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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Yes, more on books. We haven’t managed to get through as many as in previous years despite sterling review assistance from our members. Here they are.

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A Year of London and the Thames* by Roger Williams
review by Jane Young
* currently out of print

London Vagabond: the Life of Henry Mayhew by Christopher Anderson
review by Laurence Scales

The Royal Society and the Invention of Modern Science by Adrian Tinniswood
review by Laurence Scales

The Hidden Horticuluralists by Fiona Davison
review by Val Bott

Orphans of Empire by Helen Berry
review by Julian Woodford

Faber & Faber: the Untold Story by Toby Faber
review by Mike Paterson

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Trading in War* by Margarette Lincoln
review by Mike Paterson
* a late review of what was London Historians Book of the Year for 2018

Night Raiders by Eloise Moss
review by Tony Moore

Palaces of Pleasure by Lee Jackson
review by David Brown

London Bridge and its Houses by Dorian Gerhold
review by Hannah Renier

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Gunpowder & Geometry by Benjamin Wardhaugh
review by Laurence Scales

Londonist Drinks by Londonist staff writers
review by Mike Paterson

Tracing Your Insolvent Ancestors by Paul Blake
review by Joanna Moncrieff

City of Beasts by Thomas Almeroth-Williams
review by Mike Paterson


Finally, every month in our members’ newsletter we have a book competition which readers enter to win a signed book . Some, not all, are already listed above. They were:

January: A Year of Turner and the Thames by Roger Williams
February: The Worst Street in London by Fiona Rule
March:  Orphans of Empire by Helen Berry
April:  Crusoe, Castaways and Shipwrecks in the Perlilous Age of Sail by Mike Rendell
May:  London Baroque by Robert Kingham & Rich Cochrane
June:  City of Beasts by Thomas Almeroth-Williams
July:  Faber & Faber by Toby Faber
August: Trading in War by Margarette Lincoln
September: Mudlarking by  Lara Maiklem
October: Londonist Drinks by Londonist staff
November : The  House Party by Adrian Tinniswood
December: Christmas Traditions by George Goodwin

 

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Having yesterday announced our Book of the Year for 2019, you may be interested to know the previous winners, going back to 2011. Every one is a humdinger and should help if you’re shopping for Christmas presents.

2011 Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun
2012 Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly
2013 Beastly London by Hannah Velten
2014 Played in London by Simon Inglis
2015 The Street of Wonderful Possibilities by Devon Cox
2016 Curiocity by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose
2017 The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn by Margaret Willes
2018 Trading in War by Margarette Lincoln
2019 City of Beasts by Thomas Almeroth-Williams

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Review: City of Beasts by Thomas Almeroth-Williams. 

9781526126375A bit late on this one, sorry. But worth the wait, as you shall see. With glowing blurb quotes on the jacket by long-time LH members Lucy Inglis (“beautifully written, attentive and thoughtful”) and Tim Hitchcock (“this book will change how you see the pre-industrial world”), you realise early on that you’re in for a treat.

The topic of animals in London was wonderfully covered by Hannah Velten in her book Beastly London (2013). Hers was very much a broad approach both in scope and time and type (she included pets, zoo animals and animals in the wild for example).

City of Beasts, by contrast, focuses on the Georgian period – long as that was – and addresses the relationship between Londoners and owned animals, that’s to say working animals and farm animals. Historians have hitherto noted correctly that in the past, well into the industrial age, there were far more animals in our immediate environment than today and with them the attendant noise, smells, filth and so on; the industries they serviced – they pulled, pushed, carried, were eaten or provided the raw material for goods and clothes.

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Agasse: Old Smithfield Market. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

So far so good; but these are simply observations, which the author feels have led both to shortcomings in our understanding of the role and this is key – agency – of the beasts in our midst; worse, we have come to assume things which are either plain wrong or at least distorted. Some examples. Evidence such as Hogarth’s cruelty paintings (esp 2nd Stage) lead us perhaps to consider animal cruelty endemic. But here we are invited more closely to examine the evidence and also to consider that the general environment for all creatures – including humans – was pretty tough but importantly Georgian Londoners had a lot invested in all livestock: outright, widespread cruelty didn’t make economic sense.

