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Introduction (part four)

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Mourner's dress

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Jack the Ripper walk (part seven)

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Design and construction

Barons Court

Hammersmith bridge (part two)

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Ravenscourt Park

Geometric krater painted with a couple and a ship with oarsmen

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Waterloo suicides
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For centuries people have been committing or attempting to commit suicide from London's bridges. The tide is so fast-flowing that few people jumping or even falling into the Thames have survived. Bridges were also a refuge for the extreme poor, as many of the homeless and destitute would spend the night huddled under the arches of bridges, as is shown in an engraving by Gustave Doré. During the nineteenth century, and particularly after 1840, The Times was full of reports of inquests of court cases relating to suicide attempts, as it was legally a crime and was often referred to a “self-murder”. Some of the stories are heart-rending, often about women whose husbands had died, leaving them destitute, women who had arrived in London looking for work and been seduced and abandoned, or men whose businesses had failed. Even sadder are those stories of women so desperate that they throw their children into the river before jumping in themselves. Although the courts sometimes treated attempted suicide with kindness and understanding, their fate was often the workhouse or a further, usually successful, attempt at suicide.

Blackfriars and Westminster Bridges, being free, were much frequented by suicides, but the Waterloo Bridge had an unenviable reputation of being the most popular one of all. In the 1840s about 15 percent of London's suicides were from Waterloo Bridge, probably because, as a toll bridge, it was less busy then the others, and they were less likely to be disturbed. Ironically, a director of the bridge company was later to say that “the tolls surely saved many a penniless wretch from finding himself into the dark cold waters”. In 1873 the Royal Humane Society set up a twenty-four-hour “receiving house” by the northern end of the bridge, manned by a doctor who would attempt to revive any victims brought to him, and in 1875 alone twenty-one people were saved by this method.


Waterloo suicides

Gustave Doré's engraving Under the arches shows London's desperate poor sheltering under a bridge, probably London Bridge.



The Waterloo Bridge suicides inspired a number of artists, novelists ans playwrights, who portrayed fallen women being redeemed through the act of drowning. Such paintings and plays may well have played a part in shaping the bridge's undeserved reputation as far more suicides took place in the Serpentine than from Waterloo Bridge. Thomas Hood's 1844 poem The Bridge of Sighs, though based on the real story of Mary Furley, who tried to commit suicide in the Regent's Canal, moves the scene to Waterloo Bridge, depicting her as a seduced and abandoned woman:

One more unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!


So popular was the poem that, when Hood died, a bas-relief based on it decorated his memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery, though this has since been stolen. During the following decades other writers would also refer to the bridge as the “Bridge of Sighs”.


Waterloo suicides

George Frederic Watts' powerful painting, Found Drowned, shows a young suicide victim under the arch of Waterloo Bridge. It may have been inspired by Thomas Hood's poem, The Bridge of Sighs.



Many artists were inspired by Hood's poem, including G.F. Watts, who, in Found Drowned, shows a suicide victim, a beautiful young woman, lying peacefully under an arch of the bridge by moonlight, her body arranged in the form of a cross. A victim of drowning would in reality have looked soiled and bloated, but the beauty of the woman emphasised the symbolism of redemption. In 1848 George Cruikshank produced a series of etching called The Drunkard's Children. The story tells of the effects of drinking gin, and in particular of the fate of a drunkard's son who is convicted of a robbery, and the despair of his sister, who in the final and most striking image, jumps to her death from Waterloo Bridge. In 1858 a selection of Hood's poems was published, with etchings by prominent artists; to accompany The Bridge of Sighs, John Everett Millais produced a sombre nocturnal image of a young woman standing in front of the bridge, holding a child in a heavy cloak.

The subject was also a popular one in the theatre. W.T.Moncrieff's The Scamps of London from 1843 and Charles Selby's London by Night, first performed in 1844, both had an actress drowning after a leap from the bridge, and both plays were so popular they were revived on and off for forty years. At the first performance of Edward Stirling's The Bohemians in 1843, which included another suicide, the principal actress missed the mattress in her plunge from the bridge and was seriously injured.



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