13 Secrets of Waterloo Bridge

By Zoe Craig Last edited 91 months ago

Last Updated 25 November 2016

13 Secrets of Waterloo Bridge

From its tangled beginnings to recent history, here are our favourite facts about Waterloo Bridge.

Waterloo Bridge and Victoria Embankment. Photo via wikicommons.

1. It was originally called the Strand Bridge

The plan for a new bridge across the Thames, between Westminster and Blackfriars, was proposed by a group calling itself the Strand Bridge Company.

Before the Strand Bridge was finished, an Act of Parliament decreed the name should be changed to Waterloo Bridge as "a lasting Record of the brilliant and decisive Victory achieved by His Majesty's Forces in conjunction with those of His Allies, on the Eighteenth Day of June One thousand eight hundred and fifteen."

Opening of Waterloo Bridge on 18 June 1817 as seen from the Corner of Cecil Street in the Strand. Drawn by RR Reinagle, ARA Engraved by George Cooke. 1 Aug 1822.

The first Waterloo Bridge was opened by the Prince Regent accompanied, fittingly, by the Duke of Wellington, on 18 June 1817, the second anniversary of the battle of Waterloo.

2. The first Waterloo Bridge was a financial disaster

Think the Garden Bridge is a bad idea, economically speaking? That's nothing. The guys responsible for the first Waterloo Bridge aimed to recoup their outgoings by charging a toll to use the bridge.

Except it didn't work.

Anyone who needed to cross the river just used the Blackfriars or Westminster Bridges either side of the new toll bridge instead; these two were both free.

Waterloo Bridge became toll free in 1877, when the bridge was acquired by the Metropolitan Board of Works at a cost of £474,200. The total cost of the original structure, according to British History Online, was £937,391 11s 6d. Someone, somewhere lost a lot of money.

3. It was the 'noblest bridge in the world'

Despite being a financial mess, the first Waterloo Bridge was an architectural delight. John Rennie's design of nine 120ft semi-elliptical arches of Cornish granite was greatly admired, and rather beautiful.

The Strand Bridge, New erecting by J Rennie Esqr. Drawn by E. Blore. Engraved by George Cooke. 31 March 1814.

The Italian sculptor Canova called it "the noblest bridge in the world" and said that "it is worth going to England solely to see Rennie's bridge," which was a pretty big deal; at the time, most rich Brits were heading to Italy to get their Grand Tour architecture-and-culture fix.

Its simple austerity inspired lots of paintings. John Constable captured the excitement of the bridge's opening ceremony in a huge painting now found in Tate Britain; Claude Monet painted the bridge no less than 40 times from his window vantage point at the Savoy Hotel.

John Constable, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge. Whitehall Stairs, 18 June, 1817

4. Waterloo Bridge gave its name to a station and a helmet

Waterloo Station used to be called 'Waterloo Bridge station' when it opened in 1848, after the bridge; its name was officially changed to plain old Waterloo station nearly 40 years later, in 1886.

In 1868, an amazing Iron Age Helmet was dredged from the Thames near Waterloo Bridge.

Horned helmet, found in the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge. Read more here.

The helmet, a pre-Roman Celtic bronze ceremonial treasure dating from around 150-50 BC, is the only Iron Age horned helmet to be found in the whole of Europe; today, you can see the Waterloo Bridge Helmet in the British Museum.

6. It became a political hot potato

By 1924, the old bridge, designed for horse-drawn carriages, but now carrying heavy motor vehicles, was getting rather worse for wear.

A political battle about the future of Waterloo Bridge broke out, and raged for 10 years.

Waterloo Bridge, London. Claude Monet, 1903.

On one side were the engineers and pragmatists at the London County Council (LCC) who wanted to build a new bridge, ready for modern traffic; on the other were conservatives (including a gang at the Royal Academy) dedicated to preserving Rennie's beautiful bridge for historic and cultural reasons.

When Labour gained control of the LCC in 1934 under Herbert Morrison, all considerations for the architectural beauty of the old bridge were ignored: Morrison announced his decision to demolish the old bridge by breaking off the first stone himself, on 21 June 1934.

7. Waterloo Bridge was a bit tricky to make

The Waterloo Bridge crossing the river today was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, the same guy responsible for Battersea Power Station, Bankside Power Station (now Tate Modern) and those classic red telephone boxes.

Scott wasn't an engineer, and his designs (reinforced concrete beams under the footways, with the road supported by transverse slabs), were actually very difficult to implement.

Gilbert Scott's design called for supporting beams only at the outside edges, to bring "light and sweetness" to the underside. Photo via wikicommons.

But they managed it, and Waterloo Bridge became the first reinforced concrete bridge over the Thames in central London.

Waterloo Bridge viewed from the Golden Jubilee Bridge. Photo via wikicommons.

Waterloo Bridge comprises five shallow spans each of about 250 feet, with a beamed deck supported by two lines of arches. Like the first Waterloo Bridge, the modern bridge retains a certain air of austere elegance.

8. Today's bridge recycled features from its predecessor

Bits of Rennie's original Waterloo Bridge still exist.

Waterloo Bridge's piers are faced in granite from the old bridge.

And underneath today's bridge on the Victoria Embankment side is a platform built over the foundations of one of the river piers of Rennie's bridge, with the original twin doric columns on either side.

9. It's nicknamed The Ladies' Bridge... although men started it

Most people know Waterloo Bridge is nicknamed the Ladies' Bridge because it was built by a largely female workforce during the war.

Dorothy, a female welder at Waterloo Bridge, was one of the women recognised.

Construction of the new Waterloo Bridge started in 1939, but was slow for various reasons: as well as enemy action, most of the male construction workers who started the project were called up to fight: Historic England suggests that of 500 men who started working on it, only 50 were still available by 1941.

Despite being a long-standing urban myth about women construction workers finishing the bridge, in 2015, three crucial photographs and a documentary interview finally proved the stories true.

The women's work is now officially acknowledged: there are plans to erect a plaque to this effect.

10. It was the only Thames bridge damaged in the war

Of all the Thames bridges, Waterloo was the only one to be damaged by German bombs during the second world war.

It seems kind of incredible, but actually bombing just wasn't accurate enough back then to hit direct targets. By their very nature, bridges stand alone, and so are resistant to near-misses in a way that buildings aren't. Drop a bomb on a city street, and nearby buildings will also be affected as their walls absorb the blast; drop one on a river, and the results are very different.

11. Waterloo Bridge cleans itself

If you've ever wondered why Waterloo Bridge's outside is so shiny and clean, and yet the underside is grimy and black... well, it's all down to Portland stone.

Waterloo Bridge. Photo by Nigel Rudyard.

Portland stone cleans itself whenever it rains. Nifty.

12. There's a play and film of the same name

Robert E Sherwood's play Waterloo Bridge (1930) is the story of a soldier who falls in love and marries a woman he meets on Waterloo bridge during a first world war air raid.

It was such a popular story, it was made into three separate films, released in 1931, 1940 and 1956; the second of these film versions starred Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, and was Oscar-nominated.

13. Waterloo Bridge features in both Alfie and Sherlock

The bridge has featured throughout other pop culture moments: Michael Caine's Alfie walks over the crossing in both the opening and closing scenes of that film.

In the BBC TV series, Sherlock, the eponymous hero 'accesses the homeless network' on the northern side of the bridge, having jumped over the railing on Victoria Embankment.

John Watson and Sherlock below Waterloo Bridge.

From Sherlockology:

Their meeting takes place directly beneath the bridge, in an elevated seating area with [a] clean view to Westminster. However, the location for the scene was chosen for a reason, as in reality you will frequently find the homeless sleeping rough here early in the morning.

Oh, and, of course, there's this. But you knew that already...