Another. The physical growth of London in our period and earlier pushed urban farming further to the periphery. No. The author demonstrates why this was not so, or at least a lot later than we possibly imagined.

London’s use of mill horses demonstrates that we were behind the curve with industrialisation compared with the Midlands and North. Simply not so: mill horses were perfectly efficient in certain roles compared with steam power – literally horses for courses.

Almeroth-Williams’s approach to these counter arguments of his is both bold and confident: virtually every point he raises is backed by by two or three strong examples from a variety of source material – letters, diaries, bills of sale, court records and other archive items (there are some 60 pages of footnotes, 20% of the entire book). From this you may wonder whether this is a dry piece of work. The opposite is true.

The early part of the book concentrates on working horses. But what is distinctive about our period is the emergence of using horses as a pastime – ‘riding out’. Aristocrats and the middling-sort who wished to emulate them, began to ride for pleasure. A lot. This could be simply to be seen in public, or to be combined with other Georgian social habits such as visiting friends; both hunting and the turf became extremely popular; riding schools abounded and the satirists made hay.

Isaac Cruikshank_Sunday Equestrians or Hyde Park Candidates for Admiration_1797_The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Isaac Cruikshank, Sunday Equestrians or Hyde Park Candidates for Admiration, 1797. The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

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Anon., Kitty Coaxer Driving Lord Dupe Towards Rotten Row, 1779. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

By contrast, where only the wealthy could partake was the business of owning carriages, carriage horses, grooms, drivers, footmen and accommodation for the lot of them: the mews. Our period witnessed the proliferation of these buildings, still today a visible part of London’s urban landscape. The cost was astronomical. Special breeds of fully matching  horses had to be procured and cared for – it was all about status. Head  coachmen and senior grooms, although among the hardest working domestics in London, were highly valued and held much ‘soft power’. The chapter ‘Consuming Horses’ goes into much fascinating detail about the trade in horses and its tricks. And the crime.

Finally, Almeroth-Williams demonstrates the role of the Georgian watchdog in burglary prevention – far more prevalent than we may think. He notes that his online searches of, for example, Old Bailey Online, may if anything actually understate his argument.

The research which has gone into City of Beasts is absolutely prodigious; as mentioned the author has hundreds of tightly relevant references as his fingertips. You can only do this with a deep and wide trawl through a range of literature and archive material. Thousands of hours worth.

There is much that makes this book an absolute pleasure to read. A big contributor is the author’s style, which is very easy-going. He throws out bold challenges, but is never preachy. He is deeply empathetic with his subjects without drifting into mawkish sentimentality.

The Notes (in particular), Bibliography and Index are detailed and exemplary, not surprisingly given this author’s eye for detail.

My sole point of criticism of City of Beasts is that the publisher has let its author down, I feel, with the reproduction quality of the illustrations, which are all black and white and printed directly to page rather than in their own colour section, very much required in a work such as this, in my view. Some – not all –  also tend to be squeezed in somewhat, so some detail is lost. This is important, of course, when reproducing the likes of Hogarth, Rowlandson and Rocque. The author himself is blameless in all of this.

Leaving that quibble aside, City of Beasts is deservedly and easily London Historians Book of the Year for 2019.

City of Beasts – How animals shaped Georgian London (309pp) is published by Manchester University Press with a cover price of £25, but available for a bit less.

** Note ** General stock of this hardback edition are running low, we hear. City of Beasts can now also be pre-ordered in paperback for £13.99 (to arrive April 2020). Here’s the link.

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Review: Tracing Your Insolvent Ancestors. A guest post by LH Member Joanna Moncrieff.

insolvent ancestors“A unique introduction to a neglected historical source” is what jumped out at me when I was first given this book to review. That sounded intriguing.

I have recently realised that many of the resources I use for researching my family tree are equally as useful for research for my guided walks and vice versa.

‘Tracing your Insolvent Ancestors’ by Paul Blake is a case in point. This book could definitely be marketed to an entirely different audience as it has a wealth of detailed information about many of London’s debtor prisons with lots of pointers as to where you can find out more.

