The Bridges of London
The River Thames is the second-longest river in the United Kingdom (only the River Severn is longer). The Thames has over 200 bridges, 27 tunnels, six public ferries, one cable car link, and one ford along its 215-mile journey. Here are the bridges in Greater London:
- Tower Bridge: Opened in 1904.
- London Bridge: First opened in 50 AD, then again in 1209, 1831 and 1973
- Cannon Street Railway Bridge: Opened in 1866
- Southwark Bridge: First opened in 1819, then again in 1921
- Millennium Bridge: Opened in 2002
- Blackfriars Railway Bridge: First opened in 1864, then again in 1886
- Blackfriars Bridge: First opened in 1769, then again in 1869
- Waterloo Bridge: First opened in 1817, then again in 1945
- Hungerford Bridge: Opened in 1864
- Golden Jubilee Bridges: Opened in 2002
- Westminster Bridge: First opened in 1750, then again in 1862
- Lambeth Bridge: First opened in 1862, then again in 1932
- Vauxhall Bridge: First opened in 1816, then again in 1906
- Grosvenor Bridge: Opened in 1859
- Chelsea Bridge: First opened in 1858, then again in 1937
- Albert Bridge: Opened in 1873
- Waterloo Bridge: First opened 1817, closed 1937, then rebuilt 1942-1945
- Battersea Bridge: First opened in 1771, then again in 1890
- Battersea Railway Bridge: Opened in 1863
- Wandsworth Bridge: First opened in 1873, then again in 1938
- Fulham Railway Bridge and Footbridge: Opened in 1889
- Putney Bridge: First opened in 1729, then again in 1886
- Hammersmith Bridge: First opened in 1827, then again in 1887
- Barnes Railway Bridge and Footbridge: Opened in 1849
- Chiswick Bridge: Opened in 1933
- Kew Railway Bridge: Opened in 1869
- Kew Bridge: First opened in 1759, then again in 1789
- Richmond Lock and Footbridge: Opened in 1894
- Twickenham Bridge: Opened in 1933
- Richmond Railway Bridge: Opened in 1848
- Richmond Bridge Opened in 1777
- Teddington Lock Footbridges: Opened in 1889
- Kingston Railway Bridge: Opened in 1863
- Kingston Bridge: First opened in 1190, then again in 1828
- Hampton Court Bridge: First opened in 1753, then again in 1778, 1865 and 1933
An engraving by Claes Van Visscher showing Old London Bridge in 1616. St. Magnus the Martyr’s church can be seen. 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, finished in 1209 during the reign of King John.
Picture Credit/Attribution: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
File URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:London_Bridge_(1616)_by_Claes_Van_Visscher.jpg
Until sufficient crossings were established, the river provided a formidable barrier for most of its course – in post-Roman Britain during the Dark Ages, Belgic-Celtic tribal lands and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and subdivisions were defined by which side of the river they were on. When English counties were established, the river formed a boundary between the counties on either side. After rising in Gloucestershire, the river flows between the historic counties of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Middlesex and Essex on the north side, and Wiltshire, Berkshire, Surrey, and Kent counties on the south side.
However, the many permanent crossings that have been built over the centuries have changed the dynamics and made cross-river development and shared responsibilities more practicable. The advent of the railways resulted in a spate of bridge-building in the 19th century, including Blackfriars Railway Bridge and Charing Cross (Hungerford) Railway Bridge in central London.
It is, perhaps, London’s most famous bridge and may even be one of the most famous bridges in the world. It’s the last of the Victorian bridges, built between 1886 and 1894. Tower Bridge was designed by Sir Horace Jones and built by John Wolfe Barry. Since opening in 1894, it has been London’s defining landmark, an icon of London and the United Kingdom. Horace Jones also shaped some of the most stand-out structures of Victorian London – including Leadenhall Market, Smithfield Market and Billingsgate Market.
Tower Bridge is a combined bascule close to the Tower of London, from which its name emanates. It has become an iconic symbol of London. The bridge has two towers tied together at the upper level through the horizontal walkways designed to withstand the horizontal forces exerted by the suspended sections of the bridge to the left and the right. The bascule pivots and operating machinery are housed in the base of each tower. Its present colour is from 1977, when it was painted red, white and blue for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Before this, it was painted a chocolate brown colour.
