38: The alcoves of Old London Bridge

Victoria Park Alcove April 2022 ©GMH

One of the most obvious surviving relics of the Old London Bridge, ( though are they? read on! 😀 )  are the shell-like alcoves or shelters of the 1759-62 Portland stone faced bridge, that replaced the more famous bridge with it’s fantastic houses, gatehouses and chapel which was knocked down between 1758/9. But the ‘new-old’ bridge was itself not successful and was entirely demolished in 1830/2 [ see https://buildinglondon.blog/2022/02/22/31-old-london-bridge-part-2/%5D and of the 14 original alcoves 5 were saved and rebuilt in 3 sites in London of which 4 remain today, at Guy’s Hospital, in Victoria Park and in a garden in East Sheen!

The shelters were built for pedestrians to shelter in from both the weather but also the busy traffic. They, like the facing of the ‘new’ bridge were made of Portland limestone. [1] [2]  

Dickens wrote David Copperfield saying, and guessing this is actually autobiographical, that “I was often up at six o’clock, and my favourite lounging place was old London Bridge, where I was wont to sit in one of the stone recesses, watching the people go by, or to look over the balustrades at the sun shining in the water, and lighting up the golden flame on the Monument” [3]

And apparently, though I have not tried this, “The alcoves … similar to the Whispering Gallery in St Paul’s Cathedral, produce the effect of carrying sound from one side to another. This meant that you could have a conversation, without being drowned out by the passing noise of carriages.” [4]

The alcoves can be seen in this engraving of 1825 “South-Eastern View of London Bridge” Drawn and Engraven by G. W. Bonner
in Chronicles of London bridge by Thomson, Richard, 1794-1865
https://thames.me.uk/1827ChroniclesLondonBridge.htm#178

Victoria Park

The best place to see the alcoves is on the far east side of Victoria Park [5], near the Cadogan Gate entrance, where 2 of them were re-erected in 1860, which is interesting as that means they were stored somewhere for 30 years, though read on for a suggestion that they are after all from Westminster Bridge, which was demolished in 1860!

Inscription on Victoria Park Alcove April 2022 ©GMH

The Historic England listing states “Stone alcove from Old London Bridge. Part of the remodelling of Old London Bridge by Sir Robert Taylor and George Dance, 1758-62, re-sited here in 1860. Dressed and tooled Portland stone. An alcove, semi-circular in plan, with an arched hood with moulded imposts, string course and keystone, and with engaged balusters with a projecting moulding to either side of the opening. Inscription on rear reads ‘THIS ALCOVE WHICH STOOD ON OLD LONDON BRIDGE WAS PRESENTRED TO HER MAJESTY BY BENJAMIN DIXON Esq. J.P. FOR THE USE OF THE PUBLIC AND WAS PLACED HERE BY ORDER OF THE RIGHT HONOURABLE W. COWPER FIRST COMMISSIONER OF HER MAJESTY’S WORKS AND PUBLIC BUILDINGS 1860’. This is one of a pair of such alcoves relocated in Victoria Park (opened in 1845), and with a very interesting provenance. … these alcoves relate to the earlier structure, and are notable survivals from one of the most important early Neoclassical monuments in London.” [6]

Note the Bridge House Estates [7], who paid for the bridges, logo on the top of the alcove.

Victoria Park Alcove April 2022 ©GMH

Hackney U3A suggests that these alcoves were “rescued from a builders yard” [8] and  Adrian Prockter of the ‘Know Your London Blog’ has an fascinating story that there are more stones somewhere in a “stonemasons yard” in Dartford! [9] I am trying to find out but finding nothing so far! If anyone has any information on this please get in touch!

Sylvia Pankhurst’s People’s Army drilling in Victoria Park 1913 https://romanroadlondon.com/peoples-army-suffragettes-victoria-park/

Victoria Park, The Peoples Park, has since the erection of the alcoves been the site of many massive working class demonstrations e.g. in 1866 [10] and later in the century and into the 20th regular soap box speaking from such socialist legends as William Morris, Annie Besant and Tom Mann at The Forum, the East Ends’ own Speakers Corner [11]. And the Suffragette leader turned socialist giant, Sylvia Pankhurst [12] also led her marches of working class suffragettes to Victoria Park in 1913 and 1914 and, extraordinarily, drilled her People’s Army there in 1913! [13]  Pankhurst and her East London Federation of Suffragettes [14]  was during WW1 based very close to Victoria Park, on Old Ford Road, [15] and I’d like to think that she, (or Morris or Besant or Mann), after her exertions, relaxed a while in the old alcoves, as Dickens did on London Bridge, possibly while continuing her argument with her lover Kier Hardie about whether the working class deserved, or should eat, brown or white bread! I believe Sylvia thought brown bread better and Kier was for white as that was what the middle and upper classes ate!

