Hendon Central

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Waterloo bridge (part five)

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The Bridge House Estates occupied premises, known as Bridge House, at the southern end of the bridge, housing its administrative offices and a warehouse where they stored materials such as timber and masonry needed to carry out repairs to the bridge. As the operation needed large numbers of staff, including masons, carpenters and administrators, there was also a garden, where fruit and vegetables were grown to feed them, and also to entertain the Lord Mayor on his annual visit to audit the accounts. In 1831 the property was sold off to be redeveloped. The organization, which is part of the City of London, is now a charity and has accumulated so much wealth over the years that its statutes have been amended to allow it to finance many good causes.

Because of the narrow gaps between the piers and the strong tide flowing between them, there was often a difference of up to 5 feet in the river level on either side of the bridge, so that passing through it was highly dangerous, and was referred to as 'shooting the bridge'. It has been calculated that at half tide, when the starlings were uncovered, the waterway would have been reduced to about 245 feet, less than a third of the length of the bridge. Later, when waterwheels blocked several arches, it would have been much less. Many boats overturned going through the arches, and many watermen and their passengers perished in the attempt. In 1429 the Duke of Norfolk nearly drowned when his barge hit one of the starlings and overturned. Several of his crew did drown, but he managed to climb on to one of the starlings and was rescued. Most people, including Cardinal Wolsey, got off at the bridge and walked or rode round it to pick up another boat, but Henry VIII regularly went through it. In his diaries, Samuel Pepys describes going through the bridge on several occasions, though more than once he had to get out and walk through on the starling. There was a popular saying that 'London Bridge was made for wise men to go over and fools to go under'.

It is not surprising that people often fell off the bridge, and they were usually swept away and drowned. One who was more fortunate was Anne, the daughter of William Hewett, a cloth worker who lived on the bridge. When she fell into the river from an upper storey in 1536, Hewett's apprentice, Edward Osborne, dived in and saved her. The story has a fairy-tale ending too, as Osborne later married her, and both men later became Lord Mayors of London. Hewett's portrait is on display in the Museum of London.

Tolls were charged on goods going over or through the bridge. Merchant ships could go through the drawbridge arch into the upper harbor of the port only when the tide was right, and the same applied to departing vessels. This meant that the bridge was opened to allow all the vessels to go through together, and movement over the bridge could be disrupted for an hour or so twice a day. The number of ship movements varied widely, depending on the time of the year and the state of the weather, so those crossing the bridge sometimes had a long wait to continue their journey, but there were several inns and taverns on or near the bridge to help people pass the time if they did not want to watch the ships passing through it The bridge had two quite different faces. The view from the bank or the river, with its great variety of buildings of different shapes and heights, was very picturesque, but these were the backs of the buildings, which in a city street would not normally be on public view, so no trouble was taken in making them look attractive. The facades overlooking the main roadway would have been very different, with much carved and painted decoration, like any other London street of the time. The bridge itself was only 20 feet wide, so that many of the buildings were cantilevered out over the river. Both sides of the roadway were thickly lined with shops, and it must have seemed much like any other shopping street in London. It would also have been very crowded, and extremely noisy, with the constant traffic both over and under it, and the shopkeepers and hawkers competing with each other to sell their wares. There must have been a fair amount of crime on the bridge too, especially thieves and pickpockets. As well as a set of stocks, there was also a 'cage' on the bridge, in which offenders could be exhibited to public ridicule.

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