LONDON BRIDGE IS FALLING DOWN  -  Friday August 21st, 2009


Old London Bridge, the drawbridge visible in the middle via.


Circa 1831, the new bridge having been completed, the old is being demolished, via. The scale is a bit out, but St.Magnus’ can be seen on the left…

Now, I’ve noticed that traffic to Millennium People always drops off over the weekend. This may be something to do with the fact that I rarely post sat/sun– so today I am going to do several posts and then schedule them to appear over the course of the weekend, so do check back… Join me Saturday to wade in the Thames, and Sunday will find Millennium People discussing sharks on the moon.

After a comment (thanks Marc) about the Shifting Shorelines post on St.Magnus’, I was forced to check my facts and do some more research into the history of Old London Bridge (it was a chronological error on my part), and I thought I would take the opportunity to herald the weekend with an architectural fantasy…

The origins of the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is falling down’ are contentious, some saying that it stems from a Viking attack in 1014 that pulled down the bridge (commanded by a king who would later become St.Olaf, or Olave, and whose church in London is now the final resting place of Mr. and Mrs. Pepys). Others believe the rhyme is in some ways connected with a legend that children sacrifices were buried alive into the foundations. Another version of the rhyme has the line ‘Dance over the Lady Lea/Lee’, and there is apparently an ancient story in the Leigh family of Warwickshire claiming remains of one of their ancestors are buried under the bridge.

After Olaf cleared out, several reconstructions took place – ultimately resulting in the famous 20 arches in stone that guarded the upper Thames from invaders and marked the northern reach of the Pool. Tidal variations in London are over 6m, and the narrow spans between the footings created an intense drag effect that could destroy small boats trying to pass. Most sensible people left their boats on either side during the worst times and would return when the waters were more settled, but there are tales of men “shooting the bridge”, where the boat would ride the fierce swell and actually gain air as it was propelled out the other side (at terrific speeds).

I’m not going to transcribe the whole history of the bridge, the Wiki article on the subject is really well-written. My main focus for the post is the buildings built upon the bridge: a mill, initially used to crush flour but later adapted to become the first water pump for the city; shops; houses; two medieval stone towers (that displayed the heads of traitors on pikes) and several churches. Locked at night, it was essentially a self-contained town community. However the structures created a major fire hazard – at least two disasters are recorded, the worst was in 1212 when both ends of the bridge caught fire simultaneously and 3000 people died. The oldest example of pre-fab, Nonesuch House, was assembled on the bridge in 1579 (having been designed and built in the Netherlands), and the king’s solution to congestion on the bridge is credited as why the English drive on the left, and not the right.


Towards the end of the bridge’s life, the eclectic mash of buildings were replaced by stone townhouses, several with communal roof gardens.

Although several people have proposed inhabitable bridges, to my knowledge none have been actually constructed. Why is this? Watch this space for some proposals for a New London Bridge…


BIG’s ‘bro’, one of the more interesting inhabitable bridge projects via.

4 Responses to “LONDON BRIDGE IS FALLING DOWN”
  1. Marc says:

    Ah! That explains it. I knew very little about the bridge(s) besides what I'd observed, the name Rennie and the standard pub quiz knowledge about it being bought so this post has taught me loads. Habitable bridges should indeed make a comeback.

  2. Meg says:

    Great article, where did you get the second image of london Bridge? Do you know who it was painted by?

  3. Jack Self says:

    The second image comes from:

    http://www.oldlondonbridge.com/rennie.shtml

    But I'm afraid I don't know who painted it – it might be found somewhere on that site.

  4. meaningful point. I am going to be looking for other pages to find a bit more.