Saturday, December 8, 2012

Old London Bridge

Frost Fair with Old Bridge in Background
by Katherine Pym

Old London Bridge was a world unto itself. Not considered London, it was a Liberty, or suburb.  People were born, lived, married, and died there, some without stepping off the Bridge the whole of their lives. 

Built in the years between 1176-1209, begun by King Henry II, the first Plantagenet king of England, it was finished during the reign of King John (who was forced to sign the Magna Carta).  A massive structure that acted like a dam, it stood stalwart against heavy tides and ice during cold winters, and prevented invading ships to pass upriver.

So strongly built, the Old London Bridge lasted 622 years before being pulled down in 1830's. (The location of the current London Bridge is some 180 feet upriver from the old.) It was a stone structure of 19 arches and a wooden drawbridge. Houses, shops, churches and other assorted buildings stood on the bridge.

The anchors holding the bridge in place were called starlings. Massive and feet-like, they were comprised of broken stones and rubble. The starlings compressed the river flow into one-third of its width, causing the tides to rush through the arches like heavy waterfalls. The rush of water going out to sea could be as high as 6-8 feet, depending on the phase of the moon.

It brought out the reckless, usually young men, to 'shoot the bridge'. Boats would gain speed and if the water wasn't too high wherein heads scraped the tops of the arches, or be drowned, they'd fly through and shoot out the other side, over London Pool. After a moment or two dangling over the Pool they'd drop like a rock to the below water. Many died upon a wager, or from mishap by getting pulled into the fast current.

Generally, the wherriman pulled his boat to the river's edge, and his passenger got out to walk around the bridge. He'd catch another wherry in London Pool and finish his journey down river.

The bridge had a row of houses on either side of its length with shops at road level. This made the actual road from London to Southwark no more than 12 feet across. It was so narrow, the Bridge gridlocked with traffic. Coaches and dray wagons would meet and could not pass. Fist fights ensued, with blackened eyes and teeth knocked out.   

I will return to the discussion of Bridge architecture now...  Sources state there were about 138 shops at one time, the two story chapel of St Thomas a Becket, Nonesuch House, and the gatehouse. The bridge with its heavy flow used waterwheels, corn mills, and on the London side sported the water works.

Then, there was the gateway at the Southwark side where heads of traitors were displayed. The Keeper of the Heads had full managerial control over this section of the Bridge. He impaled newly removed heads on pikes, and tossed the old ones into the river. When the original bridge was pulled down, workers found skulls in the mud.

Sometimes, when researching, one comes upon some strange things. I came across the following which I'd like to share with you. (truth or fiction?):

When King Henry VIII demanded Catholicism no longer be the favorite religion of the land, Sir Thomas More refused to follow his liege. As a result he was beheaded.  His body was placed in a coffin and his head put on a pike above London Bridge. After the allowable time frame wherein the Keeper of the Heads knew gulls had feasted and nothing should remain but putrid flesh and hollow eye sockets, Sir Thomas' daughter beseeched the Keeper not to throw her father's head in the river. Instead, she requested he give her the head so she may join it with the body, and they be interred together.

The Keeper agreed, but was amazed when he removed the head, for it remained pink and whole as if only sleeping and still alive...

For more information on the Old London Bridge, see my novels of London 1660's. You can find them in most formats at:

Reference: Old London Bridge, the Story of the Longest Inhabited Bridge in Europe by Patricia Pierce, Headline Book Publishing, 2001.


  1. Nice article. The idea of a world within a world is intriguing and I wonder that Terry Pratchett hasn't a bit of Ankh Morpork just like it!
    There was of course a drawbridge to allow ships to pass upriver of The Pool and something that intrigues me is why the Hanseatic League (who enjoyed a sometimes fractious relationship with the English people and crown) placed their headquarters - The Steelyard - on the upriver side of London Bridge. Perhaps they were granted permission to build The Steelyard specifically in that location exactly so they could be brought to book by closing the bridge against their ships.

  2. Very interesting post. I love your blog. Look forward to reading each of your entries.
    I believe the later part of the post is true: the story of Sir Thomas More.
    Annette of

  3. "More's head was parboiled and placed over London Bridge for a month. His daughter, Margaret Roper, obtained it by bribing the man who was supposed to throw it into the Thames River."

    Odd how this uncorrupted flesh business only seems to happen to the nicest people. Not that More was especially nice.

    1. Parboiled, huh? That's horrible. I could never parboil a newly chopped off head.

  4. Good article. The bridge fascinates me, Katherine have you got a source at any time listing all the buildings. Alas the bridge was no more when the census began I think but were there tax records or something. Would be interested .

    1. You may want to check out Old London Bridge by Patricia Pierce. There is a wealth of information in it, along with names and tolls.

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  6. Nice post - London Bridge is fascinating. I wrote a similar post about London Bridge in the 17th Century on the Hoydens and Firebrands blog, you can see a model of the bridge in close-up on my post. Nice info about the heads though - they stopped doing it after the Restoration as a gesture of allegiance to Charles II (whose Father had been beheaded as a traitor)

  7. I've, of course, heard about London Bridge, but never knew the history. Thank you. It's facinating.

  8. Thanks for this post! I appreciated the wealth of detail.
    In my recent research, I've been reading up on relics, so my first thought on the Thomas More story is that the incorruptible head would establish him as a martyr and possible saint.

  9. Good post! As to More's head, pah! The head of a man so happy to condemn other men to burn for their faith would definitely shrivel and blacken as fast - or even faster - than anyone else's.


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