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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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