Medieval London Bridge is a thing of legend. For centuries it was the only crossing point for the Thames that didn’t involve stepping into a boat, but it wasn’t necessarily the safest option. Here are some of the dangers that could befall someone travelling between Southwark and the City both on and under the bridge, between its construction in 1209 and eventual replacement in 1831.
London Bridge is falling down? Only in bits. The Great Stone Gate at the Southwark end developed cracks in 1425 and on 14 January 1437 it collapsed, taking the arches on either side with it. Incredibly nobody died, though the masonry stayed in the river for the next 400 years, proving an obstacle for boats navigating the river. But five men weren’t so lucky in 1481, when a house built on the bridge collapsed and took them with it.
By 1664 the bridge was in such a state of disrepair that Samuel Pepys recorded how one day “my leg fell in a hole broke on the bridge”.
The Great Fire of 1666 began just round the corner from the bridge’s north end and you won’t be surprised to hear that the houses on that side were destroyed. But fire hit London Bridge on several other occasions.
Jack Cade‘s 1450 rebellion ended in a horrible battle on London Bridge, with the rebels setting fire to houses at the southern end. Hall’s Chronicle (not quite contemporary) describes people jumping into the river to escape the flames. Jumping forward to 11 February 1633: a servant girl of one John Briggs, a needlemaker who lived next door to St Magnus the Martyr church, left some hot ashes under the stairs of the house and started a fire. Medieval London Bridge was aligned slightly to the east of the current bridge and the church was right by the northern end; the fire swept towards the middle but couldn’t jump the gap of ‘the Square’, an empty space by the chapel about a third of the way down.
Another careless servant started a fire at a brushmaker’s house on 8 September 1725, in what’s now Tooley Street. It reached the bridge and all the houses on the east side over the first two arches were destroyed; houses on the west side and the Great Stone Gate were badly damaged but the gate’s bulk stopped the fire spreading beyond.
See also: the Great Fire of Southwark.
Less a peril for ordinary Londoners, but those unfortunate enough to find themselves beheaded for displeasing the crown would sometimes have their noggins displayed on spikes at the Southwark end of the bridge. William Wallace has the dubious honour of being the first in this tradition, after his execution in 1305. Other heads left out for the birds in this manner include rebel Jack Cade (poetic justice?), Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. Contemporary accounts record as many as 34 heads impaled above the gateway. The practice ended in 1678 but if that was still the view from outside the Barrowboy and Banker it’d do more than put you off your pint.
By the 18th century the starlings – the buttress supports underneath each pier between the arches, of which there were 20 – took up about five-sixths of the width of the river. Imagine the river water trying to squeeze through such small gaps, then imagine a difference in the water level of up to six feet at different sides of the bridge when the tide changed. Now imagine trying to navigate a boat underneath the bridge…
Pepys says passengers travelling along the river used to get off at one side of the bridge, walk round and get back at on the other, once the boatman had made it through. Which didn’t always happen: it’s estimated that 50 or so watermen died at the bridge each year. Historian Thomas Pennant described London Bridge during the mid 1700s:
“the street on London Bridge, narrow, darksome and dangerous to passengers from the multitude of carriages; frequent arches of strong timber crossed the street, from the tops of the houses, to keep them together, and from falling into the river. Nothing but use could preserve the rest of the inmates who soon grew deaf to the noise of the falling waters, the clamour of watermen, or the frequent shrieks of drowning wretches.”
As if the weirs weren’t enough, boatmen and their passengers had a stickier problem to contend with. Houses on the bridge stuck out over the water to get more space. Pre-Victorian London not being exactly known for its sanitation, the privvies emptied straight into the river – giving anyone passing below a little surprise.
Medieval London Bridge was only 20 feet wide; take into account the houses on either side and you’re left with a road space of 12 feet, just about space for two carts to pass each other. It wasn’t unknown for pedestrians to get caught between them, and there are records of several people who met nasty ends after just such a collision.
On the night of 21 April 1749 there was a preview at Vauxhall Gardens of Handel’s new music to accompany the royal fireworks. About 8,000 people came to listen, and caused a three hour traffic jam on London Bridge getting home.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of London Bridge, we recommend Bridge, Church and Palace by John EN Hearsey and Old London Bridge by Patricia Pierce. See if your local independent bookshop can source them for you.