A contemporary engineer said it was “perhaps the finest large masonry bridge ever built in this or any other country”. Antonio Canova, the Italian sculptor of The Three Graces, called it “the noblest bridge in the world“ and said it was worth going to England just to see it. Painters such as Monet and Constable loved it.
They were talking about Waterloo Bridge. Not the present one, handsome though that is, but the previous one, built in the early 19th century. This first Waterloo Bridge was designed by the great Scottish engineer John Rennie, complete with dramatic Doric columns. Inspired by the look of a previous Rennie bridge, the Kelso Bridge that spans the River Tweed in Roxburghshire, it was originally to be called Strand Bridge, but success at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 led to a clamour for a change to commemorate that military triumph.
When the bridge opened in 1817 it again followed Kelso Bridge in being a toll bridge. This had made a fistful of money for investors in the Scottish project, but it wasn’t the case with Waterloo Bridge because it was always possible to cross the Thames using instead Blackfriars or Westminster bridges, which were free. This particular Waterloo battle was finally lost 1878, when the bridge was nationalised under the auspices of the Metropolitan Board of Works and the tolls were removed.
Rennie’s Waterloo Bridge lasted for over 100 years until it was unintentionally killed by its own architect. A subsequent new London Bridge, replacing the historic multi-arched one with all the houses on top, was also designed by Rennie. What he failed to foresee was that the smaller number of arches this latest London Bridge possessed compared with its predecessor meant the flow of Thames water increased.
In 1884 it was discovered that this had resulted in increased scour – the displacement of sand and gravel – around the foundations of the Waterloo Bridge piers, resulting in their erosion. By the 1920s, the problems were severe, with “a visible dip” appearing at the Strand end. In 1924 the bridge was closed completely, and though some temporary reinforcements enabled it to re-open, in 1930 the London County Council decided it should be demolished.
It was a rare example of a thriving bridge being killed off by the competition, an outcome for psycho-geographers to salivate over. The replacement Waterloo Bridge, the one we have today, was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, officially opened in 1942 and fully completed in 1945. Many of those who did the work were women.
All was not lost for the old bridge. As so often happens with bridges, some of the foundations were still so strong that they were retained for its replacement. If you look at the northern (Somerset House) end, you can see some remnants of Rennie‘s work. There is even a plaque there to explain everything. There are remains on the southern side too.
And that’s not all. Bridges made of stone are often recycled. Some of the old Waterloo Bridge also found its way into the new one in the form of facading or infill, while many of its granite blocks were offered as gifts to Commonwealth countries in a kind of diplomatic bridge-building exercise.
These can still be seen as monuments in parts of Australia and New Zealand. Some of the stone balustrades even found their way to a house in the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) owned by the author Dornford Yates. Matt Brown of Londonist has written a fascinating piece about where bits of the old Waterloo Bridge are now.
Finally, a little known fact: Waterloo Bridge was the only bridge in London to be hit by a bomb during the last war.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
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