I like this poem from Municipal Dreams and it reminds us that all the buildings around us that fascinate this blog, were all built by labour, the stones quarried and dressed, the brickearth and clay dug, moulded and burnt and transported and then all built into the walls, bridges, houses, offices and palaces we see today!

The Park is called the People’s Park, And all the walks are theirs
And strolling through the flowery paths, They breathe exotic airs,
South Kensington, let it remain, Among the Upper Ten.

East London, with useful things, Be left with working men.

The rich should ponder on the fact, Tis labour has built it up
A mountain of prodigious wealth, And filled the golden cup.
And surely workers who have toiled, Are worthy to behold
Some portion of the treasures won, And ribs of shining gold.”
  [5]

Guys Hospital
There is another alcove in the middle of Guy’s Hospital, very close to its original site on Old London Bridge. Londontopia notes it was “… purchased for 10 guineas in 1861 as part of the sale of the old bridge stones after Rennie’s bridge opened in 1831.” Again the date, as with Victoria Park, 1861, seems strange as London Bridge was knocked down in 1830 and so does suggest this could be from Westminster Bridge. [16]

This alcove has a modern, sitting, statue of the poet John Keats, who was a student at Guys between 1815 and 1817, before he gave up medicine and then died tragically young. [17] [18]

The Guys Hospital Alcove with the John Keats statue. Feb 2022 ©GMH
That Bridge House trust logo again with The Shard in the background ©GMH

The Historic England listing states it is from the old London Bridge. “One alcove from old London Bridge, resited. 1858-62. By George Dance. Stone semicircular wall with half dome and cornices on both inside and outside of alcove, with half-baluster at either side. Decorative scroll applied at top of arch. Resited 1902-4. Provided with seats and used, originally as a shelter for convalescents, now as an embellishment to inner quadrangle at Guy’s Hospital (qv).” [19] It also has the Bridge House trust logo.

East Sheen

The surviving East Sheen alcove ©GMH

There was a fourth and fifth alcove in East Sheen but tragically only one now remains, and what happened to the lost one is unknown. Maybe just maybe it is in someones private wooded back garden of a mansion in deepest Surrey! The remaining one is in the grounds of the 1930s Courtland Estate, which replaced the early 19thC Stawell House. London Remembers writes “The Hon. Heneage Legge, a younger son of the third Earl of Dartmouth, purchased the property in 1829 and after a few years demolished the old house and built a new one on elevated ground at the south of the site.   He called it Stawell House (pronounced as in ‘shawl’) and the Tithe Appointment map of 1839 shows the new layout.   Between the east front and the paddock was a terrace walk about 200 yards long which was flanked by balustrading from Old London Bridge dating from 1757-62.   At each end of the walk were two alcoves or ‘porters’ rests … Early in 1937 Stawell House was demolished and the building of the first blocks of flats … was completed in 1938.   During the development the balustrading along the terrace and the alcove or porters’ rest at the north end disappeared, but the porters’ rest at the south end did not interfere with the new buildings…” [20]
Interestingly, as opposed to the 1860s dates of Guy’s and Victoria Park the date of these two does tie in closely with the demolition of the Old London Bridge.

Logo of the Bridge House ©GMH
Shell of the oyster Liostrea expansa suggested this is from the Whitbed of the Portland Stone https://www.ucl.ac.uk/~ucfbrxs/Homepage/walks/PortlandFossils.pdf

Shockingly this alcove does not appear to be listed, unless I have missed it ! It’s not, afaics, in [21] nor in the local listings [22] which must be a serious oversight!

