The heritage of the Thames and its bridges

Guest post by David English, Historic Places Principal London, Historic England.

It is impossible to describe the history of London coherently without starting with the Thames. The waterway forms a third space that has complimented, constrained, nourished and inspired the development of the city, which has grown up around its banks. So, if the River Thames is to London what a mother and father are to a child, what does that make the bridges that tie north and south London together?

The Thames and its landscape have been intrinsically linked to human habitation for around 500,000 years. London’s urban history starts with the Roman settlement of Londinium nearly 2000 years ago. The Romans developed quays for loading and unloading goods on the north bank of the river with warehouses to service them, making London a hub for trade. Their use of the Thames as a key route to the rest of their empire was a strong portent of London’s mercantile character which survives to this day. In order to move large numbers of people, especially soldiers, the Romans constructed the first known bridge across the river, providing the essential link between the major routes that fanned out to the south and to the north. This effectively made Londinium a crossroads that helped to control Britain and its trade. In turn the bridge supported the development of a settlement on the southern side of the river, at the northern end of modern Borough High Street, another cornerstone of modern Londoners’ identity; are you from north or south of the river?

Centuries later after the Romans had abandoned Britain, the Saxon settlement of Lundenwic was also sited beside the river, away from the vestiges of deserted Londinium and its ruined bridge. Following the Viking invasions which prompted the Saxon King Alfred the Great to reoccupy and rebuild the Roman city walls, London Bridge was also rebuilt. This process of rebuilding the timber bridge was repeated several times over the following centuries, due to fires, wear and tear, wars and even a tornado, which all put this vital link, at risk. Despite this history of the bridge falling down, raising inevitable questions about how it should be rebuilt, it is unclear if the London Bridge in the children’s nursery rhyme is one of these medieval structures, or ‘Old London Bridge’, the first stone bridge across the Thames in London.

Old London Bridge was built between 1176 and 1209, and would endure until 1831. This bridge developed into a microcosm of the capital. With its two gatehouses surmounted by the gruesome heads of executed traitors it became part of the City of London’s defences and a key site for displaying the power of the City and the Crown; it was a focus for religious devotion with the chapel to St Thomas of Canterbury marking the start of the pilgrimage route to Canterbury; it was a shopping street, with densely packed housing above, including some of the most innovative architecture of the time such as the prefabricated Nonsuch House; a source of danger, with fire destroying swathes of this housing several times; and it was a power house, with waterwheels built between several of the bridge’s arches to take advantage of the fast flowing water beneath.

John Speed, Long View of London, from the South Bank, as it appeared before the fire of 1666, 1610.

© Trustees of the British Museum

The nineteen arches of the medieval bridge, with their massive cutwaters, so narrowed the flow upstream of the bridge as to make it dangerous, if not impossible, for large commercial traffic to pass upriver. The location and design of the bridge supported the development of the Pool of London – a key part of London’s commercial port until the 1960s – downstream for sea going traffic, with lighter traffic upstream. This pattern of development had become entrenched by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when major new dock developments were all constructed to the east of the City shortly before London Bridge itself was renewed. These docks supplemented the major shipyards at Woolwich and Deptford founded by Henry VIII, and other industrial uses that were developing in East London. In these ways the Thames and London Bridge are at the heart of how London’s diverse characteristics developed, shaping the identity of the city and its residents to this day. But what of the other bridges?

John Norden, The View of London Bridge From East to West, 1597.

© Trustees of the British Museum

The oldest structure over the Thames in London is now the Grade I listed Richmond Bridge which opened in 1777. Of the fifteen bridges that will be covered by the Illuminated River artwork the average age of the bridges is 103 years old. The earliest of these structures date to the second half of the 19th century (Grosvenor, Albert, Westminster, Cannon Street, Blackfriars road and rail, and Tower Bridge), with the changing riverscape illustrating London’s dramatic growth, associated with the arrival of the railways and the development of the British Empire. Bazalgette, most famous for transforming the river by building sewers and the Embankment, was responsible for the beautiful Albert Bridge, as well as designing three others upstream. Henri Marc Brunel and Sir John Wolfe Barry, both sons of two of the giants of British architecture and engineering (Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Charles Barry had both been involved with the design of Thames crossings) were partners in designing both Blackfriars Rail Bridge and the illustrious Tower Bridge. London County Council was responsible for a group of road bridges in the early 20th century (Vauxhall, Chelsea, Southwark, Lambeth and Waterloo), showing the power of municipal intervention to enhance the function and amenity of the City, and the impact of motorised transport on urban planning. More recently London, Millennium and Golden Jubilee Bridges tell us about the reign of our own Monarch Elizabeth II, of Britain’s creative talent and the renaissance of parts of London associated with heritage, arts and global tourism.

Despite these amazing stories, the bridges and the Thames somehow feel overlooked. They are not only a key part of our infrastructure, they also have a deep symbolic value and resonance, including for the most tragic reasons such as the terror attacks in 2017 at Westminster Bridge and London Bridge. The bridges along the Thames are some of London’s most special focal points that enable us all to take in the magnificent city panoramas, as well as events of national celebration such as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant. Historic England strongly believes the bridges merit further recognition and celebration. For this reason we welcome the Illuminated River Project, and the attention it will bring once again to the ebbing and flooding, flowing heart of London.