Ever heard of the Bridge House Estates? Many people haven't. Yet it's been an important part of London life for 30 generations.
This is the organisation that owns and maintains the five (non-rail) City bridges over the Thames. That is, Blackfriars Bridge, Millennium Bridge, Southwark Bridge, London Bridge and Tower Bridge.
It's still going strong more than 700 years after its foundation. But as well as looking after our crossings, the organisation also funds a bewildering number of good causes around the capital — to the tune of £58.6 million in 2021 alone.
Spanning London's history
London Bridge is falling down... at least it was in the winter of 1281, when five of its arches collapsed after ice damage. The incident may have speeded the formation of the Bridge House the following year, an organisation backed by Royal Charter, and tasked with overseeing maintenance.
Fixing bridges costs lots of money. Fortunately, London Bridge offered two steady income streams. It was easy enough to charge a toll over the only road crossing in London at that time. The medieval bridge was also cluttered with houses and businesses, whose rents were payable to the Bridge House.
The organisation grew wealthy on its income, supplemented with donations and canny investments. Centuries later, its coffers were healthy enough to pay for construction of other bridges across the Thames, with no cost to the taxpayer. London Bridge has itself been rebuilt twice using Bridge House money.
The Trust today
Now known as Bridge House Estates, the organisation continues to look after London's spans, under the stewardship of the City of London Corporation. Its most recent 'biggy' was the acquisition of the Millennium Bridge around the turn of the century (this one was funded by multiple partners, including the Millennium Commission, but is now wholly owned by Bridge House Estates).
The Trust holds enough reserves that it could rebuild a bridge from scratch should the need arise. Were the Millennium Bridge to be, for example, suddenly attacked by Death Eaters from the Wizarding World, then the organisation would step in to fund a reconstruction. It also keeps the spans in good repair. At the time of writing, Blackfriars Bridge is sheathed in white sheeting while the metalwork gets a new coat of paint.
Despite its crucial role in maintaining London's bridges, the organisation keeps a surprisingly low profile. That's not to say it doesn't occasionally spring up in popular culture. Its distinctive logo, for example, once appeared in an episode of Peppa Pig.
Happily for the capital, Bridge House Estates doesn't limit its cheque book to Thames crossings. It is building metaphorical bridges all over London thanks to its grant-making arm, the City Bridge Trust.
Bridging the social divide
The City Bridge Trust was borne from a surplus of cash. Bridge House Estates had more money than it could sensibly spend on its bridges, and plenty of reserves for the future. So, in the 1990s, the organisation decided to loosen the belt and spread its munificence across the city via the City Bridge Trust.
The Trust focuses on projects that will benefit communities and charitable groups within the Greater London boundary. The following list of recent recipients is just a small sample of the 7,000+ grants awarded by the charity. But it should give an idea of just how broadly the remit stretches.
The Story Garden: You may have noticed (or even enjoyed) this community garden behind the British Library. The trust recently provided £83,640 for food growing and gardening sessions, community meals and volunteering opportunities.
Hubbub: The Trust funds many environmental projects. As an example, £77,250 was recently granted over three years for a plastic-fishing project in Docklands basin, in a boat which itself is made of recycled plastic.
Freightliners City Farm: London's oldest city farm, in Islington, received £123,600 to help provide educational work with schools.
Museum of Brands: The Trust also works with museums and other cultural institutions to bring a bit of joy to the disadvantaged. One example is a £120,000 grant to the Museum of Brands, which used well-known consumer brands, sounds and scents to spark memories in people living with dementia.
FoodCycle: Food poverty, it hardly needs saying, is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Among the Trust's numerous interventions in this area was a £174,800 grant for a FoodCycle project which turns surplus food into three-course vegetarian meals for anyone who needs them.
As just one more example, which we cover in a separate article, the Trust also funded a charity helping refugees from North Korea to settle in London.
It's remarkable that an organisation from the same century as Magna Carta is still a thriving part of London life today. It's a bit like waking up in the 29th century to find that the Congestion Charge is still a going concern, and pumping millions of pounds back into London's communities. The charity that was set up to bridge the Thames has also spanned the centuries, and now turns its attentions to the ever-widening gaps in society.