30: Old London Bridge: Part 1

30: Old London Bridge: Part 1
London Bridge in 1632 Claude de Jongh – Yale Center for British Art

A two part post on the Old London bridge … This blog has already done a couple of posts on the building stones that was used in the new London Bridge, the abandoned corbels on Dartmoor that were surplus to the widening in the early 1900s and the engraved pillar at Pickets Lock and there are many more in the pipeline. But this, over-long, post will focus on the Old London Bridge, the mediaeval London Bridge, including it’s various re-buildings and repairs, up to 1830, and as a lead in to an number of posts I have lined up about the remains of that bridge and the origins of some of the stone. In this first post I will concentrate on it’s history and what it was made from.

London Bridge is one of the most famous, important and celebrated constructions in London. The first bridge between what is now The City of London and Southwark is thought to be built of wood in possibly AD 43 [ 1 ] [ 1a ] and there have been bridges almost ever since [ though actually probably not between 400 and 800 ] but like with Triggers Broom aka the Ship of Theseus Paradox [ 2 ] what stands there today has little to do with the original bridge.

Artists impression of newly built bridge bridge in 1196 https://thames.me.uk/s00049a.htm

It’s thought the Romans also later built a stone and wood bridge but after they left it is that it fell to ruin over the centuries, as with Londinium itself. Nothing visible remains of this bridge except for some possible tiles and some ‘iron shod piles’ one of which is displayed at St Magnus the Martyr Church. Brigham speculates that bits of the bridge may have survived but were later removed in the new bridge building of the 12thC [ 1 ]  and maybe somewhere deep underground, remain other pieces to this day. It is then thought there was a wooden bridge in the late 9thC, after the re-occupation of the abandoned Roman city, but this seems to have been precarious and needed frequent repairs, burnt on a couple of occasions and in 1091 was destroyed by a tornado, yes really, [ 3 ] and by the 1170s it was decided that London, now a growing and prosperous town needed a stone bridge.

Another artists impression of the newly built 1196 bridge [22]

Peter of St Mary Colechurch aka Petrus capellanus de Colechurch [ 4 ] directed the building of the new bridge, appointed as far as I can see by Henry II, starting in 1176 and taking 33 years, with a wooden bridge continuing alongside. This bridge, built on 19 stone piers is what we now call Old London Bridge or maybe more correctly, ‘the mediaeval London Bridge’, as in 1831 a ‘New London Bridge’ was completed and that is the bridge that survived through to the 1960s when it was sold to a resort developer in Arizona where it stands to this day, called London Bridge, though actually only the facing granite went over. And the current, ugly, in my opinion, London Bridge is also just called, London Bridge, though bits of it on the south side are from the er New London Bridge! [5]

New London Bridge overshadowing the remains of Old London Bridge in 1832 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Demolition_of_Old_London_Bridge,_1832,_Guildhall_Gallery,_London.JPG

So what was the Old London Bridge made from?!
The ‘bible’ for the building materials of the Old London Bridge is the fantastic and extensively researched “London Bridge 2000 years of a river crossing” by Bruce Watson, Trevor Brigham and Tony Dyson, Monograph 8, Museum of London Archaeology Service, produced in 2001 [ 1 ] This book describes all the materials used in the Old London bridge through examination of both the Bridge House Estates accounts, who since 1282 have maintained London Bridge and other bridges in central London [6] and Museum of London excavations at the southern end of the old bridge in 1983 and 1984, and noting the various repairs and rebuilding over the 600+ years of it’s existence including in the 13thC after various collapses and the major rebuilding  the 1750s.

Available from all good bookshops and libraries. But not the Museum of London https://www.mola.org.uk/london-bridge-2000-years-river-crossing

They note the use of timber, brick and stone, how the Romans used Oak and Elm and Kentish Ragstone, all also used in the Mediaeval period plus stone from Portland, Purbeck and Reigate and then with a great use of Portland Stone in the 18thC rebuilding. The text isn’t though always entirely clear e.g. regularly talking of ashlar, i.e. facing blocks, without specifically describing what they actually are.

