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London Bridge


London Bridge

Demands the first attention on account of its age, rather than from any excellence that belongs to it. Its history, unlike that of the other bridges, has been as various almost as the changes undergone by London itself; for both have been alike exposed to the terrific trials of water and fire. The bridge was founded on enormous piles, drawn as closely together as possible. On them were placed long planks ten inches thick, strongly bolted; and on them the bases of the piers rested. The lowermost stones were bedded in pitch, to prevent the water from damaging the work. Round the whole were fixed the piles, called the sterlings, designed for the preservation of the foundation piles. These contracted the spaces between the piers to such a degree as to occasion, at the retreat of every tide, the fall of five feet or a number of temporary cataracts, which, since the foundation of the bridge, have occasioned the loss of many thousands of lives, and this defect remains!

The number of arches was nineteen, of unequal dimensions, and greatly deformed by the sterlings and the houses on each side, which overhung and leaned in a most terrific manner. In most places they hid the arches, and nothing appeared but the rude piers. Frequent arches of strong timber crossed the street from the tops of the houses, to keep them together, and from falling into the river. Nothing but familiarity with danger could preserve the quiet of the inmates, who soon grew deaf to the noise of the falling waters, the clamours of the watermen, or the frequent shrieks of drowning persons. In one part there was a drawbridge, useful either as a measure of defence, or for the admission of ships into the upper part of the river. This was protected by a strong tower. It served to repulse Fauconbridge, in his general assault on the city, in the year 1471, with a lawless banditti, under pretence of rescuing the unfortunate Henry, then confined in the Tower. Sixty houses were burnt on the bridge on this occasion. It also served to check, and at length to annihilate the insurrection of Sir Thomas Wyat, in the reign of queen Mary. The top of the Tower, in the turbulent days of this kingdom, might be considered as the disgraceful shambles of human flesh, and was generally covered with the heads and quarters of unfortunate partisans. Even so late as the year 1598, Heutzner, the German traveller, counted upon it above thirty heads. The old map of the city, in 1597, represents them in a most horrible and disgusting cluster.

An unparalleled calamity happened on this bridge within four years after it was finished. A fire began on it, at the Southwark end. Multitudes of people rushed out of London to extinguish it. While they were engaged, in this benevolent employment, the fire seized on the opposite end, and hemmed in the crowd. Above three thousand persons perished in the flames, or were drowned in consequence of overloading the vessels which were brought for their relief.

The narrowness of the passage on this bridge having, occasioned the loss of many lives, in consequence of the great number of carriages continually passing : and the straitness of the arches, with the enormous size of the sterlings, which occupied a fourth part of the waterway, having also occasioned frequent and fatal accidents, as already mentioned; the magistrates of London, in the year 1756, obtained an act of parliament for improving and widening the passage over and through the bridge; and which act granted them a toll for every carriage passing over it. But these tolls proving insufficient, they were abolished in 1758, by an act which was passed, for explaining, amending, and rendering the former act more effectual, and for granting the city of London money towards carrying on that work. In consequence of these acts of parliament a temporary wooden bridge was built, and the houses on the old bridge were taken down.

Instead of a narrow street, twenty-three feet wide, there is now a passage of thirty-one feet for carriages, with a raised pavement of stone on each side, seven feet broad, for the use of foot passengers. The sides are secured by balustrades, enlightened in the night with lamps. The passage through the bridge is enlarged, by throwing the two middle arches into one, and by other alterations and improvements. Notwithstanding which, it is still subject to some of its former inconveniences.

Under the first, second, and fourth arches, from the north side of the bridge, and now likewise towards the southern extremity, there are engines worked by the flux and reflux of the river; the water of which they raise to such a height as to supply many parts of the city. These engines were contrived in l582 by a Dutchman, named Peter Morice, and are called London Bridge Water Works.

Other London bridges:
Blackfriars' Bridge
Westminster Bridge
The Strand, or Waterloo Bridge
Length of the other Bridges
Vauxhall Bridge
Southwark Bridge
Summary of the Bridges

Source: Leigh's New Picture of London. Printed for Samuel Leigh, 18, Strand;
by W. Clowes, Northumberland Court. 1819