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Old Waterloo Bridge (1817), site of
River Thames, Waterloo, London, UK
Old Waterloo Bridge (1817), site of
associated engineer
John Rennie snr
date  1811 - 18th June 1817
era  Georgian  |  category  Bridge  |  reference  TQ306805
ICE reference number  HEW 263
photo  courtesy Professor Roland Paxton
The first Waterloo Bridge is generally considered to be John Rennie’s finest. At the time it was the most expensive bridge ever built in Britain, and it entailed significant temporary works. Constructed in masonry, it was demolished in 1934 after some of the piers began to sink, and was replaced with the present concrete structure.
Until the beginning of the 19th century, the only bridge on the stretch of the River Thames between Old Westminster Bridge and Old London Bridge was Old Blackfriars Bridge (all now replaced). For a timeline of bridge construction on the Thames at London, see Bridges of London. In 1806, increasing development in this zone led speculators to seek construction of a toll bridge connecting The Strand on the north bank to Lambeth (Southbank) — the site of a sharp bend in the river.
During 1806-9, engineer George Dodd (c.1783-1827) worked on the first design proposal, for a masonry bridge. However, his lack of experience and skill soon became evident, and his involvement ceased. In 1811 he was declared bankrupt.
In June 1809, an Act of Parliament incorporated the Strand Bridge Company with capital of £500,000. John Rennie (1761-1821) was appointed the project’s chief engineer. He designed a nine span masonry bridge in a restrained classical style, clad in Cornish granite from Penryn with balustrades of Aberdeen granite. The bridge approaches were carried on brick arches (40 arches on the south viaduct and around 12 on the north).
The structure in total, including the approach viaducts and ramps, measured 881m in length. The bridge was 378.6m long between abutments. The nine elliptical arches were equal in span and rise — 36.6m and 10.7m respectively — carrying a level road deck 13m wide. The deck accommodated an 8.4m carriageway and two raised footpaths of 2.3m. Headroom above high water was 8.1m. The arch voussoirs increased in size from the crown to the springing, and the arch centres were preloaded to minimise deflection when the centring (scaffolding for erecting the arches) was struck.
The superstructure was supported on eight river piers 6.1m thick and 25.9m wide, cutwater tip to cutwater tip. Each pier sat on a stepped masonry base. A pair of stone Doric columns was placed above each cutwater, rising to just below the bridge deck and supporting rectangular embrasures that formed refuges at road level. Masonry entablatures and balustrading ran the length of the bridge on either side. Stone staircases on each bank provided access to the river.
The foundations for the abutments and piers consisted of rows of steam-driven timber piles, around 6.1m long, connected by a grid of timber capping beams about 610mm deep, set below the level of the river bed. The gaps between the beams were packed with rock, and timber decking 152mm thick laid on the capping beams as a construction base for the masonry work. Cofferdams were put in place to enable construction.
Bridge construction was carried out under the supervision of resident engineer James Hollinsworth (d.1828). Francis John William Thomas Giles (1787-1847) made surveys and soundings and was responsible for the set-out. The first stone was laid on 11th October 1811, accompanied by a commemorative lead plaque and a set of coins of the realm in a glass container.
Two more Acts of Parliament were passed in relation to the bridge, in 1813 and on 20th June 1816. The second one allowed a name change from Strand Bridge to Waterloo Bridge, in honour of the "brilliant and decisive Victory" at Waterloo (Belgium) in 1815, when an Allied army led by the Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley, 1769-1852) defeated the French in the Napoleonic Wars.
On the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, 18th June 1817, the bridge was opened by the Prince Regent — the future King George IV — with the Duke in attendance. The bridge had cost £618,000 to construct, or £937,393 including the approaches. Italian sculptor, Antonio Canova (1757-1822), described it as "the finest bridge in all Europe".
However, the bridge was not a huge financial success, as people made detours to cross toll-free at Westminster or Blackfriars. In 1878, Waterloo Bridge was nationalised under the Metropolitan Toll Bridges Act (1877). It was bought by the Metropolitan Board of Works (est. 1856) for £474,200 and the toll was abolished.
