The most famous bridge in the world is without doubt the infamous London Bridge. The ditty ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ is sung by children in all corners of the globe. It captures the essence of the misfortunes of this much destroyed bridge and lays it at the door of the fair lady’s corruption.
FACT 1: The River Thames separates London from Southwark. Before Medieval times the only way to get across the Thames was by an unreliable ferry or an even more unreliable rickety wooden bridge. In 1176, King Henry II commissioned a permanent bridge, built of stone. A priest, Peter of Colechurch designed and built the foundation of the bridge, but died before he could do any more. Other citizens of London completed the bridge. It was opened in 1209, 33 years after work first started.
FACT 2: The bridge, called London Bridge was 275 m long. It had 20 gothic arches. It was much more than a bridge. Is was a tiny little village, with a central chapel, shops and houses. It had a waterwheel, a mill, gates and a drawbridge. The houses on either side were 7 stories high. They jutted out into the river for about 2 m and as the residents built additional rooms, the house on the east side started to meet the houses on the west side, creating a tunnel bridge.
FACT 3: The add on’s to the bridge halved the 8 m wide road, leaving only 4 m for traffic. The horses, carts, livestock and pedestrians who wished to make the North- South journey from London to Southwark were squashed into one lane, leaving one lane for the South-North, Southwark to London travellers. It took about one hour to cross the bridge.
FACT 4: The Bridge was destroyed by fire in 1212, leaving 3000 people dead. The fire started in a house on the Southwark end and sparked a fire on the London end. Caught in the middle the residents jumped into the river preferring a watery death to a fiery one.
FACT 5: The nex collapse was in 1281, when the expanding ice of the frozen River Thames crushed 5 of the arches. The bridge suffered repeated collapses in 1309, 1425, 1437. The Fair Lady in the Nursery Rhyme refers to Queen Eleanor who was accused of misappropriating revenue from the bridge and neglecting its upkeep.
FACT 6: The Bridge gained a terrible notoriety when the monarchy took to impaling the severed heads of ‘traitors’ on the spikes above the stone gatehouse of the Bridge. The first head, dipped in tar to preserve it, was Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace, 1305. Other celebrated heads include Jack Cade, Thomas Moore, Guy Fawkes and Oliver Cromwell. This barbaric practice was discontinued in 1678.
FACT 7: As London began its ascent to capital city of the world, traffic increased and Westminster Bridge was built in 1750. All houses were removed from London Bridge in 1762, creating a 14m carriageway. Structural changes made during this renovation, led to severe erosion on the river bed. Maintenance of the bridge became unmanageable.
FACT 8: Engineer John Rennie was commissioned to design and build the ‘New London Bridge’ some meters upstream. The New Bridge was started in 1824. As with Peter of the Old Bridge, John of the New Bridge died before its completion. His sons completed the construction. Its opening in 1831 was attended by King William IV and Queen Adelaide.
FACT 9: The Old Bridge finally disappeared in 1832 after 622 years of faithful service to the people of London and Southwark. In contrast the New Bridge lasted less than 140 years. An engineer in 1832 could not envision the volume of automobile traffic that would need the bridge in the 20th century. The bridge started to sink at the rate of 3 cm in eight years. By 1924 the east side of the bridge was 102mm lower than the west.
FACT 10: The New Bridge was dismantled and sold to Robert P. McMulloch in October 1971. He shipped it, block by block to Arizona, USA. It presently stands over Lake Havasu and is Arizona’s second largest tourist attraction after the Grand Canyon. The New London Bridge is the world’s largest antique, its lampposts having been fashioned from the metal of Napoleon Bonaparte’s canons. The replacement bridge in London is called the Modern London Bridge and is built of pre-stressed concrete beams.