This lithograph from 1831 could well be of one of the alcoves in East Sheen
https://www.alamy.com/an-alcove-of-old-london-bridge-unknown-artist-nineteenth-century-after-unknown-artist-j-davies-1831-lithograph-sheet-8-12-x-10-12in-216-x-267cm-image389678011.html

Adelaide House
There is also a suggestion that another alcove was found buried when Adelaide House was built in the 1920s, but that it was destroyed. “There was another alcove found at Adelaide House in 1921 – a Grade II listed office block on the north side of London Bridge – but this was deemed too expensive to preserve and was destroyed. A stone was kept and is can now be seen in the churchyard of St Magnus the Martyr church.” [23] Sadly I don’t think this is correct. As far as I understand, and there is evidence of this, an arch of the old bridge was found buried under 19thC buildings, and this was destroyed in the 1920s redevelopment. But it doesn’t make sense for there to have been a buried, alcove. [24] [1]  
London Bridge or Westminster Bridge
So. The suggestion, from romanroadlondon.com, that these alcoves are NOT from the 1762 Old London Bridge at all but from the Old Westminster bridge, built between 1739 and 1750, [25] [26]. This bridge, which slightly preceded and inspired the Old London Bridge alcoves, was demolished in 1862 … the date that the Victoria Park alcoves appear! Roman Road also suggest that from “historical images there is little – if anything – to separate the two designs”

They continue “Even the Tower Hamlets information board beside the alcoves get in a muddle, using historical quotes about their Westminster cousins, including those of Swiss engineer Charles Labelye, who designed old Westminster Bridge. Admittedly, each alcove has an engraving stating they are from ‘Old London Bridge’, which seems a fairly conclusive piece of evidence. The Victorians wouldn’t rewrite history to cover up typos etched in stone would they. Would they?” [27]

Westminster Bridge in 1789 showing the alcoves. By Joseph Farington – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,  1789 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35705455
Alcoves of Old Westminster Bridge. Walter Thornbury, ‘The river Thames: Part 2 of 3’, in Old and New London: Volume 3 (London, 1878), http://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol3/pp300-311

The 1951 London County Council Survey of London, in British History Online, mentioned that the  “…the recesses in the form of alcoves over each pier, designed for shelter in bad weather, might be used by robbers and cut-throats who, if it were not for the special guard of 12 watchmen and the high balustrades, might set on unwary travellers and push their bodies into the river.” [28]

Vic Keegan refers to this as an  “ … unforeseen design flaw… Labelye built cubbyholes on each side of the bridge so pedestrians could take a rest. Unfortunately, they became an easy target for thieves, vagabonds and ladies of the night, who would accost unsuspecting visitors.”[29] while Londonist notes “The first Westminster Bridge featured semi-octagonal turrets at intervals along the crossing to provide shelter for pedestrians. But these cloistered cubby-holes soon became haunts for vagabonds, muggers and prostitutes…In the end, 12 nightwatchmen had to be hired to guard travellers as they crossed the river.” [30]  

But even though the Victoria Park and Guy’s Hospital alcoves were only re-built in the 1860s, which would logically make them much more likely to be from the recently demolished Westminster Bridge, that they all have the Bridge House Estate logo carved into them, and Westminster Bridge was not part of the Bridge House Estates, which surely ties them to Old London Bridge [7]. And, when looked at closely the alcoves do appear different. Those on Westminster bridge seem to have 3 courses of stone on the roof and those from London Bridge only have 2 courses.
So it is clear that even though the dates are odd the alcoves featured here are from the old London Bridge, not the old Westminster Bridge.

Alcoves on Westminster Bridge can be seen in this painting by J. M. W. Turner –
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons October 16 1834https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21886524

It does seem very odd though that alcoves were sat around for 30 years, ( in Dartford?) before being used in Victoria Park and Guy’s, yet there seems to be no trace of, nor any suggestion of what happened to the Westminster ‘cubby-holes’. The are lots of traces of the different London bridges and many of the old Waterloo bridge, there is, as far as I can see nothing of the old Westminster Bridge. This blog will, of course, in due course, investigate!

And the alcoves on Old London Bridge, again by J.MW. Turner – ‘Old London Bridge’ by Circa 1794 from https://londontopia.net/columns/lauras-london/london-bridge-is-falling-down-a-history-of-london-bridge-and-where-to-find-old-london-bridge/

Other blogs
The story of these lovely Portland stone alcoves has been covered quite a few times before: by Vic Keegan, whose Lost London column is absolutely brilliant, and a major source of inspiration for the Building London blog,  [31] and now with a book out from lots of retailers [32] and specifically covering the fate of the London Bridge stones including the alcoves [33] and with a brilliant Google Map pinpointing the resting places of the alcoves and other bits and pieces of the Old London Bridge! [34].