The piling at St Magnus the Martyr that is sometimes suggested to be from the Roman London Bridge, or at least of the same kind. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Magnus_the_Martyr

Re the Museum of London excavations  of the 12thC southern abutment, east of the current London Bridge, in 1984 [ disgracefully the whole discovered section was destroyed in redevelopment ] the authors identify that “The basal course of the east and west walls consisted of a white quartzite sandstone, probably from the North Downs or the Chilterns, while the standing masonry consisted of a mixture including Kentish Ragstone, Purbeck Marble, Purbeck Stone and Wealden ‘marble’.” and that this was filled in with Ragstone and chalk rubble which would also have come from Kent and Surrey. [1 p.91 ]

Demolition in 1831 exposing medieval stone work https://www.lookandlearn.com/history-images/XJ846480/Sketch-of-Old-London-Bridge-during-its-demolition-in-1831-1832

Looking into the Bridge House records they state “in 1463-4 a total of 163 loads of Reigate Stone were purchased in Merstham for use in making a ‘pendant’ for two arches for the new stonework of the bridge, while 40 tons of ‘Kent stones called hassok’ were acquired for ‘making the walls’ of the stone work as wells filling the ‘gulys between the piers ‘..” [ 1 p.131 ] N.b. Reigate and Merstham stone are similar or the same.

Beds of Kentish Ragstone and Hassock at Fox’s Quarry near Loose in Kent

In the early 18thC the bridge was reinforced with Portland Stone ribs and in the 1750s the bridge was widened with all the famous buildings, houses, the chapel and gates etc being demolished and after using Kentish Ragstone and Reigate Stone used for the basic new construction, the whole bridge was faced with Portland Stone. [ 1 p.171. ]

There is a full list on pages 231 and 232 of the stones used noting  the use of Kentish Rag from near Maidstone ( see my previous post here [ 7 ] ), Hassock, also from the Kentish Ragstone quarries and is a softer stone, Wealden ‘marble’ a hard Limestone from various places in the Weald, Purbeck marble, another hard limestone from the Isle of Purbeck and historically more used for polished pillars, Purbeck stone, from the same quarries but a softer bed, and usually used for paving, Reigate ( or Merstham ) Stone from those places, Portland Stone from close to Purbeck and which after the Great Fire of London in 1666 became the default stone used in London, and an un-named stone, ‘White quartzite sandstone’ matching “some samples of sarsen stone” and “probably from the North Downs, Bagshot area or the Chilterns”. [ 1 p231/232 ]

Blocks of Portland Stone from the 18thC rebuilding of Old London Bridge, in the what is now the courtyard of St Magnus the Martyr, but what would have been the entrance to the Old London Bridge before 1832.
Medieval use of Merstham Stone at St Katherines, Merstham. https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1377942?section=official-listing

White quartzite sandstone’ is mentioned frequently in the book as a key component of the 12thC bridge and I wonder if some of what is being referred to is actually Reigate Stone. Some Reigate Stone is over 50% quartz [8] though if they do mean sarsen stone, which is much harder, it was also commonly used for building in the medieval period so likely would end up in London Bridge. [9] Quartzite sarsen is normally not regarded as white though! “Quartzite sarsen is usually a darker grey-brown colour, comprising much finer grained, clayey silts.” [ 10 ]

Sarsen stones at Fyfield Down near Avebury whose stone circle is made of sarsen stone. Sarsens would have been commonly found on downland near London.

The authors also talk a lot about the timber used for the bridge and there was a surprising amount for a stone bridge. The piers or ‘starlings’ were made by driving timber stakes into the river bed then infilling with rubble before building on that and it appears that at the southern end some of the Stone Gatehouse was actually built on an area of driven elm stakes covered in oak sills. They have not only identified and dated the timbers of the 12thC building, oaks and elms mainly as both wood’s are known to survive well in wet ground [ 1 p.181 ] but also, from the 15thC accounts, have noted and mapped the origins of the woods used. While much of the elm was found relatively close to the bridge in what is now parts of Greater London, they had to go further to get the oak including into the Weald. Tragically we now have virtually no elm timber following the devastating Dutch Elm disease outbreak of the 1970 and ongoing.