Although it isn’t specifically about London the main focus is on it and the book is packed with facts and examples of records in relation to the prisons’ history. The background history of each prison is gone into together with how to access its records. Other chapters delve into the history of the various courts and how they operated. Everything you need to know about the history and operation of debtors’ prisons is in this book.

Those of us who are Clerkenwell and Islington Guides and who guide in and around Old Street talk about Whitecross Street debtors’ prison. An in depth history of the prison and how it operated together with examples of research about various inmates gives a real insight into life as a debtor.

In between the sections about what records are available are lots of interesting snippets perfect for tour guides. For example an 1847 report from the Inspectors of Prisons likened the prison at Lancaster Castle to a ‘noisy tavern and tea-garden’.

I was amazed to discover that the National Archives has an account book listing names of beggars and the tiny amounts they collected at the Fleet begging grate from the 1820s. This fact has already been shared by me with guiding colleagues.

But how do you know where to find this information? There are detailed instructions of what records are available and how you can access them. There are tips on what records have the most info and that some records show a key to more detailed records that are available elsewhere. We are also encouraged to use the TNA catalogue to get an idea of what is held in local archives.  The chapter on Newspapers, Periodicals, Journals and Directories includes lots of practical advice about what is available online and how you can find it.

So much work must have gone into this book to collate such a wealth of material and searching tips. I would definitely recommend this to anyone with an interest in social history.


Tracing your Insolvent Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians (224pp) by Paul Blake is published by Pen & Sword with a cover price of £14.99 but available for less if you shop around. Note: We have linked to National Archives bookshop here because same price as Amazon, they have a fabulous selection and have frequent sales from their online shop. Give them a try!


Joanna Moncrieff is a long-standing Member of London Historians and also a qualified guide for Westminster and Clerkenwell & Islington. Her blog.

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In my personal experience, they certainly do.

But seriously.
Review: Londonist Drinks – A Spirited Guide to London Libation by Londonist editors, staff writers and guests. 

londonistdrinksThis new book celebrates public drinking in London: where and what Londoners imbibe when being sociable. It is largely about alcohol, but tea, coffee, chocolate, juice, water etc. do get a decent look-in. There is an interesting chapter, for example, about drinking chocolate which reminds us that swanky men-only (still) White’s Club was originally a chocolate emporium, one of the first, in fact. And an entire four page article is devoted to tea, its history, where to enjoy it and all the centuries-old markers around town reminding us of one of our national obsessions. Coffee mania came, then went, and has come again.

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It’s not all about boozing – far from it.

But it must be said that most of Londonist Drinks’s pages are devoted to Londoners’ enjoyment of alcohol in most of its forms.

The book comprises 68 small essays which may be consumed in any order. Editor Will Noble and veteran Editor at Large Matt Brown do most of the heavy lifting here, but there are also contributions by staffers including Laura Reynolds and Dave Haste. Myriad other writers pitch in too, for example the excellent Peter Watts who has a manly stab at the unsolvable which-is-London’s-oldest-pub conundrum. It is published in hardback and is a quality item, richly illustrated by 20 talented, professional artists. I didn’t notice at first glance that the cover, the familiar London citiscape which Londonist uses as its logo – is cleverly made up of bottles, glasses and other boozing paraphernalia.

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London’s oldest pub – that thorny old question.

Primarily, this is a guide-book of pubs and bars. That sort of book and indeed web site has been done to death. But Londonist – on its website as on here – does things differently. The dozens of pen-portraits within these pages are presented variously as oldest (see above); as pub crawls (Karl Marx, Blue Posts, Circle Line (image below), Colours of the Rainbow, Docklands Light Railway, Charles Dickens, you name it); as strangest names; on water; the best Wetherspoons; and so on. We examine wine bars, speakeasies, working men’s clubs, rooftop bars, hotel bars. Where to get the best cocktails.

And for readers of this blog, there is plenty of history too. Not only the history of all these beverages, but kings and queens; the London Beer Flood; the story behind pub names; the 18C Gin Craze; animals, death and murder.

With 68 chapters to enjoy, you can see I’ve here just scratched the surface.

Readers of Londonist will know that their style has a definite lightness of touch and humour. This shines through here, making the reading of this book even more of a pleasure. Secondly, they adore trivia, and the sharing thereof. Londonist Drinks is dripping in the stuff, but you’ll get no spoilers from me.

