Vic Keegan’s Lost London 154: The original Westminster Bridge

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 154: The original Westminster Bridge

On 31 March, 1736, Parliament voted by 117 votes to 12 to remedy a situation that had resisted reform for 600 years. It was to provide the great city of London with a second bridge across the Thames to complement the original, iconic, London Bridge, on which houses had been built. Looking back it still seems extraordinary that vested interests could have succeeded in preserving the dominion of just one bridge over the river for so long.

It was a formidable cartel, backed by an unholy alliance of Mammon in the form of the City of London (which collected lucrative tolls from people and goods crossing London Bridge), God, in the form of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who received tolls from the Horseferry at Lambeth), and the thousands of watermen who earned their living by conveying people across the Thames in boats. It was one of the most successful monopolies ever.

Opponents of the new bridge warned that it would be to “the great prejudice of the navigation of the river” and would “endanger the lives of the practitioners and the loss of goods or merchandise by them carried”. The General Evening Post predicted with great confidence that, “It will enrich the inhabitants of Westminster, and impoverish the citizens of London… In short, it will make Westminster a fine city and London a desert”. Even the Thames itself seemed to object. During the first debate, the river rose almost to the doors of Parliament and left lawyers in Westminster Hall a foot deep in water.

But built it was, and by an innovative engineer from Switzerland, Charles Labelye (1705-1762), there being no English engineer capable of taking on the task, apparently. He pioneered the use of caissons (retaining structures) to support the bridge, rather than the traditional coffer dams, providing a watertight fence of wood or steel. Labelye modestly claimed that his bridge contained twice as much stone as St Paul’s Cathedral and was “unquestionably the greatest and most difficult work that has ever been attempted in this country”.

The bridge was funded by a combination of money voted by Parliament and the proceeds of several then fashionable lotteries, which enabled it to be constructed without the necessity of imposing tolls. It was greeted at home and abroad as a magnificent achievement, not least for the citizens of Westminster, who at last gained the infrastructure suitable for a the newly fashionable area it had become. There was, though, one unforeseen design flaw. Labelye built cubbyholes on each side of the bridge so pedestrians could take a rest. Unfortunately, they became an easy target for thieves, vagabonds and ladies of the night, who would accost unsuspecting visitors.

There is a sad ending to the story. When a new London Bridge was built, its arches were of a different size to those of the old one. These had served as a kind of breakwater, and the change meant that water poured through at greater speed. Over time, this caused “scouring“ of the foundations of both Westminster Bridge and Waterloo Bridge (built in 1817). Both bridges developed subsidence and had to be replaced as a result. It was almost as if the ghost of the old monopolistic London Bridge had cast a spell over Johnny-come-lately rivals.

The Westminster Bridge we enjoy today was built in 1862 by Thomas Page. It is coloured green to match the seats of the House of Commons. It is the oldest bridge exiting bridge in Central London and has so far escaped the revenge of the old London Bridge. Time is a great healer.

All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.

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Categories: Culture, Lost London

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