London is here because of the River Thames. Many of the most iconic sights of this great city can best be seen from its river crossings. Indeed, the diversity and vibrancy of modern London seems to be reflected in the idiosyncratic variety of its river bridges, from the shimmering beauty of Albert Bridge and the nineteenth-century Gothic extravaganza of Tower Bridge to the streamlined elegance of the twenty-first-century Millennium Bridge. The exciting Illuminated River project is in process of installing modern artist designed lighting on 14 of these bridges which will further enhance night-time views.
The first bridges
Until recently it was assumed that the ancient Britons had not built any bridge crossings over the Thames. However, in 2001 BBC Television’s Time Team investigated some wooden stakes that had emerged from the river bed upstream of Vauxhall Bridge. These were identified as the remains of a Bronze Age walkway over the Thames. This early bridge had disappeared by the time Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 53 BC since Caesar describes in his Histories how his army had to ford the Thames. The Romans finally conquered Britain in AD 43 and established Londinium on the firm stretch of high ground on the north bank of the river. There they built a wooden bridge across the river just downstream of the present London Bridge.
Old London Bridge
The fate of the bridge after the Romans left Britain in AD 410 is unknown. From the tenth century, records start to appear with references to a wooden London Bridge at this site. In 1209, the wooden bridge was finally replaced by a stone one – the world-famous inhabited Old London Bridge with its houses, shops and even a chapel. Supported on 19 arches, amazingly it lasted over 600 years. This was the only bridge over the Thames in the central London area until the completion of Westminster Bridge in 1750.
The reason why it took so long to construct any other bridge was down to politics and finance rather than need or technology. Old London Bridge presented difficulties for the Watermen who used the river for transporting people or cargo. The swift flow of the tide through the narrow gaps between its arches caused many watermen and their passengers to drown in the passage. Also any new bridge would affect their earnings. So to protect their interests they formed the powerful Company of Watermen which received the Royal Charter in 1555. In addition, the City Corporation, which owned Old London Bridge, wished to preserve its monopoly of a bridge crossing so as to prevent trade from moving westwards. A combination of these vested interests managed to delay the approval of a new bridge at Westminster for over five centuries.
The heyday of stone river bridges
Once the precedent of a new crossing had been established at Westminster in 1750, several stone bridges across the Thames were approved and built in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including Robert Mylne’s Blackfriars Bridge and John Rennie’s Waterloo Bridge. None of these survive today, and have had to be replaced.
A great change occurred in bridge building with the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the construction of the world’s first iron bridge over the River Severn at Coalbrookdale in 1779. Following the construction of London’s first cast iron bridge at Vauxhall in 1816, there was a profusion of bridge building using a variety of materials including cast iron, wrought iron, traditional stone, steel and reinforced concrete. The coming of the railways contributed to this activity although it must be said that most of the railway bridges were utilitarian rather than beautiful. Many of London’s bridges were initiated and financed by private enterprise and tolls were charged to recoup the investment. In 1879 the last bridges to charge tolls were finally bought out and all came under some form of public ownership.
The effect of the tide
The result of all this bridge building was that by 1900 there were 18 road bridges, 9 railway bridges and two footbridges over the Thames in London. As with London itself, there was no strategic plan and the pattern of crossings was somewhat haphazard. Moreover, all the road bridges had been built for the age of the horse and so were mainly inadequate for modern traffic. The other major problem was that despite the involvement of famous engineers such as Brunel, Rennie and Bazalgette most of the bridges failed to stand up to the fierce battering they received from the ebb and flow of the twice-daily tides which reach a speed of up to 14 mph.
Apart from the nineteenth century Albert and Tower Bridges, all these early bridges have had to be rebuilt over the years, sometimes more than once. Tower Bridge was completed in 1894. After that, apart from the Millennium Footbridge of 2001, no new bridges have been built over the Thames in the central London area. Today there are 20 road bridges, 10 rail bridges and three footbridges over the Thames between Richmond and the Tower of London. No other city in the world has so many river crossings.
Brian Cookson is a London Blue Badge Guide. He has written two book on London’s River Thames published by Random House.