special feature
What difference?
The story of London is the story of its
infrastructure and the bridges over the River Thames are a key part of that story. Find out the reasons for their construction and the difference they made to the city.
This feature was funded by
Awards for All
© 2021 Engineering Timelines
engineering timelines
explore ... how   explore ... why   explore ... where   explore ... who  
home  •  NEWS  •  search  •  FAQs  •  references  •  about  •  sponsors + links
The Bridges of London
introduction |  infrastructure is destiny |  the Romans |  Anglo-Saxon period
Medieval period |  Old London Bridge |  the growth of London |  more bridges at last
the modern city |  MAPS |  reading list
Infrastructure is destiny
Perhaps nothing has defined the development of London so much as
its relationship to the River Thames.
Historically, the river performed two key functions. First, it presented a defendable north-south barrier in times of military conflict, and second, it provided a navigable east-west trade route through the city and beyond. So, where and when Londoners chose to bridge the river had a crucial impact on the military and economic life of the city.
At first, the people of London relied on one bridge, with ferrymen serving other crossing points. The first bridge, built by the Romans, was replaced many times in timber (although there may have been times when there was no bridge) until it was eventually rebuilt in stone (in the 13th century). In this period, the river was the main transport route — the roads were poor and overland travel fraught with difficulties.
As time passed and the city and nation grew, the river was to become a great commercial highway for the import and export of goods. Keeping it navigable, preventing it from flooding and enabling it to be crossed has kept generations of engineers busy. They have designed bridges, jetties, ferries, tunnels, embankments, weirs, sluices, water supply systems, power generation systems, and many other engineering works. And they continue to do so today.
Below is an outline of the path London took in relation to its Thames bridges. You can read the story in more detail in the pages that follow.
Living with just one bridge
For much of London's history, the city possessed one of the sights of its age — Old London Bridge, the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. From its completion in 1209 until its replacement in 1831, it played a major role in the life of the city — it's structural design affected the flow of the Thames and navigation on the river; it functioned as a defendable city gate; it enabled control of north-south trade and the imposition of tolls; and it became central to the social life of the city and the city's principal thoroughfare. And, as already noted, it was the only bridge across the Thames at London until 1729.
Two main factors conspired to bring this about. Firstly, there were financial and commercial pressures that worked against the building of further bridges. The City of London ran Old London Bridge and collected rents on its buildings and tolls on trade crossing it. So, it was in their interests to block further bridge construction.
Secondly, until the arrival of the horse and carriage in the mid 17th century there was no overwhelming need for another bridge, as the river itself remained the main transport route. All the royal palaces and London's grand houses came to be built along it and hundreds of stairways were built down the banks for access to boats rowed by boatmen, who could be hired like taxis are today. Horses could cross at fixed ferry points.
The ferrymen also represented a considerable pressure group. River transport came to employ thousands of people whose livelihood depended on Londoners paying them to cross the Thames. When other bridges did finally go ahead, the enabling Acts of Parliament had to make provision for the paying-off of ferrymen at bridge sites.
Infrastructure both restricts and facilitates
The story of London is the story of its infrastructure. Bridges, or the lack of them, are a key part of that story, as we have seen. In general, the addition of a bridge can bring different social groups into conflict. We think of bridges as links, providing access from one side of an obstacle to the other. But they can be obstacles themselves: hindering river traffic, for example. They could also expose a city to military attack.
In London's early history, London Bridge made it possible to move across the Thames but was also a barrier against ships sailing up the river. The barrier affected east-west trade while, at the same time, making north-south trade possible. Part of London's story is the interplay of these factors — infrastructure that by turn restricts and then facilitates access.
Building a lot more bridges
Eventually, the pressure on Old London Bridge became too great and demands grew for bridges at other locations, such as Westminster, which was (and is) outside the area controlled by the City of London.
Following the construction of Old Putney Bridge in 1729, early versions of many of the bridges we know today were built in the following 120 years, reflecting the physical growth of London, improvement and expansion of the road network, and the growing success of London as a commercial centre. Many of the early bridges were built by private companies who charged tolls to repay their investors.
The coming of the railways brought another flurry of bridge building, starting in 1849 with Barnes Rail Bridge. The railway companies were for the most part seeking access to the north side of the Thames for their lines coming up from the south and built a series of bridges, principally in cast and wrought iron, in the second half of the 19th century.
Tunnels, too, were constructed — beginning with the world's first major sub-aqueous tunnel, the Thames Tunnel, which opened in 1843 and is still in use today. It was followed by (among others) the first Blackwell Tunnel (1897), Greenwich Foot Tunnel (1902), Rotherhithe Tunnel (1908) and the London Underground tunnels that serve the train network.
From the second half of the 19th century onwards, some new bridges were built but also many of the original ones were replaced with more modern structures, and these 'second generation' bridges make up the larger part of the bridges we have in central London today.
As so many of London's bridges have predecessors with the same name, we have adopted the convention of naming the earlier bridges with the prefix 'old'. We hope this will avoid confusion.
Wider influence
Both the decision made by Edward the Confessor to move his court to Westminster (where he was restoring the monastery) — allowing the city to develop away from the royal court — and the scale and dominance of Old London Bridge were big factors in shaping London. The City of London was granted bridging rights and worked to protect its interests by holding back further bridge construction. This concentrated trade near the bridge, one consequence of which was the rise of merchant banking in the City.
Britain went on to become the financier of the world and, through its empire and the industrial processes brought by the Industrial Revolution, had an impact on the infrastructure of many parts of it.
introduction |  infrastructure is destiny |  the Romans |  Anglo-Saxon period
Medieval period |  Old London Bridge |  the growth of London |  more bridges at last
the modern city |  MAPS |  reading list

home  •  news  •  search  •  FAQs  •  references  •  about  •  sponsors + links