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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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doggett1_2501 August 1715 was the first instance of Doggett’s Coat and Badge rowing race between newly-qualified watermen, up the Thames from London Bridge to Chelsea. Unlike today, there were no further bridges to pass under and the river was almost entirely unembanked, hence considerably wider than today. Once past Westminster, the vista would have been comparatively sparce of buildings on both banks. The boats are notably different too. The original participants raced in the craft of their craft: a wherry, the London cab of its day.  Today, the racers are more fortunate, using modern Olympic class single skulls. This race has been competed almost every year since, making it the longest continuously-run sporting event in the world. Yet compared with the much newer Boat Race (1829), it is hardly known. The prize for the winner is a handsome scarlet coat decorated with a solid silver sleeve badge. It comes with a dinky matching cap. The badge depicts a leaping horse and the word “Liberty”. The founder of this ancient competition was Irish-born Thomas Doggett (1640 – 1721), an actor and successful theatrical impresario. He was and ardent Whig and supporter of the new Hanoverian monarch, George I. He endowed the Doggett’s Coat and Badge race in celebration of the new Georgian dynasty, leaving provision in his will for its continuation in perpetuity. It was supposed to be administered by the Watermen’s Company – logical – but an executor of Doggett’s will, Mr Burt of the Admiralty Office, instead charged the task to the Fishmongers’ Company, who do the job to this day. The fund in 1722 was £350.

Modern winners of the race on procession at St Katharine Dock, 2015.

Modern winners of the race in procession at St Katharine Dock, 2015.

There is a dedicated web site to the race, here. It has lots of information including history, the course, the rules, a list of every winner, etc. The line-up this year are: Louis Pettipher, 24, from Gravesend, Charlie Maynard, 23, from Erith, Dominic Coughlin, 24, from Cuxton, Ben Folkard, 23, from Maidstone all of whom raced last year, plus first-timers Frankie Ruler, 21, from Blackheath, and Perry Flynn, 21, from Kennington. The race starts at 11:30 at London Bridge tomorrow, 1 August. Approximately half an hour later it will finish at Cadogan Pier, Chelsea, next to Albert Bridge. I am meeting some fellow London Historians on Albert Bridge at 11:30 to see the end of contest. We’ll then go to the Cross Keys pub nearby. Anyone is welcome to join us.

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Today I spent a pleasant hour or so loafing by the Thames with a pair of fine gentlemen, Mr Woolf and Mr Shepherd.

We were there to witness the start of this year’s Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race at London Bridge, the oldest continuous sporting event in the world. Five recently-qualified young watermen (there can be up to six) row as fast as they can to Chelsea. The winner is awarded a fine scarlet coat and a silver badge. The race dates from 1715 and originally celebrated the accession the Hanoverian dynasty. It was sponsored by the Irish theatre impressario Thomas Doggett, an ardent Whig. Doggett was keen on watermen, for they who would frequently carry him from central London to his home in Chelsea, what became almost the exact route of the race. Or vice-versa, of course.

Update 15/7/2014: Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race now has its own website.

dogett's coat and badge

In those days there was no way of traversing the river upstream of London Bridge until you reached Kingston Bridge, except by boat. London Bridge itself was a difficult enough crossing anyway, clogged up as it was by houses and shops. So watermen provided a vital service to Londoners – they were the black cab equivalent of their day, as garrulous and opinionated as today’s cabbies apparently are. There were around 2,500 of them in the early 18th Century.

While wandering the dusty far corridors of the web, I found a rather nice piece of verse celebrating the Thames. It’s by the 17 century waterman John Taylor, who called himself the Water Poet. It’s an extract from an enormous piece called In Praise of Hemp-Seed , published in 1630, but probably penned a little earlier. Taylor first compares the river favourably with any in the world, he then describes the bounty it bestows and finally laments how we neglectful Londoners pay it back with shit and ordure. One can only wonder what our 17C environmentalist would have made of it two hundred years later. Anyway, it goes like this.

The names of the most famous riuers in the world.

Maze, Rubicon, Elue, Volga, Ems, Scamander,
Loyre, Moldoue, Tyber, Albia, Seyne, Meander,
Hidaspes, Indus, Inachus, Tanaies,
(Our Thames true praise is farre beyond their praise)
Great Euphrates, Iordane, Nilus, Ganges, Poe,
Tagus and Tygris, Thames doth farre out-goe.
Danubia, Ister, Xanthus, Lisus, Rhrine,
Wey, Seuerne, Auon, Medway, Isis, Tine,
Dee, Ouze, Trent, Humber, Eske, Tweed, Annan, Tay,
Firth (that braue Demy-ocean) Clide, Dun, Spay,
All these are great in fames, and great in names,

But great’st in goodnesse is the riuer Thames,
From whose Diurnall and Nocturnall flood
Millions of soules haue fewell cloathes and food ;
Which from twelue houres to twelue doth still succeed,
Hundreds, & thousands both to cloath & feed,
Of watermen, their seruants, children, wiues,
It doth maintaine neere twenty thousand liues.
I can as quickly number all the starres,
As reckon all things in particulars :

Which by the bounty of th’All-giuing giuer
Proceeds from this most matchlesse, famous Riuer.
And therefore ’tis great pitty, shelfe or sand
From the forgetfull and ingratefull land,
Should it’s cleare chrystall entrailes vilefy,
Or soyle such purenesse with impurity.
What doth it doe, but serues our full contents,
Brings food, and for it takes our excrements,
Yeelds vs all plenty, worthy of regard
And dirt and mucke we giue it for reward ?

You can sift through the whole hemp-seed poem  here.

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The Monument LondonI’m ashamed to say after more than three decades in this wonderful city, I had not been up the Monument. Today we got our act together and climbed the 311 steps to the viewing platform of this most handsome column, bequeathed us by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. It costs £3 and when you return to ground level, they give you a rather nice certificate to commemorate your feat. The Monument was erected in six years between 1671 and 1677  to commemorate the Great Fire of London. It is at its own height in distance (202 feet) from the bakery in Pudding Lane where the fire started.

The panorama from the viewing platform near the top is as agreeable as you might expect. There is a particularly fine view of Tower Bridge just downriver and the all-but-complete Shard to the south. As you peek down across Lower Thames Street you can see the Wren church of St Magnus Martyr with its magnificent old clock (1711). This is where old London Bridge traversed the Thames (its current incarnation is about a hundred yards upstream).

The Monument London

The Monument London

The Monument London

The Monument London

The Monument London

St Magnus Martyr in front of the site of old London Bridge.

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Today during some Twitter banter, London Historians member and  John Keats expert Suzie Grogan mentioned Keats’ statue at Guy’s Hospital. Strange place for a tragic poet, thought I. As it happened, I had wanted to visit Guy’s for some time to inspect an alcove from Old London Bridge which found its way there after the bridge was demolished and replaced in 1831. I had an hour to spare this afternoon so I nipped down there. Imagine my delight to discover that the statue in question is of Keats actually sitting in the alcove itself. Wonderful. Old London Bridge was still standing during Keats’ short life, so he may have stopped off in one of these alcoves, maybe this very one.

And the Guy’s thing? Keats was a medical student there. I didn’t know that.

old london bridge alcove, guy's hospital

john keats statue, guy's hospital

Update 1: For more on scattered remains of Old London Bridge, The Great Wen has a recent post here.

Update 2: The above-mentioned Suzie Grogan has written a post about Keats’ time at Guy’s here.

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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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