The History of London Bridge — Richard Groome – 3rd November 2014

Richard, who ini­tially stud­ied Chemical Engineering, but now with his own com­pany, had a full house to hear his talk about the bridges built on the site of the present London Bridge, of which there have been at least 4, and which had fas­cin­ated him both for their Engineering and social his­tory.

The Romans built the first ones in timber, as part of their roads infra­struc­ture, choos­ing a spot that was ford­able at low tide and tra­vers­able at high tide by ferry. The North bank was more solid and led to higher ground – todays Cornhill, where a set­tle­ment sprung  up – and Londinium was foun­ded. Today, the bridge con­nects The City of London with Southwark.

King John built the next sig­ni­fic­ant timber bridge, 26 feet wide, 800 feet long, opened in 1209, which lasted over 600 years. The Engineer was a cler­gy­man Peter de Colechurch and it remained the only bridge over the Thames until 1729 when Putney Bridge was built.

19 spans, with build­ings crammed on it until 1760. Waterwheels, piers which were so close that the water rushed through with a dif­fer­ence in level of 5 feet, it took an hour to cross the Bridge because of the dens­ity of people and traffic which was even­tu­ally instruc­ted to ‘keep left’. Severed heads, includ­ing those of Oliver Cromwell, Thomas More and  William Wallace, were also dis­played up to the 1700s.

Construction and main­ten­ance of the Bridge was fin­anced by tolls, and in 1282 the Bridge House Estates was formed to admin­is­ter the fund, to con­tinue with the main­ten­ance. This Trust still exists and has assets of over £500m, owning prop­erty in London, bought with excess tolls in the past. The trust has con­trib­uted to the con­struc­tion of Tower Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge, Southwark Bridge, Millenium Bridge and main­tains them all at no cost to Londoners, as well as giving excess to char­ity.

In 1831 the next Bridge, in stone, designed by John Rennie, replaced the ailing timber one, when a his­tory of fires, set­tle­ment, ice, and over­crowding led to its demise.

The much bigger new one lasted until 1973, when the stone shell was sold to McCullough Oil Co., taken to Arizona, and recon­struc­ted to look like the old bridge.

The present struc­ture, built at no cost to London, funded by the Bridge House Estates, is a series of prestressed pos­ten­sioned con­crete box girders with stone clad­ding and built around the old one without inter­rupt­ing traffic. That’s Civil Engineers for you!

Lots of facts and fig­ures, expertly presen­ted, had us absorbed for a most enter­tain­ing and inter­est­ing morn­ing.