Old London Bridge was by far the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. It was considered a wonder of the world, it had 138 shops, houses, churches & gatehouses built on it

February 22, 2024

Old London Bridge was by far the longest inhabited bridge in Europe.

Old London Bridge was by far the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. It was considered a wonder of the world, it had 138 shops, houses, churches & gatehouses built on it

There have been many reincarnations of London Bridge since the original Roman crossing in AD50.

The most famous and longstanding of these was the “Old” Medieval bridge, during the reign of King John.

It was considered a wonder of the world, featuring 138 shops, houses, churches & gate houses built on it.

Old London Bridge was by far the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. It was considered a wonder of the world, it had 138 shops, houses, churches & gatehouses built on it

For more than 600 years, this bridge was the key crossing point of the Thames in London, ferrying people, goods and livestock across the river.

In 1176, the construction of the new stone bridge was begun by Peter the Bridge Master, a member of the clergy and Master of the Brethren of the Bridge of London.

The new bridge took more than 30 years to complete.

Its foundations were built by driving wooden stakes into the riverbed and infilling with rubble.

The bridge was then erected on piers connected by 19 pointed arches spanning a total of 926 feet (282 metres).

Old London Bridge was by far the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. It was considered a wonder of the world, it had 138 shops, houses, churches & gatehouses built on it

The longest inhabited bridge in Europe, its roadway was lined from the outset with shops and houses.

At the peak of the bridge’s prosperity in the 14th century, the bridge wardens received rents from around 140 properties.

Many of the houses had merged and there were only 91 separate dwellings.

Originally, the houses had only two storeys but they were gradually enlarged, until by the 17th century most had four or five storeys.

When it was first built, there seems to have been a deliberate attempt to attract the most prestigious trades to London Bridge.

Old London Bridge was by far the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. It was considered a wonder of the world, it had 138 shops, houses, churches & gatehouses built on it

In the late 14th century, shops on the bridge included haberdashers, glovers, cutlers (retailers of knives and cutting implements), bow makers and fletchers (arrow makers).

The three major buildings on the bridge were the chapel, the drawbridge tower and the stone gate, all of which seem to have been present soon after the bridge’s construction.

The chapel was last rebuilt in 1387–1396, by Henry Yevele, master mason to the king – following the Reformation, it was converted into a house in 1553.

The stone gate was last rebuilt in the 1470s, and later took over the function of displaying the heads of traitors.

The last head was installed in 1661; subsequently heads were placed on Temple Bar instead, until the practice ceased.

Old London Bridge was by far the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. It was considered a wonder of the world, it had 138 shops, houses, churches & gatehouses built on it

The drawbridge, about 28 feet (8.5 metres) wide, which could be raised twice each day when the tide was high to allow ships to pass through.

The drawbridge could also be raised on occasions when London came under attack, as it was in 1381 to prevent entry into the city by Wat Tyler and his rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt.

St Magnus the Martyr Church also had an important place in the history of London Bridge.

It stood at the head of the bridge, and the roadway that gave access to and from the bridge passed through the churchyard, via the west door.

Unfortunately, St Magnus the Martyr stood less than 300 metres from the bakery on Pudding Lane where the Great Fire of London began in 1666, and was among the first buildings to be destroyed by the fire.

Old London Bridge was by far the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. It was considered a wonder of the world, it had 138 shops, houses, churches & gatehouses built on it

It was subsequently rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren.

Remarkably, London Bridge itself survived the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The devastating fire swept through London, destroying 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, The Royal Exchange, Guildhall and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

A previous, smaller fire had destroyed several houses on the north side of the bridge, which provided a firebreak and saved most of the bridge from the flames.

However, by the beginning of the 18th century, the medieval London Bridge was dilapidated and was considered old fashioned.

Old London Bridge was by far the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. It was considered a wonder of the world, it had 138 shops, houses, churches & gatehouses built on it

The opening of Westminster Bridge further upriver in 1749 highlighted the restrictions and limitations of the ancient structure.

Its narrow arches constrained the movement of river traffic and slowed the flow of the water to such an extent that the Thames would often freeze over during very cold winters.

In a fast-growing metropolis, the narrow roadway across the medieval bridge also caused congestion for carriages and pedestrians.

In 1824, a new ‘London Bridge’ of five stone arches was begun.

It was opened seven years later by King William IV and the medieval bridge was at last dismantled.

Old London Bridge was by far the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. It was considered a wonder of the world, it had 138 shops, houses, churches & gatehouses built on it

The old bridge continued in use while the new bridge was being built, and was demolished after the latter opened in 1831.

New approach roads had to be built, which cost three times as much as the bridge itself.

The total costs, around £2.5 million (£242 million in today’s money), were shared by the British Government and the Corporation of London.

In 1896, the bridge was the busiest point in London, and one of its most congested; 8,000 pedestrians and 900 vehicles crossed every hour!

It was therefore widened by 13 feet, using granite corbels.

Old London Bridge was by far the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. It was considered a wonder of the world, it had 138 shops, houses, churches & gatehouses built on it

It was therefore widened by 13 feet, using granite corbels.

Subsequent surveys showed that the bridge was sinking an inch (about 2.5 cm) every eight years, and by 1924 the east side had sunk some three to four inches (about 9 cm) lower than the west side.

The bridge would have to be removed and replaced.

The current modern bridge was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 16 March 1973.

Today, the modern bridge still stands at the western end of the Pool of London and is positioned 30 metres (98 ft) upstream from previous alignments.

Old London Bridge was by far the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. It was considered a wonder of the world, it had 138 shops, houses, churches & gatehouses built on it

The bridge is owned and maintained by Bridge House Estates, an independent charity of medieval origin overseen by the City of London corporation.

Claude de Jongh painting

Old London Bridge is one of the most popular paintings in the Iveagh Bequest at Kenwood, north London.

Painted in 1630, it is the work of the little-known Dutch artist Claude de Jongh (c.1603–1663) and is considered his masterpiece.

Old London Bridge was by far the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. It was considered a wonder of the world, it had 138 shops, houses, churches & gatehouses built on it

The paintings and drawings made by de Jongh during his visits to England are among the earliest topographical views of the country.

He was also the first of a long line of artists to be captivated by the river Thames and its bridges.

A little more than a century after de Jongh painted London Bridge, the great Venetian topographical artist Canaletto made a drawing of the structure.

And in 1794, the young JMW Turner captured the bridge as it then appeared, cleared of shops and houses.

His masterpiece offers a remarkable window onto London of the past and remains one of the most popular paintings at Kenwood.

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