John Rennie’s London Bridge

Barges of the 1827 Lord Mayor’s parade pass under the new London Bridge during its construction.

The medieval London Bridge had stood for centuries as the only dry Thames crossing in or around the city. The opening of Westminster Bridge in 1749 highlighted the restrictions and limitations of the ancient structure and the City Corporation decided to modernize it on its old foundations.

Old London Bridge contained many shops and houses, which restricted passage across the river. The naturalist Thomas Pennant wrote in the 18th century: “I well remember the street on London Bridge, narrow, darksome, and dangerous to passengers from the multitude of carriages: frequent arches of strong timber crossed the street, from the tops of the houses, to keep them together, and from falling in the river.”

The work to modernize the old medieval bridge, whose foundations had been in place since the 12th century, was completed in 1762. Despite the large financial outlay it proved inadequate and required continuous repair. In 1799 a competition was held for designs for an entirely new crossing to replace the existing one. Those received included a revolutionary single-span cast-iron bridge that allowed ships to pass under from Thomas Telford and a double-bridge in a classical design by George Dance the Younger, both of which required large amounts of property to be purchased and demolished for the approaches and were therefore considered too expensive.

A report of 1800 into the need for improvements in the Port of London highlighted the limitations to navigation caused by the crossing. The narrow arches created a weir-effect, with a fall of up to five feet. In 1812 coal-boat owners petitioned the City for a new bridge, pointing out the regular loss of life, as well as inconvenience, caused by the ancient structure. With the fast-growing population of the metropolis the narrow roadway also caused congestion for carriage and pedestrian traffic. The narrow arches slowed the flow of the river, allowing it to freeze over during very cold winters. In 1813-14 the frozen river caused damage to the bridge.

Petitions continued to be submitted to both the City and Parliament but with little result. In 1816 the City Corporation decided to delay any decision until after Southwark Bridge, then under construction, had been opened. In 1821 prizes of between one hundred and two hundred and fifty pounds were offered for the three best ideas for a new bridge, to be judged by a committee that included the architects John Nash, John Soane and Robert Smirke. Over fifty designs were received including one by the engineer John Rennie who was responsible for both Waterloo and Southwark bridges. The prizes for the best submissions were awarded but none of the winning entries were put into practice.

In the meantime an Act of Parliament was passed in 1822 to remove the bridge’s waterworks that supplied river water to parts of the City, in order to improve navigation. At the same time a Parliamentary committee recommended the building of a completely new structure and that finally spurred the City’s Bridge House committee, responsible for its operation, into action.

A Bill for a new bridge was finally passed in 1823, to be paid for partly by the City of London Corporation and by the Treasury from coal tax, on the condition that it was wider than the previous bridge. Despite it not being a winning design, it was decided to proceed with Rennie’s rather conservative scheme for a plain, five-span structure, lacking the flair of Waterloo Bridge or engineering innovation of Southwark. Rennie had died in 1821, so the work went ahead in 1824 under the supervision of his sons, John Rennie the Younger and George. The contractors were Messrs Jolliffe & Banks, with whom the Rennie’s had a long working relationship, including the construction of Waterloo and Southwark Bridges. In order to keep the old bridge open for traffic during construction it was decided that the new one should be on a different alignment, about one hundred feet upstream.

Work began in March 1824 and the foundation stone laid by Lord Mayor John Garratt in June 1825. An inscription within the stone, translated from Latin, read:

The free course of the river being obstructed by the numerous piers of the ancient bridge, and the passage of boats and vessels through its narrow channels being often attended with danger and loss of life by reason of the force and rapidity of the current, the City of London, desirous of providing a remedy for this evil, and at the same time consulting the convenience of commerce in this vast emporium of all nations, under the sanction and with the liberal aid of Parliament, resolved to erect a bridge upon a foundation altogether new, with arches of a wider span, and of a character corresponding to the dignity and importance of this royal City; nor does any other time seem to be more suitable for such an undertaking than when in a period of universal peace, the British Empire flourishing in glory, wealth, population, and domestic union, is governed by a Prince the patron and encourager of the arts, under whose auspices the Metropolis has been daily advancing in elegance and splendour.¹

The new bridge consisted of five semi-elliptical arches of varying widths, made of granite from Devon and Scotland. At the time of completion the central arch, of over one hundred and fifty-two feet in width and a rise of over thirty-seven feet, was possibly the largest such arch anywhere. The final width of the roadway was fifty-two feet, a decision having been made during construction to increase it by six feet.