After the 1832 demolition of Old London Bridge, which had been something of an impediment, the flow rate of the river increased. This caused greater levels of scour around Waterloo Bridge's piers, exposing many of the timber foundation platforms. The Metropolitan Board of Works spent about £62,000 in 1882-4 laying concrete slabs around the platforms to protect them from erosion.
Then in 1923, three piers on the south side of the central arch were found to be sinking, with consequent subsidence in parts of the parapet and carriageway. The mid-channel river bed is of gravel underlain by London clay, and at the third and fourth piers from the south side the gravel layer is only 2.7m to 3.1m thick — the timber foundation piles would have passed through it into the clay layer. Remedial strengthening works were undertaken but pier settlement was so severe that the bridge was closed to traffic on 11th May 1924, amid fears that its "condition of unstable equilibrium" could deteriorate rapidly.
A temporary iron girder bridge was constructed to the east by Sir William Arrol & Co. This was used while major repairs were carried out to the piers, and it was retained after the works were done for use by vehicles travelling south. The main bridge re-opened for northbound vehicles. The two piers of the central arch had sunk 762mm and 356mm, respectively, so the arch was propped with timbers.
Meanwhile, discussion continued over the eventual fate of Rennie’s bridge, and how to meet the needs of London's river and road traffic growth. London County Council, successor to the Metropolitan Board of Works, considered retaining the structure, with suitable underpinning and strengthening, and building a new bridge at Charing Cross to add extra traffic capacity. Other options included reconstructing the bridge to its original appearance but making it wider, or constructing an entirely new bridge at Waterloo.
In February 1925, the council opted for a new bridge, with not more than five river arches, and carrying six lanes of traffic. However, in order to borrow money for capital works the council was obliged to submit to Parliament an annual London County Council (Money) Bill. The cost estimate was £1.295m. Parliamentary approval would not be granted until 1936.
However, on 12th June 1934, the Council decided to demolish Rennie's bridge and proceed with construction, using rates revenue to finance the works. Demolition began eight days later, on 20th (or possibly 21st) June, when the leader of the council Herbert Stanley Morrison (1888-1965, later Lord Morrison of Lambeth) lifted the first stone.
The bridge weighed some 101,600 tonnes and removing it had to be accomplished without endangering the stability of the nine arches or obstructing river traffic. The deck and parapets were removed and four temporary girder ribs installed over the arches, bearing on the piers. Steel centring was erected under the arches (except the centre one as it was already supported on timber centring) and connected to the ribs by suspender rods.
The ribs carried electric cranes travelling on rails, which were used to dismantle the arches simultaneously by working inwards from the outer faces. Once the remaining masonry had reached about one-quarter width, the weight was transferred to the centring and the arches broken to complete their demolition. The ribs were removed, then the piers and foundations taken apart inside steel sheet-piled cofferdams. The work revealed the original footings to be too shallow for the loads they carried.
The demolition plan was designed by engineering practice Rendel, Palmer & Tritton, who were also working on the preparatory works for the reinforced concrete replacement bridge [ Waterloo Bridge (1945) ]. The contractor was again Sir William Arrol & Co, working on a "value-cost" basis. The total expenditure on this phase was £331,135, of which £263,093 was for the demolition.
The existing approaches were largely used for the new bridge, so some of Rennie’s work survives. The foundations forming part of the embankment wall on the north side, and the stone-faced elliptical arch spanning Belvedere Road as part of the southern approach, are part of his original scheme.
Construction of the new bridge was delayed by the onset of World War II (1939-45). It opened to vehicles in 1942, and was completed in 1945.
Resident engineer: James Hollinsworth
Temporary steel bridge (1924-5): William Arrol & Co
Demolition (1934): William Arrol & Co Ltd
Research: ECPK
"Waterloo Bridge" by Brian Cookson, London Historians, August 2011
"Opening of Waterloo Bridge" official booklet, London County Council, Monday 10th December 1945
"Waterloo Bridge", The Engineer, pp.382-383, 11th April 1924
reference sources   CEH LondBDCE1

Old Waterloo Bridge (1817), site of