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

You have to hand it to Dr. Johnson. Rapier wit, eh? He was referring to the commission of the construction of Blackfriars Bridge to a young upstart Scots architect named Robert Mylne, who was preferred over his friend John Gywnn... With that, I continue with my summary of London's bridges, with frequent reference to the superb Cross River Traffic, by Chris Roberts.

The first Blackfriars Bridge was finished by 1769, its main purpose being to gentrify the north side. At the time, Bridewell Prison stood there, surrounded by dismal slums. The notorious Fleet Prison was on the other side of the road, another hellhole famous for its debauchery and thuggish wardens.

The prisons were close to where the lawyers worked, in the Inns of Court at Newgate, but also because the district was a crime-ridden ghetto. Under ecclesiastial law (finally abolished in 1697), asylum could be granted in Church grounds to criminals fleeing from the police. The Alsatia sanctuary at Whitefriars was notorious: thugs would repair their in the evenings to spend the night after a bountiful day mugging and pillaging. More interestingly, the area was famous for unlicensed, often bigamous, marriages performed by bankrupt priests locked up in one of the prisons. These Fleet Marriages were outlawed only shortly before work on the bridge started.

Originally, the bridge was intended to be named after William Pitt, but by 1769, his star was fading, so instead it was christened after the Dominican monastery that used to stand at the north bank. It didn't last quite as long as the monastery, however, owing to the polluted Thames and the contaminated Fleet eating away at its foundations, eroding the Portland stone. A replacement was constructed only in the late 1880s and was accompanied by a railway bridge which the London, Chatham and Dover railway wanted. The sculptor, J.B.Philip decorated the columns with freshwater creatures and land birds on the upstream side, and marine life and seagulls downstream, reflecting Blackfriar's former position as the tidal turning point. A Venetian-Gothic flair is imparted by the cast-iron balustrade; indeed, contemporaries complained that the bridge was far too ornate.

Queen Victoria opened the new bridge, but she didn't linger long, as a rowdy crowd jeered her throughout the opening ceremony. The London mob went so far as to chuck missiles at her, no doubt seized with a momentary republican impulse.

Chris Roberts recommends the Blackfriars pub at the north-side of the bridge. Supposedly, it is the only Art Nouveau pub in London. Check out its gilt interiors, gorgeous mirrors, ornate fittings and pictures of fat monks drinking ale.


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