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Westminster bridge (part one)
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Today it seems extraordinary that London had to wait until the middle of the eighteenth century for a second bridge over the Thames, even though the city had by then spread westwards well beyond its old medieval boundaries. Indeed, until Putney Bridge was opened in 1729 there was no bridge between London Bridge and Kingston. This was due to the combination of the vested interests of the City, which received the lucrative toll revenue from London Bridge, and the watermen, who had a monopoly on boat services across as well as up and down the Thames. The Archbishop of Canterbury added his own protest, as he owned the rights to the Lambeth horse ferry, which brought in considerable income over the years.

During the seventeenth century various attempts had been made to build a new bridge close to the horse ferry and, in 1664, discussions were held on the subject at the Privy Council. Although the representative of the City of Westminster was in favour, as the bridge would offer much improved communications, the Lord Mayor was against the idea for the usual reasons. In the end nothing happened because the City of London bribed Charles II with a loan of Ј100,000, which was a powerful argument, as the king was always short of money. In 1721 new proposals were put forward, including a Palladian bridge designed by Colen Campbell, but to no avail. Lobbying started again in 1736 and this time Nicholas Hawksmoor provided a design.

Westminster bridge (part one)

The modern Westminster Bridge, during, its recent renovation.

There was still the usual opposition to a new bridge, but by now there was also more determination to make improvements to a London that was growing rapidly, in both size and importance, and in 1736 the Earl of Pembroke and his supporters were finally granted an Act to build one. Under the Act the watermen received £25,000 in compensation for loss of business and the Archbishop of Canterbury accepted £21,000. Under the terms of the Act, anyone found guilty of causing malicious damage to the new bridge would be treated as a felon and executed! During the construction, a number of watermen did cause damage to the bridge with their craft, either intentionally or accidentally, but malicious intent could not be proved and the sentence was never carried out.

Five locations were considered for the new bridge, including the site of the horse ferry itself, but the final choice was New Palace Yard, even though the purchase of land on both sides of the river at this point would be very expensive. The bridge was to be financed by a state lottery, and the novelist Henry Fielding dubbed it the 'Bridge of Fools', saying that its foundations were built on a gamble. In this he was to be proved right, as the first lottery failed to raise enough money and a further four unsuccessful lotteries were held. Finally, in 1741 the commissioners were forced to approach Parliament for a grant, and they were to request more money every year until the bridge was finished.

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