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London bridge (part three)
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The first building to go up was a chapel, which was built on the downstream side of the largest island near the centre of the bridge, and it was here that Peter de Colechurch was buried. It was 60 feet high and had two rooms, the upper one at road level and the undercroft in the pier itself, with separate access from the river at low tide for sailors and watermen. The chapel was dedicated to St Thomas the Martyr, a popular London-born saint. Thomas Becket, when Archbishop of Canterbury, had been murdered in his cathedral in 1170 and was canonised in 1173, only three years before work on the bridge started. It is possible that the chapel was the starting and finishing point for pilgrimages to Canterbury, and many of the pilgrim badges found in the Thames near the bridge feature St Thomas, probably thrown into the river to give thanks for a safe return. The chapel at first had two priests and four clerks, so it was clearly considered to be important, and in the early years they were probably responsible for looking after the bridge's revenues. In the late fourteenth century the chapel was rebuilt in the Perpendicular style, but everything changed with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, as Henry VIII was particularly hostile to the cult of St Thomas. The dedication of the chapel was changed to St Thomas the Apostle in order to save it, but around 1550 it was deconsecrated and converted into a house. In 1553 it was occupied by a grocer, and later the building was altered beyond all recognition.


London bridge (part three)

Detail from a mid-seventeenth century Dutch painting of London from Southwark. Note the heads displayed on the Stonegate.



The bridge needed constant maintenance, owing both to damage and to normal wear and tear. The drawbridge had to be replaced several times and the starlings were in permanent need of repair, which was dangerous work that could be carried out only at low tide. All this was expensive and was paid for by charging rent on houses on the bridge, and by a toll levied on merchant vessels passing through the drawbridge. From 1281 a toll of a farthing was charged on pedestrians crossing the bridge, and horsemen were charged a penny. The bridge also relied on and bequests from Londoners, both rich and poor, some of which were in the form of property. It was seen as a religious duty to support the work of repairing the great bridge, and many of the donors stated that the gift was 'to God and the Bridge'.
In 1212, when the bridge was barely three years old, it suffered the first of many fires. On this occasion there were fires at both ends of the bridge, trapping people in the centre of it. When ships pulled alongside to rescue them, such was the confusion that, according to John Stow's report in A Survey of London, about three thousand people died, though this may have been an exaggeration.

In 1282 part of the bridge actually did fall down. In 1249 Henry III had taken control of the bridge's revenues and in 1263 passed it on to his wife, the unpopular Eleanor of Provence. Because of her mismanagement of the funds, five arches of the bridge collapsed during the particularly severe winter of 1282-3 and the queen quickly gave up her responsibility for the bridge.The citizens of London, including the Mayor, paid for a temporary bridge to be built, so long as Parliament paid for the rebuilding of the bridge itself. In 1284 the Bridge House Estates were formed to look after the bridge, and they have cared for London Bridge ever since. More serious damage was caused by ice in 1437, when the Stonegate and two adjacent arches collapsed, thus causing disruption to the supply of essentials to the capital. A temporary bridge was quickly installed so that business could resume, and repairs were carried out. When the work was completed, the whole bridge was thoroughly inspected and rebuilt, piece by piece.


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