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Old London Bridge, site of
River Thames, near present London Bridge
Old London Bridge, site of
associated engineer
Peter of Colechurch
date  circa 1176 - 1209
era  Medieval  |  category  Bridge  |  reference  TQ326804
ICE reference number  HEW 255
photo  London Metropolitan Archives
One of the city's defining historical structures, Old London Bridge was the first stone crossing of the River Thames. With its many arches, rows of tall houses and fortified gate sporting traitors' heads, the bridge became one of the sights of Europe. It remained the only bridge across the Thames in London for more than 500 years.
The design of the bridge is attributed to the priest, Peter of Colechurch, who also supervised its construction, though he did not live to see it completed. Spanning 275m of tidal water with a masonry bridge was no mean feat at the time and it took 33 years to accomplish.
However, Peter had some experience, since he had supervised the rebuilding of the earlier timber bridge at this spot, a project that started in 1163. This site has an almost 2,000 year history of bridge building, starting with the Roman bridge of circa 50 AD — other timber bridges followed but we don't know how many. Most likely, many were destroyed by fire or flood, and it was the major fire of 1133 that damaged the bridge (to an unknown extent) and led to Peter supervising its reconstruction in 1163.
So to the first masonry bridge, Old London Bridge. It had 19 arches made of Kentish ragstone, resting on 20 piers, or starlings, which were boat-shaped and made by driving wooden piles into the river bed and then ramming in loose rubble. Cross-timbers were used to strengthen the whole.
At the southern end was a wider opening of about 8.5m with a drawbridge. The whole bridge sloped up towards the middle, where it cleared 9m at low water. On the ninth pier from the north bank, Peter built a stone chapel in the Gothic perpendicular style. It was dedicated to St Thomas Becket, who was born on the corner of Cheapside and Ironmonger Lane in 1118. When Peter died, he was buried in the crypt of this chapel.
One thing that really distinguished this bridge was the extraordinary number of dwellings and shops that were constructed on it. They started to go up as soon as the bridge was complete and by the 14th century, there were 198 buildings, all providing rental revenue. As the bridge was the main access to London for trade goods from Europe, further revenue came from toll fees. And also from bequests by merchants. This income maintained the bridge and all subsequent City bridges — the bridge was maintained by Bridge House Estates at least as early as 1283. In 1580, a waterwheel was installed at the northern end to pump water for the City — another revenue generator. It wasn't removed until 1822.
Many changes were made to the buildings on the bridge over the years. The chapel became a residence in 1550. The central roadway was only 3.6m wide and the houses came to loom over it, overhanging it and even spanning it in places. By the late 18th century, the bridge was exceedingly crowded. All the buildings were taken down in 1760-62.
There were problems at water level too. The number of piers caused difficulties from the start. The flow of the river was reduced by the structure and a kind of tidal barrier formed. River traffic had to shoot the rapids to get through. The bridge also stopped ice movement, enabling the Thames to freeze over in harsh winters. When this happened frost fairs were held on the frozen surface. The most famous was in 1683-4, the last 1814.
The structure was altered many time to try and improve navigation and to keep the bridge in reasonable repair. Small arches were replaced with bigger ones, culminating in the removal of a central pier in 1762 and the creation of a wide arch. However, this made matters worse as it led to erosion around the foundations of adjoining piers. The bridge became a danger to shipping and Parliament decided in 1821, after an enquiry, that it must be replaced.
In 1823, the Corporation of the City of London obtained a parliamentary Act to enable Old London Bridge to be demolished, though it remained in use until its successor was complete. It finally came down in 1832.
Today, there's nothing to be seen of the famous old bridge. But you can walk in the footsteps of countless Londoners if you visit the Sir Christopher Wren-designed church of St Magnus the Martyr in Lower Thames Street. Part of the approach to the bridge passed through the porch.
bibliography
"The Annals of London" by John Richardson
Cassell Paperbacks, London 2001
"London: A Social History" by Roy Porter, Penguin Books, London 1994
"London: 2000 years of a city and its people"
by Felix Barker and Peter Jackson, Macmillan, London 1974
reference sources   CEH Lond
Location

Old London Bridge, site of