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Southwark Bridge (part two)

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Southwark Bridge (part one)
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By the early nineteenth century London Bridge and the relatively new Blackfriars Bridge were both becoming congested and there were demands for a new bridge between them to relieve the pressure. As this was a fairly narrow part of the river, there was considerable opposition from the City of London and the Thames Conservators, as it was considered that a bridge there would be an impediment to river traffic. However, a Southwark Bridge Company was formed and it managed to obtain an Act of Parliament in 1811 allowing it to build a new bridge. John Rennie was appointed engineer and he designed a three-arched cast-iron bridge, which would allow the widest possible waterway. The central arch, at 240 feet, was the largest cast-iron span ever-built. It was, however, only 43 feet wide, including two footpaths 7 feet wide.

Southwark Bridge (part one)

Southwark Bridge as seen from Bankside 1819 by Rudolph Ackermann.

Work began in 1814, which meant that Rennie was building two bridges concurrently, as work on his Waterloo Bridge had started in 1811. Timber coffer-dams were used to drive elm piles into the riverbed, and wooden rafts were placed on top. The foundation stone was laid in the south pier on 23 March 1815 by Admiral Lord Viscount Keith, attended by members of the Southwark Bridge Company committee, and a selection of current coins was placed underneath it. The inscription on the stone stated that “the work was commenced at the glorious termination of the longest and most expensive war in which the nation has ever been engaged'.This was rather premature, as the Battle ofWaterloo was several weeks away several weeks away, but the inscription was obviously written when Napoleon was still imprisoned on Elba. The piers themselves were of granite from Peterhead, selected personally by Rennie's eldest son,John.The girders for the cast-iron arches were made by Walker's of Rotherham, and it is said that the work almost bankrupted the company. Rennie used the contractors Jolliffe & Banks, a company he had successfully worked with before and would use again, and as a result the bridge was built so efficiently that, instead of the five years stipulated in the contract, it was built in four.

The bridge was brilliantly illuminated for its low-key opening at on 24 March 1819. The company had its budget by nearly £200,000 and was unable to pay for anything more extravagant. Moreover, they tried to offer Rennie less money than he was due, but after he wrote to them he received his full fee, though only half the expenses he was owed.

Rennie's bridge is the 'iron bridge' that appears in Dickens' novels Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend. It is between London Bridge and Southwark Bridge that Our Mutual Friend opens, with Gaffer Hexham and Lizzie fishing bodies out of the Thames. Little Dorrit loves walking over the 'iron bridge' because it is quiet, and it is on the bridge that John Chivery proposes to her.

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