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Introduction (part one)
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Introduction (part one)In 1938 an article in The Times observed that 'The people of London have a reputation for taking no interest in their bridges'. It is probably still true that most Londoners take them very much for granted and show little interest in the history of the bridges they cross every day on the way to work, about the politics involved in getting permission to build them, and the technical difficulties of erecting them. Although many visitors stop on the central bridges to enjoy the stunning views of London that they offer, probably very few think about the story behind the structure they are standing on.

Until 1750 there was only one bridge in what was then a much smaller London, the next bridge being as far upstream as Kingston-upon-Thames. Today there are thirty-three bridges over the Thames in Greater London, and each one has its own unique story. Twenty are for road traffic, ten are railway bridges and three are for pedestrians only, though all the road bridges and three of the railway crossings also have access for pedestrians.

The bridges have been built in many different styles, depending on the specific needs of each location and the technology available at the time.

The Thames in London is a tidal river, and this creates particular problems for the building of bridges. There is a difference of about 24 feet between low and high tide; this affects the design of any bridge, as river traffic has to be able to pass under the bridges at all states of the tide. If the gradients were made steeper to create better headroom for ships, there were complaints because horses struggled to pull the carriages and carts up the slope. Another problem is that the riverbed is made up of clay and gravel, not solid rock, so that the foundations need to be set deeply in the riverbed to be stable; this was not always done, especially when the first Westminster Bridge was built.

Most of London's bridges have had to be rebuilt at least once, either because their foundations were damaged by the scouring action of the river, or because a bridge built for horse-drawn traffic was unable to cope with the arrival of the internal combustion engine. The first stone London Bridge, with its twenty small arches, had acted as a weir, slowing down the flow of the river, so that during the coldest winters the river often froze over. When this happened, the river often became the scene of frost fairs, with booths set up on the ice selling food and drink, various sports taking place, and printing presses offering souvenirs of a visit. Even Charles II bought a ticket as proof of his visit. The last frost fair took place in 1814. When the old medieval bridge was replaced by Rennie’s new crossing, which had five wider arches, the flow of water increased significantly, so that the river was much less likely to freeze, though the extra force of the water undermined the foundations of several of the other bridges including, ironically, Rennie’s own Waterloo Bridge.

The story of the bridges is also the story of London, reflecting its growth and development, as they were built in response to the changing needs of the growing city. It is also the story of engineering technology, from the first medieval bridges of wood to the stronger stone structures of the eighteenth century, the iron and steel structures of the industrial age, and the pre-stressed concrete of modern times.

Introduction (part one)

The Thames at Horseferry, painted by Jan Griffier the Elder in the early eighteenth century. The ferry is seen arriving at the north shore carrying a coach and pair. The crossing was not always as calm as this.

Introduction (part one)

Anonymous engraving of the 1814 Frost Fair, the last one to take place on the Thames. A printing press sells souvenirs, and two of the bar tents are topically named after the Napoleonic Wars. In the background is Blackfriars Bridge.

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