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One of many flimsy excuses for a good pub-crawl.

I have two quibbles which are more petty even than that word suggests:
1) There is an excellent chapter called Liquid History: A Chronology of Key Events in London Drinking. Here I discovered that my favourite pint – London Pride by Asahi Breweries (formerly Fuller’s) is actually younger than me, I had no idea! Anyway, this chapter is at the back. All historians will agree with me that it belongs at the front.
2) Use of the word ‘quaff’ (‘Once more unto the breach, Casketeers!’) Points deducted.

But seriously (again). This simply marvellous book is a sure-fire treat for all sociable Londoners and, may I suggest with Christmas looming scarily, guaranteed brownie points as a gift to your friends and family.

 


Londonist Drinks – A Spirited Guide to London Libation (192 pages) is published on 3 October by AA Media (there’s a double joke in there) with a cover price of £16.99, though available for less.

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Gunpowder & Geometry: The Life of Charles Hutton, Pit Boy, Mathematician and Scientific Rebel by Benjamin Wardhaugh. This book review is a guest post by London Historians Member Laurence Scales. 

gngThis is the biography of Charles Hutton (1737-1823). Charles Who? To those in the know he was a Georgian mathematician. For those of you who might just possibly have overlooked him, he was the first person to draw a mountain using contour lines – for a grand project we will come to shortly.

To paint Hutton quickly with a few contour lines, he was a significant figure in publishing, gunnery and scientific politics. His is a story of a snakes and ladders career in the long 18th century for someone with few advantages of birth, but with wits and ambition. Social mobility at that time is something we usually think uncommon and remarkable though the exceptions are numerous: Humphry Davy from Penzance, George Stephenson from Tyneside and Thomas Telford from Scotland, for example. Some of them may have lived their whole life being regarded by nobility as oiks. But they were respected oiks, and able to afford comforts that many would envy. Hutton came from hewing coal to taking a plate of oysters with Sir John Pringle, the President of the Royal Society. Pringle’s successor, Sir Joseph Banks, was a snob and, as a plant collector, had no time for mathematics. The Royal Society came close to disintegrating. Hutton’s rift with the Royal Society gives the biography an edge.

Hutton was from Tyneside, but it was a home he quitted permanently for London when, as a young man, he was appointed a professor at the Woolwich Royal Military Academy then turning out cadets for the Royal Artillery and later Royal Engineers. The appalling behavior of cadets (and fellow staff) is typical of the colourful detail that makes his story enjoyable.

Within a few years Hutton was working on one of the greatest practical experiments of the age, nothing less than the weighing (more properly, calculating the density) of the Earth. The delicate measurements, hundreds of them, were taken in Scotland by the Astronomer Royal, and not in a nice comfortable Edinburgh observatory, but on a mountainside in the dreich. But the number crunching, requiring contour lines to size the mountain, was done by Hutton longhand in Woolwich.

Hutton was a glutton in that he had an extraordinary appetite for long, tedious and repetitive calculations, the details of which we are spared while still gaining insight into the vital but unrecognised toil behind the mathematical tables for astronomers, navigators, surveyors and financial houses. As you might expect from this period and our distance from it, individual women do not play a large part in this story, but a few, and many unknown women, are tantalisingly glimpsed.

An insight I have gained is that Hutton was, I might say, only an artisan mathematician – a virtuoso problem solver and a great teacher playing by all the known rules. But he did not change the game. Although Hutton read several languages it took Cambridge mathematicians such as mechanical computer pioneer Charles Babbage and others to challenge the staid British mathematical community by hailing continental brilliance.
The author, Benjamin Wardhaugh, is an Oxford academic spanning mathematics, history and music. He has slogged to tease out the differences in hundreds of pages in each of umpteen different editions of Hutton’s works to try and read his mind. We can appreciate his effort and, as a result, we are relieved of it. Wardhaugh has published academic papers on Hutton. This biography, nevertheless, comes to us with a light and engaging style while carrying the authority of an academic writer. Recommended.


Gunpowder & Geometry (312 pp, illustrated) by Benjamin Wardhaugh is published in hardback by Harper Collins.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in the history of science and technology in London, a volunteer in the archives of the Royal Institution and Royal Society of Arts, and is working on an alternative history of engineering.

