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Westminster bridge (part two)
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Various designs for a stone bridge had been submitted, but the commissioners favoured the cheaper option of a timber bridge. In 1738 a contract for building the stone piers only was given to the young Swiss engineer Charles Labelye, thus leaving open the option of whether the superstructure was to be of stone or wood. Instead of using the traditional method of driving wooden piles into the riverbed, Labelye proposed using prefabricated boat-shaped caissons to support the piers. As we shall see, this was to cause a number of serious problems later on. The piles needed to protect the work were driven into the clay by a special machine invented by a Swiss watchmaker called James Valoue. Instead of using manpower, it used three horses, which walked round a windlass to lift a heavy weight, which was then released on to the pile. This saved an enormous amount of time, and by the end of October the caissons were in place and work could start on building the first two piers.

On 29 January 1739 the first stone was laid by the Earl of Pembroke and by 23 April the first pier was finished. That winter, with two piers completed, London suffered one of its most severe frosts and the Thames froze over for two months. A frost fair was set up on the ice, with printers' booths offering souvenirs and stalls selling food and drink. The two stone piers proved a particularly popular attraction, and ladders were set up against them for sightseers to climb up and enjoy the view. This can be clearly seen in a painting by Jan Griffier the Younger, now in the Guildhall Art Gallery.


Westminster bridge (part two)

Valoue's horse-powered engine used to drive in the piles of the first Westminster Bridge.



During the delay the commissioners finally decided that the new bridge would be of stone, built to Labelye's design, which would be more expensive than a timber construction but would create a much finer adornment for London. There would be thirteen semicircular arches (though two extra arches were later added to the abutments), and the principal stone used would be from Portland and Purbeck. Work went well during the next few years. By the summer of 1742 the four central arches were complete and by spring 1744 all the piers and abutments were finished. In the autumn of 1746 the final stone was laid by the Earl of Pembroke, though the balustrade was not added until the following year.


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