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The demise of Peter of Colechurch's London Bridge

Roy Walker

The following is part of a longer piece about the failure of past London Bridges. It looks at the problems of the first stone bridge which resulted in its replacement by that of John Rennie, now to be found in Arizona.

Peter, chaplain of St Mary Colechurch, rebuilt London Bridge in 1163 using elm. This was to be the last wooden bridge save for the temporary one built in 1757 at the time of major "improvements" to Peter's next bridge, the first stone crossing made at this location. His elm bridge was sacrificed to the permanence and safety of stone, a material that had first been used for bridging in England on the River Lea at Stratford. The new London Bridge was commenced in 1176 and completed around 1209, four years after Peter's death. It survived until 1831. During its 622 years it suffered various problems including fire (1212, 1504. 1633. 1666 and 1725) exacerbated by the houses built upon it, frost and ice damage plus riot and rebellion. The heads of Cade (1450) and Falconbridge (1471) were displayed on the bridge following their burning of it in the course of rebellion.

The demise of this medieval bridge after such a long life can be reviewed initially from two viewpoints - the problems on the bridge and the problems under it. By the mid-18th century the bridge was essentially the medieval one and was being maintained in that image. It still carried houses some of which had been re-erected in 1745 to designs by George Dance the Elder; the drawbridge in the centre had been replaced in 1722 despite its lack of use and the Great Stone Gate at the Southwark end was replaced in 1728. The Chapel of St Thomas had been converted into dwellings and by 1753 incorporated a warehouse and shop. Tolls were charged until 1782. Why then should it have been destroyed, instead of being preserved as an historic monument after such a long survival?

The bridge had for a long period been in need of continuing repair and maintenance. Pepys in 1664 records in his diary one misfortune when crossing the bridge: "my leg fell in a hole broke on the bridge." This is believed to refer to the draw bridge which though not used was estimated in 1667 to require 200 of repairs. Thomas Pennant in Some Account of London written about one hundred years after Pepys' mishap describes the scene on the bridge. "I well remember the street on London Bridge, narrow, darksome and dangerous to passengers from the multitude of carriages; frequent arches of strong timber crossed the street, from the tops of the houses, to keep them together, and from falling into the river. Nothing but use could preserve the rest of the inmates who soon grew deaf to the noise of the falling waters, the clamour of watermen, or the frequent shrieks of drowning wretches." He later refers to the houses as being frequently tenanted by pin or needle makers indicating how the quality of the tenancies had deteriorated. The problem of the "multitude of carriages" had been addressed in 1722 by an order of the Lord Mayor 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..." The converse applied to vehicles leaving the City and basically this enforced a "keep left" policy of the bridge traffic. This new rule was to be enforced by three traffic controllers (or wardens) with the authority to apprehend and carry offenders before his Majesty's Justices of the Peace. The same Order instructed the toll collectors to collect the duties "without making a stay of carts", that is, without holding up the traffic whilst collecting the dues. The abolition of tolls in 1782 greatly increased the traffic over the bridge.

