City River & Bridge

I doubt very much whether London would exist now without the ever-flowing presence of the Thames through the middle of our wonderful City. The Thames is one of the World’s great rivers, albeit of a relatively short length compared to some of the others.

The name Thames is still much discussed by historians and the general consensus seems to be it is of Celtic origin meaning ‘dark’ river.

The river rises in the county of Gloucester. There are two sources claimed, one at Thames Head Kemble and another at Seven Springs Glos. It flows for 215 miles to the sea and although we tend to think as Londoners of the Thames as our own, we do share it with other counties from Gloucester and Wiltshire in the West to Essex and Kent in the East. It flows through many towns and villages including Oxford, Windsor and Richmond on its meandering journey to London, and thence to places such as Greenwich, Tilbury and Gravesend on its way to the sea in the East. It is a tidal river as far as Teddington with a tidal range of 7 metres and can flow at 5mph. The Thames ends its journey on roughly a line between Warden Point on The Isle of Sheppey and Havengore Creek in Essex.

It has served both as a barrier and as a highway for invaders over the centuries. The Celts, Romans, Saxons, Danes and Vikings have all sailed or rowed up its course, to either bring trade or trouble to its shores. During World War II and also during the 1950s an anti-submarine boom was created between Sheerness and Shoeburyness to counter any attempt to slip into the Thames estuary by foreign submarines.

The Romans, under their general Aulus Plautius, may have forded the river in the Tilbury, Gravesend area on their way to Colchester during the invasion of AD 43, although this is open to conjecture at present.

The Vikings were great seafarers, but also they were extremely anti-social and made use not just of the Thames but also the rivers that flow into the Thames, such as the Medway and Lea, to carry out their depredations. They would most certainly had ASBOs issued against them today.

One more surprising thing to us today is that Barking on the north bank, now part of Greater London, was a busy fishing port as late as 1850. In 1832 there were 140 large fishing vessels registered to the town.

Returning to London, there probably was no City here before the Romans. The road from Kent and the coast would probably have crossed the river in the Vauxhall area before continuing north to Marble Arch and onto St Albans. This track eventually became Watling Street but had probably been in use for hundreds of years. The Romans wanted somewhere that was more easily defended, and looked a couple of miles east to the two points of higher ground which we know as Cornhill and Ludgate Hill, with two small rivers, the Fleet and the Walbrook, to provide extra security.

The Romans built the first bridge, connecting probably a newly made causeway in Southwark to the northern bank.

This bridge and those that followed on this site were all termed London Bridge and this was the only bridge-crossing in London for 1800 years. We must assume that the original bridge would have been replaced and repaired many times.

After the Romans left, the existing bridge would have fallen into disrepair and been destroyed altogether as London became depopulated, the Thames serving as a boundary between the sometimes hostile kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex. It is possible that King Alfred may have built a new timber bridge when he reoccupied this part of the country.

Following the Norman conquest, William the Conqueror had a new bridge built, although apparently it was destroyed by a tornado in 1091. It was replaced, but again destroyed by fire in 1136. It was rebuilt yet again, and in 1163 the last timber built bridge was erected.

After the murder of Thomas Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry II in an act of contrition and penitence had a stone bridge built, which included a chapel constructed at its centre dedicated to Thomas Becket who had now become a martyr. This chapel became the start of the pilgrimage to his Canterbury shrine. The chapel also had a lower entrance at river level for access by boat. The bridge itself was not completed until 1209. King John and Edward I, who followed him, could not afford the upkeep of the bridge and in 1284 the City of London acquired the charter for the bridge and its maintenance.

The bridge had a drawbridge to allow passage of tall ships, and defensive gatehouses at both ends. In 1358 there were 138 shops on the bridge and interestingly there were multi-seated public toilets overhanging the parapets. One can only imagine the conversations that would have taken place: "Shouldn’t have had that nettle stew last night!" There were also private latrines along the bridge for the wealthier customers.

Fires were a major hazard on the bridge, and there was an especially serious fire in 1212. Also some of the shops and houses on the bridge were burnt during Watt Tyler’s revolt in 1381 and also in Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450.

By the Tudor period there were some 200 buildings on the bridge, some as high as seven storeys, some overhanging the river and the bridge roadway.

More gruesome was the display of severed heads of traitors impaled on spikes at the southern Gatehouse.

