The History and Legend of Old London Bridge
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
Part 1. Introduction.
Old London Bridge has a long and beautiful history from a Roman crossing to the modern-day landmark it’s become. London Bridge has existed in one form or another for almost 2,000 years, although the latest iteration of it was built in 1973. Throughout its many forms, one of the most fascinating was the “Old London Bridge”. This version of the bridge was built in 1209 and it spanned the river Thames until 1831.
The Old London Bridge was the site of the first bridge of London, although you’d be forgiven for mistaking that for the much more ornate Tower Bridge. Many people consider the Tower Bridge to be the first bridge of London, and it’s certainly the most recognizable part of the city. But although the London Bridge isn’t quite as recognizable, it’s certainly got name recognition thanks to the nursery rhyme “London Bridge Is Falling Down”.
The original Old London Bridge was probably a Roman military pontoon style crossing between the Roman camp “Camulodunum” and the Kentish ports. The Roman founders of London eventually replaced it with a timber bridge. Over a thousand years later, in 1176, King Henry II commissioned work on a stone bridge. He dedicated the bridge to his murdered friend and later opponent Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In penitence for Becket’s death, King Henry II erected a chapel in the center of the bridge in his honor declaring him a martyr. This Chapel of St Thomas on the Bridge was the official start of pilgrimage to his shrine at Canterbury. Although work began in 1176, supervised by Peter of Colechurch, it was not completed until 1209 (33 years later) during the reign of King John.
The Old London Bridge was 26 feet (8m) wide and 800-900 feet (240-270m) long, supported by 19 irregularly spaced arches. After its inception, for over 600 years the Old London Bridge was the primary crossing point for people wanting to cross the Thames to enter the city of London from Southwark; in fact, the only one if you wanted to avoid getting in a boat! It was a hive of activity, being used to transport not only people, but also livestock and goods across the river.
Unlike today, there used to be many buildings atop Old London Bridge, including houses, churches, shops and a gatehouse. The buildings were a major fire hazard, and many had to be rebuilt over the centuries. In 1212, one of the greatest of the early fires of London broke out on both ends of the bridge simultaneously. This unfortunately trapped many people in the middle, resulting in a great loss of life.
Fire and the Old London Bridge go hand in hand, as houses were burnt in 1381 during Wat Tyler’s Peasants’ Revolt and again in 1450 during Jack Cade’s rebellion. In 1633, a major fire destroyed the northern third of the bridge. However, this ended up forming a firebreak that prevented the bridge from being damaged during the Great Fire of London in 1666.
By the time of the Tudor period there were roughly 200 buildings on the bridge at around seven stories high. Many of the other buildings overhung the river by several feet, with some overhanging the road in the center. This created a dark tunnel on the bridge that all traffic had to pass through. But the end of the Old London Bridge as it was known began in 1799 when a competition was opened for designing its replacement. By now the buildings on it had been demolished and yet it was still too narrow. Furthermore, it’s supporting arches were a nuisance for the ships navigating the Thames below.
In 1799 the building of the new London Bridge commenced. It was decided to build the new bridge 30 meters upstream so that the Old London bridge could continue operating in the meantime, ensuring there was no disturbance to the passage of people and goods while the new one was developed. The “New” London Bridge was completed in 1831, replacing this historic landmark. The Old London Bridge was dismantled, its bricks and timber lost forever, never to be seen again. Or so many people believe…
Check back soon for part 2 of ‘The History and Legend of Old London Bridge’
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