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The Bridges of Old London

January 5, 2013
by the gentle author

Traffic from Covent Garden Market crosses Waterloo Bridge, c. 1924

London owes its very existence to bridges, since the location of the capital upon the banks of the Thames was defined by the lowest crossing point of the river. No wonder that the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society collected this edifying series of pictures of bridges on glass plates to use in their magic lantern shows at the Bishopsgate Institute.

Yet until the eighteenth century, the story of London’s bridges was solely that of London Bridge. The Romans created the first wooden crossing of Thames close to the current site of London Bridge and the settlement upon the northern shore grew to become the City of London. When the Saxons tried to regain the City from the Danes in the eleventh century, they attached ropes to London Bridge and used their boats to dislodge the piers, thus originating the myth celebrated in the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down.”

The first stone London Bridge was built by Peter de Colechurch in 1209 and lasted over six hundred years, surviving the Great Fire and numerous rebuildings of the houses and shops that clustered upon its structure. When traffic upon grew too crowded in 1722, a “keep left” rule was instated that later became the pattern for all roads in this country and, by 1763, all the houses were removed to provide extra clearance. Then, in 1831, John Rennie’s famous bridge of Dartmoor granite replaced old London Bridge until it was shipped off to Arizona in the nineteen-sixties to make way for the current concrete bridge, with its centrally heated pavements and hollow structure that permits essential pipes and cables to cross the Thames easily.

After London Bridge, next came Putney Bridge in 1726 and then Westminster Bridge in 1738 – until today we have a line of bridges, holding the north and south banks of London together tightly like laces on a boot. The hero of London’s bridges was unquestionably John Rennie (1761-1821) who pioneered the combination or iron and stone in bridge building and designed London Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, Southwark Bridge and Vauxhall Bridge, although only the Serpentine Bridge remains today as his memorial.

Even to the seasoned Londoner, there is something unfailingly exhilarating about sitting on top of a bus, erupting from the narrow city streets onto one of the bridges and discovering yourself suspended high above the vast River Thames, it is one of the definitive experiences of our city.

Tower Bridge took eight year to construct, 1886 -1894

Tower Bridge with barges, c. 1910

St. Paul’s Cathedral from Southwark Bridge, c. 1925

Southwark Bridge, c. 1925

Old wooden bridge at Putney, 1880. The second bridge to be built after London Bridge, constructed in 1726 and replaced by the current stone structure in 1886.

On Tower Bridge, 1905.

Tower Bridge, c. 1910

John Rennie’s London Bridge of 1831 viewed from the waterside, c. 1910

London Bridge, c. 1930. Sold to Robert Mc Culloch in 1968 and re-assembled in Arizona in 1971.

The former bridgekeeper’s house on Tower Bridge, c. 1900

Wandsworth Bridge by Julian Tolme, c. 1910 (demolished in 1937)

Waterloo Bridge, c. 1910. The increased river flow created by the demolition of old London Bridge required temporary reinforcements to Waterloo Bridge from 1884.

Waterloo Bridge, c. 1910

Under an arch of Waterloo Bridge, c. 1910

View under Waterloo Bridge towards Hungerford Bridge, Westminster Bridge, & Palace of Westminster, c. 1910

Westminster Bridge, c. 1910. The third bridge, built over the Thames after London and Putney Bridges, in 1739-1750. The current bridge by Thomas Page of 1862 is painted green to match the leather seats in the House of Commons.

Westminster Bridge, c. 1910

Westminster Bridge, c. 1910

Hammersmith Bridge with Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race, 1928. Dixon, Appleby & Thorne’s bridge was built in 1887.

Battersea Bridge, c. 1910 Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s bridge was built in 1879.

Battersea Bridge from waterside, c. 1910

Blackfriars Bridge, c. 1910

Cannon St Railway Bridge, c. 1910. Designed by John Hawkshaw and John Wolfe-Barry for the South Eastern Railway in 1866.

Serpentine Bridge,  1910. Designed by John Rennie in the eighteen-twenties.

Westminster Bridge, c. 1910

On Hammersmith Bridge, c. 1910

Victoria Embankment, c. 1910

London Bridge, c. 1910

Glass slides copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to take a look at

The Nights of Old London

The Ghosts of Old London

The Dogs of Old London

The Signs of Old London

The Markets of Old London

The Pubs of Old London

The Doors of Old London

The Staircases of Old London

The High Days & Holidays of Old London

The Dinners of Old London

The Shops of Old London

The Streets of Old London

The Fogs & Smogs of Old London

The Chambers of Old London

The Tombs of Old London

28 Responses leave one →
  1. January 5, 2013

    Thanks for the history lesson and great photos. I especially enjoyed learning why ‘London Bridge is falling down’.

