Skip to main content
A 1632 oil painting titled "View of London Bridge" by Claude de Jongh, showing Old London Bridge

London Bridge: Connecting the capital's past with its present

Dive into the rich history and enduring legacy of London Bridge, an architectural marvel that has stood the test of time, enduring devastation and significant renovations.

Above: A 1632 oil painting titled "View of London Bridge" by Claude de Jongh, showing Old London Bridge

Upon London Bridge, the heads of traitors were stuck on spikes for all to see. National triumphs were marked by gorgeous processions over the water. The bridge was the focal point of the city and for all England.

Edward Rutherford, London: The Novel

Until Medieval times, the only way to cross the Thames from London on the north bank to the southern suburb of Southwark was by ferry or a rickety wooden bridge. In 1176 all that changed. After successive wooden bridges were destroyed by fire, Henry II commissioned the building of a permanent stone crossing. It took 33 years to complete and was to last – give or take repairs and remodelling – more than 600 years.

The finished bridge was quite a sight. It was 275m long, supported on 20 gothic arches. It featured a central chapel, a host of shops and houses (the rent from which funded its construction and upkeep), gates, a drawbridge – even waterwheels and a mill. The houses were up to seven storeys high and jutted over the river by as much as 2m on either side. Many practically touched in the middle, making the bridge more of a tunnel in places.

Ironically, the bridge didn't make crossing the Thames much less arduous. Although the bridge was about 8m wide, buildings reduced the space for traffic to just 4m – room for only one narrow lane north and one south. These were shared by horses, carts, livestock and pedestrians. Crossing the bridge could take as long as an hour.

Things weren't much better by ferry. The narrowness of the arches and the later addition of waterwheels created a dam effect. The water level on one side of the piers could be several metres below that on the other and shooting the rapids connecting the two was a dangerous game played only by the most skilled watermen. Drownings were common.

Fire was another hazard of life on the bridge. The worst came in 1212 when sparks from a house fire at the Southwark end started another at the north end. Trapped in the middle, people jumped in desperation into waiting rescue boats, sinking many in the process. It's thought that at least 3,000 people died.

As if that wasn't enough, parts of the bridge collapsed on several occasions, including 1281, 1309, 1425 and 1437. The 1281 collapse happened when expanding ice from the frozen Thames literally crushed five of the arches. Queen Eleanor – unpopular at the best of times – was blamed for misappropriating bridge revenues and failing to use them for repairs. This gave rise to a rewrite of the popular rhyme London Bridge is falling down: the original was based on a Norse saga, but the addition of my fair lady was a clear dig at the Queen.

But it was unwise to oppose the monarchy too much in medieval England – as the heads of traitors on spikes above the bridge's stone gatehouse attested. The first unfortunate to have his tar-soaked head displayed in this manner was Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace, in 1305. In 1450, rebel Jack Cade suffered the same fate after a terrible night of rioting on the bridge that left hundreds dead. The terrifying practice continued until 1678 and included the heads of Thomas More, Guy Fawkes and Oliver Cromwell.

What happened to Old London Bridge?

Begun by Henry II and completed during the reign of King John, the decades-long construction of Old London Bridge was nothing compared to the sprawling length of time it straddled the Thames. For over six centuries the bridge was known as a striking landmark, a place of worship, a bustling thoroughfare, and a jam-packed shopping district that survived numerous calamities including the Great Fire of London.

However, by the mid-18th century, problems with the infrastructure of this grand old icon could no longer be overlooked. What’s more, inhabited bridges had been slowly falling out of fashion in Western Europe.

Over a century earlier in Paris, the Pont Neuf bridge had been constructed without buildings on top of it – the original house-crammed design having been changed on the orders of Henry IV of France, who decided he didn’t want tall buildings on the bridge obstructing views of the Louvre. A few decades after that, England’s Charles II echoed the French monarch’s sentiments about inhabited bridges, pushing for Old London Bridge to be streamlined in the aftermath of a devastating fire.

It was only a matter of time before serious changes were made to the landmark. The decisive moment came with the London Bridge Improvement Act of 1756. Passed just over a decade after the final houses were built on the bridge, it empowered London authorities to demolish all the buildings and provide the bridge with a clean, uncluttered new look which would allow for faster traffic.

However, this amounted to nothing more than a stay of execution for Old London Bridge. Changes to the supporting arches had left the structure weakened, meaning expensive and inconvenient repair works were often required. It was eventually decided that an entirely new London Bridge would be constructed in its place.

A competition was held in 1799 to select the design of the successor structure. This was won by Scottish civil engineer John Rennie, who also designed Waterloo Bridge. Old London Bridge remained in use until the new bridge opened in 1831, at which point one of the great symbols of medieval London was finally demolished.

5 facts about London Bridge

1. London Bridge was home to the world’s first prefab building

One of the most famous structures to sit on Old London Bridge was Nonsuch House, so named because there was no other building like it. Four storeys high and topped with distinctive onion domes, it was constructed in the Netherlands and shipped to London in component parts that were labelled for re-assembly (with no nails or mortar required). Put together on the bridge in 1579, it’s generally regarded as the world’s first prefabricated building.

2. London Bridge is why Brits drive on the left

In the 18th century, attempts to bring some order to the frequently chaotic traffic situation on Old London Bridge led to the passage of a law specifying carts and carriages had to drive on the left. This stipulation was incorporated into the Highway Act 1835, enshrining left-hand driving in Britain and its colonies.

3. You can still see parts of Old London Bridge

Old London Bridge may be a long-gone part of London lore, but remnants of this great structure can still be spotted in the capital. For example, just above the entrance of the King’s Arms pub in Newcomen Street, Southwark is a rather ornate coat of arms. This sculpture is notable for featuring a very well-endowed lion and unicorn, and for once adorning one of the gates of Old London Bridge

Meanwhile, some of the large stone alcoves which pedestrians on Old London Bridge took shelter in are now dotted around London. A few can be found in Victoria Park; another is on the grounds of Guy’s Hospital and now features a seated statue of the poet John Keats.

4. The second London Bridge was sold to an American businessman

The successor to Old London Bridge, designed by John Rennie, was itself replaced by the London Bridge which stands today. But, unlike Old London Bridge, it wasn’t simply demolished. Ivan Luckin, a city councillor, had the remarkable idea of selling the bridge instead, even going to New York to pitch to potential buyers.

Luckin was met with initial scepticism since this was ‘only’ the second bridge without the historical resonance of the ‘the bridge with houses on it’. However, a businessman named Robert P. McCulloch, who’d made his fortune in chainsaws, oil and gas, saw it as a great opportunity to raise the profile of Lake Havasu City, a planned community he’d founded in Arizona.

Snapped up by McCulloch for $2,460,000, London Bridge was painstakingly dismantled, transported across the Atlantic and rebuilt with equal care in Lake Havasu City. It should be noted that only the exterior masonry was taken to the States, and applied to a reinforced concrete core.

The grand opening of the American London Bridge in 1971 was attended by the Lord Mayor of London and was described in a newspaper article as ‘all quite mad’.

5. A Navy warship crashed into the current London Bridge

The current London Bridge, which was opened in 1973, suffered a bizarre mishap in 1984 when a Royal Navy warship accidentally crashed into it. The captain of the HMS Jupiter was later found to have ignored advice from his pilot to get assistance from a pair of tugboats to navigate the Thames.

As a consequence, the heavy river current dragged the ship into the bridge, causing chunks of granite from London Bridge to fall into the water. There was also significant damage to the ship, leading to the captain’s court-martial.