Passing through the bridge on the river was equally disastrous. Pepys tells of the habit of boat passengers disembarking on one side of the bridge, walking around it and re-boarding the other side when the waterman had passed through. He records in September, 1662, how when going to Whitehall with Sir William Penn, he was obliged to walk through the bridge on one of the starlings while Sir William Batten and Sir J Minnes "were aground against the Bridge and could not in a great while get through." This entry in Pepys' diary highlights one problem at this period by the reference to walking through the bridge on one of the starlings. The starlings (or sterlings) are the buttresses beneath the pier foundations (starling is possibly a corruption of straddle, a pier of a bridge - OED). The piers were built on a platform of loose stone rubble enclosed in a ring of elm piles with three oak beams laid across. The piers supporting the arches would spring from this base. The original bridge had twenty piers with nineteen arches at widths of between 15 to 34 feet. The starlings would be submerged at high tide and above water at low tide. Throughout the life of the bridge the scouring action of the tide would have eroded these requiring further deposition to make good the damage thus narrowing the arches even further. In 1581 Peter Morris was leased the northernmost arch to install a water wheel and corn-mills were constructed in 1591 at the southern end incorporating one of the starlings. Morris's waterworks were rebuilt after the Great Fire and by 1761 were using three arches and by 1767 an arch at the Southwark end. These works, not removed until 1822, reduced the available navigable space beneath the bridge as well as damaging its fabric through frequent leaks. The size of the starlings, which by the 18th century occupied five-sixths of the width of the river, greatly compressed the flow of the Thames beneath the bridge creating a weir effect with a difference of water level each side of the bridge of up to six feet at the change of tide. This created a problem to the commercial users of the river. The problem to river traffic was highlighted in The Gazetteer of April 22, 1768: " 'tis computed that there are drowned at London Bridge about 50 people upon an average each year." Of importance to the attitude of London towards its first stone bridge is the opening in 1750 of the second Thames bridge at Westminster. This was modern, had no structures such as houses and shops on it and was much wider. When the idea of a second bridge across the Thames had been suggested in 1722 it was petitioned against by the Company of Watermen, West Country Bargemen, the City Corporation, Southwark and the bridge dwellers. The vehemence of the watermen against a new bridge is understandable. Southwark objected on the grounds that a higher level of flooding would occur. Ironically, the improvements to London Bridge in 1759 increased the force of the current at Westminster causing grave deterioration to the structure of Westminster Bridge leading to its eventual replacement in 1862. The completion of this new bridge must have emphasised the true state and condition of the six hundred year old London Bridge and its inadequacies. In 1756 an Act of Parliament authorised the City Corporation to undertake improvements to London Bridge as recommended by George Dance, the City Surveyor. The houses and shops were to be removed, the bridge would be widened on each side by 13 feet to a new total width of 46 feet, balustraded parapets with stone canopies on either side of the roadway were to be added together with lamps for use between sunset and sunrise. Of benefit to the river users, two of the central arches were converted into a Great Arch by the removal of a common pier. A temporary 20 wooden bridge was constructed alongside in 1757 to carry pedestrians. In the following year it was mysteriously burnt down and needed major repairs. The works were completed by 1763. The Stone Gate had been removed and its Royal coat of arms relocated, the houses removed, St Thomas's Chapel levelled, the roadway widened and the exterior of the bridge re-clad thus totally masking its medieval appearance. It had a new Great Arch in the centre.

This measure did not improve the safety of the bridge. The Great Arch caused a faster flow with weir effects under the other arches. The greater flow resulted in scouring around the arch supports. In 1760 Smeaton, engineer of the Eddystone Lighthouse, was consulted and he recommended the depositing of the rubble from the recently demolished City gates around the piers of the Great Arch. The repeated accumulation of debris in an attempt to prevent erosion caused further problems when the rubble was re-deposited further downstream. The "improvements" of the mid-18th century had not been a success. In 1800 there appeared from Parliament The Third Report from the Select Committee upon the Improvement of the Port of London. It recommended "that the great, continual, and ineffectual expenses of the old bridge, its irremediable insecurity, and the dangers of its navigation, had induced the Committee to collect information and provide designs for the building of a new one." It recommended an arch of 65 feet above high water to take vessels up to 200 tons with top masts struck, plus street access while causing little disturbance to private property. Various designs were laid before the House, including ones from George Dance the Younger and Thomas Telford, but nothing further was done at this stage. This lack of action may have pleased the Morning Herald, which in 1789 had opposed any rebuilding as it claimed that "wider arches would alter the ebb and flow to take an equal time instead of eight to run and four to return."

The ineffectiveness of the widening of the central arch was emphasized in 1814 when a severe frost resulted in masses of frozen ice blocking the narrow arches and producing a total freeze of the river enabling a frost fair to be held. At the end of the year a report was submitted by George Dance and others recommending that the City Corporation enlarge eight arches into four. This was rejected due to uncertainty and the expense.

