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.
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Bridge construction
in Greater London
opening dates after 1729
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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
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More bridges at last  ... 1729 - 1900
In 1729, London's second Thames bridge opened to traffic — a wooden bridge that crossed from Putney to Fulham. It is the predecessor of the Putney Bridge we have today.
And so the long period of river-crossing dominance by Old London Bridge came to an end. The growth and prosperity of the city and key support from the political sphere helped this come about.
Old Putney Bridge was followed by bridges at Westminster (1750), Blackfriars (1769) and Battersea (1772). As can be seen from the list at left, the turn of the century brought an acceleration in bridge building, starting with London's first cast iron bridge, Old Vauxhall Bridge (1816).
Many of the bridges were privately funded and the charging of tolls was used to pay back investors. With the coming of the railways, the bridge-building trend continued and the arrival of increasing numbers of passengers put pressure on the non-tolled bridges they headed for. In the middle of the 19th century, the charging of tolls was abolished.
Old London Bridge hung on but eventually work began on a replacement (1823). The new bridge was built alongside the old, which stayed in place, slowly crumbling into the Thames, until 1831. Its demolition was a major event in the city, and its demise had a big effect on the other bridges. The water flow was restored to full strength and caused havoc with their foundations.
The last bridge constructed in the 19th century was Tower Bridge, which has a central drawbridge to allow tall ships to pass into the Pool of London.
Earlier in this feature, we touched on the various factors that held back bridge building over the Thames before 1729 despite London's growth after the Middle Ages, when it began to overtake rival cities. The background section below begins by reminding us of some of these factors.
Here is some background, starting with more on the factors that held back bridge building until 1729 ....
Traffic patterns before the horse and carriage
As we have seen, up to about the end of the 17th century, most traffic moved up and down on the river rather than by road. River transport was big business and the men who plied their trade on boats and ferries represented a considerable pressure group when it came to proposals for new bridges.
A lack of need for bridges early on and the interests of the ferrymen were both factors in shaping the story of London's Thames bridges.
Bridge politics
The other major factor was that business interests were served by having only one bridge. And not just the business interests of the City of London, who owned and ran Old London Bridge, as discussed earlier.
Demand for more bridges began to grow from the mid 17th century onwards. The introduction of the horse and carriage (the first Hackney carriage was licensed in 1637) put pressure on London's roads and on the bridge. There were various ferries but these had their problems.
The Lambeth horse ferry to Westminster, run by the Archbishop of Canterbury (the present day Horseferry Road marks the site), eased congestion a little but because it frequently sank, it was not well liked.
A major proposal for a second bridge was made in 1664. It was made to the King's Privy Council and to the Lord Mayor. It was opposed by all those who benefited from restricted and congested access across the river — the ferrymen, the watermen and city businesses that did not want trade to move to the fringes of London.
In the end, the City of London paid Charles II £100,000 to scrap the proposal. Nothing more was heard of plans to build a bridge for nearly 100 years. Old London Bridge continued to get more and more congested.
The centre of London moves as the city grows
From the early 18th century, the centre of London began to move away from the river. Interest migrated to the new squares that were being built by landowners and speculators to the north and the west. The movement was accompanied by a growth in retailing. The West End became fashionable.
Traditionally, London had different markets for particular goods: Smithfield for meat, Billingsgate for fish, Queenhithe for grain, etc. A large proportion of goods was sold by hawkers. The early 18th century brought something new — high-end retailing in stylish shops. It's around this time that well-known retailers such as Hamleys and Fortnum & Mason were established.
This new kind of retailing increased cross-river traffic and renewed the demands for another bridge.
Building a bridge from Fulham to Putney
There had been a settlement at Fulham since at least the 8th century, when the Bishop of London was granted land there. The manor house, around which the settlement grew, later became known as Fulham Palace and continued to serve as a summer residence for the bishops right up to the early 20th century. The bishops owned a ferry, a very popular one since Fulham was on the main south-western route out of London.
In 1642, during the Civil War, a pontoon bridge was constructed at this spot, and in 1671 the first attempt was made to get a permanent bridge constructed. The enabling Parliamentary Bill was strongly opposed: some thought it would destroy London's prosperity, others argued it would stop the tide. The boatmen opposed it as an impediment to their trade. The Bill was thrown out.
However, the pressure continued to mount. In 1720, the pro-bridge lobby acquired a key supporter in Sir Robert Walpole who, because he represented George I (1714-27) at committee meetings (George did not speak English), is often seen as Britain's first Prime Minister. The occasion when Walpole was left stranded in a boat by drunken Fulham ferrymen may well have been the decisive point in London bridge history.
A new Bill was passed in 1726. Construction money was raised by private subscription and revenue was to be earned by the charging of a toll. London had its second bridge — Old Putney Bridge.
Building a bridge at Westminster
Along with demands for a bridge at Putney, various people were pressing for a bridge at Westminster. Petitions went to Parliament as early as 1721.
There was the same opposition as before, this time joined by the owners of Old Putney Bridge, who, having got their bridge and their £49-a-week toll revenue, were keen not to see it diluted. Matters were delayed for 16 years but in the end, the case was won and work began in 1738.
