Sunday, 23 September 2012

Traffic Jams on London Bridge in the 17th Century

When I was writing THE GILDED LILY, one of the things that struck me the most about London was that there was only one bridge over the river Thames - London Bridge, which was the same bridge that had stood there since 1209. The only other way to cross the river in this period was by boat.

The money for the original construction of the bridge was raised in part by allowing the land on the bridge to be sold for dwellings. By Stuart times there were more than two hundred buildings on the bridge, both residential and commercial. Some stood up as high as seven storeys and overhung the river by several feet. This picture shows just how far out they protruded.

In the middle of the bridge was a Chapel to St Thomas Becket, built by King Henry II, which became the official start of pilgrimages to Becket's shrine at Canterbury. This chapel actusally took 33 years to complete, and was not finished in Henry's lifetime. King John had to license out more building plots on the bridge to help recoup the costs of Henry's repentance.

Looking at these pictures of London Bridge you can see that the buildings were truly monumental.

So tall-ships could pass upriver there was a drawbridge, and there were defensive gatehouses at both ends, one of which supported a tower on which traitor's heads used to be displayed on iron spikes. This  practice was finally stopped in 1660, following the Restoration, presumably so as not to remind the King of the fate of his father! You can see traitors heads on this print by Visscher from 1616, which was the nearest image I could find in my research with detail of the bridge, although there is doubt now as to its accuracy as it was copied (with a degree of artistic licence) from an earlier drawing.

The buildings on London Bridge were a major fire hazard and in 1212, perhaps the greatest of the fires broke out on both ends of the bridge, trapping many in the middle as the flames at each end raged towards each other, resulting in the death of an estimated 3,000 people. Houses on the bridge were also burnt during the Peasants Revolt in 1381. As for the period I am interested in, a major fire had destroyed a third of the bridge in 1633, but this was fortunate as it formed a firebreak that prevented further damage to the bridge during The Great Fire of 1666.

The width of the actual bridge was about 4 metres, and it was divided into two lanes, so that whichever way you went, whether in a coach and horses, with a wagon or on foot, you had to negotiate a road only 2 metres wide. No wonder the bridge was congested and crossing it could take up to an hour! Those who could afford the fare might prefer to cross by ferry but as I discovered, the actual bridge structure made passing under it by boat quite dangerous.

To support this amount of wood and masonry nineteen arches had been made, none of which were the same dimensions because the river bed was tidal and the foundations uneven, so the 'legs' or piers were built onto boat shaped structures called "starlings" set into the river-bed. The narrow arches and wide pier bases restricted the river's tidal ebb and flow so, that in hard winters, the water upstream of the bridge became more susceptible to freezing. In The Gilded Lily I use the frozen Thames, and the Frost Fair upon it, as one of the settings. 

Old London Bridge model; seen from the East with part of the Pool of London shipping in the foreground, in about 16th century. This view of London Bridge shows St. Magnus Martyr church on the north bank and Nonsuch House in the foreground - Nonsuch house replaced the medieval drawbridge gatehouse.

John B. Thorp 1901-1939
By the 17th century the flow was further obstructed as waterwheels had been installed under the two north arches to drive water pumps, and under the two south arches to power mills and granaries. At the time my novel is set there was a difference in water levels on each side of the bridge. Negotiating it meant braving rapids with a drop of almost two metres. Most boats stopped on one side, allowed passengers to alight, and then they had to pick up a boat further downstream.

Because the river flowed much more slowly above the bridge it often froze. In the 17th century because temperatures were lower and it was known as The Little Ice Age it froze several times.The tidal nature of the river meant that plates of ice formed and then the level of the river would rise again and create vast layered platforms or glaciers of ice. This picture by Hondius of 1677 shows London Bridge in the background and the amazing glacial landscape of the Thames in the foreground.

File:The Frozen Thames 1677.jpg

"Thousands and thousands to the river flocks,
Where mighty flakes of Ice do lye like Rocks,
There may you see the Coaches swiftly run
As if beneath the Ice were Waters none,
And sholes of people every where there be
Just like to herrings in the brackish Sea."

Excerpt from a long poem about a  Frost Fair from a Print of 1684.

THE GILDED LILY is out now, here's the trailer - enjoy!


Anita Davison said...

With space at a premium in the City, I have always wondered why we didn't build this again. The original one was beautiful so a road bridge with houses and shops on the water would be quite something.

Deborah Swift said...

Hi Anita. I would just love to go back in time and walk that bridge.Isn't the painting of the model fantastic? The view from the river as if you are in a boat. Love it.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting Post Anita. Thank you for a wonderful insight into the London Bridge.
You have to admit, in those days when they built they were grandiose and did it in style. I love the buildings on the bridge AND as always, room for a Church. Love it :)
Deborah I'll come with you. :)

Alison Stuart said...

Because the river had to flow so fast to get between the starlings the effect was to make the navigation of the river by the wherrymen treacherous and if the river was in spate, dangerous in the extreme (yes, I've used that one in a story!).

The closest I have come to something like this is the bridge in Florence which still has houses and shops on it.

Fascinating post, thanks Dee

Anita Davison said...

Alison - yup I have used that fact about the river in a book too - and the ice fair!!! I would have loved to have seen that

Cath Gerbrands said...

Thanks for these great pictures and stories ladies. I work just near London Bridge and it's lovely to see it in it's previous glory - I think today's tourists are quite disappointed with it apart from the view of Tower Bridge!

Francine Howarth: UK said...

Wonderful post! And of course, the river was so much wider back then...


Venetia Green said...

Wonderful post, Deborah! You've inspired me to put the bridge into my next novel. I too was reminded of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, although that is now given over to goldsmiths and tourists and is almost certainly a lot cleaner! A question: can you recommend any particular reference books on the Bridge?

Deborah Swift said...

Hi everyone, thanks for your comments. Venetia, glad it's inspired you. I used the London Museum, but there is a book by Patricia Pierce called Old London Bridge which gives its history, not just in the 17th century, but its whole history. As it was the only bridge it features in nearly every 17th century novel set in London!

Julie McNeill said...

Congratulations on the book and it's great to have a cinematic preview!
This blog is great, being on the start of the research and writing of a novel set in that Puritan period!
I'm trying an Australian 'crowd-funding'initiative to keep me fed and fit so I can write to my maximum talent:

Brian Smith said...

Great blog,I never knew that London Bridge was the only one crossing the Thames, I'm ashamed to say I never gave it a thought, And me a Cockney born and bred.
By the bye one typo I think the Great Fire of London was 1666 following the great Plague of 1665