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Blackfriars Bridge (part one)
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In the 1750s the City of London decided to build a grand new entrance to the City in the form of a bridge at Blackfriars. In 1759 it held a competition for a design for the new bridge, which attracted sixty-nine entries, including plans from John Smeaton, George Dance the elder, Sir William Chambers and John Gwynn, all seasoned engineers and architects. At first Gwynn's design was favoured, but in the end it was the innovative plans by Robert Mylne, an unknown architect aged twenty-six, which were chosen. Mylne was a confident and ambitious young Scotsman, who had been born into a family of masons and architects. He had just returned from four years in Rome, where he had won first prize for architecture at the prestigious Academy of St Luke. When he heard about the competition for the new bridge, he could not resist the challenge, despite his lack of experience in the face of competition from so many renowned and experienced masters.

His design made the shortlist of fourteen, and there followed a heated debate about his choice of elliptical arches instead of the traditional semicircular ones, which many felt were stronger. There were several anonymous letters to the newspapers, now known to be from Dr Johnson, criticising the elliptical arch as weak. A few weeks later an anonymous pamphlet appeared, under the name of Publicus, called Observations on Bridge Building and the several Plans offered for the New Bridge, which further fuelled the debate by criticising all the entries except Mylne's. Gwynn's bridge was a “trifling gewgaw”. Dance's old-fashioned and Smeaton's “the weakest of all the designs”. Mylne's design, however, was “superior for utility, strength, elegance, magnificence, and the ingenuity in its manner of construction”. Mylne almost certainly wrote the pamphlet himself or had a hand in its publication, but it seems to have had the desired effect. As well as having his design selected, he was appointed to supervise the construction, which was a great honour and responsibility for such a young and unexperienced architect.


Blackfriars Bridge (part one)

The first Blackfriars Bridge in an image from a guidebook of 1817.



There was, of course, the usual opposition to the scheme from the watermen, who would lose business, and they were compensated with a payment of 12 500 pounds. As the Bridge House Estates was rather short of money, it contributed only a small part of the expected cost of 160 000 pounds, apparently from the accumulated fines paid by men who had refused the post of Sheriff. The rest of the money had to be borrowed at four percent interest.

Work began on 7 June 1760, when the first pile was driven in. The foundation stone was laid on 31 October, when the Lord Mayor, sir Thomas Chitty, placed in it a set of coins and a tin plate that carried a eulogy in Latin to William Pitt, the Prime Minister, after whom the bridge was to be named. I t is also thought that, before the time capsule was sealed, Mylne impulsively added one of his two prize medals at the last minute.

Like Labelye at Westminster Bridge, Mylne used caissons to build the piers but, to make them more stable, he first drove piles into the riverbed to support them. By 1764 the central arch was complete and, to celebrate the occasion, the Lord Mayor, along with Aldermen and Sheriffs of the City, were rowed through it in the state barge. Further progress, however, was slow, partly because of regular delays in the supply of stone, and in 1766 an extra 91 000 pounds was needed to complete the work.Although still incomplete, in 1766 the bridge was opened to pedestrians, which helped to bring in some much-needed revenue, and in 1768 those on horseback were also allowed to use it. The bridge was fully opened on 19 November 1769, to general acclaim, but there was no opening ceremony. By the time the bridge was finished William Pitt was out of favour, and it was renamed Blackfriars Bridge, after the monastery that used to occupy the north bank at this point.


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