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London Bridge, London, UK

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The first 'London Bridge' was built by the Romans in around 50 AD when the River Thames was three times wider than it is today. They chose the first place along the River Thames that was suitable to bridge. A pair of gravel hills divided by a small stream and surrounded by streams and bogs must have appeared to be easily defensible on the north bank, with firm footing on the other side, and a natural narrowing of the river here. It was made of timber, and was slightly downstream from the current bridge.

London Bridge is Falling Down

Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

London Bridge has been rebuilt many times in its nearly 2,000-year history of spanning the Thames. The nursery rhyme 'London Bridge is Falling Down' reflects the ups and downs of the bridge. Nursery rhymes were often a way in which major historical events could be remembered and passed on. The materials in the rhyme do not necessarily reflect the material used for each bridge as listed here.

Once the Romans left, the bridge fell into disrepair and was rebuilt many times over the next 1,000 years. The next record of a bridge was in 984. In 1014 it was pulled down in the fight against the Danes who were occupying London. A storm in 1091 carried it away as the Thames rose with flood water, and it burned down in 1136.

Build it up With Wood and Clay

Wood and clay, wood and clay,
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair lady.

A new stone bridge was begun in 1176 and was designed by the monk, Peter of Colechurch, to replace the old wooden bridges. It lasted over 600 years as the only crossing over the Thames in London. It spanned the river on 20 arches, and had a drawbridge about a third of the way across so that large ships could pass through. The bridge was home to houses (building started on the houses before the bridge was complete), shops, a chapel, and gatehouses at both ends. It even boasted one of the new 'public conveniences' when they arrived a century later. It was finished in 1209, and was said to be 900 feet long and 20 feet wide. Peter did not live to see his creation finished. Dwellings were up to four storeys high, and documents in 1358 show that there were 138 shops on the bridge at that time. The bridge was so crowded that there were only three places where visitors could gather to look over the edge of the bridge. It was funded by the rent from the properties, and the City Bridge Trust, a charity to which 'pious gifts of land and money' were given to 'God and the Bridge.' The same trust also manages Tower Bridge.

Wood and Clay Will Wash Away

The arches were 30 feet wide and 20 feet apart, and the elm piers stood on 19 small islands of stone and brushwood called starlings, which were there to protect the bridge from erosion and collision. As they were strengthened with more stone over time, the channels between them gradually narrowed, creating white water rapids at high tide. This caused the river upstream to slow down so much that it froze solidly enough to hold Frost Fairs on the river itself.

This power was tapped at both ends of the bridge in the 1580s, with large waterwheels built into the first arch on the north side. This provided water to the local area. By 1720 there were four, in the two arches nearest the bank at each side; grinding corn at the southern end. This increased the speed of the river flowing through the remaining arches. Most people travelling the river got off the boat at one side of the bridge, and caught another one on the other side. It was possible to 'shoot the bridge', but only if the tide was just right.

The drawbridge fell into disuse in the year 1500, and 70 years later the drawbridge tower was taken down and replaced with dwellings. The bridge was a prime building site for around 500 years, with houses protruding out over the Thames in some cases. The benefit of this is that they did not need to rely on cesspits. Privies and chamber pots were emptied straight into the river.

Build it up With Bricks and Mortar

At the Southwark end of the bridge, the gatehouse, the Great Stone Gateway, began to be used to display the heads of traitors who had been executed. Previously they had been displayed on the drawbridge tower. The habit had started with William Wallace in 1305, and continued until 1678. Parboiled in the gatehouse and covered in tar to dissuade birds from feasting on them, they were stuck on spikes set into the gatehouse for this purpose. Sir Thomas More was one of the many heads to appear. A German visitor counted over 30 in the 1590s, and remarked upon the descendants who appeared proud of their forebears for this 'honour'.

Wat Tyler took the bridge without a fight during the Peasants Revolt in 1381 after threatening to burn the bridge down, as did Jack Cade in 1450 - although his head ended up on the gatehouse. The bridge was severely damaged by fire in 1212, and again in 1633. This last fire protected most of it from the Great Fire of 1666, as the previous fire had created a firebreak. Only a third was lost. In 1269 the tolls from the bridge were given to Queen Eleanor as a gift from her husband Henry III. She didn't use the money to maintain the bridge, and so ice damage caused five neglected arches to collapse in 1281.

The bridge was so busy that in 1722 an order was made that all traffic should travel on the left. Although this didn't relieve the congestion much, it became the rule of the road that still exists today.

