The first bridge across the Thames in what is now London was built by the Romans to provide them with a shorter and faster route from the Kentish ports to their colonial settlements north of the river. After the end of Roman rule in the 5th Century, a river crossing was provided by a succession of ferries and timber bridges, each of which was either demolished, destroyed by invaders or burned down.
It would be 1209, during the reign of King John, before a solid and substantial stone bridge would be completed (it was commissioned by Henry II, but took 33 years to build). This bridge, eventually named London Bridge, stood for over 600 years!
However, by the end of the 19th century, the bridge was narrow and decrepit (even after being cleared of its buildings) and its many narrow arches blocked river traffic. Attempts to create a wider river passage by removing one pier to create a wider arch had the detrimental effect of speeding the erosion of the bridge’s foundations.
In 1799, a competition was held to design a replacement. It was won by Scottish civil engineer, John Rennie.
Rennie was a highly productive and successful engineer, even by the standards of the period. He designed and/or built canals, bridges, harbours and docks, many of which are still standing today, including Waterloo Bridge, Old Vauxhall Bridge, Lancaster Canal, Southwark Bridge, London Docks and East India Docks (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Rennie_the_Elder#List_of_projects)
Rennie’s plan, including the old bridge:
In the year of the London Bridge design competition, the West India Dock Company asked Rennie to advise them on the construction of dock entrances for the new docks they were planning to build on the Isle of Dogs. 10 years later, the West India Docks were open and Rennie was their Principal Dock Engineer, a position that passed to his son (another John) on his death in 1821. John Jr and brother George were responsible for a notable part of the infrastructure of the West India Docks: Rum Quay warehouses, Blackwall Entrance Lock pierheads, the Junction Dock, Import Dock north quay sheds, Warehouse no. 1 (now the Dockland Museum) and other warehouses, Wood Wharf sheds, Export Dock sheds, guard houses, and many more.
Work on the new London Bridge (100 ft upstream of the medieval bridge) was begun in 1824 by construction company, Jolliffe & Banks, under the supervision of John Rennie Jr. Jolliffe & Banks pioneered the use of Aberdeen and Dartmoor granite in London, and it was Dartmoor granite that they quarried for the London Bridge project.
Jolliffe & Banks’ main works were at Beaumont Wharf, Strand, but they created a stoneyard on the Isle of Dogs especially for the London Bridge project. Stones were roughly shaped at the Dartmoor quarry, then transported to the Island for finer working (usually with hammers) before final dressing at the bridge construction site. The very important bridge arches were also shaped and centred in the Island stoneyard.
The stoneyard was situated in the west of the Island, just below Paradise Row (also known as Hart’s Row, after the landowner, miller John Hart; it was the site of a row of cottages, a beerhouse and some timber buildings). Stones were loaded on to boats at Stone Whar for transport to the bridge site. The stoneyard closed a few years after the opening of London Bridge.
At least one local resident (and there weren’t many of them – the Island was not much more than pastureland at the time) complained about the workers. Survey of London:
James Warmington, the Ironmongers’ Company’s tenant, complained in 1837 of trespassers taking short cuts across his grass: the nuisance has been increasing, ever since the time the Stones were prepared for the New London Bridge in the Isle of Dogs, when so many workmen were employed near the spot; I think I may safely state, that an acre of Herbage is entirely spoil’d, [and] the fences can never be kept in proper repair.
Paradise Row and the former stoneyard site were eventually cleared to make room for the entrance to the new Millwall Docks (opened in 1868). Possibly, Montrose and Michigan House are built on the southern edge of the former stoneyard.
Meanwhile, back in Victorian times, the construction of the new bridge….
The old London Bridge bridge remained in use while the new bridge was being built, and was demolished on the opening of the new bridge in 1831. Some stones from the medieval bridge were said to be have been used in the construction of Christ Church on the Island.
During the demolition, the old chapel in its centre (which was dedicated to Becket as a martyr) was dismantled and all its human remains thrown unceremoniously in the river, including the remains of Peter, priest and chaplain of St Mary Colechurch, who had designed the medieval bridge in the late 12th century. So much for history…
The official opening took place on 1 August 1831; King William IV and Queen Adelaide attended a banquet in a pavilion erected on the bridge. John Rennie Jr. was knighted for his work (his father had earlier been offered, but refused, a knighthood).
This 1895 OS map extract shows the new bridge in relation to the old one. The new approach roads cost three times as much to build as the bridge itself
The bridge was very successful and well-used, perhaps too well-used for its own good:
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 widened by 13 feet, using granite corbels. Subsequent surveys showed that the bridge was sinking an inch (about 2.5 cm) every eight years….The bridge would have to be removed and replaced.
In 1967, the City of London decided to sell the bridge. A strange idea, selling a bridge of such size and construction, but they found a buyer: Missourian entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch of McCulloch Oil, who purchased the bridge for $2,460,000 (and no, he didn’t mistakenly think he was buying Tower Bridge).
As the bridge was taken apart, each piece was numbered. The blocks were then shipped overseas through the Panama Canal to California and trucked from Long Beach to Arizona. The London Bridge that was rebuilt at Lake Havasu City consists of a frame with stones from Rennie’s London Bridge used as cladding.
If you’re ever in Lake Havasu, and you walk across the bridge, don’t forget…..it was made on the Isle of Dogs. Just a few yards north of the Kingsbridge Arms.
Postscript 1: In 1984, the British warship HMS Jupiter collided with the new, new London Bridge, causing significant damage to both ship and bridge. HMS Jupiter was built by Yarrows, another company with a long Island history.
Postscript 2: Last weekend (today being Monday 15th Dec 2014), Jose Lopez, 33, lost control of his truck, drove up onto the kerb and seriously damaged a 40 ft section of the Arizona London Bridge railing. Arizona officials are scouring Millwall for someone who might have the skills to help them make repairs.