The model of Old London Bridge in St Magnus the Martyr church, once the northern entrance to London Bridge, showing the timber piling.

 There are a few other good sources re the materials used in Old London Bridge:

‘The Thames: Or, Graphic Illustrations of Seats, Villas, Public Buildings and Picturesque Scenery’ by William Bernard Cooke, 1811, reports that, before the rebuild of 1750s, a survey was undertaken by George Dance ‘the elder’, a former stone mason who became London’s ‘Clerk of works’, building Mansion House and St Leonards Shoreditch. [11] “The substance of his report was, “that the bridge was built on piles, driven close together nearly in a mass, that they were perfect except about an inch of the outside; they were cut off above the common state of low-water mark, and planks laid on them, and others on these transversely ; then began the stone piers. The external stone-work was of Kentish ashler, very sound. The external parts of the piers were composed of rubble, cemented so firmly that it resisted crows and pickaxes.” [12] [13]

Old London Bridge during its demolition as in 1832 Wood engraving after Robert Seymourhttps://thames.me.uk/s00049d.htm

As well as affirming the use of Kentish Ragstone this also notes the use of wooden piles as the base of the stone piers which the excavations showed nearly 200 years later.

Richard Thomson’s “Chronicles of London bridge”, 1827, notes a survey of 1821, before it had been decided to demolish. “‘ The foundation of the Piers on the North side, — between the Great Lock and what is called the Long Entry Lock, — and in the Sterling round it, appeared to be about 3 feet above low- water mark. The bottom of the masonry originally laid of the pier, is about 2 feet 3 inches above low- water mark; and the first course is laid upon a sill of oak, 16 inches wide, by 9 in thickness, and perfectly sound. Immediately beneath this is a mass of Kentish rubble, mixed with flint, chalk, &c., thrown in irregularly, but not mixed with any cement.”

“The filling-in between the Arches was composed of chalk and mortar, of so hard a nature that it was taken out with great difficulty. With respect to the building itself, he observes, that the stone of which the Arches were formed consists of two courses : that of the soffits or flying ribs, being Merstham Fire-stone, and the “course above very similar to the stone of Caen, or Normandy. In the additions, or casings, on each side of the original structure, Portland stone has been used, as well for the facing, as for the Arches”

This refers to both the mediaeval bridge and the 1750s rebuilding. [14]

The demolition in 1830 showing the Kentish Ragstone, chalk and flint rubble and I’m guessing Portland stones blocks from the 18thC refacing
“Ruins of the Crypt, or Under Chapel of St Thomas, on Old London Bridge. As discover’d February 1832 at the late Demolition of the Bridge’.
Etching by Edward William Cooke (1811-1880) from his ‘Views of the old and new London bridges’ published in 1833. [21]

Patricia Pierce in her 2001 “Old London bridge – The story of the longest inhabited bridge in Europe” notes “The Bridge House accounts show that the Wardens purchased and assembled stone for the chapel between 1384 and 1396. One of the later entries was for forty-three cartloads of Reigate stone ‘for the upper vault’, the battlements and the spiral staircase, costing £14 3S.6d. For the spiral staircase, ‘twenty great pieces of hard stone from Kent called noweles’ were ordered. Most of the stone was probably worked in the Bridge House yard, for an entry in 1392 in the Bridge House records notes twenty-one cartloads of Reigate stone being delivered there”.  [15]

British History Online reproduces a London Record Society report, 1995, of the Bridge House accounts “London Bridge: Selected Accounts and Rentals, 1381-1538” noting “The materials bought for the works on the bridge give some idea of the nature of its construction. … They included stone, notably the fine ‘Bridge ashlar’, Reigate and Maidstone stone, rag, and chalk rubble for the starlings. The masons used iron crampets, lead, and a waterproof cement made with pitch and rosin, delivered hot, to fix the stonework. Much of the oak timber bought must have been used for house-building, but the elm trees bought and hewn were made into piles and probably boards for the waterworks” [16]

