Crossing the River Thames between the City of London and Southwark, the London Bridge in some form has welcomed travelers for two millennia. Yet, despite its longevity and fame — it even has its own nursery rhyme — what people think of as the London Bridge is often not the London Bridge at all.
In fact, do a Google search for “images of the London Bridge,” and what you’ll probably see instead are images of the Tower Bridge, the famous Victorian Gothic structure with two towers. But the London Bridge of today offers a much simpler profile, and while the current structure dates from the late 20th century, the story of the bridges that have stood on that site is considerably longer.
History of the London Bridge
“The history is much more interesting than the Tower Bridge, which is what most people think the London Bridge is,” says David Green, principal of global design firm Perkins&Will, who also is an expert on the history of cities, including the roles of transportation and bridges in their development.
Today, the London Bridge and four others are managed by the City Bridge Trust, which is the funding arm of Bridge House Estates, a charitable trust launched in the 13th century. According to the City of London, the first bridge across the Thames was built between 1176 and 1209. It was replaced in the early 19th century and a third time when the existing bridge was built. However, even before the 12th-century stone bridge, a series of wooden bridges had been constructed at the site, and the story of the London Bridge begins with a Roman invasion and the founding of the settlement of Londinium.
What is called the London Bridge today got its start as a military pontoon bridge built by the Romans when they were settling the area, according to Green. For the past 2,000 years, the position of the bridge has remained a nexus for economic development, although its physical construction has changed several times.
Timber bridges on the site were damaged by multiple fires and a storm. A final wooden bridge designed by Peter of Colechurch (aka Peter the Bridge Master, chaplain of St. Mary Colechurch) was completed in 1163 A.D. Henry II commissioned the first stone structure, also designed by Peter, on the site around 800 years ago. Slightly to the west of the timber bridge location, it was a simple masonry arched bridge, like the Pont Neuf in Paris, and included a drawbridge.
This “Old London Bridge” was used as both a river crossing and a development site like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy. For half a century the stone bridge was home to many buildings, including residences, shops and a chapel dedicated to St. Thomas of Canterbury. In fact, there were about 200 buildings on the bridge, according to Green.
With so much development, the bridge became constricted — not to mention the bathroom facilities dropped straight into the Thames — so the city started removing the buildings in the 18th century.
London Bridge No. 2
As the London Bridge continued to be a major transportation route even without its buildings, structural problems appeared. The arches deteriorated, and the bridge, which had experienced a variety of damage, was also slowly sinking. By the 1820s, it was deemed structurally problematic, Green explains.
Thus, a new bridge was proposed and completed in 1831. A masonry stone structure that was sturdier and highly engineered, it had been proposed by Scottish civil engineer John Rennie and constructed by his sons. Situated upstream from the 12th-century bridge, which was quickly demolished, it lasted just 140 years.
By the 1920s, the city knew that renovation or reconstruction would be necessary, but the second bridge remained until the late 1960s when it was finally replaced.
Interestingly, the 19th-century London Bridge was sold to Robert P. McCulloch, Sr., a chain saw magnate who founded Lake Havasu City, Arizona. He purchased the bridge for $2.4 million in 1968 plus shipping costs of around $240,000 and had it shipped to its new home, where it was reconstructed above a man-made channel. Today, it’s the second most-visited tourist attraction in the state.
The London Bridge Today
The London Bridge we know today was designed by city engineer Harold Knox King with architects Mott, Hay & Anderson and William Holford & Partners. It was opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1973. The bridge features three spans founded on concrete piers and is constructed of concrete and polished granite, which is not as exciting as it sounds.
“It’s a fairly unremarkable piece of engineering, but it’s turned into this amazing public space,” Green says. The structure is similar to most overpasses in U.S. highway construction, and it is not generally somewhere tourists visits for its beauty, especially considering the historical architecture throughout London. However, the London Bridge offers an excellent location from which to take photos of the nearby Tower Bridge.
Until Westminster Bridge opened in 1750, the London Bridge offered the city’s only option for crossing the Thames. Today, it connects two vibrant neighborhoods. On the north side is the City of London, which is the financial sector, like Wall Street, says Catherine Mahoney, head of communications for charity and philanthropy at City Bridge Trust. To the south is Southwark, with the Borough Market, The Shard and the London Dungeon.
Even with its current important status in modern London, the bridge remains a site of tradition, such as the 12th century right to use it to drive sheep into the City of London for sale. In 2013, 20 Suffolk and Texel sheep crossed the bridge in a reenactment of the historical charter as part of a fundraising effort. “It’s a really cool, interesting bridge with a rich, interesting history,” says Green.
Is the London Bridge Falling Down?
So technically, the London Bridge has fallen down — to some degree — many times during its 2,000-year history.
“Bridge piers are liable to damage from shipping and from the force of the river rushing through,” Roger Hobbs, emeritus professor, department of civil and environmental engineering, Imperial College London, explains in an email. “This finished the life of the medieval bridge and probably earlier bridges. They also need maintenance before problems become serious/dangerous.”
So, where did the nursery rhyme we all grew up singing originate? It was first published in the mid-19th century, but it had probably been known long before that. There are a few prevailing theories about the song, including an 11th-century Viking attack, the 1666 Great London Fire, the unsubstantiated immurement of a person in the structure’s foundation and the ongoing issue of the bridge needing repair.
That leaves the question of the “fair lady” mentioned in the ditty, but no consensus has been reached there either. One possibility is Eleanor of Provence, who was Henry III’s consort and controlled London Bridge revenue during the late 13th century. Another guess is the fair lady is Matilda of Scotland, a consort of Henry I, who had commissioned bridge projects more than a century earlier. It has also been suggested that it could be a member of the Leigh family, who claim one of their relatives was entombed below the bridge. But it’s really anybody’s guess.