The walkways on the bridge became notorious for pickpockets and prostitution, although what the attraction was to conduct such activities on a narrow windy, walkway is hard to understand. Even so, it caused its closure to the public from 1910 to the early 21st century. The two sections in the central span are called bascules, the French word for ‘see-saw’, and they rise to an angle of 83 degrees. More than 11,000 tons of steel were used in its construction, and the foundations needed more than 70,000 tons of concrete to support the structure. It also features over 31 million bricks and 2 million rivets.#
The Old London Bridge of nursery rhyme fame dates from 1176, when Peter of Colechurch, a priest and chaplain of St. Mary’s of Colechurch, began construction of the foundation. Replacing a timber bridge (one of several that were built in late Roman and early medieval times), The Colechuch structure was the first great stone arch bridge built in Britain. It had 19 pointed arches, each with a span of approximately 7 metres (24 feet), built on piers 6 metres (20 feet) wide; a 20th opening was designed to be spanned by a wooden drawbridge. The stone foundations of the piers were built inside cofferdams made by driving timber piles into the riverbed; these, in turn, were surrounded by starlings (loose stone filling enclosed by piles).
According to Viking legend, the Saxon version of the bridge was destroyed in 1014 by Norwegian prince Olaf, who was aiding King Aethelred in regaining London from the Danes. Seventy-seven years later, on 17th October 1091, the replacement wooden bridge built by William the Conqueror was destroyed by a tornado.
The fire that hit London Bridge in 1212 is widely portrayed as the most devastating ever to hit the crossing of the Thames, and it may even have been London’s single most deadly disaster ever. The bridge had only recently been rebuilt in stone when a small fire on the southern end of the bridge was whipped up by high winds, causing widespread loss of life and destruction of the bridge.
The Romans founded London, and, just as we do today, they found that getting from one side of the Thames to the other was essential. The first bridge (close to the site of the present London Bridge) was built by the Romans around 50 AD.
It’s unknown how many timber bridges followed the Roman one on this site. There is a reference to a bridge at the time of King Edgar (957-975).
Until the 18th century, the only bridge across the Thames was London Bridge. But London nearly had another bridge – it may have been partly built before it was abandoned. The bridge may have been started around 1599 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It was shown on one map and in some documents. It wasn’t in London as we know it today, but out in the countryside crossing the Thames, linking Blackwall with North Greenwich.
The Hungerford Bridge, owned by Network Rail Infrastructure Limited, crosses the river between Waterloo Bridge and Westminster Bridge. Owned by Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd (who use its official name of Charing Cross Bridge), it is a steel truss railway bridge flanked by two more recent, cable-stayed, pedestrian bridges that share the railway bridge’s foundation piers, and which are named the Golden Jubilee Bridges. The first Hungerford Bridge was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel opened in 1845 as a suspension footbridge.
The only Bridge casualty in London in World War II
Although London suffered extensive damage during the Blitz, most of the bridges over the Thames remained intact. Waterloo Bridge in central London was the exception – it was hit on 10th May 1941. Ironically, it was not even a functioning bridge at the time.
The original Waterloo Bridge opened in 1817, but by the 1920s was suffering badly from the ‘double whammy’ of erosion caused by the Thames and from the cumulative stress imposed by traffic that had not been foreseen in the 19th century. The 1817 bridge was demolished in 1937, and work began on its replacement. Construction in the early part of the war was slowed by the labour shortages (this was resolved by employing mainly female labourers, giving it the nickname ‘The Lady Bridge’), and when the German bombs fell in 1941, they hit a work-in-progress.
Following the 1941 bombing, the new Waterloo bridge was partially opened on 11th March 1942 and was finally completed in 1945.
A Bridge for the New Millennium
The Millennium Bridge, officially known as the London Millennium Footbridge, is a steel suspension bridge for pedestrians crossing the River Thames in London, linking Bankside with the City of London. Construction began in 1998, and it initially opened on 10th June 2000.
Londoners nicknamed it the “Wobbly Bridge” after pedestrians experienced an alarming swaying motion on its opening day. The bridge was closed later that day and, after two days of limited access, it was closed again for almost two years so that modifications and repairs could be made to keep the bridge stable and stop the swaying motion. It reopened in February 2002.
