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London Bridge and its Houses c. 1209-1761 by Dorian Gerhold, published by The London Topographical Society, 2019

London Bridge and its Houses c. 1209-1761 by Dorian Gerhold, published by The London Topographical Society, 2019

This year's book from the London Topographical Society (free with membership) captures ‘the audacity of laying a ribbon of stone across such a powerful river’ – and then building on it. 'Top Soc' is an absolute bargain. Modest subs of £20 cover an excellent newsletter and a high quality publication every year. Previous offerings have included the first published edition of the wartime LCC bomb damage maps (recording the near total devastation of the Surrey Docks, discussed below), a special edition of Peter Barber's 'London: a history in maps' and the late Ralph Hyde's invaluable book on ward plans. Completing Ralph’s work on parish maps has turned into a bigger project than anticipated, but it should be ready next year. Join now.

Dorian Gerhold’s book, lavishly illustrated and meticulously researched, is one of those brilliantly simple concepts we all wish we’d thought of. Old London Bridge – complete with houses – is prominent on most early views of London. It’s such an obvious focal point that it’s something we all think we know about (or assume someone else does, at least). However, it seems that Gerhold was the first to knuckle down and do the work of sifting through a wealth of surviving archival material (especially leases) to reconstruct the buildings themselves and the community of about 500 people that lived in them. It turns out that only about four of the antique prints we deal in are remotely accurate.

Old London Bridge was one of the marvels of mediaeval Europe – much larger than other inhabited bridges of its day. The houses were integral to both the bridge’s structure and its finances from the start, but houses is a misnomer: they were shops, with living space above. It was a prestigious retail address for much of its history, with correspondingly high rents (which paid for the bridge’s maintenance), and it attracted specialist trades: Gerhold chronicles how bowyers gave way to booksellers, and how certain types of trade such as selling drink and fast food, were heavily restricted.

The booksellers caught my eye, naturally, and they are fairly well documented. All the traders on the bridge were well placed to serve the southeast, and booksellers supplied popular literature to chapmen who peddled them across the entire country. Gerhold covers the landmark buildings: the stone gatehouse, the drawbridge house and Nonsuch House which replaced it, and ‘the house of many windows’. But he also details the houses in between, which as it turns out were barely ‘on’ the bridge at all: behind their frontages they were mostly supported on hammer beams overhanging the Thames. Alternate houses could be linked to their opposite neighbours with rooms above the roadway, giving additional stability as well as extra space, although blocking some of the light (hence the rule about alternate houses, to stop the bridge becoming a tunnel). Gerhard only mentions one actual collapse though, involving the loss of five lives when one of the communal latrines fell into the Thames in 1481.

The book explains or enhances much of the lore associated with the bridge. London Bridge was constructed with narrow arches and numerous piers, of necessity supported by wide starlings which impeded the flow of the Thames. All this created the ideal conditions for the frost fairs which began during the mini ice age of the 17th century, and for the dangerous pastime of shooting the rapids beneath. However, the arches were larger than was usual for bridges of the period, and were cutting edge for their day.

Far from being a picturesque spot, I had always assumed that London Bridge was a terribly unhealthy place to live: everything imaginable was tipped into the Thames, and it flowed downstream under the bridge. However, Gerhold establishes that hardly anyone there died of plague in the 1665 outbreak, suggesting the frequent changes of air.

The ‘keep left’ rule which we still use on British roads was introduced there in 1722, after half a century of ‘keep right’. The change, which has had such a lasting effect in Britain, was due to the rise in the number of people sitting on their vehicles – on the right – rather than leading teams of draught animals while walking on the left of them. Now we know! The presence of houses survived assorted rebellions, fires, recessions and rebuilding projects. After at least a century of complaints about the width of the roadway the houses were finally swept away to ease mid-18th century traffic jams – at about the same time that London lost its city gates, and for much the same reasons. It wasn’t an inevitability, and Gerhold delves into the murky political manoeuvring behind the decision. The 13th century piers served London for a further 70 years but, houseless, are outside the scope of this work. All in all, an insightful and unexpected addition to our understanding of one of London’s great lost landmarks.

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