A Brief History of London Bridge – and its Forgotten Stones

One fell down, one was sold to a wealthy American, and the latest incarnation still spans the River Thames to this day.  Of course, we’re referring to London Bridge, which has existed in various guises since the Roman occupation began around AD 50.  But what is less well known is that stone pillars cut for the bridge but ultimately unused lie forgotten in their rural quarry to this day.

Images by London Topographical Society (top) and Claes Van Visscher

(Images top and bottom in public domain)

After the Romans abandoned Londinium (which later became London), the city fell into disrepair and the bridge entered a hazy period of its history.  The river was a political boundary between the Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex, and according to later skaldic tradition, the existing bridge was destroyed by Norwegian Prince Olaf in the service of Anglo-Saxon King Aethelred against the Danes.  Whether this is accurate is uncertain, although the episode is thought to have inspired the nursery rhyme: London Bridge is Falling Down.

Images by John L.Stoddard and William Bernard Cooke (inset)

(Images main and inset in public domain)

Next came a medieval bridge (inset) built in the time of King John to replace another older structure destroyed – this time by fire – in 1136.  John’s impressive offering – which took 33 years to build and finally opened in 1209 – boasted shops and other structures allegedly up to seven storeys high in a bid to generate revenue for its maintenance.  “Old” London Bridge survived until Victorian times when, at 600-years-old and somewhat decrepit, plans were drawn up for its replacement.  Engineer John Rennie proposed the solution and the “New” London Bridge – the quintessential one that is so often confused with Tower Bridge – opened in 1831.

Images by German Federal Archive, Infrogmation, Provelt & Aran Johnson

(Images 2 & 4 in public domain; 1 & 3 licensed under CC-SA-3.0-Germany & CC-SA-3.0 )

Ironically, twentieth century motoring advances meant Rennie’s modern bridge lasted nowhere near as long as King John’s and was put up for sale in 1967 on the recommendation of Common Council of London member Ivan Luckin.  At the time, Luckin remarked: “They all thought I was completely crazy when I suggested we should sell London Bridge when it needed replacing.”  But the plan worked and the following year London Bridge was sold to American oil tycoon Robert P. McCulloch and shipped to Lake Havasu, Arizona.

Image by Herbythyme

(Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported)

McCulloch’s bridge was reconstructed around a concrete frame using original stones as cladding.  Left-over stones were returned to Merrivale Quarry on Dartmoor.  Merrivale was abandoned and flooded in 2003, before which some of the stones were sold in an online auction.  The iconic bridge that has become as much a symbol of the city as the Houses of Parliament or Westminster Abbey may have left British shores forever, but a little research will bring the discerning explorer to Sweltor Quarry, near Merrivale.  Here, the original pillars intended for use in the 1902 widening of London Bridge, but destined to remain behind, linger on to this day (above).

Image by David Williams

(Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic)

The most modern incarnation of London Bridge was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973.  More bland and utilitarian in appearance, it nevertheless was designed to withstand the relentless London traffic.  The picture shows a typical 1960s/’70s design spanning the River Thames against the backdrop of the modern City of London skyline, which should ultimately cater to the city’s needs for years to come.

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