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This review is a guest post by London Historians Member Hannah Renier. 

London-BridgeDorian Gerhold’s London Bridge and its Houses, 1209-1761 is a handsome illustrated volume based on extraordinary scholarship. An interest in any aspect of London before 1761 will be enriched by this book because the bridge (for almost its entire life the only one) was so intrinsically a part of Londoners’ lives.

You may already know the 1969 scale model of it, a wonderful, but static, exhibit in St Magnus the Martyr Church. Gerhold’s book offers a more dynamic view in which some of the details assumed by historians in 1969 have been revised. Here the bridge, its many inhabitants, and the events that affected it, come alive through time, thanks to diagrams, plans, plates, details from well-known images and imaginative coloured reconstructions.

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Gatefold spread pp 2-3 is a pre-1590 image from Samuel Pepys’s Library.

Peter de Colechurch and Henry Yevele were the first in a long parade of Masters employed to direct works on the bridge throughout its life. Diagrams show us exactly how, in the last decades of the twelfth century, mediaeval Londoners began to construct a bridge 283 metres long over a fierce tidal river – a feat as astonishing as today’s Tideway Tunnel project. Supplied only with manpower and horsepower, picks and shovels, winches and buckets, iron-tipped piles, tons of rubble, stone and timber, and determination, they made a populated landmark that endured, with maintenance and repair, for more than 550 years.

Almost everything on and around London Bridge changed in that time, and Gerhold has had access to the Bridge House and Common Council records among others. Copious details about the buildings, their interiors, the people who lived there and the rentals they paid are available from 1460 until the bridge’s final years, and a less complete record exists back to 1358. Essentially this was a roadway above the water from north to south, supported on 19 brick and stone piers which stood on starlings – these being east-to-west rubble-filled caissons up to fifty feet long, firmly lodged in the riverbed. As first built, it catered for commerce, religion and defence. At the north (City) end there was a convivial open space and plenty of room for upmarket shops, with modest living accommodation above, to line your path as you crossed the Thames. Near the middle stood more shops and a fine large chapel dedicated to St Thomas à Becket. At the south (Southwark) end, from which any threat to the City was likely to come, the shops were cheaper and narrower. Heading north from Southwark you, or your horse and cart, would have to pass under a stone gateway with a portcullis, cross a military ground, and traverse a drawbridge.

With the centuries, much of this changed. The monks of the chapel had been responsible for managing London Bridge when it opened, but they agreed before sixty years had passed to cede control and income from tolls and rents to the committee of Bridge House, an entity of the City of London which owned the Southwark abutment (the wide land-based approach).

During the Reformation, the chapel was destroyed. It was eventually replaced by a large shop, warehouse and accommodation. Stocks and a cage for offenders were installed at the Southwark end. There was a licensed lady apple-seller there in Tudor times: apples for hurling, probably. At the Stone Gate, wrongdoers’ decapitated heads were displayed on poles from 1577 until 1684, says Gerhold, who likes to be accurate (other sources suggest there were heads after that). The timber-framed shops became taller, wider, deeper and more numerous; most were more than four storeys high. Waterwheels were constructed in 1590 next to the north end, to supply piped water to local houses. At the south, waterwheels drove a corn mill as well as a water supply. There were communal latrines at the north and south abutments, although the one on the City side eventually crashed into the river (while in use).

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Representative spreads from this richly-illustrated book.

With time and less civil disorder, the portcullis and the drawbridge became redundant. Commerce took precedence, and more shops were built east and west of the military ground. The road was gradually, and piecemeal, widened, although pinch-points remained. It was no ordinary road, open to the sky along its length; from the thirteenth century for at least four hundred years cross-buildings (oversails) were popular. These were rooms that spanned the entire street from house to opposing house above the traffic.

