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A guest post by LH Member Brian Cookson. This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from November 2013.

Like several other Thames bridges, Richmond Bridge replaced a ferry which from medieval times had provided a crossing for horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians at about the same location on the river.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Richmond developed into a thriving and fashionable town. Although Henry VII’s magnificent Palace became neglected and was pulled down, Richmond, kept its royal connections and was the favourite country resort of George II and Queen Caroline.

Whereas Richmond was in the county of Surrey, Twickenham on the opposite side of the river was in the county of Middlesex. The Middlesex bank was less developed, but much favoured by aristocrats, artists and writers. Alexander Pope was among the first to build himself a villa here in 1719. Of the several artists who lived in Twickenham at this time, two were very much connected with the Thames and its bridges – Samuel Scott and his pupil, William Marlow, who both painted central London river scenes in the style of Canaletto.

As a result of the developments here on both banks of the Thames the need for a bridge to replace the ferry was becoming overwhelming. Local inhabitants put forward their proposal which formed the basis of the Act of Parliament which received Royal Assent on 1 July 1773. The Act nominated 90 Commissioners who were to be responsible for building and maintaining a bridge of stone construction. The Commissioners included the landscape gardener, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the writer, Horace Walpole, the actor, David Garrick and Sir Charles Asgill who was the local MP and former Lord Mayor of London who had recently presided over the removal of the houses from Old London Bridge. The Act also gave a number of key directions to the Commissioners, including the punishment for anyone convicted of damaging the bridge. Convicts were ‘liable for transportation to one of His Majesty’s colonies in America for seven years’. However the colonies decided to declare independence in 1776, a year before the completion of the bridge, so this punishment could never be handed out.

Among the first decisions made by the Commissioners was to choose to use Portland Stone as the main construction material and to appoint James Paine as the architect. Paine had trained as an architect in London where he caught the attention of Lord Burlington, the leading proponent of the now fashionable Palladian style of architecture.

old_richmond_bridge_1813

Richmond Bridge in 1813.

Construction was put out to tender and a contract was signed on 16 May 1774 for Thomas Kerr to build the bridge for the sum of £10,900. It was now time to raise the money to pay him and cover all the other expenses such as for building the approaches and compensating local landowners. The method chosen was known as a ‘tontine’, named after Lorenzo Tonti who had originated the idea in France in the 1650s. £20,000 was raised by the sale of shares which paid an initial annual dividend of four per cent. As each investor died, his or her share was divided between the survivors until the last survivor received the whole of the dividend amounting to £800 per annum. When there were no more survivors, dividends would cease. The list of shareholders held in Richmond Local History Library contains an unusually large number of investments made in the name of children. It is not therefore so surprising that the last survivor did not die until 1859 at the age of 86, having received the maximum £800 for the last five years of her life. A local historian relates an amusing story about one of the investors, an elderly lady, who ‘called on the paymaster, William Smith, for her biannual dividend and found it was the same as her previous one. She exclaimed in a discontented tone “What, has no one died since I was last here – all still alive?” But it was the last time she complained. When the dividends were next due, death had removed her, thus adding to the amount to be shared by those that survived her.’

The bridge was declared open for carriages on 12 January 1777, although not finally completed until December 1777. The author of an article in The London Magazine of September 1779 wrote ‘…it presents the spectator with one of the richest landscapes nature and art ever produced by their joint efforts, and connoisseurs in painting will instantly be reminded of some of the best performances of Claude Lorraine.’ In the 1820s Turner produced about 20 sketches of the bridge from various viewpoints as well as one finished watercolour which can be seen in Tate Britain.

When the last survivor of the first tontine died in 1859 all tolls ceased and the tollhouses were later replaced by iron seats dated 1868, which are still situated in the recesses of the bridge on the Richmond side.

richmondbridgetoday

Richmond Bridge today. 

During the early years of the twentieth century there were many arguments about how to solve the problems of the increasing congestion over the bridge. In the end a new bridge was in fact constructed in 1933 to the north of the town to take the Chertsey arterial road over the river to Twickenham and beyond. By then Surrey and Middlesex County Councils had finally agreed that the old bridge should be widened and its control was transferred to public ownership. Work proceeded to number each of the facing stones on the upstream side before taking them down so that the inner portion of the bridge structure could be widened and subsequently refaced with the original Portland Stone. The result was a bridge which was widened from 24 ft 9 in. to 36 ft. but looked exactly the same as before. The effect of the widening can be noted only by looking up from underneath the arches where the newer bricks on the upstream side are clearly differentiated from the original brickwork. Richmond Bridge’s bicentenary was celebrated on 7 May 1977, and today is the oldest existing structure to cross the Thames in London.


