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The Bridges Of Old London

December 15, 2020
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

12 Responses leave one →
  1. December 15, 2020

    Thank you for these wonderful photo’s of Old London. Great to see the old trams and Horse and Cart carriages.

  2. December 15, 2020

    My favourite bridge is the Albert Bridge which my father helped save from destruction when he worked for the Ministry of Transport. He loved the signs requiring soldiers to break step when crossing it. When dad first came to London there were still horse drawn vehicles on the streets. I miss his stories.

  3. December 15, 2020

    There is something magical about London’s Bridges. I remember coming up from busy Putney High St out onto the bridge one day and being amazed by the beauty of it. It was almost surreal – in a good way.
    I loved your bootlace simile. I like the image of London as sturdy elegant boot. A giant’s foot.

  4. December 15, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, “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.”

    That is definitely true for the tourist, particularly on a beautiful summer morning.

    Missing London today…

  5. December 15, 2020

    Thank you, dear G.A.

  6. paul loften permalink
    December 15, 2020

    Thank you for the photos they are magnificent. The bridges are the heart and soul of London. What an inspiration the views must have been to the countless generations of the little figures, seen crossing the bridges on their daily walk to and from work,

  7. Lizebeth permalink
    December 15, 2020

    The view under the arch of Waterloo Bridge along the river is one of my favourites in all of London. I love walking along the North Bank of the Thames from Westminster to Tower Bridge in all seasons. Thank you — again — for sharing these magical photos with us.

  8. December 15, 2020

    While researching something else today, I came across this extraordinary 1896 film footage of Blackfriars Bridge: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fABILtla_lE

  9. December 15, 2020

    Wonderful photographs and stories…thank you GA.
    Am looking forward to getting back into London again and walking across some of these wonderful bridges once we are out of Tier Three….. you have inspired me!

  10. Chris Connor permalink
    December 16, 2020

    Wonderful article which evokes so many views and thoughts of old London. One thing, there is a picture of a view through an arch of Waterloo Bridge toward Hungerford Bridge and Westminster. Should the photo not be reversed as the river curves to the left toward Westminster and the photo shows it curving to the right. Pedantic, me?

  11. December 17, 2020

    Dear GA…I long for the day when I can feel safe and come back to London and travel on the top deck of buses. I might well bring Bertie and will traverse the lot on the top of a double decker. . Apart from Hammersmith and Vauxhall and any others currently falling down.

  12. Anthony Rennie Stansfeld permalink
    December 19, 2020

    I am a direct descendent of John Rennie. I still have his architects table in my study, and his pocket watch amongst other things. My grandmother gave the Raeburn portrait of him to the Scottish Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

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