So that this ‘bridge’ would not thereby become a tunnel over the river, cross-building was permitted only at alternate houses and from the first storey upwards. This left a height clearance of under ten and a half feet – not a lot for a laden cart. From the seventeenth century new crossbuilds had to spring from the second storey. Imagine sleeping high above the Thames with a gale whipping up the current, your house-timbers groaning and your trade sign screeching. People felt safer with an oversail that would peg their vulnerable homes to both sides of the road. For the houses, with their shopfronts, were not built on top of the road – they had only a toehold on it, and their main rooms overhung the river. This was never a cantilever arrangement. Instead they were supported on, and from, the piers by massive timber hammer-beams, or stone arches.

Dorian Gerhold names the traders and makers who lived above their shops at different times, and shows how the wares they sold changed over the centuries from warlike: bows and arrows made on site and sold – to luxury:imported silks and muslins, and books. Very few alehouses were permitted (rowdiness), and pastrycooks were discouraged (fire). But the seventeenth-century bridge’s coffee houses, promising well-informed discussions of culture and politics, became popular with City men.

The shopkeepers and their families had privies, cellars (often inside the piers), counting houses, garrets and ‘water rooms’ supplied with winches and buckets to draw water from the teeming gullets under the arches. Almost all their chimneys, hearths and kitchens were high above the river. Some houses had ‘walking leads’, which this reader imagines as lead paths behind the roof balustrades, perfect for an evening stroll and a view up or down river. For a long time, the ‘House of Many Windows’ straddled the road facing south; a frontage that was almost entirely crown glass must have twinkled magnificently at sunrise and sunset. The drawbridge building, with houses at either side, was eventually replaced by the spectacularly colourful late-Tudor Nonsuch House.

The bridge was threatened throughout its existence by the tidal tumult between its arches, bitter winters with the frozen Thames expanding, and riot and revolt. Also disease: the Black Death depleted it of traders, although those who remained took the opportunity to take on neighbouring empty properties. Fire was the biggest threat of all. The massive Southwark conflagration of 1212/1213 destroyed buildings as far north as the Chapel. Most of the City end burned in 1633. The Great Fire of 1666 rushed down Fish Street Hill and Pepys watched it destroying more bridge buildings at the north end. Afterwards, London Bridge houses were exempted from the new no-timber-building rule, so nobody was surprised when in 1725 there was another big blaze.

London prospered nonetheless, and so did the 500 or so bridge-dwellers. Their tapestries, looking-glasses, tables, pictures and furnishings are documented house by house. This may make the book sound so detail-heavy as to be a mere compendium of lists, which it isn’t ¬– the drier facts and figures are tabled in appendices.

Towards the end (which may have begun with the great overhaul and sloppy rebuild of 1683-96), maintenance began to fail and corners were cut. The enormous timbers that supported the original bridge were perhaps no longer available or too expensive, but somehow regulation was relaxed with predictable results. New, poorly supported houses threatened to topple. At this time, in the early 1700s, bridges with buildings – which in the thirteenth century had been fashionable in northern Europe – were understandably considered rather a nuisance. The commercial world was in a hurry and immigrants from all over the kingdom were pouring into London. Traffic bottlenecks were bad for trade. And nearby bridges finally defeated Bridge House’s monopoly: Westminster in 1750, Blackfriars in 1769, Waterloo in 1815.

George Dance produced an ominous report on the high cost of repairing London Bridge. The City’s solution was house clearance. Despite protests from their inhabitants, the bridge houses were demolished, the piers cut down, an arch removed and the road widened to 45 feet. That happened between 1757 and 1761. Afterwards London Bridge was not itself. It had lost its world-class sparkle in exchange for improvements which were incomplete. It now provided clear passage for carts and carriages, but the remaining arches continued to obstruct river traffic.

Following the British victory at Waterloo, money was found and a wholly new London Bridge commissioned. In the 1820s work began on John Rennie’s sturdy and serviceable design. It was completed, a few pulls of the oars upstream, by 1831. The London Bridge, Old London Bridge which had been opened in 1209 on the site of many previous timber bridges, was demolished. It ‘vanished without leaving any visible trace’. It had been, as this book shows, one of the liveliest parts of London.


London Bridge and its Houses c1209 – 1761 (168pp) by Dorian Gerhold is London Topographical Society Publication No. 182, 2019. It is priced at £21 for LTS members*, £28 for non-members. Plus postage.

* Note that LTS members automatically get one copy of the annual book free of charge as part of their membership.

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