Brian Cookson is a Founder Member of London Historians, Blue Badge guide and author of Crossing the River: The History of London’s Thames River Crossings from Richmond to the Tower (2006).

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Yesterday a group of London Historians and friends went for an excellent historical mosey from the Embankment past Blackfriars, over the Wobbly Bridge (known by a few as the Millennium Bridge) into Southwark and the extremely popular Anchor pub. We were led by the excellent author, Blue Badge guide and true gentleman, Brian Cookson, a friend of London Historians who has encouraged us from the outset, not least by writing some superb articles on London’s bridges.

The sun was out, the tide was high. Dozens of packed pleasure craft plied their trade up and down our great river. The Embankment bustled with happy Londoners and tourists. We met at Temple tube station and headed west through Embankment Gardens, taking in Somerset House, the York Watergate, the Savoy. Through Embankment station we doubled back along the river bank past Cleopatra’s Needle, under Waterloo Bridge. The Blackfriars station redevlopment forced us to detour “inland” a bit taking in the Unilever building, the art-deco Blackfriar pub. Over the Wobbly Bridge we went, checking out Shakespeare’s Globe until we reached the Anchor pub.

And there most of us remained for the next three hours and more, happily downing away, the smokers in particular grateful for the fine conditions. This is the part of London Historians events that I enjoy the most: socialising with like-minded historians and making new friends. Everyone has their own particular interests, specialities. I love finding out what other historians are doing, what turns them on. When starting London Historians, this is exactly what we wanted it to be all about. Long may it continue.

So do look out for further London Historians events on our web site.

london historians thames walk

london historians thames walk

York Watergate marks the former position of the water's edge prior to embankment by Bazalgette.

london historians thames walk

The Art Nouveau Blackfriar pub

london historians thames walk

london historians thames walk

Brian Cookson

london historians thames walk

Sundowners. Earned.

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Crossing the River by Brian CooksonSetting up London Historians this past two months has seriously curbed my book reading. Whereas I’d normally expect to do a book in a week, it has taken me nearly a month to read Brian Cookson’s Crossing the River, subtitle: The History of London’s Thames Bridges from Richmond to the Tower. The more eagle-eyed among you will have noticed articles on Old London Bridge and Westiminster Bridge which Brian wrote for us, which are posted on the web site here. (Acrobat (.pdf) files).

So does this allow me to write a balanced item about the book? Absolutely. If I didn’t like it I simply would not have covered it. In fact, you will never see a negative book review on this blog, because what’s the point? I’m not a professional book reviewer and besides,  I’m only interested in spending time on a blog post to share something I think you’ll enjoy.

Cookson has arranged the book in geographical order, west to east, as the title suggests. This can be a little disconcerting for those used to reading history chronologically, but I think it works rather well. Each bridge has its own story, all are fascinating and no two are remotely similar. There are intriguing tales behind the funding of the structures (a dry topic amply and often amusingly redeemed by the author);  arguments, lobbying, tolls and vested interests; war; the architects and engineers; the local areas and how bridges affected them.

What struck me is how cheaply the earlier bridges were constructed compared to the mid-20th century onwards, even taking into account inflation. Also notable is how late the Thames got properly bridged, given its pre-eminent global status from the 18th Century onwards. Up until the early 1700s, Old London Bridge stood proud as the only road crossing in what is now the greater London area. Of the 40 or so bridges described, 19 were built during the Victorian period and a further 12 in the 20th and 21st Centuries. When it comes to feats of engineering, once again it was the Victorians wot done it.

A very pleasing feature is that most of the prominent builders are given separate pen portraits covering their careers, among them Rennie, Barry, Jones, Clark, Locke, Walker, Page and, of course, Bazalgette and Brunel.

Cookson has an informal, easy style which pushes you along Crossing the River‘s 300 pages with ease and pleasure.

Crossing the River: The History of London’s Thames River Bridges from Richmond to the Tower. Mainstream Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1840189762.

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