Bricks and Mortar Will Not Stay

Between 1758 and 1762 the houses and shops were removed, and two arches were replaced by one central arch by the removal of one pier to allow larger ships to pass through. Westminster Bridge had been built by this time, and a new London Bridge was already being considered. A temporary wooden bridge was erected over the gap in the middle, but this burned down twice. The watermen increased the number of boats to prevent the city being entirely cut off from the south side, but fallen beams were causing an obstruction. 500 workmen worked on the replacement bridge, every day of the week, and finally the gap was bridged, with a distinct lack of buildings on it. The central arch still created rough waters, with eddies in the water causing danger to anyone trying to travel through. It also began to scour the river bottom, and the adjacent piers were in danger of being undermined.

Build it up With Iron and Steel

In the 1820s a new bridge was built, opening in 1831. This was made of granite from Dartmoor, and was built 180 feet upstream of the old bridge. The bridge had five arches, and was 928 feet long and 49 feet wide. The centre arch had a 152 feet span.

Once the bridge was opened, the old bridge was demolished in 1830. A cutler on the Strand bought all the steel traps that had strengthened the steelwork and made cutlery out of them. The elm timbers that were part of the bridge were turned into souvenirs such as snuffboxes. Two stone shelters that had been on the bridge are now at Victoria Park, Hackney, by St Augustine's Gate.

Sadly, as the chapel was dismantled, Peter of Colechurch's bones were discovered and tossed into the river. His bridge had passed the test of time, so maybe it is fitting that he now rests in the river that he helped to tame.

The bridge was widened in 1902, because the traffic had increased to serve the commuter. Stairs led down to the river on both sides - stairs which still exist today, although hidden in the new bridge.

Iron and Steel Will Bend and Bow

This bridge only lasted 140 years (despite surviving two world wars) because it had been sinking into the London clay since it was built due to its immense weight. The southern end had sunk 12 inches on completion, and had continued to sink at a rate of one inch every eight years. Increased traffic in the 1960s meant that some of the piers were lower by three to four inches on one side. The government decided to put it up for sale, and Robert McCulloch (McCulloch Oil Corporation), an American from Arizona, bought it in 1971 for £1,025,000 ($2.46 million) - a fair price for the 'world's largest antique.' Disassembled over three years, the bricks were coded so that they could be put back in exactly the same place (some of the bricks were discovered to have an older code on them - Rennie had used the same system when he brought the bricks from Dartmoor), and sent to Arizona to be reassembled over a specially-created river near Lake Havasu in 1967.

The story goes that as so many people associate the sight of Tower Bridge with London, they think it is London Bridge, and this American bought the wrong one. As urban legends go, it gives the English a great chance to mock the stupidity of another nation. The businessman knew exactly what he was buying however, and the previously tiny Lake Havasu City is now a major tourist resort, featuring the 'world-famous London Bridge.'

Build it up With Stone so Strong

Stone will last for ages long,
For ages long, for ages long,
Stone will last for ages long,
My fair lady

The 'new' bridge was opened on 16 March, 1973 by HM Queen Elizabeth II, and is made of concrete - probably one of the plainest of the incarnations, and of the bridges currently across the Thames. It was built section-by-section as the old bridge was dismantled so that traffic was not disrupted. The new outside lanes were built around the old bridge, and then the interior built as the old stones were removed - traffic moved to the outside lanes. Technology of the time meant that it only needed two supporting piers in the river, and the caissons (foundations) are hollow to allow essential services to cross the river. The sides are made of granite, and are topped with a stainless steel handrail. The pavements are heated in the winter.

The Nursery Rhyme

The rhyme was first recorded in 1744, with some slight variations. The refrain 'My fair lady' was written as 'with a gay lady', and London Bridge wasn't 'falling down', it was 'broken down'.

The couplets are considered to be a dialogue between two people, and were recorded around 1825 as:

Build it up with wood and clay
Wood and clay will wash away
Build it up with bricks and mortar
Bricks and mortar will not stay
Build it up with iron and steel
Iron and steel will bend and bow
Build it up with silver and gold
Silver and gold will be stolen away
Set a man to watch all night
Suppose the man should fall asleep
Give him a pipe to sleep all night

It is possible that the couplets used to rhyme. Iron and steel will bend and yield, silver and gold will be stoled, and, this Researcher suggests, bricks and mortar, do we oughta? As the language of the people singing the rhymes change, so do the nursery rhymes.

Fascinating Facts

Some of the 1831 bridge remains. As Tooley Street disappears under the bridge, the vault (the brick ceiling of an arch) of the bridge is still in use.

An average of 38,000 vehicles use this bridge every day.

There are versions of this rhyme in Germany, Denmark, France, Italy, Hungary, and Scandinavia.

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