Bridge
After the destruction of London Bridge in 1136, the renewed work started in the reign of Henry II in 1176. The construction took 33 years to complete.The new bridge was incomplete even in 1209.
The tidal waters roared through the 19 arches of the mediaeval bridge and until 1831 “shooting the bridge,” i.e., steering a boat between the starlings in a small boat was one of the major thrills of London. Many were drowned trying to do so.
A chapel was built at the center of the bridge in memory of St Thomas a Becket, martyred in 1170. The bridge was soon lined by shops between the fortified gates at either end. Even houses were constructed above the shops. In 1350, the number of such shops was 138. Installation of water mills in Queen Elizabeth I’s time added to the uproar. The bridge became so thickly populated that it was made a ward of the City with its own alderman, which it retained until the 18th century.
Heads on the bridge
The southern gatehouse of the bridge, the Stone Gateway, earned notoriety for displaying the severed heads of traitors. Beginning with the head of William Wallace in 1305, the tradition was in place for over 350 years. Other famous heads on display included Jack Cade in 1450; Sir Thomas More & Bishop John Fisher in 1535 and Thomas Cromwell in 1540. This horrible practice was finally done away with in 1660, following the Restoration of King Charles II.
Not only did the shops and houses on London Bridge put more pressure on its arches but also created a major fire hazard. Naturally, London Bridge witnessed several disasters. In 1212 or 1213, a devastating fire broke out on both ends of the bridge simultaneously, killing 3,000 people. Another blaze in 1633 destroyed the northern third of the bridge. This, however, prevented the bridge from being gutted by the Great Fire of London in 1666.
By 1722, the severe congestion forced the Lord Mayor to decree that “All carts, coaches and other carriages coming out of Southwark into this City do keep all along the west side of the said bridge: and all carts and coaches going out of the City do keep along the east side of the said bridge”. At last, the houses were removed in 1758-62 along with the two centre arches and replaced with a single wider span.
New London Bridge
By the beginning of the 19th century, the narrow, decrepit, hazardous old London Bridge needed to be replaced. In 1799, an engineer proposed a bridge with a single iron arch of 600 ft. The design won a lot of praise but was never used mainly because of the scarcity of land required for the construction and doubts over its feasibility.
Finally, the bridge was replaced by a new one with five stone arches, at a cost of Ã?Â£2,000,000. The construction took seven years (1824-31) to complete. as soon as the new bridge was completed, the old one was demolished. However, it later came to light that the new structure was sinking an inch every eight years. And by 1924, the eastern side of the bridge was already three to four inches lower than the western side. Interestingly, the rebuilt London Bridge was sold to American businessman Robert P. McCulloch for $2,460,000. The bridge was reconstructed in 1971 at Lake Havasu City, Arizona and has now turned into one of the biggest tourist attractions.
Modern London Bridge
The present-day London Bridge was built during the period 1967 to 1972 at a cost of four million pounds. The 928 feet long modern London Bridge consists of three spans of pre-stressed concrete cantilevers. The entire construction cost was met by the City of London’s Bridge House Estates. A mishap occurred in 1984 when a British warship collided with the bridge. The collision damaged the ship’s superstructure and dislodged the granite parapet of London Bridge.
Unfortunately, London Bridge of today has only history to boast of and no elegance worth an admiring look. It deserved a better look from the authorities.
“London Bridge is Falling Down” is a familiar nursery rhyme which can be found in a number of forms. Many believe that the rhyme originated when London Bridge was burned down in 1013 by King Ethelred to divide the forces of the advancing Danish king Svein Haraldsson. T S Eliot used the first two lines of the rhyme in his famous poem The Waste Land. In their song, Nu-Metal band KoRn has been used a part of the rhyme.