Martin Hatton found in the Bridge House accounts for 1461 a purchase “…for 47 loads of stones called Reygateston at 20d the load at the quarry of Maistham 78s4d” (Harding & Wright,1995,p126).” [17]

Elsden and Howe’s seminal ‘Urban Geology’ book ‘The Stones of London’, 1923, referring to Reigate or Merstham Stone also states “Old London Bridge, built in 1176, is said to have been built of this stone” [18]

The British Geological Survey County Atlas of Essex also suggests sarsen stone was used: “Beaumont Quay at Hamford Water, was built in 1832 re-using Sarsen Stone taken from Old London Bridge which was demolished in 1831”  [19] …. though Essex Field Club state the blocks to be Merstham Stone! [23]. There may be both there!

Martin Hatton also notes “A final quality from which Reigate Stone has been said to benefit is that “if kept either always wet or always dry, [it is] very durable” (VCH,ii,278). … Examples of ‘always wet’ include its use in bridges (e.g. London Bridge – see Harding&Wright,1995), quays (e.g. that at Westminster) …” [20]

Beaumont Quay, built in 1832, with stones from the Old London Bridge

To be continued!

Addendum: a good history of London Bridge here https://www.londonhistorians.org/index.php?s=file_download&id=2


[1] “London Bridge 2000 years of a river crossing” Bruce Watson, Trevor Brigham and Tony Dyson, Monograph 8, Museum of London Archaeology Service, 2001
[1 a] Old London Bridge before 1632 https://thames.me.uk/s00049a.htm
[2] https://latest.dcp-online.co.uk/2021/09/14/triggers-broom-or-the-ship-of-theseus-paradox/
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_tornado_of_1091
[4] https://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/london-gazetteer-pre-fire/pp405-415
[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Bridge
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridge_House_Estates
[7] https://buildinglondon.blog/2021/12/27/25-kentish-rag-pt2-foxs-quarry-and-the-loose-valley-near-maidstone/
[8] The many faces of Reigate Stone: an assessment of variability in historic masonry based on Medieval London’s principal freestone Martin Michette, Heather Viles, Constantina Vlachou & Ian Angus  https://heritagesciencejournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40494-020-00424-w
[9] Building Stone Atlas of Surrey  https://www2.bgs.ac.uk/mineralsuk/download/EHCountyAtlases/Surrey_Building_Stone_Atlas.pdf
[10] https://artefactual.co.uk/2013/06/13/sarsen-2/
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Dance_the_Elder
[12] https://thames.me.uk/s00049c.htm
[13] https://archive.org/details/thamesorgraphic01owengoog
[14] https://archive.org/details/chroniclesoflond00thomuoft
Also https://thames.me.uk/1827ChroniclesLondonBridge.htm
[15] https://archive.org/details/oldlondonbridges0000pier
[16] London Bridge: Selected Accounts and Rentals, 1381-1538. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/london-record-soc/vol31/vii-xxix
[17] ‘The Exploitation, Distribution and Use in Buildings of Reigate Stone pt1’ Martin Hatton ] https://www.croydoncavingclub.org.uk/node/380]   
[18] https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=OiqPoAEACAAJ
[19] https://www2.bgs.ac.uk/mineralsuk/download/EHCountyAtlases/Essex_Building_Stone_Atlas.pdf
[20] https://www.croydoncavingclub.org.uk/node/391
[21] https://www.ssplprints.com/image/104863/cooke-edward-william-crypt-of-st-thomas-old-london-bridge-1832
[22] https://www.alamy.com/the-old-london-bridge-12091831-over-the-river-thames-on-the-southwark-side-king-henry-ii-commissioned-a-new-stone-bridge-in-place-of-the-old-with-a-chapel-at-its-centre-dedicated-to-becket-as-martyr-building-work-began-in-1176-and-was-finished-by-1209-during-the-reign-of-king-john-it-took-33-years-to-complete-city-of-london-england-image177817796.html
[23] https://www.essexfieldclub.org.uk/portal.php/p/Geology+Site+Account/s/Beaumont+Quay+Limekiln

3 responses to “30: Old London Bridge: Part 1”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: