XIV. London Bridge

Ancient London

By: George Byron Gordon

Originally Published in 1922

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London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.

Old Nursery Rhyme

One day in the summer of 1921, the London papers announced a discovery on the north bank of the Thames at Adelaide Place. This was nothing less than an arch of Old London Bridge, begun in 1176 by Peter of Colechurch—priest, master mason and member of the Craft or Mystery of Bridge Builders. I was so fortunate as to see this newly found fragment of mediaeval London several times during that same summer and again in the summer of 1922. What I saw was a most impressive monument, presenting to a twentieth century generation the actual workmanship of a generation of twelfth century craftsmen. I am quite sure that no engineer could stand below that arch today without a feeling of humility. I hope it is to be preserved, but I have many misgivings, for difficulties were being encountered, circumstances seemed to be opposed, and London was not much interested.

Drawing of the Shore Arch
Crown of the Shore Arch of Old London Bridge, begun in 1176 and finished 30 years latter. The arch was discovered in 1921 and the sketch shows it during its excavation.
Image Number: 183140

The discovery was due to the sinking of foundations for an office building on the river bank. A complete arch with masonry intact was found standing a few yards below the present London Bridge, well under the level of the ground. It had been spared by the wreckers of Old London Bridge when, after the completion of the new bridge in 1832, the old bridge was removed. Evidently this shore arch was spared simply because it was not in anybody’s way and nobody happened to want the stone. May we hope that the builders of today will spare it for other reasons?

To London Bridge belong legend and romance. Its history, like its arches, presents a series of connecting links, joining age to age. I believe that when the brambles of Thorney shall have reclaimed the site of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, when the last traces of Saint Paul’s shall have disappeared and antiquarians shall have searched in vain for the site of the Tower, an arch of London Bridge will still look down upon the Thames. Its structure is the most enduring in London today.

I am not aware of anything connected with London that has played so powerfully on the imagination of Britain in all ages. I know of no other edifice that has worked its way into the folklore and legends of a people and a nation like London Bridge. In Celtic folklore and fable it is at least as old as Arthur. It crops up in mediaeval legend, in nursery rhyme, in proverb and in prophesy coupled with giants, goblins, dreamgold and enchantments. There could be no better testimony to the fame of London Bridge from a very early time and to the strong impression it made on men’s minds.

London Bridge was in existence before the Romans, who renewed it in their own time and in their own manner. That much we know but it is a curious fact that the Roman historians fail to mention the building of such important works as London Bridge and London Wall. Either this same bridge or another that replaced it was in use throughout the Saxon Period. When Canute’s ships sailed up the Thames to take part in the siege of London, they were unable to pass the bridge which must therefore have been a substantial structure capable of strong defense. The method devised by Canute to overcome the obstacle was to dig a canal, leading from the river below the bridge into Surrey and back into the river above the bridge. Through this canal his fleet was passed to the point of attack.

Drawing of the Old London Bridge and ships at port
A view of Old London Bridge after the houses had been removed. Reduced from a print published in 1913 by the London Topographical Society and engraved by Emery Walker from a drawing made in 1810 by E. W. Cooke, R. A., and now in the possession of the Corporation of London.

The immediate successor of the Saxon Bridge was Old London Bridge begun in 1176 and finished thirty years later. At the beginning of the present century were many people living who remembered and doubtless there are still a few who could recall it. It rested on nineteen stone arches together with a drawbridge in the middle. The stone piers, protected by starlings, acted as a kind of barrage that caused a series of cataracts at the ebbing and flowing of the tide. It was the sport to shoot the bridge in small boats, a dangerous exercise in which accidents were recorded. The drawbridge in the middle permitted the passage of large vessels.

On both sides of the draw, reaching to either shore were rows of houses, one on either side of the roadway and projecting over the water. One of the central piers was of extra size to support a chapel dedicated to Thomas a Becket, already become the patron saint of London. The Chapel of Saint Thomas towered 110 feet above the water and its interior dimensions were 20 feet by 60 feet. It was built entirely of stone with groined vaults and clustered columns and carved bosses. Beneath the chapel was a vaulted crypt. In both chapel and crypt divine service was performed daily.

Over the seventh and eighth arches from the Southwark side rose Nonesuch House, spanning the bridge and projecting over each side. It was a palace of fine proportions and striking appearance whether viewed from the shore or from the water.

This celebrated edifice overhung the east and west sides of the bridge, and there presented to the Thames two fronts of scarcely less magnificence than it exhibited to Southwark and the City, the columns, windows and carvings being similarly splendid: and, equally curious and interesting was the Nonsuch House seen from the water. Its southern front only, however, stood perfectly unconnected with other erections, that being entirely free for about 50 feet, and presenting the appearance of a large building projecting beyond the bridge on either side, having a square tower at each extremity, crowned by short domes, or Kremlin spires, whilst an antiquely-carved gable arose in each centre. The whole of the front, too, was ornamented with a profusion of transom casement windows, with carved wooden galleries before them; and richly sculptured wooden panels and gilded columns were to be found in every part of it. In the centre was an arch, of the width of the drawbridge, leading over the bridge; and above it, on the south side, were carved the arms of St. George, of the City of London, and those of Elizabeth, France, and England, quarterly, supported by the Lion and Dragon; from which circumstances only can we estimate the time when the Nonsuch House was erected.

Richard Thomson in Chronicles of London Bridge

At intervals on either side of the roadway there were open spaces in the line of the buildings for the convenience of the crowd. There were also chain posts along the way for the protection and convenience of foot passengers. The approach to either end of the bridge was protected by a gate with towers. In the southern gate was the portcullis, together with the gear for working the drawbridge. On top of this south gate were numerous upright rods on which were displayed the heads of people who had been convicted of treason. Among the persons whose heads were so displayed were those of Sir William Wallace, Jack Cade, the Earl of Northumberland, Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More. One traveller who visited London in 1598 wrote that he counted thirty heads on London Bridge at one time. Apparently they remained indefinitely and were allowed to accumulate. The practise was discontinued after the reign of Charles II. A cage and pillory completed the furnishing of London Bridge. At the North end of the bridge a great system of waterworks was erected to supply London with water from the Thames. This remarkable invention supplied the City with water for 200 years. In some of the spaces between the piers, grist mills were erected, driven by waterwheels.

The Arches of this Bridge serve not only for Strength and Ornament to the Bridge itself, but also for communication of the Benefits of the River Thames, to all that live upon its Banks from Westminster and upwards, unto those Parts of it where it falls into the Sea. For through these great Arches Vessels of considerable Burthen pass with Goods as well as small Wherries with Passengers. Other Uses were made of these Arches, as for Conveyance of Thames Water into the City, to supply the southern Parts, and for Mills for grinding corn. On which last use I find there were, in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, certain Mills erected for that purpose under or near London Bridge, by order of the Magistrates of the City. To which, as soon as they were set up, some exception was taken and complaint made, as it seems, to the Court, as that they might prove injurious to the Bridge or to the River. But it was shewn that the Bridge could take no harm by these Works. And it was provided for by this Means, that the water had, or should have its full course through the Arches; and that that part of the Mill which should stand nearest unto the stone work of the Bridge should be twelve feet off from any part of the Bridge.

The Profit of these Mills was, that whereas, in Time of Dearth, the common People could not have any corn ground under four, five or sixpence the Bushel, and many Times could not have it ground at all in a long space, by Means whereof, People were constrained to buy Meal in the Market at such Prices as the Seller himself would, this would be remedied by the use of these Mills. Also the Badgers, or Meal-Sellers, enhanced the Prices as they listed; which could not be remedied, but by good Provision of Corn made by the Citizens, and sold in the Market, as experience has sheaved.

The two arches next London are now stopped up for the use of the Water-Mills, but without any Prejudice to the Current of the Thames. The third Arch, on Southwark Side, is seldom and very rarely passed through, because of a Rock grown there a little to the East, which is visible at low Water. This Rock hath been observed this many a year. Therefore this Arch is called The Rock Lock. Two of these Arches are much larger than the rest; viz, That over which is the drawbridge; and the other called The Simile Rock. These were for the Use of greater Vessels, that went through Bridge, westward. The Draw-Bridge formerly was, upon such occasions, taken up; but now-a-days never, but when it wants repairing.


In 1633 the houses on the west side were burnt and when they were rebuilt they were

Very beautiful and substantial; for the Houses were three Stories high, besides the Cellars, which were within and between the Piers. And over the Houses were stately Platforms, leaded, with Rails and Ballasters about them very commodious, and pleasant for Walking, and enjoying so fine a Prospect up and down the River; and some had pretty little Gardens with Arbours. This Half being thus finished, the other Half was intended to be rebuilt answerable to this, which would have been a great Glory to the Bridge and Honour to the City.

The houses were removed altogether in 1756-61 in response to the increasing demand of the Traffic.

Among the people who lived on London Bridge were Holbein and Hogarth. During the last two hundred years of their existence at least, the lower storeys of the houses were devoted to the uses of trade. Shops for the sale of all kinds of small wares lined the roadway from end. to end. In particular the booksellers and printsellers of London Bridge were of great repute and made a good business.

Old London Bridge must have been very picturesque indeed. The drawings, of which there are many, made during the 16th century and later do it but scant justice.

Drawing of the new London Bridge behind the Old London Bridge
A view of London Bridge made in 1832 just after its completion and during the demoltion of Old London Bridge of which a single arch is shown at the right of the picture. From a drawing by E. W. Cooke, R. A., in the possession of the Corporation of London. Published in 1913 by the London Topographical Society and engraved by Emery Walker. This illustration is reduced from the Society’s engraving.

The history of the bridge is crowded with incident. In 1212 it had a great fire among its houses, in which many people lost their lives. In the Wars of the Roses Falconbridge tried to capture the City over the bridge and was defeated by the Londoners. Over its roadway came Wat Tyler’s rabble in 1381. I am unable to learn whether on that occasion the Londoners did not think it worth while to close its gates against the peasants of Kent and Essex or whether the cumbrous drawbridge was out of repair and could not be raised.

For some reason the bridge was often chosen as the scene of single combats and many famous duels were fought upon it, to the great edification of the London crowd. Once a Scottish nobleman, the Earl of Crawfurd, rode to London under safe conduct of the English King to fight an English nobleman, Lord Wells. On London Bridge, the place selected for the great fight, a dense crowd was gathered. A fine description of this duel is given by Hector Boece.1 The opponents were in full armour and mounted on armoured steeds. At the first onset, Lord Wellis’s spear caught his opponent square on the helmet, but the spear was broken and the Earl kept his seat. Then some of the excited crowd shouted that he was bound in his saddle, contrary to the rules of arms. Hearing this, the Scottish Earl dismounted and again remounted to show that they were mistaken. In the third encounter Lord Wellis was flung violently from his saddle. Earl David “dismounted haistilie fra his hors, and tenderlie embrasit him; that the pepill micht understand he faucht with na hatrant, bot allanerlie for the glore of victorie. In signe of more humanite, he vesyit him ilk day quhill he recoverit his heill.”

The greatest fight that ever took place on London Bridge was when the Londoners fought and defeated the army of Jack Cade. The rebel leader had captured Southwark, held the south end of the bridge and made his headquarters at the White Hart Inn. The machinery for raising the drawbridge being in the southern gate which was thus held, the Londoners were unable to raise the drawbridge for the defence of the City. Of course they could have destroyed the drawbridge. Why didn’t they? From Southwark Jack Cade made a sudden dash across the Bridge.

Hath my sword therefore broke through London gates, that you should leave me at the White Hart in Southwark

William Shakespeare in King Henry VI, Act IV, Sc. 8.

Having held parts of London for two days, the rebel army withdrew in good order to Southwark and prepared for the general assault and capture of the City. The Londoners meantime assembled, arming themselves hastily, and found a leader. The fight on London Bridge deserves an epic. The two forces met in the middle, pressing forward from opposite ends with an urge so impetuous that at times they were deadlocked breast to breast. At times both sides relaxed a little from breathlessness and drew back a space for air. When this movement left their sword arms free the men in the front ranks fought hand to hand and the fighting became furious. The bridge ran with blood that dripped over the edges into the Thames where the breaks in the line of houses gave it a spillway. As the front of each column crumbled it was replaced from behind. Sometimes the action moved foot by foot towards the North and at times foot by foot towards the South. Piles of bodies marked the places where the fighting had been deadlocked. Night came on and found the heat of battle undiminished, swaying to and fro on the bridge. On the side of the Londoners leader after leader had gone down, but there was always a leader at their head. On the side of the rebels the losses were no less heavy and the fighting no less determined. Their leaders were experienced and their ranks were disciplined for it was no mere rabble that followed Jack Cade on that remarkable adventure, but a disciplined army in whose ranks were found men of consequence. All through the hours of the night the fight went on and when the dawn broke, the defenders had forged their way foot by foot toward Southwark. Foot by foot the besiegers were driven back, until losing their last foothold on the bridge, they were thrust backward into Surrey and scattered along its highways. Jack Cade himself was afterwards captured and his head placed on the Gate of London Bridge.

London Bridge very busy with people and carriages crossing
London Bridge, looking from the Southwark side of the Thames. The building at the left of the farther end is Fishmongers Hall.

In 1825 the new bridge was begun, 60 yards to the west of the Old Bridge. It was finished in 1831 and in the following year the demolition of the Old Bridge was begun. In the Chapel Crypt of St. Thomas were found the bones of Peter of Colechurch, who, dying before his work was completed, was buried there. His bones, we are told, were thrown into a barge together with the debris from the Chapel.

London has now a striking opportunity to make amends by saving the surviving arch, so miraculously preserved, and dedicating it to the memory of the Old Bridge Builder and Old London Bridge but that is London’s business alone. It has been reported that the preservation of the arch in place would cost 11,000 pounds, a serious matter, for London is just now paying for a great many things including other people’s debts and delinquencies. Moreover, there is nothing harder to keep up than an interest in anything that has ceased to be of use, whether it is a man, a statesman or an arch of London Bridge. Still I cannot help thinking of the many people in all the world—people with that nursery rhyme running in their heads, who will be sorry to see the passing of that resurrected arch, and whose response to its appeal would be as spontaneous and universal as the iterated but inconclusive argument and suspended burden with which the race has chosen to celebrate its childhood’s taste in rhyme.

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Events have focused attention sharply on London. For reasons that are written large in today’s chronicles from the Baltic to the Yellow Sea, it is the centre of an interest more concentrated than ever before. From St. George’s Channel you may travel west and westward still till you come again to London Dock and amid confusion growing ever more confused, you will see at every step what is left of civilization looking with mixed anxiety and hope towards that ancient policeman on the Thames, for the question at the heart of civilization today is “How does London stand?” I can only say that during a month of days and nights last summer I walked its streets, mingled with its crowds and talked to many people. I was looking for some change in London but there was none that I could name; its human tide that ebbs and flows was still the same; its pageantry like another phenomenon of Nature still flamed with scarlet and gold. Up along the Thames the nightingale was singing as sweetly and as bravely as before. I knew that there were hidden wounds unhealed. I knew how close and constant was the companionship of pain in that great City and how very near its heart, but I did not hear a single murmur of complaint and I did not see a single sign of bitterness or hate.

I have said that London is a silent City, but there are different kinds of silence. There is the piercing silence of the midnight stars, there is the savage silence of the desert, the brooding silence of the ocean in its calm, and the mouldering silence of the churchyard; but the silence of London is the measured silence of a beating heart, a beating heart.

The Measured Silence of a Beating Heart.

I have taken it upon myself to speak of ancient London and I think it was very bold of me for I am aware that few are equal to the task and none is altogether worthy. I am happy if I have been able to strike a few feeble murmurs from that harp of many strings, and the note on which I want to end is the one on which I began—the changeless humanity of London, the retrospective calm that sits in judgment on its ceaseless onward surge. It is like a canvas by some old master of the Giant school, reflecting in its matchless mood the colours of old sunsets and remembered dawns, the lights and shadows of its matchless story. If I were of English descent as many of you are and as I am not, I could not recall its name without emotion, but all of us may claim a share in that inheritance—claim kindred there and have our claim allowed. It belongs to the Londoners, but its gates are open wide to all the world, and whoever enters there is free, for you may do anything in London—except break the law. England’s Royal City, Stronghold in the Waters of devouring Time.

Walking on London Bridge one day it occurred to me that nothing could better illustrate the continuity that has impressed itself upon my mind than London Bridge. It seemed to span the centuries, one end hidden in primeval mists, the other shorelocked on the World’s Metropolis. Below the arches a tide was running as it ran when they built a Temple to the God of Waters at the top of Ludgate Hill. Above the arches another stream was flowing as it has flowed without ceasing since the ancient Britons flung their first rude wooden bridge across that tide. I was standing on the very spot where the much heralded traveller from New Zealand amid a vast solitude, will take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of Saint Paul’s; and as I turned and looked upon that mighty Dome that watches over London where it hives below, the great bell tolled and it boomed above the City like the challenge of a sentinel, informing the attentive stars how London stands. I heard the loud vibrations die away to little whisperings like responses in the air—tiny elfin tongues that told the listening Thames some secret for the sea. And the thought that shaped itself within my mind was the thought that Macaulay’s travelled visitant is not yet born. His antipodean birthday is not yet. And in the gathering dusk I had a vision of him as the last man born and the last surviving soul to greet the sunrise.

1 A History of Scotland by Hector Boece (1465-1536), written in Latin and translated into English (Scots style) by John Bellenden. ↪

Cite This Article

Gordon, George Byron. "XIV. London Bridge." The Museum Journal XIII, no. 4 (December, 1922): 378-390. Accessed June 17, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/7141/

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