The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jul 29, 2007

Thames River Crossings

Much of the Thames in London is subject to tides - when the tides are high, sea-water flows counter the river current, and the river is salty almost up to Teddington in the west. There are twenty-seven bridges from that point to Dartford in the east of London. If one expands one's scope to the M25, London's Orbital highway, there are 41 bridges encompassed within the metropolis. In the 1100s, the elders of the City of London claimed jurisdiction over the river and its crossings all the way to Staines, although a strict traditionalist would recognise only the old 'square mile' as London - in which case, the two or three bridges between Blackfriars and Tower Bridge alone would be theirs.

I recently read a wonderful little book Cross River Traffic - A History of London's Bridges, by Chris Roberts. What a wealth of detail and apropos anecdotage dot its 195 pages! In this, and the next few posts, I plan to summarise the stories and present the more interesting of them.

The Thames itself is an old, old name. Julius Caesar referred to it as Tamesis, but the roots are from Old Celtic Tam, meaning dark, and the pre-Celtic Ta, meaning a turbulent flow. There is archaeological evidence of crossings at Vauxhall from three thousand years ago, but until more recently, traversing the river meant using boats, and piers have been found at Putney, and Lambeth. The more adventurous could wade across from fording places at Battersea and Wandsworth.

The first historical bridge over the Thames in London is at the site of the present London Bridge. Half a millennium went by between its collapse and the establishment of a Saxon crossing. William II raised a special tax to help repair the then extant bridge; a charity called Bridge House Estates administered the funds and built the first stone bridge over the Thames between 1176 and 1209. For the next 500 years, this was the only crossing on London's Thames.

The City Corporation saw its coffers swell with the proceeds of trade and tax and toll, and saw no reason to undermine its profits by allowing other bridges to be constructed along the Thames. So it was that wherries and sculls became a choice way to make money off the need to cross the river. When permissions began to be granted to build new bridges, it was only after the watermen were compensated for lost income that construction could begin.

The main threat to the City's monopoly came from the traders who wished to open up direct links between the populations north and south of the river, and from the great landowners who possessed land upriver, as well as Parliament who wanted to restrict the power of the City Corporation. The second London bridge was built linking Fulham and Putney in 1729, whereas Westminster's crossing was completed only in 1750. Privately financed bridges followed suit: as the returns from tolls were high, these were considered good investments. Thirteen new road or foot crossings were added, starting at BlackFriars (1769), Battersea (1771), Vauxhall (1816), Waterloo (1817), Southwark (1819), Hammersmith (1827) and Hungerford (1845). Later crossings came at Chelsea (1858), Lambeth (1861), Albert Bridge (1871), Wandsworth (1873), and finally Tower Bridge (1894).

Tunnels were built that competed for the crossing traffic, especially in the East End, where the Thames being a working dock, prevented the construction of bridges. The famous Brunels, father and son, built one between 1825 and 1843, which is still in use (by the East London Underground Line). New tunnels were soon opened between Vine Street and Tower Hill (first serving a cable car, then pedestrians, and now water mains); foot passages at Greenwich and Woolwich, deep tunnels for use of the Post Office rail network (now closed); the rest act as conduits for water, electricity, gas, cars and trains.

The Bridge House Estates, nine hundred years old and still going strong, maintain the foot and road bridges east of Waterloo. The Millennium Bridge is under their charge. The other bridges are maintained by the Greater London Authority and the local borough councils. Additional bridges are planned for the east as the world's first metropolis starts to refocus on the Thames, its lifeblood and very reason for existence.


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