The bridge has two river piers and is made of three main sections of 81 m (266 ft), 144 m (472 ft), and 108 m (354 ft) (north to south), with a total structure length of 325 m (1,066 ft); the aluminium deck is 4 m (13 ft) wide. The eight suspension cables are tensioned to pull with a force of 2,000 tons against the piers set into each bank—enough to support a working load of 5,000 people on the bridge at a time.
The bridge is located between Southwark Bridge and Blackfriars Railway Bridge. Its southern end is near the Globe Theatre, the Bankside Gallery, and Tate Modern, while its northern end is next to the City of London School below St Paul’s Cathedral. The bridge’s alignment is such that a clear view of St. Paul’s south façade is presented from across the river, framed by the bridge supports.
The Illuminated River
The Illuminated River Foundation is a registered charity based in the offices of the Rothschild Foundation who provide administrative support. Illuminated River is the first cohesive lighting vision for the Thames bridges in central London, celebrating the structures as architectural, social and historical landmarks, and creating a symbolic link across the political, financial and cultural centres of the capital. At 3.2 miles in length, Illuminated River spans from London to Lambeth bridges, making it the longest public art commission in the world. It will last for at least ten years, and the Foundation will fund all maintenance, replacement and electricity costs.
Designed by Leo Villareal and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, the illumination uses the latest LED technology to create the world’s longest and largest public artwork. The Illuminated River artwork encompasses nine bridges in central London, from London to Lambeth. The first four bridges – London, Cannon Street, Southwark and Millennium – were completed in July 2019. Five more bridges – Blackfriars, Waterloo, Golden Jubilee, Westminster and Lambeth – were illuminated in April 2021.
Illuminated River’s original vision spanned from Albert Bridge in the west to Tower Bridge in the east. Beyond the nine bridge installation, the artwork has the capacity to be extended on a bridge-by-bridge basis as all of the design work has been completed.
The Lost Rivers of London
It’s one thing thinking about London’s bridges and when they were built, but equally interesting is to think about the rivers which once ran through London – where are they now, you might ask. A BBC article, The Lost Rivers that lie beneath London in October 2015, found plenty of answers. For example, at central London’s St Pancras Road, a river once ran through grassy fields. It’s one of many rivers converted into a sewer as the capital’s population grew.
Another is The Fleet, probably one of the better-known rivers beneath Londoners’ feet, a sewer that flows to Blackfriars Bridge. Paul Talling investigated how these rivers shaped the city and wrote a book about London’s lost rivers. The rivers formed borough boundaries and transport networks, fashionable spas and stagnant slums – and all eventually gave way to railways, roads and sewers. The rivers may now be underground, but their impact on London’s landscape remains to this day.
- Source: Wikipedia at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_bridges_in_London ↑
- Source: Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_crossings_of_the_River_Thames and https://www.historyfiles.co.uk/KingListsBritain/BritainBelgae.htm ↑
- A bascule bridge is a moveable bridge with a counterweight that continuously balances a span, or leaf, throughout its upward swing to provide clearance for boat traffic. The name comes from the French term for balance scale, which employs the same principle. ↑
- Sources: https://owlcation.com/humanities/Bridges-across-the-Thames-in-London, https://www.towerbridge.org.uk/discover/history and
- Source: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Old-London-Bridge ↑
- Historic UK says the tornado “struck the heart of the city, causing a great deal of damage”, including levelling the church of St Mary-le-Bow and around 600 houses. See: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Great-London-Tornado-1091/ ↑
- Source: Londonist and TheWeek, https://www.theweek.co.uk/104648/london-bridge-a-history-of-disaster-at-the-iconic-thames-crossing ↑
- Sources: http://www.engineering-timelines.com/scripts/engineeringItem.asp?id=662 and https://www.ianvisits.co.uk/blog/2014/06/30/londons-lost-bridge-across-the-thames-at-blackwall/ ↑
- Source: http://www.engineering-timelines.com/scripts/engineeringItem.asp?id=78 ↑
- Source: https://quizzclub.com/trivia/which-was-the-only-thames-bridge-to-have-been-damaged-by-german-bombing-during-the-second-world-war/answer/116134/ ↑
- Source: Wikipedia at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_Bridge,_London ↑
- For more information, see: https://illuminatedriver.london/bridges ↑
- See: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-29551351 ↑
- See: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Londons-Lost-Rivers-Paul-Talling/dp/184794597X ↑