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 growth of London  ... 1484 - 1728
Perched off the coast of Europe with access to the sea, London was in the ideal position to trade with the continent. By Elizabethan times, 80% of England's export trade, which was mostly wool, was passing through London.
In 1565 London had a population of 85,000, the equivalent of the next six largest English towns added together. By 1605 this had nearly doubled to 155,000 and if the homeless are taken into account, the true figure was probably nearer to 200,000. Fifty years later the population had doubled again.
How was this growth possible? Where did the necessary food, water and energy come from? And how did Old London Bridge — still the only river crossing at London — fit into this story of massive expansion?
Here are some of the answers ....
The city's food supply
London's food came from the surrounding countryside on both sides of the river. It was brought in to market by road and by boat, and presumably also via the bridge. As more food was needed to feed the ever-growing population, supplies were sought further afield.
By the 17th century, eggs and geese were coming from as far away as Northamptonshire, sheep from Gloucestershire, cattle from the Midlands, cider from Devon and turkeys from Norfolk.
London Bridge provides drinking water
The Thames had always been a major source of drinking water for London. However, only those who lived nearby had ready access to it. Most people got their water by diverting the flow of tributaries en route to the Thames. As London grew and some tributaries were filled in, this ceased to be an adequate solution.
In 1580, Peter Morris came up with the idea of using the water passing under Old London Bridge to drive a tidal mill that could pump water out of the Thames. To prove his point Morris rigged up a demonstration. He fired a jet of water over the chapel on the bridge and it cleared nearby St Magnus's steeple easily. The mill began to pump water in 1582. By 1809 there were five water wheels on the bridge lifting 4 million gallons a day.
It seems amazing to us that people drank Thames water — after all, it was the main sewer for London. The company that ran the tidal mills admitted that the water was "foul" but suggested that if you let it stand for 24 hours so the sediment could settle, the result was "finer than any other water that could be produced". If the river's water was responsible for death and disease, no one made this connection until the mid-19th century. By 1800, half of London's water came from the Thames.
Today, water is supplied in a pressurised system and is available at every tap at all times. But when London relied on the water wheels, the supply was gravity-fed. There was a network of pipes connecting the pumps to as many streets as possible but the water did not flow through them all consistently. A system of valves was used to to direct the water flow to different groups of streets on different days. These were known as 'water days'.
Supplying London with energy
Medieval England faced an energy crisis. Wood was its main fuel but a good deal of the forests had already been cut down. By the 13th century it was common for forges to be shut down through lack of wood. The crisis eased in the next century when the Black Death killed off a third of Europe's population. But by the 15th century the shortage was so acute that only the wealthy could afford firewood. When London burned in the Great Fire of 1666, wood had to be imported for the rebuilding.
London was able to grow only because its massive heating and cooking fuel needs were met by coal supplied by sea and river from Newcastle. Coal is far superior to wood in energy terms, releasing five times as much energy per weight. By comparison, London's European rivals, such Paris and Madrid, did not have a similar waterborne national transport system. They didn't have the same sort of cheap energy on tap.
Coal started arriving in London in the 14th century. Between 1650 and 1750 the amount of coal from Newcastle increased from 325,000 to 650,000 tonnes a year. The wreck charts of the east coast show by the relative numbers of ships lost with various cargos that in terms of volume, coal was London's most important trade in this period. When London was rebuilt after the Great Fire, it was the tax charged on coal that paid for most of it.
London becomes a world trading centre
Fuelled with adequate supplies of food, water and energy, London continued to grow. The British defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 allowed British trade ambitions to expand and Britain began to colonise the eastern American seaboard. Imports in the 17th century rose fourfold.
By 1700, London was handling 80% of the country's imports, 69% of its exports and 86% of re-exports. Successes in the Seven Years War (1756-63) led to the colonisation of India and Canada. Trade increased further, tripling between 1720 and 1800.
With success comes congestion and dock building
The massive expansion in trade created congestion on the Thames. There was no easy way to control river traffic. When the winds and tides were favourable all the ships would arrive at once. For much of the 18th century there would typically be 1,800 ships trying to cram into a space that only held 500.
Old London Bridge acted as a barrier to tall ships, concentrating them in one area of the river. This area is known as the Pool of London. It lies between London Bridge and what at that time was the city's eastern boundary.
Cargo theft was another growing problem. Congestion made it worse. One solution implemented in the early 19th century was the creation of highly secure docks where cargo could unload. Built downstream, where the river was wide, the docks could cope with large numbers of big ships. And with their fortress-style walls, 7m high in some places, they were secure against piracy.
London, unlike Liverpool, built its docks with private finance. To tempt investment, the city offered 21-year monopoly rights on all ships coming to London. A dock-building boom followed. The West India Docks were built on the Isle of Dogs in 1802, the London Docks at Wapping in 1805. The East India Docks were built at Blackwall in 1806 and the Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe in 1807. By 1811 more than £5m would been spent.
In the end, too many were built — demand outstripped supply and the operating companies started to go bankrupt. In 1908 they were purchased by the Government and nationalised.
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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Old London Bridge Old London Bridge
London, UK | 1176 / 1209
... The first Thames bridge in London to be built in stone