London was founded in the first century, after the Romans created a Thames crossing at the river’s narrowest and shallowest point. Several more wooden bridges followed.
Eleven hundred years later a stone bridge was built that would outlast almost 30 kings and queens. A bridge with houses that was the wonder of mediaeval Europe. A bridge that became the setting for triumph and disaster. Home to many, but also the place where thousands died by fire above or the water below.
This was mediaeval London Bridge, also known as Old London Bridge. The stone bridge was built by Peter de Colechurch, chaplain of St Mary Colechurch in the City of London.
From 1176, mediaeval engineers used human-powered machines attached to boats to drive rings of elm piles into the riverbed, filling the gaps with rubble. Tree trunks were laid across as reinforcement, and further piles added round the edges.
These bases were called starlings. A pier of Kentish ragstone was built on each starling. There were 20 piers and 19 arches, varying in size between 15 and 34 feet. Construction took 33 years, and Peter De Colechurch died in 1205, four years before work was completed.
He was buried on the bridge. Buildings projected over the sides, supported by struts. The bridge included houses to pay for maintenance. These ranged from three to seven storeys high, often with a shop on the ground floor.
The bridge was just 20 feet wide. Between the two sides was a road. Twelve feet wide, it was shared by carts, animals and pedestrians. There were as many as 138 shops on the bridge. Shopkeepers would catch the attention of passers-by, shouting “What lack ye?” Soon after Colechurch began work, Thomas Becket was assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral. When the Archbishop became a saint the chapel was dedicated to him.
During the Reformation of the 16th century the chapel was closed, and later converted into a shop and dwelling. The bridge originally had a Great Stone Gate and a Drawbridge Gate. At different times until the 1680s each displayed the heads of executed prisoners.
This gave the wondrous edifice an ambience of horror for people entering London. The Drawbridge Gate was rebuilt then passed out of use, before being taken down. In 1577, Nonesuch House replaced this gate. The name Nonesuch meant no-other-such-house. It was an ornate multicoloured design with domed corners made from prefabricated units manufactured in Holland.
No nails were used, with components fastened by wooden pegs. Later the mansion was neglected. The domes disappeared and pegs began to slip, giving the once splendid Nonesuch House a ramshackle appearance. Old London Bridge was built between 1176 and 1209 by driving timber piles into the riverbed to create bases for 20 stone piers.
By the 18th century the authorities were forced to address the problems caused by the primitive structure. The 19 arches of Old London Bridge occupied almost half the river’s width and partially dammed the Thames, with water mounting to heights of six feet on one side then gushing down the other.
Travelling through an arch was known as ‘shooting the bridge’. In the process many people drowned. Wealthy passengers would disembark from their boat early, switch to a carriage, and rejoin the boatman on the other side if he survived. In 1212, soon after the bridge opened, a fire started in Southwark and spread along its length.
Many people were trapped in the middle. Some were rescued by watermen from the river, but in the confusion, boats collided and sank, leading to further casualties. This was only one of many disasters to befall the structure.
Various sections of the bridge collapsed at different times. In the early years the crown controlled bridge finances. This led to a crisis in the reign of Henry III, whose consort Eleanor of Provence diverted funds for her own use. After this the City Corporation gained control through its Bridge House Estates.
This used income from tolls and bequests to keep the piers and starlings in good repair. Workers called tidemen worked two shifts a day at low tide, inspecting and repairing the fabric. Under King Charles II, a second bridge was proposed at Westminster.
The City Corporation lobbied against the idea, fearing London Bridge would lose its monopoly position and the income from tolls. Ultimately the City’s campaign failed, and in 1750 Westminster Bridge opened. For decades debate had rumbled on about the future of shambling Old London Bridge.
Now with a modern bridge in operation close at hand, events moved more quickly. In 1756 an Act of Parliament was passed to demolish the buildings, widen the structure, add pavements, and remove a pier at the centre to create a large arch to ease water flow.
Two years later the houses began to be cleared. The widened bridge included stone alcoves down both sides. Several of these survive, including one in Guy’s Hospital.
The modified bridge-without-houses only lasted seven decades. By the turn of the century it became clear the 1760s changes had failed to solve the problems. Instead of improving the river flow, the new Great Arch increased the pressure of water on the structure.
In 1800, a committee was established to prepare a new London Bridge. Various proposals were submitted, and eventually the plan of John Rennie Senior was adopted. His son, also John, built a new bridge 100 feet upstream from the old one.
In August 1831, the new bridge opened. In November, the demolition of Old London Bridge started. There was a sad postscript to the life of the man who built the medieval bridge that served Londoners for 622 years.
When the old chapel crypt was demolished, workers found the tomb of Peter de Colechurch. Instead of conserving the bones, they threw them into the Thames. Today the architect of Old London Bridge is remembered in the shop arcade Colechurch House in Tooley Street, opposite London Bridge Tube station.