Tomorrow (Sat) will mark either the laying of the foundation stone, or the completion of the construction of the first London Bridge – the date seems a bit confused. Now, a new study at the University of Leicester has uncovered a tale of corruption, mismanagement, financial crisis and a property crash that resulted in the downfall of the Old London Bridge- the capital’s last ‘living bridge’.

Obviously, the University of Leicester is the most suitable place to study a bridge in London.

However, that slight quibble aside, the study (due to be published shortly) does make for some interesting reading of a bit of the old bridge’s history that I wasn’t aware of. While it is well known that the bridge was lined with shops and a couple of churches, it seems that there was a tradition of incompetence and downright fraud in maintaining the bridge.

© English Heritage

© English Heritage

According to Mark Latham at the University of Leicester’s Centre for Urban History: “What I discovered was that the organisation that managed the bridge at that time was plagued with incompetent management and corruption. Both workmen and their managers charged inflated prices for materials and labour, the management left rents uncollected, and on several occasions the workmen were found to have deliberately and almost fatally damaged the Bridge in order to charge for its repair.

“Furthermore, managers often paid for improvements to their own houses out of the coffers of the Trust running the Bridge.”

To try and boost the income, the managers decided to pull down some shops and replace them with posh houses, thinking that the river view would make them desirable. A river view is indeed today a very desirable sight, but at the time, with all the river trade going on, it would have been the equivalent of living next to a motorway service station. Hardly the most luxurious of locations, and it is not surprising that the project failed.

Haemorrhaging cash, the members of the Trust petitioned Parliament in 1755 for the funds to demolish all the properties on the bridge and in 1756 the whole lot came down – and in turn changing the concept of a river bridge from a normal street that just happened to be over a river – to being a “transport only” thoroughfare that we are familiar with now.

Bridges are now a transition from one side to the other, and not a place to linger unless you are a tourist.

© Peter Jackson FSA

© Peter Jackson FSA

Considering that the Trust managing the bridge was evidently almost bankrupt in 1755, it is impressive that the Trust, still operating today is so rich that it had to seek a change to its charter to allow its annual surplus to be spent on something other than maintaining London’s Bridges.

As part of the 800th Anniversary celebrations, the Bridge will be closed to traffic tomorrow and a trades fair will be set up, along with several attempts to drive the infamous sheep over the bridge.

A museum of the history of the London Bridge is being built at the moment, and will open in the arches under London Bridge on the Southern side, which is technically a part of the City of London.

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2 Comments

  1. petoskystone

    upon looking at the (lovely) painting of the houses built on london bridge, my first thought was ‘storm surge’.

  2. John

    As you probably know already, the Peter Jackson collection of Londonabilia (that’s the PJ whose painting you’ve used above, not the Lord of the Rings one) is in the London Bridge Experience, which seems to be a London Dungeon wannabe on the north bank. As it costs something like £16 to get in, I haven’t. Wouldn’t it be nice if it could be moved to the new museum and maybe made available at a more modest price?

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