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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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
The modern city  ... 1901 onwards
Although this feature has taken the form of a history,
the story of the bridges of London is by no means over. New, just as colourful, chapters will continue to be added for as long as the city exists.
It has always been true that the role of the Thames bridges is vital in terms of wealth creation, as we have seen in the various periods discussed. Transport has been a key factor in the shaping of the city. And it is still true today. We haven't given up dreaming about bridges.
In the first half of the 20th century, some of the older central London bridges were replaced. Greater weight capacity, wider roadways and more robust foundations were all now needed. Reinforced concrete and steel were the materials of choice. New bridges were built at Twickenham and Chiswick to help cope with increased road traffic.
Rennie's 1831 London Bridge of granite was also feeling the pressure of increased traffic. It was replaced in 1972 by three slim spans of prestressed concrete, the latest incarnation of London Bridge.
In 1991, as part of the M25, the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge was completed at Dartford. It was the longest cable-stayed bridge in Europe at the time, and it remains the only bridge downstream of Tower Bridge. And that fact is still highly relevant, as many believe that the development of East London has been held up by a lack of north-south transport connectivity.
The city's two most recent bridges are footbridges: the Millennium Bridge (2002) and the new Hungerford pair of footbridges (2003), also known as the Golden Jubilee Bridge. And there are plans for more .... a high-level road crossing, possibly at Greenwich or near the Thames Barrier, and an opening cycle and footbridge between Canary Wharf and Surrey Quays for completion in time for the 2012 Olympic Games.
London remains a busy, congested and influential world city. It is home to a population of more than 9 million people. The Thames has more bridges than any river in a comparable city and they all receive heavy use. In as much as London is about people and goods moving around, and about doing business, her bridges as are as important today as they ever were.
However, London is not the same sort of city as it used to be. It's still a port but the huge dock complexes — centres of the import and export of trade goods — have gone. They have been replaced by an extended financial centre and an airport. Today, Londonís principal trade is information and financial services, which has led to the development of another kind of infrastructure. But the Thames and its bridges are still important to the city.
In conclusion ....
Infrastructure is destiny
London's long history — made up of events and decisions, big and small — has shaped the city we have today. As we have seen, geography, military necessity, trade access, local and national politics, religion and world events (to name but a few factors) have all played their part.
It's possible to trace a line from Edward the Confessorís decision to move the royal court to Westminster, outside the city walls, through the circumstances surrounding the building of Old London Bridge and its subsequent dominance, to the rise of the merchant bankers and London as a a world financial centre.
The move to Westminster allowed Medieval London to develop away from the court. Old London Bridge was the first stone bridge in the city and its siting and scale was important. It took 33 years to construct and was completed only in King Johnís reign because, among other things, he ceded bridging rights to City merchants in return for cash.
This created a situation where the bridge served the City of London more than it served the royal court and because London was then starved of further bridges for the next 500 years, it concentrated trade in the City. One aspect of this trade was the rise of merchant banking.
From the 18th century onwards, merchant bankers specialised in providing money for foreign investment and turned London into a world financial centre. Britain became financier to the world. This went hand-in-hand with imperial expansion, which required the ability to raise cash to invest in trade routes so that raw materials and manufactured goods could be exchanged.
In effect, the whole massive story of 19th century infrastructural expansion — including the railways in Canada, Russia and India — can be traced back to the incubatory effects of restricting the number of bridges over the Thames.
If London had had more than one bridge before 1729, would it have grown to be as big as it has?
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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