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Waterloo bridge (part two)
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The artist John Constable was probably present at the opening of the bridge and made a number of sketches at the time. He planned to show a large painting of the opening at the Royal Academy in 1820, but he put it to one side and did not return to the subject for several years. He started a new version in 1829 and the finished picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1832, to mixed reviews. This striking and, for Constable, unusual urban landscape is now in Tate Britain, and there are several other versions, one of which can be seen at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire.

The bridge was greatly admired, and Canova, the great Italian sculptor, who was on a visit to England, called it “the noblest bridge in the world, worth a visit from the remotest corner of the earth”. M Dupin, a Frenchman, called it a “colossal monument worthy of Sesostris and Caesars”. Despite all the plaudits, however, it was not a commercial success, and the shareholders were never to make a profit. Part of the problem was that it was a toll bridge, and people preferred to go the long way round, using the free bridges at Blackfriars and Westminster. The other reason was that the bridge didn't really lead anywhere very important, as the Lambeth side was still mostly undeveloped. The finances improved with the coming of the railways and the opening of Waterloo station in 1848, as the bridge was the quickest route to the station, and extra tollkeepers had to be employed. However, toll revenue fell again when penny omnibus services began to operate from the station to the Strand in the 1860s, using the bridges at Blackfriars or Westminster.

Waterloo bridge (part two)

This engraving of Waterloo Bridge was made by J. Crieg for Walks through London, published in 1817, the year the bridge was opened.

A bizarre and very public death occurred on the bridge in 1841. Samuel Scott, a twenty-seven-year-old entertainer and athlete known as the “American Diver”, announced that he would be diving from Waterloo Bridge on 11 January. Famed for extraordinary diving feats in his homeland, he had already performed at Rotherhithe, so large crowds lined the bridge and the riverbanks to await his arrival. Dressed only in a shirt and trousers, he climbed on to the scaffolding and began his performance by putting his feet in a noose and hanging upside down. He then put his neck in a noose and said he would “dance upon air before I dive”, a feat he had performed many times before. After he had been hanging for several minutes people realised something was wrong and he was cut down and taken to Charing Cross Hospital, where, despite attempts to revive him, he died.

In 1857 someone used the bridge under cover of darkness to dispose of a murder victim by lowering a carpet bag full of body parts by rope into the Thames. Owing to a misjudgement, the bag ended up on one of the piers and was discovered by a pair of young watermen early the next day; thinking they had found treasure, they had an unpleasant shock when they opened it. The murderer was never found.

From as early as the 1850s there were calls for the bridge to be made toll-free, and plans were put forward in 1864, but it was not until the 1870s that the matter was seriously considered as part of a move by the Metropolitan Board of Works to free all London's bridges from toll. Waterloo Bridge was freed by the MBW in a brief ceremony at midday on 5 October 1878, and many people queued to be among the first to cross it. The footbridges on Cannon Street and Charing Cross railway bridges were freed on the same day. The Waterloo Bridge Company had claimed 750 000 pounds in compensation, but was forced to accept 475 000 pounds. In the following seven months it was estimated that the traffic over the bridge nearly doubled.

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