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    January 5, 2013

    The first caption cannot possibly be correct.
    Please compare with the OTHER photographs that show the old (John Rennie design) of Waterloo bridge, including another one labelled “1910” …
    What it DOES show is the temprary superstructure built over that bridge during the long wrangle over what to do with the old one, which was collapsing.
    See also this extract from “British History Online” …
    “…and the bridge was closed to traffic on 11th May, 1924. A temporary bridge was constructed and for the next ten years” …

    Note also the motor vehicles in the picture – they are much too advanced & numerous for 1910 – again compare with your other pictures
    Particularly nos 9, 13-15.
    Indeed, one of them, no 13, shows the temporary “holding” works being put in place – so that picture must also be about 1924, not 1910, as stated.

  3. Libby Hall permalink
    January 5, 2013

    “…a line of bridges, holding the north and south banks of London together tightly like laces on a boot.”


  4. aubrey permalink
    January 5, 2013

    Before the age of tourism. Photo B39; a man stands between the tramlines before an oncoming tram! Hope he made it. B41 Westminster Bridge before the advent of the LCC’s County Hall on the far side. What were those surplanted buildings? They have the architectural look of a hospital – St Thomas’ perhaps?

  5. Peter Holford permalink
    January 5, 2013

    The massed barges, the journey to school over Hammersmith (not changed) or Putney Bridge (very different) – some memories here. Thank you again.

  6. January 5, 2013

    Wonderful photos, it’s a pleasure to see them, thank you.

  7. Dick Mathews permalink
    January 5, 2013

    Have the plates of Tower Bridge in 1900 and 1905 been reversed? The traffic s clearly keeping right rather than left.

  8. January 5, 2013

    Beautiful pictures, it is possible to appreciate the forms of the bridges better, with less surrounding buildings, cars and people, and also it is possible to appreciate the everyday in the London of yesteryear. Thank you again!

  9. January 5, 2013

    I was told by a Thames lighterman many years ago that Wandsworth Bridge was the last one built on the river in 1975. From your photos it would appear not to be true. (This was well before the Millennium Bridge was built of course.)

    Lovely to see the old photos. The views from London’s bridges are also spectacular. Any old photos of those?

  10. January 5, 2013

    Wonderful set of pictures. Looking at old pictures is endlessly interesting.
    I am sure the picture of Westminster Bridge in 1910 has been flipped as the building in the background must be the old St Thomas hospital. County Hall was started in 1911 but I am sure it was an industrial site not the blocks illustrated in the picture. Iy also looks like Lambeth Palace in the top left of the image.

  11. sprite permalink
    January 5, 2013

    Are you aware that the alcoves of the Old London Bridge are standing at the far easter edge of Vicky Park? (or have they been moved for the Olympics? Great to see them still in situ when used to shelter pedestrians.

    blogosphere –
    there are so many ways
    to build bridges


  12. StephenH permalink
    January 6, 2013

    Yes, a great set of photos. I can never help it that, when I see photos of the Tower Bridge (and that’s an excellent one taken during construction), I think of this song by XTC:

  13. January 6, 2013

    Lovely pictures. There was another “London Bridge falling down” incident in the 1760s:

  14. January 6, 2013

    @ Dick Mathews

    I think most of the photos of Tower Bridge, apart from the very first from the Tower of London, have been flipped. The second image has the Anchor Brewhouse and Butlers Wharf on the wrong side.

  15. January 6, 2013

    I’m all agape at the wooden bridge over the Thames! Great set of photos.

  16. MarkK permalink
    January 7, 2013

    Please will someone knowledgeable respond to the queries here about the direction of traffic in the London Bridge photos. It does look as though it is on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and I’d like to know whether that was a local transportation quirk or a transposition error in posting!

    Thanks for posting these evocative images!

  17. the gentle author permalink*
    January 7, 2013

    As many observant readers have noted, some of these old glass slides in Bishopsgate Collection are published the wrong way round. I hope this may not cause too much unnecessary confusion.

