As Leo Hollis reports in the latest issue of History Today, Mayor Boris Johnson has revived the idea of an ‘inhabited London Bridge’. The £80m scheme, inspired by the original structure, whose 800th anniversary is celebrated this weekend, is for a new bridge between Waterloo and Blackfriars.
Johnson and his developers, however, should heed a warning from history. Research by the University of Leicester’s highly-regarded Centre for Urban History suggests the organisation that managed the bridge during the mid-18th century - the period when its medieval houses and shops were removed - was plagued with incompetence and corruption. ‘Furthermore,’ says the center's Mark Latham, ‘managers often paid for improvements to their own houses out of the coffers of the trust running the bridge.’ Plenty of contemporary parallels there.
Problems were compounded by a risky, costly and ill-timed project undertaken during the height of a credit crisis, similar to the one we are currently enduring, that sought to construct gentrified houses on the bridge in the belief that such houses would prove attractive to affluent Londoners. However, the authorities grossly miscalculated the demand for such properties and the houses attracted only a handful of tenants.
A London-wide property crash ensued and the trust running the bridge began to haemorrhage money. London Bridge was literally falling down. At this point, the realisation dawned on the members of the trust that it was no longer viable to maintain structures on the bridge. By early 1755, the trust had begun to petition Parliament for the funds to carry out their demolition. It marked a most visible break with London’s medieval past. As Latham points out:
‘The renovation of London Bridge in the mid-18th century was such an important event in the history of London as in many ways the demolition of these characterful medieval houses and the subsequent transformation of the bridge in to a bland utilitarian functional feature represents a rupture with London’s medieval past and can be taken as symbolic of London’s emergent modernity.’
Read Leo Hollis' colourful account of 800 years of London Bridge from History Today July 2009.