The original Waterloo Bridge

Waterloo Bridge was the second of three new bridges over the Thames opened between 1816 and 1819. This view by T.H. Shepherd was published in 1827.

The Napoleonic Wars were a time of uncertainty. Yet, as always in times of war, there were some businessmen who were making good profits from the conflict and wished to invest their finances into safe ventures. To them toll bridges over the Thames seemed a safe bet, whatever the outcome of the war. The result was three new bridges over the river in quick succession between 1811 and 1819, each incorporated under private Acts of Parliament. The second of these was Waterloo Bridge.

The concept of private toll crossings over the Thames was not new, with Putney Bridge in existence since 1729. The Strand Bridge Company was formed in 1809 to build a new toll bridge from the Strand on the north bank with an approach alongside Somerset House, then across to Lambeth on the other bank. It was led by Ralph Dodd, the energetic promoter of engineering projects. The company planned to build a level crossing, which involved creating long approach roads, with a total length of nearly a mile, of which the bridge itself occupied about a quarter. That proved expensive to acquire so the Acts of Parliament in 1809, 1813 and 1816 authorized the company to raise £500,000 in shares and borrow a further three hundred thousand pounds.

The young George Dodd, Ralph’s son, was initially commissioned to create the design. The company then had doubts about his submission and instead turned to John Rennie who provided two ideas. The cheaper option of nine spans was chosen, a simple but stylish structure, based on Rennie’s bridge at Kelso over the River Tweed in Scotland. Dodd continued to work on the project as Rennie’s assistant.

At the same time, Rennie was working on Vauxhall Bridge, a little further upstream. He was one of the most gifted engineers of his time. A builder of canals, harbours, viaducts, tunnels, bridges, and drainage systems, he was a pioneer of the country’s transportation system that enabled the Industrial Revolution. He was a mathematician and technician, making designs in his own hand and calculating the costs of each project.

Rennie appointed Jolliffe & Banks as the contractor. The company was part-owned by the engineer Edward Banks, who had been working with Rennie in the construction of canals since 1793. The Jolliffe family were quarry-owners. Hylton Jolliffe met Banks when the latter was working on an extension of the horse-drawn Surrey Iron Railway that ran from Wandsworth, and the two formed Jolliffe & Banks. In 1803 Jolliffe handed his part of the business to his younger brother, the Reverend William Jolliffe. Jolliffe & Banks rapidly expanded to become one of the principal construction companies of the time, working on canals, docks, bridges and lighthouses. Their other work in London included the West India and London Docks. In the 1820s they formed the General Steam Navigation Company, operating passenger services between the Thames and the Continent. Together with Rennie and his sons they were responsible for both Waterloo and Southwark Bridges and the rebuilt London Bridge. Banks was knighted for his work.

Work on the new Strand bridge began in March 1811, with the first stone laid that October. Three years later the Allied Sovereigns were in Britain during the Napoleonic War. The work must have particularly interested Emperor Alexander I of Russia because he visited several times and declared it to be the finest masonry in the world.

Acquiring land for the approaches on each side of the crossing was both costly and time-consuming but the bridge was completed in 1817. It consisted of nine elliptical arches of 120 feet span, faced in Cornish granite from Penryn. Each pier was decorated with a pair of Grecian Doric columns covered by an entablature. The bridge was topped by a balustrade of grey Aberdeen granite, with an alcove for pedestrians above each pier. The crossing was level with the Strand on the north bank and a gentle ascent on the Surrey bank, thus making it easy for horse-drawn carriages. Tollhouses at each end contained turnstiles through which pedestrians had to pass.

The final Act of Parliament allowed it to be renamed Waterloo Bridge in honour of the defeat of Napoleon the previous year. Large crowds arrived to see the opening by the Prince Regent in June 1817, crossing the bridge accompanied by the Duke of York and Duke of Wellington. The ceremony took place on the second anniversary of the battle and the bridge was lined by veterans of the conflict. The Prince expressed his desire to knight Rennie but it was declined. John Constable was probably present at the ceremony and he later produced several paintings and sketches featuring the bridge. The bridge was later famously depicted by Whistler and Claude Monet. The Italian sculptor Antonio Canova described Waterloo Bridge as the noblest in the world and worth visiting London from Rome for that alone. He was struck that so magnificent a structure could have been built by private enterprise and not the work of the government.

The final cost was in excess of a million pounds, including the purchase of land and buildings and the construction of the approaches. The company never made a profit because the relatively small number of prospective customers instead used the toll-free bridges either side at Westminster and Blackfriars to reach the sparsely-populated Lambeth side. Waterloo Station was opened as the terminus of the London & South Western Railway at the southern end of the bridge in 1848, providing much-need traffic. When omnibuses came into operation in the 1860s, however, they instead carried passengers from the station to the Strand over the toll-free bridges.

Waterloo Bridge gained a reputation for deaths of various kinds. An American entertainer, famed for making dramatic dives, made an elaborate attempt off the bridge in 1841, watched by a large crowd, but died in the process. One night in 1857 an unknown person lowered a carpet bag from the bridge into the river but it ended up on one of the piers. Two watermen found it in the morning, to discover it contained body parts.

Waterloo Bridge was purchased by the Metropolitan Board of Works for £475,000 in 1878, after which it was opened free of charge at the same time as the footbridges at Cannon Street and Charing Cross. Traffic across it doubled thereafter. It was in 1878 one of the earliest London thoroughfares to be lit by electric lighting, although the scheme was abandoned due to the high cost. It was permanently reinstated in 1897.

When Rennie’s new London Bridge was opened in 1831 the river began to flow faster. That had a gradual effect on Waterloo Bridge and the MBW spent a considerable sum reinforcing the piers in the 1880s. Serious movement was observed in 1923 and in 1926 the London County Council decided to replace the original Waterloo Bridge. It was demolished in 1934 and eventually replaced by the current crossing.

Sources include: Peter Matthews ‘London’s Bridges’; John Summerson ‘Georgian London’; John Pudney ‘Crossing London’s Rivers’; James Elmes, ‘Metropolitan Improvements’ (1827); W.W. Hutchings, ‘London Town Past and Present’ (1909);

< Bridges and Tunnels

Stay Connected

Be the first to hear when new content is added by joining my email newsletter.

I won't share your details and you can easily opt-out any time. Learn more in my Privacy Policy