Both the watermen and the Archbishop of Canterbury, owner of the Lambeth horse ferry, had to be compensated for loss of business in the building of Old Westminster Bridge: £25,000 and £21,025, respectively. It was built by a Swiss engineer, Charles Labelye and paid for by Parliament. It was toll-free.
Westminster Bridge was a direct challenge to the City of London. Their bridge, Old London Bridge, lacked the attractive modern lines of the new one, was highly congested and was not toll-free. The City responded by knocking down all the shops and houses on Old London Bridge to widen the roadway and reduce congestion. In 1782, all tolls were removed but rather than easing congestion, this led to an increase in traffic.
Bridge boom and the demise of Old London Bridge
London, by now a city of 675,000 souls and expanding away from the river — to the north, south and west — and with commercial opposition to new bridges overcome, started building all the bridges it needed. Old Blackfriars Bridge was completed in 1769 and Old Battersea Bridge in 1772.
The world's first major cast iron bridge — Iron Bridge over the River Severn at Coalbrookdale — was completed in 1781. The invention of cast iron and advances in materials and engineering now made bridges easier to build and more ambitious designs possible. Old Vauxhall Bridge, completed in 1816 using a loan against future toll income, was London's first cast iron bridge.
Old Waterloo Bridge opened the following year and Old Southwark Bridge two years later. London's first suspension Bridge, Hammersmith Suspension (now demolished), opened in 1827. Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Hungerford Suspension Bridge (now demolished) opened in 1845.
In 1823 work began on a replacement for Old London Bridge. The foundations of the venerable structure, altered and re-altered many times, were eroding away and the bridge had become a danger to shipping. The new version of London Bridge opened alongside its predecessor eight years later, in 1831. Designed by Scottish engineer John Rennie, this bridge is perhaps best known for having ended up in Arizona.
And so, the bridge that had stood for over 600 years, one of the Medieval wonders of the world, was now to be demolished. Its removal caused serious erosion problems for the bridges upstream, as the current now increased considerably. Rennie's replacement only had three piers compared to the old bridge's 19 and the water was no longer held back.
The coming of the railways
After the initial bridge building spree, two factors contributed to congestion in London. The first was the toll payment system, which fuelled the amount of speculative bridge-building in anticipation of profit. You might think that this would ease congestion but people preferred to use the non-toll bridges and so headed for certain ones over others.
The second factor was the coming of the railways in the early 19th century. At first, trains terminated at stations each side of the river. The continued expansion of London led to enormous congestion around stations, particularly on the south side of the Thames, since everyone disembarking wanted to then cross over. Naturally, they looked for the toll-free bridges — Old Blackfriars Bridge and London Bridge (1831). Old Southwark Bridge was hardly used at this time because it charged a toll.
The City of London recognised that it had to buy the privately owned Southwark Bridge and remove the charge. It was a process, started in 1849, that took 17 years. When the London Metropolitan Board of Works was created it continued the process, buying eleven private bridges between 1878 and 1880.
The first railway bridge in the London area was designed by Joseph Locke — Barnes Rail Bridge — and opened in 1849. It was followed by the now-demolished Victoria Bridge in 1860, then Battersea Railway Bridge in 1863 and both the first Blackfriar's Rail Bridge and Charing Cross Rail Bridge a year later. Cannon Street Rail Bridge opened in 1866. Truly a railway bridge-building boom and at the end of it, most lines had a north London terminus.
Crossing below the Pool of London
The continued importance of the Pool of London — between London Bridge and the City of London's eastern boundary — imposed restraints on bridge design. The arrival of ships generated road traffic and a bridge was needed below the Pool.
The bridge had to allow tall ships to pass. Tower Bridge (1894) was the solution. It works like a drawbridge and was the last of the Victorian bridges to be built on the Thames.
Some ships, particularly collier vessels carrying coal to the Fulham and Wandsworth power stations, had to travel further up the Thames and this was made possible not by changing the bridges but by designing boats to cope with them. Colliers were built to be low in the water and had collapsible funnels and masts. They went upstream on the rising tide but could only return at low tide, since without their cargo they rode higher in the water.
Tunnelling was pursued in the late 18th century as an option that provided a crossing without interfering with shipping. Early attempts were all sited downstream of the Port of London, since the engineering was too complicated to undertake if a bridge could be made to serve the same purpose.
The first attempt was made by Ralph Dodd in 1798 and sited between Tilbury and Gravesend. It failed because water could not be pumped out fast enough. A second tunnel was attempted a few years later by Robert Vaize and Richard Trevithick (Limehouse to Rotherhithe) but was abandoned after a cave in.
It was Marc Brunel who made the tunnelling breakthrough with his invention of an iron cylinder that moved forward with the tunnellers, the design of which was based on his observation of wood-boring molluscs in ships' hulls. The Thames Tunnel was completed in 1843 and is still used by London Underground for East London Line trains.
The first (open cut) Underground line opened in 1863. However, the first Thames crossing didn't come until 1877 with the opening of the District Line, which used (and still uses) the Kew Railway Bridge. The Underground began using the Thames Tunnel in 1884 and went on to open the first of its deep level railways in 1890, which includes a tunnel under the Thames from what is now Bank Station to London Bridge Station.
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

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