Bridges known as London Bridge have a long history with several bridges being built over the years across the River Thames between the City of London and Southwark, in central London. The earliest such bridges were built by the Ancient Romans when London was known as Londinium. The first major London Bridge, now known as the Old London Bridge, was completed in 1209 and lasted more than six centuries. After its deterioration, another London Bridge, now known as the New London Bridge, was inaugurated on August 1, 1831. This bridge was replaced by the Current London Bridge, or the Modern London Bridge, which was opened on March 17, 1973.
The Current London Bridge is a box girder bridge with a length of 269 m (882.5 ft) and a width of 32 m (105.0 ft.). The London Bridge in all its iterations (versions) has been a prominent feature of Great Britain. It has been mentioned in numerous literary works including Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. However, its most famous mention is in the hugely popular nursery rhyme “London Bridge Is Falling Down”. Here are 10 interesting facts about the London Bridge.
#1 THE EARLIEST KNOWN LONDON BRIDGES WERE BUILT BY ANCIENT ROMANS
There have been many London Bridges over the years, the earliest being those erected by the Romans. London was known as Londinium at the time and served as a major commercial centre in Roman Britain. The early Roman versions of London Bridge would likely have been constructed mostly or entirely out of wood. The first bridge was probably a Roman military pontoon type bridge while, around 55 CE, a permanent timber piled bridge was constructed across the Thames. These early bridges were susceptible to destruction via fire and war, both of which were prevalent in Roman Britain as the island’s tribes warred with the Romans. Notably, Boudica’s Revolt, the largest war against the Roman Occupation of Britain, left London destroyed, probably destroying the Roman-era London Bridge along with it. That said, the general location of London Bridge would endure, as would its status as a “bridge” through eras of English history. Boudica herself would remain a British folk hero, with a statue near Westminster memorialising her fight for freedom.
#2 THE OLD LONDON BRIDGE LASTED FOR MORE THAN SIX CENTURIES
The Old London Bridge was completed in 1209 and lasted until 1831. To put that into context, Old London Bridge’s beginnings predate King John being forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, while 1831 saw the coronation of William IV and Charles Darwin’s voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Old London Bridge was notorious for having the heads of traitors and political dissidents displayed on pikes. Famous cases include William Wallace and Oliver Cromwell. There are accounts of as many as 30 heads being displayed at the Southwark Gate in 1599.
Samuel Pepys gives us a unique account of London life in the mid-1600s, including the Great Fire of London in 1666. Pepys describes watching it “burning down all Fish-street, by London Bridge” and the destruction as being like “one entire arch of fire from this to the other side of the bridge.” Unlike its modern iteration, Old London Bridge had a whole neighbourhood of homes and shops built atop it, with Pepys telling us that at least “300 houses” were destroyed by the Great Fire. A major fire in 1633 destroyed the northern third of the Old London Bridge. This, in turn, prevented it from being completely destroyed during the Great Fire.
#3 REMNANTS OF OLD LONDON BRIDGE MAY BE SEEN AROUND LONDON
As the Old London Bridge was overloaded with housing, shops, chapels and even a palace, it created a bottleneck which impeded traffic flow. This led to the buildings being swept away in the 1760s to create a wider roadway. Nonetheless, by 19th century, Old London Bridge’s foundations were crumbling. In 1799, plans for a New London Bridge were approved 30 meters up the Thames from Old London Bridge’s site, so as not to disrupt traffic during the transition.
While Old London Bridge is nearly completely gone today, its remnants can still be seen around the London area, while other fragments are scattered far and wide. The best known are the pedestrian alcoves, 14 of which graced the bridge in Georgian times. Two of these distinctive shelters may be seen at Victoria Park in East London; one can be found in the modern London Bridge area; while another is present in East Sheen, Richmond. Also, a collection of stones, which are believed to be from the Old London Bridge, may be seen at the courtyard of St Magnus the Martyr church.
#4 THE NEW LONDON BRIDGE WAS INAUGURATED ON AUGUST 1, 1831
London Bridge has long served as a point of connection between different points in English history, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the transition between Old and New London Bridge. Demolition of Old London Bridge was concurrent with the erection of New London Bridge, with the transition captured in an 1832 painting titled The Demolition of Old London Bridge, which today hangs in the Guildhall Art Gallery. On August 1, 1831, the new bridge was inaugurated with a banquet by William IV and Queen Adelaide.
One thing not lost in the transition between Old and New London Bridge was the odiously atrocious state of its sanitation. From the Medieval and Elizabethan Period to the Regency and well into the Victorian era, London was notorious for its terrible sanitation, especially around the Thames, as satirized at the time in Punch magazine. For centuries, latrines on the site emptied directly into the Thames, and those living in the homes and shops on Old London Bridge would “do their business” and dump it out the window.
#5 IT IS MENTIONED NUMEROUS TIMES IN THE WORKS OF NOVELIST CHARLES DICKENS
New London Bridge’s rise coincided with London’s greatest literary chronicler, Charles Dickens. Our image of London is influenced a great deal by Dickens’ portrait of the city. The London Bridge featured in nine novels by Dickens – more than any other bridge in his works, making it one of the most frequently recurring landmarks in the Dickensian canon. London Bridge is often used by Dickens as a tabula rasa (clean slate) in which he projects the mood and tone of his characters and Victorian life.
