Elgin amphora

The Human Form

Putney Bridge


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Station etiquette

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Introduction (part two)
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With a very few exceptions, London's bridges were speculative ventures, privately financed by subscribers hoping to make a profit from the tolls charged, so that they were built for commercial gain rather than for strategic reasons. It was not until the late nineteenth century that they became the responsibility of a public body and the needs of the community became more important. As a result, more often than not, it was the availability of money that decided the type of bridge built rather than the needs of the local community, and many bridges, such as the old wooden Battersea Bridge, survived long past their usefulness, albeit in a dangerous state.

The oldest bridge-like structure to have been found in London was discovered by archaeologists in 1993 alongside Vauxhall Bridge, where it can still be seen at low tide. It consists of two rows of wooden posts, which would have carried a deck of some sort. It has been dated to about 1550 ВС, and it is thought that, rather than a bridge crossing the whole river, it probably gave access to one of the many islands in the river; which may have been used for ritual purposes, such as the burial of the dead.

London owes its existence to the River Thames, and also to the construction of its first bridge. There was no established town here until the Romans arrived in Britain in AD 43.To help create the network of roads necessary to move their troops around their new possession, the Romans needed to be able to cross the river and so they built a bridge at the lowest point possible. The small town they established at the bridgehead later developed into Londinium, the capital of Britannia and an important trading centre.

The bridge was also used as an extension of the city's defences, and the medieval stone bridge had two castle-like towers, as well as a drawbridge, which acted as an extension of the city wall. While London remained a small city the single bridge was adequate for its needs, and the only other means of crossing the Thames in London was by hiring the services of a waterman. This was a skilful job, and a tough one, and watermen had to compete for business at the many river stairs along the banks of the Thames. Outside London, there were many ferries that operated for a fee at all the key crossing points up and down the river, the most famous one being the horse ferry at Lambeth, now commemorated in the street name Horseferry Road. Many of today's bridges were built on the site of the ferry crossings, often by the ferry owners, who saw a bridge as a better investment, though the watermen themselves resisted such improvements as they took away their livelihood.

As London expanded westwards into Covent Garden and beyond, particularly after the devastation of the Great Fire of 1666, there were calls for a new bridge to cater for the growing population, but there were powerful bodies that had a vested interest in protecting their monopolies and preventing it from being built. These were the City of London, which would lose the income from tolls on London Bridge, and the watermen, who would lose trade as the only people authorised to ferry people across the river. In 1671 Parliament debated a proposal for a new bridge between Fulham and Putney, which was rejected because of this short-sightedness. There were allegations that the new bridge would 'destroy London' and that it would so interfere with the course of the river that 'not a ship belonging to us will ever get nearer to London than Woolwich'. There were positive voices too, such as the member who suggested that, when the Thames froze, bridges would allow London to be supplied with its basic needs, and another who pointed out that Paris had several bridges and 'was not ruined'.

Introduction (part two)

London seen through an arch of Westminster Bridge 1746-7 by Canaletto. One of the artist's more daring images, with a panorama of London seen through an unfinished arch of the new bridge, complete with a workman's bucket.

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