London Bridge was the only dry crossing over the Thames in London until the mid-18th century. The first wooden bridge was built by the Romans, followed later by others by the Saxons and Normans. At the very beginning of the 13th century the last of those was replaced by a stone bridge that was to remain for over six hundred years.
Houses and shops were built on the medieval bridge from soon after its opening. The bridge was effectively an extension of the City as well as a means to cross the river, with over a hundred properties across it. Over time these buildings were gradually replaced and modernised. New forms of building construction developed during the early 16th century, with the introduction of the timber ‘frame’ method associated with the Tudor period. The view of London in 1647 by Wenceslaus Hollar shows a quite different group of buildings across the bridge than that drawn Antonis van der Wyngaerde a hundred years earlier. Larger structures that overhung the sides of the bridge had replaced those of earlier times.
The chapel of St.Thomas that had stood in the centre of the bridge since the 13th century was not immune from the great religious changes of the Reformation. In January 1549 it was decided that it should be closed and converted into a house. Little initially took place and the old chapel remained empty for several years. Between 1548 and 1550 the bells in its belfry were removed and the organ destroyed but the demolition workers finally moved in during 1553. There are records during the following decade of it being used as a dwelling.
A drawbridge could be raised to allow the passage of ships too large to pass through the arches of the bridge. It was also raised to prevent entry into the City on several occasions when London was confronted by a hostile mob. Yet in 1497 it was decided that the drawbridge was in such a poor condition that it was too dangerous to continue being used. As a consequence, boats of any large size could no longer pass through the bridge to dock at Queenshithe and had instead to unload at the wharves downstream. In 1500, however, Henry VII decided he would sail his royal barque upstream and carpenters were required to work through the night to ensure the drawbridge would open for him.
In 1305 a tradition had begun whereby the heads of executed rebels and traitors were displayed on poles above the drawbridge tower, the first being William Wallace (‘Braveheart’). By 1577 the stone drawbridge tower had become so dilapidated that it was demolished and the heads moved to the Southwark end of the bridge. A great fire in September 1725 destroyed many of the houses at the southern end and damaged the gate. It was enlarged in around 1728 to allow for the passage of two carts or coaches, together with two posterns for pedestrians. Yet by 1754 the gate had become dilapidated and was demolished along with the other City gates.
When the drawbridge tower was demolished an extraordinary building was erected in its place between the seventh and eighth arches from the Southwark end. Nonesuch (or Nonsuch) House was perhaps so named because there was nothing else to compare. It had stone foundations, which were laid by the Lord Mayor of London in the presence of the sheriffs and bridge masters. The remainder of the structure was made entirely of wood, on a frame made in Holland, and held together by pegs without the use of any nails. It was a large building, spanning the roadway and overhanging the sides of the bridge, taking two years to complete. Below it was a clear passage of twenty feet width for those crossing the bridge. It was an ornate design in a mixture of medieval and Renaissance styles, with a tower, an onion-shaped cupola and gilded weather vane on each corner, many windows and carvings on the exterior panels. It was one of the glories of London for nearly rwo hundred years. The contemporary writer John Stow described it as “a beautifull and chargeable peece of worke”. Little is otherwise known about it and it may have been used by the Corporation of London for functions and banquets. Nonesuch House survived until 1757 when all the houses on the bridge were demolished.
From the late 15th century there is mention of waterworks at London Bridge. In 1497 a pump of Flemish origin was purchased and in subsequent decades money paid for repairs to the bridge’s waterworks. A Dutch hydraulics engineer by the name of Peter Morice, employed by Sir Christopher Hatton, demonstrated to the city authorities in 1581 how water could be fed into buildings, supplying fresh water. He proved it by directing water from the Thames through lead pipes and over the steeple of St.Magnus church in Lower Thames Street. His plan was to use the flow of the river through the first arch of London Bridge on the City end to power a wheel, turning pumps that lifted water into a tank above the level of the surrounding houses. Water from the tank could then flow through pipes by gravity into the buildings. Impressed by the demonstration, the authorities granted Morice a five-hundred-year lease at ten shillings per year to construct a water wheel-powered pump in the northern arch of the bridge. The first water to flow arrived at Leadenhall on Christmas Eve 1582, followed by Old Fish Street. It was such a success that the following year he was granted a lease for the second arch of the bridge. From there Morice was able to supply water to buildings in the surrounding area as far as Leadenhall. London’s water-bearers lobbied against Morice’s system, fearing they would be put out of work. Despite that, four waterwheels were thereafter in use at the bridge for the following two centuries. The scheme made Morice a wealthy man and his successors, who changed their name to Morris, were still receiving profits a hundred years later. In 1701 Thomas Morris was granted a lease on the fourth arch, the third having been damned up. Shortly after they sold the enterprise, which continued until 1822.
The bridge was managed and maintained by wardens and their staff based at Bridge House on the waterside near the Southwark end of the bridge. They in turn were subservient to the Corporation of London. A centuries-old complication was that the bridge was owned by the City but partly located in the parishes of Southwark. That ended in 1550 when the Corporation purchased the lordship of Southwark, to create Bridge Ward Without. Thereafter the bridge was located entirely in the City of London.
A fire broke out at the northern end of London Bridge in February 1633 in which eighty of the old wooden houses in the parish of St.Magnus the Martyr were destroyed. It was a cold month and the river had frozen over. The fire had started when a maid-servant in the house of a needle-maker left a tub of hot coal ashes under some wooden stairs before going to bed. The blaze continued unchecked across the bridge, destroying homes and workshops as it went. A commission was set up to investigate the rebuilding work and it was the opinion of King Charles that they should not be replaced, so the northern end of the bridge remained empty of buildings for several years. It was only in 1647, by which time Charles was not in a position to object, that rebuilding work on new houses began.
In contrast, the bridge and its dwellings were left relatively unscathed by the Great Fire of London in September 1666, which destroyed St.Magnus church and the entire area in the northern approach. Of the bridge itself, damage was limited to the first building at the northern end and the waterworks. Some repairs were necessary to piers and arches and the destroyed structure was rebuilt in 1683. Buildings at the southern end were rebuilt in a matching style. As buildings were replaced following the fires of 1633 and 1666 and at other times during the 17th century they were made to overhang the sides of the bridge. That allowed for the narrow roadway along the centre to be widened but gave the bridge a bulkier and perhaps less attractive appearance.
In 1749 London Bridge was joined across the river by a second crossing, the more modern and elegant Westminster Bridge with a wide road and convenient approaches. In comparison London Bridge looked rather sad and ancient and probably somewhat of an embarrassment to the City Corporation.
Sources include: Charles Welch ‘History of the Tower Bridge’ (1894, courtesy of the Hawk Norton collection); Peter Matthews ‘London’s Bridges’; Gustav Milne ‘The Port of Medieval London’; Caroline M.Barron ‘London in the Later Middle Ages’; John Schofield ‘London 1100-1600; Liza Picard ‘Elizabeth’s London’; John Pudney ‘Crossing London’s River’.