It serves as a bridge to the past as Pip references the change between the Old and New London Bridge, visiting the area and noting that “It was Old London Bridge in those days” while reflecting on his separation from Estella in Great Expectations. More joyously, David Copperfield, while staying with the Micawbers in London declares “my favourite lounging-place in the interval was old London Bridge.” New London Bridge, meanwhile, conveys “the life” and “the history” in Little Dorrit as the titular character does work for her father and family, “turning at the end of London Bridge, re-crossing it, [and] going back again” as part of her demanding daily routine.
#6 IT IS USED EXTENSIVELY IN THE FAMOUS POEM THE WASTE LAND
The literary history of London Bridge in its various iterations continued with T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. Written in 1922, it is the seminal English-language poem of the 20th century. A key moment in it describes “the brown fog of a winter dawn” as “A crowd flowed over London Bridge” to mourn the passing of those lost during the First World War. The poem uses London Bridge and the surrounding area as a literal and figurative bridge to different points in the city and its history. St. Magnus makes an appearance in its former glory, adorned with “Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold” while fishermen fish outside, as they would have in the days of Old London Bridge. “King William Street” and “Saint Mary Woolnoth”, the latter being an old, small cathedral in the City of London, likewise appear along the mourner’s route from New London Bridge. Reinforcing London Bridge’s role as a place that spans space and time, it appears in the first passage of the poem as well as the last, with Eliot linking the fallen state of civilization to the famed nursery rhyme, “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down.”
#7 NEW LONDON BRIDGE WAS BOUGHT BY AN AMERICAN OIL BARON
By mid-20th century, the strain on New London Bridge was becoming apparent. The rumble and weight of so many cars roaring across it weighed heavily on the bridge, and it began to sink into the Thames, prompting it to be dismantled and replaced yet again. Unlike previous iterations of London Bridge, however, New London Bridge was not demolished. Instead, it was bought by the American oil baron Robert McColloch for $2.46 million on April 18, 1968. When the bridge was taken apart, each block was meticulously numbered. These blocks were then shipped via the Panama Canal to California and trucked from Long Beach to Arizona. It cost an additional $7 million in the transfer of the bridge and its reconstruction. The reconstructed New London Bridge was completed in 1971 (along with a canal). This bridge, which links an island in the Colorado River with the main part of Lake Havasu City, is a popular tourist attraction.
#8 THE CURRENT LONDON BRIDGE WAS INAUGURATED ON MARCH 17, 1973
While New London Bridge was being deconstructed, the Current London Bridge was being born. This iteration of London Bridge was designed by the architect Lord Holford and the engineers Mott, Hay and Anderson. Designed with extra girders so as to accommodate cars and the increased flow of traffic, the bridge took a little bit more than five years to complete. Construction began in 1967 and the bridge was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II on March 17, 1973. Unlike the transition from Old to New London Bridge, with the latter being moved 30 meters from the site of the former, the Current London Bridge stands on the same location as the New London Bridge. The Current London Bridge is a box girder bridge and it is built from concrete and steel. A box girder bridge is a bridge in which the main beams comprise girders (or support beams) in the shape of a hollow box. Visible from the Current London Bridge is the HMS Belfast, a Second World War-era battleship which serves as a floating naval museum
#9 THE CURRENT LONDON BRIDGE IS WIDEST OF ALL ITS ITERATIONS
The three major iterations of London Bridge have each featured their own constructional quirks which link them to the architectural and social trends of the day. Old London Bridge was remarkably narrow, measuring just 20 feet wide in average and 26 feet at the most. However, given the age of these records, their authenticity is in dispute. The bridge was between 800 and 900 feet long and was held up by 19 arches spaced at irregular intervals. The New London Bridge, by contrast, was nearly double that width at 49 feet wide and slightly longer at 928 feet long. It featured a five-arch system of supports designed by the Scottish engineer John Rennie the Elder, with construction after his death being overseen by his son Sir John Rennie the Younger. The Current London Bridge is much more architecturally streamlined than the other two. Moreover, it is 882.5 feet long and a much more comfortable 105 feet wide. Its longest span is 341.2 feet while it has a clearance of 29.2 feet. The cost of constructing the Modern London Bridge was £4 million (£55.5 million in 2018) and it was met entirely by the Bridge House Estates charity.
#10 LONDON BRIDGE FEATURES IN ONE OF THE BEST KNOWN RHYMES
London Bridge Is Falling Down is one of the most popular rhymes in the English-speaking world since the late 19th century. It is speculated that the rhyme is connected to the several of the bridge’s historic collapses and it deals with attempts, realistic or fanciful, to repair it. While it is a popular nursery rhyme, its origins splinter off into many different versions and sources. While the earliest record of the rhyme dates back to the 17th century, games associated with it as well as the notion of “London Bridge falling down” may stretch back to the Medieval Period. Given how many disasters befell Old London Bridge over the years, it is difficult to tell which incident, if any, inspired different versions of the rhyme. Lyrics close to the current version of the rhyme were first printed in mid-18th century while the rhyme gained in popularity in Britain and the United States in the 19th century. The rhyme has been referenced in works of literature and popular culture numerous times and there is much speculation about its meaning as well as the identity of the “fair lady” of the refrain.