London Bridge today is not the same London Bridge that crossed the Thames when it was first built. Peter, a priest and chaplain of St. Mary’s of Colechurch, began the foundation of the original bridge in 1176 to replace a wooden bridge (expensive to maintain and repeatedly burned down) that had first been built by the Romans. The original London Bridge consisted of nineteen pointed arches, each with a span averaging 7 meters, and built on 6-metre-wide piers. A twentieth opening in the bridge was spanned by a wooden drawbridge. With the building of this bridge, a peculiar effect was discovered – the tide roared through the narrow arches every day with great force; in fact, it was so dramatically affected that it created temporary 5-foot-high cataracts every day as it went in and out. . A new sport based on this nifty effect was “shooting the bridge” – slipping through the arches in a small boat when the tide was turning.
Peter of Colechurch died in 1205, and his work was completed by three other London citizens by 1209. The bridge, already rather narrow for its function, became even narrower (about 4 metres wide) when shops and homes were built along both sides of the roadway right on the bridge itself; by 1358, 138 places of business were recorded in the tax rolls. And, like most older London buildings, the shops were built so that the upper floors stretched over the roadway – at last, the bridge became more like a long tunnel lined with shops, through which travelers and other people flowed. One can only imagine the smell, with the sheltered road, no real drainage, and lots of horses and people! The houses were built so that they overhung the water as well as the roadway, and were anchored by tying them together across the street with arches of strong timber. In 1580, water mills added to the general chaos of the bridge.
The bridge was not only a home and place of business, it was a defensible structure. More than once, its drawbridge was raised and men fought under its strong tower to repulse invaders or rebels, putting the wooden houses built on the bridge at some risk. Until after the Scottish Restoration, the bridge was often decorated by the heads, quarters, or body parts of the executed who were to be put on display afterward. As late as the year 1598, a German traveller counted over thirty heads.
But having so much on the bridge itself became dangerous indeed to inhabitants and travellers. Only three years after it was first completed, a huge fire destroyed its buildings, killing perhaps 3000 people when it jumped from one end of the bridge to the other, trapping firefighting crowds between the flames. The houses were quickly rebuilt – and in 1282 five of the bridge arches collapsed with the weight of winter ice. But they too were rebuilt along with their requisite buildings, and the bridge continued as London’s sole crossing of the Thames until 1750, when Westminster Bridge opened.
At about this time, the designer of Westminster Bridge was hired to repair and renovate London Bridge. Redesign and repair was deemed necessary by the narrowness of the road, the huge supports of the bridge (which took up about a quarter of the river’s width), and by the dangerous sport of shooting the bridge and other health hazards posed by the bridge. By 1762 the character of the bridge was changed: all the houses were gone, the roadway was 14 metres wide, and the two central arches replaced by one great arch, allowing much easier passage for larger boats.
Alas, this central arch proved difficult to maintain, and in the early 1800s a second bridge was built a few meters away. The original London Bridge was demolished by 1832. The new bridge was called Rennie’s Bridge. Designed by George Rennie and constructed by John Rennie, it was composed of only five arches, with the central span reaching 46 metres. Rennie’s London Bridge had a very odd ending. It lasted less than 140 years. Between 1968 and 1971, it was dismantled and shipped across the Atlantic to the United States, where it was rebuilt in Lake Havasu City, where it still stands, crossing Lake Havasu, 255 kilometres south of Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. To see that London Bridge, Londoners have to fly ten thousand miles!
The current London Bridge is modern pre-stressed concrete with a central span of 104 meters.
Copyright 2005 S Wander
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