Sometime after the completion, Sir John Rennie wrote of the difficulty of placing the cofferdams for the piers and abutments due to the riverbed “covered with large loose stones carried away by the force of the current from the foundation of the old bridge… The difficulty was further increased by the old bridge being left standing to accommodate the traffic whilst the new bridge was building; and the restricted waterway of the old bridge occasioned such an increased velocity of the current as materially to retard the operations of the new bridge, and at times the tide threatened to carry away all before it.”

Construction took seven and a half years at a final cost of two and a half million pounds, employing up to eight hundred workers. Forty men were killed during that time due to the problems mentioned by Rennie. The total cost of the bridges and approaches was two and a half million pounds. Of that amount, a million pounds was raised through a tax on coal and wine and nearly two hundred thousand contributed by the government.

The different alignment to the old bridge caused the City Corporation great difficulty, with new approaches having to be created on both sides of the river, and costing twice that of the bridge itself. Wren’s St.Michael, Crooked Lane church had to be demolished as well as the old Boar’s Head tavern in Eastcheap (which featured in Shakespeare’s Henry IV) and Fishmongers’ Hall. On the south side, Borough High Street was widened between the bridge and the Town Hall, in addition to creating a new section of Tooley Street. In the City Upper Thames Street, Fish Street Hill, Eastcheap, King William Street, Princes Street, Lothbury, Gresham Street, Moorgate Street and Threadneadle Street were all affected in some way.

Completed in 1831, the new London Bridge was opened by King William IV (a month before his coronation) and Queen Adelaide in a major ceremony that August, with the firing of canons and ringing of church bells. It took the form of a water procession that included the royal barges and eight City barges. Thousands of onlookers lined the riverbanks and took to various craft. As the royal couple descended to their barge at Somerset House the cheering was described as “almost deafening”. After arriving at the bridge they walked across, starting at the northern end and upon reaching the Surrey side entertainment was provided by a hot air balloon and its occupants ascending into the sky. The opening ceremony was followed by a banquet at the City end of the bridge for one thousand five hundred people.

The Duke of Wellington had aided the City Corporation in steering the necessary Bill through Parliament. He was invited to the opening ceremony but declined, knowing that his attendance would be unpopular and cause a disturbance due to his opposition at that time to the Reform Bill being debated in Parliament and the country at large. Instead, as a mark of their appreciation, the City erected a bronze equestrian statue of the Iron Duke at the front of the Royal Exchange.

On its first day two hundred thousand pedestrians crossed the bridge, so many that passage had to be restricted in one direction only, from north to south. John Rennie the Younger was knighted for his work, an honour his father had previously refused.

The demolition of the old bridge, the foundations of which had survived for over six hundred years, took two years. During the construction of the new bridge and demolition of the old a silver Roman statuette of Harpocrates (now in the British Museum) was found, as well as a number of Roman and medieval coins. Much of the old bridge was sold as souvenirs. Four alcoves from the 1762 bridge are located at Guy’s Hospital, Victoria Park and in East Sheen.

Rennie’s bridge lasted until the early 1970s when it was replaced by the current crossing. The discarded granite exterior blocks were purchased by a property developer and shipped to Lake Havascu City in Arizona to become an attraction for a retirement home complex. The blocks were clad onto a concrete structure that recreated the old bridge.

¹ Translation from ‘History of the Tower Bridge’

Sources include: Charles Welch ‘History of the Tower Bridge’ (1894, courtesy of the collection of Hawk Norton); Peter Matthews ‘London’s Bridges’; John Summerson ‘Georgian London’; John Pudney ‘Crossing London’s River’.

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