Some of the heads were dipped in tar and boiled to protect them from the elements. The tourist authority at the time obviously wanted as much mileage out of them as possible.

In 1620, just downstream from the City, alongside a jetty next to the Shippe Inn, a small ship called the Mayflower weighed anchor and set sail for the sea and eventually to Massachusetts. Now those crafty old cider drinkers in Devon have tried to take the credit for the Mayflower leaving from Plymouth. In fact she left from Rotherhithe, stopping at Southampton and Plymouth for repairs and stores. This information should encourage many people in the USA to speak with a ’sarf’ London accent, and eat pie and mash instead of burger and chips.

The London Bridge completed in 1209 lasted until 1831. The bridge had been modified, the road widened, and two of the arches replaced with a central span over the years, but it is still remarkable that it lasted so long. It was decided to demolish the houses on the bridge to enable the widening of the roadway, and the clearance of the shops and houses was completed in 1762 after over 500 years of occupation.

However, the bridge had become weakened probably by all the works and it was decided to build a new one. John Rennie submitted a plan for a new bridge and it was decided to build it about 100 feet upstream from the existing bridge. The new bridge opened in 1831 and carried 8000 people and 900 vehicles (carts) per hour during the day. However it was subsequently found that the bridge was sinking an inch every eight years. By 1924 the east side had sunk by 4 inches, and it was decided that the bridge would have to be replaced in the near future.

In 1967 the Corporation of London in one of their more commercial moods put the bridge on the market and started to look for potential buyers which seemed rather ambitious at the time. However a certain Mr Robert McCulloch, an oil baron, purchased the bridge for two and a half million dollars. Each piece was numbered and shipped to Arizona at Lake Havasu City and opened in October 1971.

The current London Bridge designed by Lord Holford was opened by Queen Elizabeth in March 1973. In 1984 HMS Jupiter visiting the Pool of London managed to collide with the bridge causing damage to both bridge and ship.

The poor old skipper and the navigator’s yeoman were court martialled for this lapse.

Tower Bridge is the bridge most people associate with London and the river. Its design makes it look a lot older than it actually is. It was opened in 1894 to help relieve congestion on London Bridge. It connects Bermondsey on the South Bank with the east of the City on the north bank. Interestingly the northern end of the Bridge is in Tower Hamlets. The Bridge is a bascule and suspension construction. When the bridge was planned, the Pool of London to the west of the site, between it and London Bridge, was still a very busy part of the commercial docks. The south bank was a congested area of warehouses, and this required the passage of sea-going vessels being able to dock and unload. Tower Bridge therefore was built with two bascules (drawbridges) which would open to allow the ships passage.

Originally the bascules were powered by hydraulic power (i.e. water pressure) and the bridge had its own hydraulic machinery and steam engines for this purpose. There were also stables on the south approach, the horses being available to assist carters with a heavy load on the steep incline. The Bridge Master had a house enabling him to ‘live on the job’, located on the southern approach to the bridge. Two walkways connect the north and south shores at high level, and these could be used by pedestrians when the bascules were raised. However they gained a reputation for nefarious activities and were closed in 1910. Tucked away under the northern approach is a set of steps leading into the water. This was known, and still is as ‘dead man’s stairs’ as it was the place that the river police or others landed any corpses found in the river. The river police now have their headquarters about half a mile downstream in Wapping. At Wapping also was the site where felons convicted of piracy, after being convicted and executed, had their bodies hung in chains on the foreshore to be washed by the tides.

The Bridge is now an iconic tourist attraction, with the walkways giving a panoramic view of docklands; the old steam engines can also be seen, and I would urge anyone who has not done so to visit this wonder of engineering.

The City of London is responsible for the five bridges that are located within the City of London, namely Tower, London, Southwark, and Blackfriars bridges as well as the pedestrian only Millennium Bridge. The cost of these bridges comes from a charity set up in 1282, the Bridge House Estates, for the maintenance of the old London Bridge. The Trust through donations and tolls established a large property portfolio over the centuries and as well as the maintenance of the Bridges, the fund uses any surplus funds for the use of charities throughout the Greater London area.

This is just a brief description of the Thames in the City, but there are hundreds of stories to be told about the riverbanks and the river. I would encourage City residents and others to pop in Artizan or Barbican Libraries where there are many books about the river and its history.

Best wishes

Mr T.