45 years ago today, London Bridge was sold to American oil tycoon Robert P McCulloch for a cool $2,460,000. The landmark was subsequently dismantled and shipped over to Lake Havasu in Arizona, where it was reassembled and still stands today.
This was the 19th century granite bridge, designed by John Rennie, itself a Victorian replacement for a medieval predecessor. The bridge was sinking, and needed urgent attention. Rebuilding was deemed preferable to repairing So, on 18 April 1968 the old bridge was sold and history was made.
But this wasn’t a simple case of selling off unwanted goods to the highest bidder. “It was a novel thing, and there was a lot of anxiety in Britain around that time,” explains Travis Elborough, author of London Bridge in America: The Tall Story of a Transatlantic Crossing. “The Empire had fallen and America emerged as the new, post-war super power. This idea that Americans could now come and buy our old bridges (or huge chunks of of Britain) hit a nerve.”
Travis calls it a “strange time” in London history. He says the idea was to rebuild London to look a little more like Los Angeles — expressways and all. “This was an elaborate example of the purpose-built new city, and how we dealt with things that had gone past their purpose. We were repurposing old, industrial buildings in that area.” And knocking them down. The Victorian Euston Arch had only recently been demolished, and campaigners had to fight hard to save the (now treasured) Midland Grand hotel at St Pancras. Meanwhile, huge new roads like the Westway were tearing through residential areas. The new London Bridge — the one we use today — is a functional but unlovely concrete span.
Londoners eager to see the remains of Rennie’s London Bridge need not book a flight to Arizona. Only the shell was shipped off to the States. Travis says the bulk of the stone that didn’t go to America went to Merryvale Quarry in Devon, but bits of it remain in situ as “Nancy’s steps” (named after the character in Oliver Twist, who seals her fate here), on the Southwalk side of the current bridge. The remaining Rennie arch houses the Mug House pub on Tooley Street — the perfect place to celebrate the anniversary of this historical business deal.
By Laura Kramer