  18. MarkK permalink
    January 7, 2013

    Thanks for clearing that up. I’m sure we’ll all forgive you/them, Dear ‘Gentle Author’.

  19. January 8, 2013

    What a beautiful collection of London bridge images…really lovely! And I learned a few things as well. Next time I visit London I will pay even closer attention to all of it’s wonderful bridges!


  20. January 12, 2013

    Absolutely wonderful article, I have saved it for further reading. Love the photos and how adorable are the vehicles!!! Love this city so much, it is so quirky and interesting. Thanks for a terrific article

  21. Chris permalink
    February 10, 2013

    Mmmmmm. Nice photos. The gentle author has mentioned some are reversed and some specific ones have been mentioned in comments. For those still wondering which they are or trying to match up images with today’s views these are the “mirrored” ones I have found so far:

    B3, Tower Bridge with barges – The building on the other side of the bridge with a tower and cupola on the roof and a chimney to the right of it is the Anchor Brewery which is downstream of the bridge and on the south side.

    B8, St Paul’s Cathedral from Southwark Bridge – one would need to look towards the City and left, not right, to see the cathedral.

    B18, On Tower Bridge – most vehicles are on the wrong side of the road and I am reasonably convinced the roofs in the background are on the wrong side of the bridge.

    B19, Tower Bridge – the Tower of London is behind the bridge and Warehouses around St Katherine Dock, now replaced by a hotel, are to the left. This is the wrong way round. Also the traffic is queuing at the open bridge on the wrong side of the road.

    B7, The former Bridgekeeper’s house – the chimney from the bridge engine room (which is still there) is on the wrong side of the road (and some wrong-side driving again).

    B33, Waterloo Bridge – Somerset House is on the wrong side.

    B34, Under an arch of Waterloo Bridge – looking in that direction should show Somerset House through the arch.

    B35 View under Waterloo Bridge towards Hungerford Bridge – when looking towards to Palace of Westminster the river curves left, not right.

    B41, Westminster Bridge – St Thomas’s Hospital is on the wrong side of the bridge.

    And yes indeed, as pointed out elsewhere, B32, Waterloo Bridge C.1910 must be 1924 or after as the temporary girder bridge is in place.

    B39, Westminster Bridge highlights the remarkable way trams ran here – closest to the north kerb of the bridge trams ran east, next to them trams ran west, next to them was the eastbound traffic following a “keep right” rule with regard to the oncoming trams and on the south side was the westbound traffic. A similar situation with both tram tracks on one side of the road also applied in the Victoria Embankment and Blackfriars Bridge.

  22. Maria permalink
    February 24, 2013

    Wonderful photos, it’s a pleasure to see them, thank you.
    maria papazova,24.02.2013

  23. Marc Jung permalink
    April 17, 2014

    Amazing photos of old London, (I was looking at the bridges) very clear and revealing a forgotten history.

  24. Susie permalink
    October 13, 2014

    The photograph of Westminster Bridge c. 1910 (B39) Shows a different aspect of the building on the left from a photograph I have of No 1 surrey foot of Westminster Bridge (c.1860). St Thomas’ (old) hospital on the opposite side of the bridge on the Embankment – all pre County Hall and re-development along the Embankment. Pads out family history nicely. Thank you.

  25. Paul Scott permalink
    November 9, 2014

    Amazing photographs, thank you for this, I’ll even put it on my ‘Facebook cover’. Lol. Excellent, I love these old photos of London.

  26. Christopher Matheson permalink
    September 16, 2015

    I’m pretty certain that the photo captioned ‘On Hammersmith Bridge, c1910’, with road sweeper at left, shows the old Chelsea Bridge.

  27. Keith Cheriton permalink
    November 17, 2017

    Really enjoyed looking at these – very interesting.
    One observation, the ‘Old Putney Bridge’ pictured is actually Fulham Bridge. This was replaced by the present Putney bridge in 1886. Fulham Bridge stood roughly where the District Line railway bridge stands today. Follow Fulham High Street past the Eight Bells pub and the line of this road shows where Fulham Bridge used to be.

  28. December 28, 2019

    Great pics. My 3x gt grandfather Charles JAMES on the 3 July 1854 was elected one of two Bridgemasters or Wardens of London Bridge with 682 votes. His address at the time was Tredegar Square, Mile End Road Middlesex. His three sureties were William DODDS, George SINGER & his son Charles JAMES the younger Licensed Victualler ‘White Hart Lower Clapton.

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