Matt Brown at the also brilliant, Londonist has a great feature ‘Whatever happened to Old London Bridge’, again covering the alcoves [35] and see also specific posts at https://romanroadlondon.com/victoria-park-alcoves/  and https://chisenhale.org.uk/programmes/offsite/postcards-from-victoria-park-alcoves/

And most tantalisingly, Adrian Prockter at the Know You London blog suggests some more stone may STILL be lying in a stone masons yard at Dartford! [36]

Visiting

All these 4 alcoves are easy to get to by London public transport: The Victoria Park alcoves are a few minutes walk from Hackney Wick Station
The Guy’s Hospital alcove is near London Bridge station and accessed from Great Maze Pond.
The East Sheen alcove is in the private Courtlands Estate, on Sheen Road. There are no gates to be opened nor any ‘No Entry’ signs, and no one raised any eyes brows at my wandering about taking photos, but bear in mind it is private. Get to it via North Sheen station. And go and walk in Richmond Park after. The trees are some of the oldest and largest in Greater London, and of course there are the Red Deer.

If you are coming to see the Victoria Park alcoves why not do a Sylvia Pankhurst/East London Suffragette walk too! Check out these 3 links! http://www.feministfightback.org.uk/east-london-radical-history-walk/
https://spitalfieldslife.com/2018/02/07/celebrating-east-end-suffragettes/
https://inspiringcity.com/2015/11/25/sylvia-pankhurst-and-the-east-london-suffragettes/

References
[1] https://www.mola.org.uk/london-bridge-2000-years-river-crossing
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portland_stone
[3] “Old London bridge – The story of the longest inhabited bridge in Europe” Patricia Pierce 2001 https://archive.org/details/oldlondonbridges0000pier
[4] https://livinglondonhistory.com/remnants-of-old-london-bridge-in-victoria-park/
[5] https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/victoria-park-east-london-the-peoples-park/
[6] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1235619
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridge_House_Estates
[8] https://u3asites.org.uk/files/h/hackney/docs/u3avictoriapark.pdf    
[9] https://knowyourlondon.wordpress.com/2018/05/15/london-bridge-alcoves-in-victoria-park
[10] https://hackneyhistory.wordpress.com/2013/09/08/a-radical-history-of-hackney-parks/
[11] https://romanroadlondon.com/victoria-park-forum-speakers-corner/
[12] https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2017-07-26/sylvia-pankhurst-organiser-working-class-women

[13] https://romanroadlondon.com/peoples-army-suffragettes-victoria-park/
[14] https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/the-east-london-federation-of-the-suffragettes
[15] https://romanroadlondon.com/bows-suffragette-secrets-sylvia-pankhurst-east-end-suffrage/
[16] https://londontopia.net/columns/lauras-london/london-bridge-is-falling-down-a-history-of-london-bridge-and-where-to-find-old-london-bridge/
[17] https://londonhistorians.wordpress.com/2021/02/23/john-keats-at-guys/     
[18] https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/john-keats-17951821-271701
[19] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1385880?section=official-list-entry
[20] https://www.londonremembers.com/memorials/london-bridge-alcove-at-east-sheen
[21] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/map-search
[22] https://www.richmond.gov.uk/media/18000/listed_buildings_register.pdf
[23] https://londontopia.net/columns/lauras-london/london-bridge-is-falling-down-a-history-of-london-bridge-and-where-to-find-old-london-bridge/    
[24] https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/7141/
[25] http://www.engineering-timelines.com/scripts/engineeringItem.asp?id=702
[26] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westminster_Bridge
[27] https://romanroadlondon.com/victoria-park-alcoves/
[28] ‘Westminster Bridge’, in Survey of London: Volume 23, Lambeth: South Bank and Vauxhall, ed. Howard Roberts and Walter H Godfrey (London, 1951), pp. 66-68. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol23/pp66-68  
[29] https://www.onlondon.co.uk/vic-keegans-lost-london-154-the-original-westminster-bridge/
[30] https://londonist.com/2016/08/secrets-of-westminster-bridge and https://thames.me.uk/s00130.htm[31] https://www.onlondon.co.uk/category/culture/lost-london/ 
[32] https://www.londonsociety.org.uk/post/book-review-vic-keegans-lost-london
[33] https://www.onlondon.co.uk/vic-keegans-lost-london-100-where-to-look-for-london-bridge/ ]
[34] https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?source=gplus-ogsb&ie=UTF8&oe=UTF8&msa=0&mid=1keR5HrN8ZN6KLI4vz_QLTa4p0bM&ll
[35] https://londonist.com/2016/08/whatever-happened-to-old-london-bridge
[36] https://knowyourlondon.wordpress.com/2018/05/15/london-bridge-alcoves-in-victoria-park/
[37]
[38]
[39]
[40]







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