William Gifford, editor of Quarterly Review referring to Ben Johnson's lines in The Staple of News - "He minds / a courtesy / no more than London Bridge / what arch was mended last" wrote in 1816: "This pernicious structure has wasted more money in perpetual repairs than would have sufficed to build a dozen safe commodious bridges; and cost the lives, perhaps of as many thousand people. This may seem little to those whom it concerns, but there is blood on the City and a heavy account in before them. Had an Alderman or a turtle been lost there, the nuisance would have been removed." Gifford's despair at the failure to replace London Bridge may have been influenced by the construction of other Thames crossings following that at Westminster. They were Blackfriars in 1769, subsequently rebuilt 1865-69; Vauxhall in 1816, Waterloo in 1817 and Southwark in 1819, designed by John Rennie. These bridges did not relieve the pressure on London Bridge. A survey on one day in July 1811, showed 89,640 persons on foot, 769 wagons, 2,924 carts and drays, 1,240 coaches, 485 gigs and taxed carts and 764 horses crossing the bridge.

Further evidence was taken by the House of Commons Select Committee throughout 1819 to 1821. Several petitions were received from watermen and barge owners regarding the still dangerous navigation. Craft on the river had increased by a third within the twenty years from 1800 - 1820. The larger loaded vessels could only pass through the Great Arch which could only be used for six hours a day or for the first three hours after high water. There was frequent crowding, colliding, sinkings or the locking together of vessels in the Arch. Smaller barges could use certain other arches but these were only 16 feet wide and had "peculiar tides". One report concerns Mr Anthony Nicholl, a wharfinger at Dowgate, who stated "having lost in April 1820 goods there to the amount of £1000 he could not insure property passing through the bridge under a premium of 5%."

Despite these problems to the commercial users of the Thames, the City Corporation was still against rebuilding, a view perhaps influenced by the news in 1821 that the Committee had been informed that His Majesty's Ministers would not sanction the appropriation of the public revenue towards the erection of a new bridge, although tolls might be levied for that purpose." The City informed the Select Committee that they would undertake further improvements to the old bridge and carried out a survey of the centre arch. Surprisingly, few defects were observed. However, the wharfingers continued to raise objections to the short time that their vessels could work on the river and pointed out that the danger of the Thames icing up was still a very serious threat. The Corporation maintained that these claims were exaggerated and that alterations would be sufficient. Notwithstanding the Corporation's objections, in May 1822 the Select Committee recommended a Bill for a new bridge and the Corporation yielded to the change, advertising the following month a competition for the design of a new bridge - the best design to receive £250. The winner selected by the Corporation was William Fowler but this was overruled by the House of Commons who substituted a design by John Rennie. Royal Assent for An Act for the Rebuilding of London Bridge was given on 4th July. 1823. The construction of the new bridges had shown that the old bridge was an anachronism – it was not only inadequate but dated, not suitable for the 19th century nor reflecting the importance of the City. A brass tablet was placed in the foundations of Rennie's bridge. It stated, in Latin and English the inadequacies (evils) of Peter Colechurch's bridge, declaring that "...the City of London, desirous of providing a remedy for this evil, and at the same time consulting the convenience of commerce in this vast emporium of all nations..." has built "...a new bridge upon a foundation altogether new, with arches of a wider span, and of a character corresponding to the dignity and importance of this royal city; nor does any other time seem to be more suitable for such an undertaking than when, in a period of universal peace, the British Empire flourishing in glory, wealth, population, and domestic union, is governed by a prince, the patron and encourager of the arts, under whose auspices the metropolis has been daily advancing in elegance and splendour."

The Middlesex House of Correction

The earliest human occupation of Britain

The demise of Peter of Colechurch's London Bridge

The enduring fascination of the mammoth

Further excavations at Winchester Palace, Southwark

London Before London:
The Iron Age of London

Survival or introduction? Romanitas in Britain after AD410


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