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London bridge (part eight)
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By the eighteenth century the bridge had begun to look rather sad and many of its wealthier occupants had left. When Westminster Bridge opened in 1750, it was highly praised as both elegant and modern, prompting the City authorities to consider rebuilding London Bridge, but financial prudence led them to improve it instead. In 1736 Nicholas Hawksmoor had put forward a plan to replace the four central spans with two larger ones, but it was not until 1756 that it was decided to carry out improvements to the bridge. The radical modifications were the work of George Dance and Robert Taylor from 1757 to 1762. It involved demolishing of the buildings, widening the bridge by 26 feet out over the starlings, and removing the middle pier to create a wider central arch to improve river navigation. The whole bridge was refaced in Portland stone and given a balustrade, and stone alcoves were added over the ends of the piers, fourteen of them with domes, rather like those on Westminster Bridge. It was also decreed that the lighting should be improved, and lamps were kept burning from sunset until sunrise. While the work was being carried out, a temporary wooden bridge was built on the starlings on the western side of the bridge, though it had to be replaced after it burnt down in 1758, possibly an act of arson. Unsurprisingly, the faster flow of water through the wider central arch began to undermine the starlings, and stone from the demolished City gates was placed under the arch to prevent further scouring. When the Stonegate was demolished in 1760, the George II coat of arms over the arch, added when the gate was rebuilt in 1728, was bought and put up on a tavern in Axe Yard off Borough High Street, with the date and king changed to 1760 and George III. Appropriately, the stone sign now adorns the King's Arms public house on the same site, in what is now Newcomen Street. In 1763 arches were cut through the base of the tower of the Church of St Magnus the Martyr for pedestrians using the wider bridge. In 1782 the tolls were finally scrapped.

London bridge (part eight)

Engraving of London Bridge byW.Wallis, drawn for the 1817 guidebook Walks Through London. The houses have now been removed and a wider central arch created.

As London grew, new bridges were built to carry the increasing road traffic, but London Bridge continued to be congested, and the bridge itself began to show its age, so that there were regular calls for the 'Gothic nuisance', as one writer to The Times referred to it, to be replaced. In 1799 a competition was held for designs for a replacement bridge. The most original idea came from Thomas Telford, a leading force in the move towards the use of iron instead of stone. His plan was for a massive single-span cast-iron bridge 600 feet wide, but, although it gave ample headway for ships to pass under it, the curve of the arch meant the bridge would have needed long approach ramps, making the costs prohibitive, as it would have required the purchase of much privately owned riverside land. The design put forward by George Dance the Younger was much more classical, though equally impressive. It consisted of two bridges, with vast piazzas between them on each bank, one with an obelisk at its centre, and the other with Wren's Monument relocated to it. Each bridge had a drawbridge at its centre, so that traffic could use one bridge while ships passed through the other. As with Telford's design, this one was much liked, but it would have proved too expensive, again because of the need to buy up so much property along the riverbank.

London bridge (part eight)

The eighteenth-century royal coat of arms from the Stonegate of old London Bridge, now adorning the facade of the King's Arms in Newcomen Street.

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