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Old Westminster Bridge (1750), site of
River Thames, Westminster, London, UK
Old Westminster Bridge (1750), site of
associated engineer
Charles Labelye
date  29th January 1739 - 18th November 1750
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Bridge  |  reference  TQ305797
ICE reference number  HEW 264
Five hundred and forty years separate the completion of Old London Bridge from the construction of the next permanent bridge on the Thames in central London the first Westminster Bridge.
By 1700, London was the largest city in the world and many people lived west of the old Roman city site, in the area we know as the West End. The pressure of traffic on and around Old London Bridge was enormous, since it was the only way a carriage or cart could cross the river, short of travelling up to Fulham or Kingston. So getting to Westminster, where Parliament was established in 1295, was difficult.
A bridge at Westminster was first proposed in 1664, when Charles II was on the throne. The City Corporation, who had a vested interest in keeping Old London Bridge as the only bridge since they earned income from it, and the watermen who ran ferries, all objected. The matter was dropped after the King accepted an interest-free loan offered by the City.
Another attempt was made in 1721 but this too came to nothing. Finally, a Bill was presented to Parliament in February 1736 and it received Royal Assent on 20th May. Commissioners were appointed to control the project and compensation was paid both to local watermen and to the Archbishop for the loss of the Lambeth horse ferry.
Unusually for a bridge, lottery tickets were sold to raise the money needed. Lotteries were much in favour at the time. However, the first one for the bridge was a failure for lack of sales and four additional ones were necessary.
There was also controversy over the design of the bridge. Architect Nicholas Hawksmoor had made the design put forward to Parliament but the commissioners had control over this aspect and now looked wider. At the time there was no body of expertise here in construction of bridges over major rivers and they must have considered looking in Europe. In the end they appointed the relatively inexperienced Charles Labelye, a naturalised Swiss engineer and architect. He was appointed in May 1738.
The initial design was for a timber superstructure with stone piers and abutments. This was abandoned after damage to the works caused by the severe winter of 1739-40, during which the Thames froze solid. All 140 wooden piles were destroyed.
So Labelye produced a design for a Portland stone bridge with 13 large semicircular arches and two small, and work recommenced. A critical misjudgement of the underlaying riverbed led to one pier subsiding after the last stone of the bridge had been laid in October 1746, making it necessary to rebuild the pier and two arches. The structure then survived two earthquakes in 1749. In addition, England was at war with France and Spain (1740-48), the Jacobite invasion took place in 1745, and there were many accidents and acts of sabotage, all of which played a part in delaying completion of the bridge.
When the two central arches of Old London Bridge were replaced by a single wide one on 1759, the foundations of Westminster Bridge suffered from scouring caused by the increased tide flow, an effect magnified even further when Old London Bridge came down in 1832. Seven select committees and many well-known civil engineers were involved in Westminster Bridge's maintenance.
By the middle of the 19th century, it was obvious that a new bridge was required, partly, one suspects to complement the new Houses of Parliament, built to replace the original Palace of Westminster (which burnt down in 1834).
And so, Labelye's stone bridge, which was some 27m longer than Old London Bridge, was replaced in 1862 by Thomas Page's seven iron-ribbed elliptical arches, which we still use today.
Stonemasons: Andrews Jelfe, Samuel Tuffnell
Illustration by Thomas H. Shepherd, engraved by M.J.Starling
reference sources   CEH LondCR

Old Westminster Bridge (1750), site of