Today (January 29) in London History – Westminster Bridge

On this day – January 29, 1739 – the ninth Earl of Pembroke laid the first stone of Westminster Bridge, London’s second bridge across the Thames. A Red Letter day for London. Today’s podcast tells the story.


It was a long time coming. Seventeen and a half centuries. 85 per cent of London’s history.

Have you got it? Well, done….yes, that’s right: Westminster Bridge. London’s second bridge across the Thames is finally coming into view. 

So, yes, for 85 per cent of its history – seventeen and a half centuries – there was just one bridge. That first bridge – a Roman military pontoon bridge will have been the horse that pulled the cart. It, the bridge, came first. Around its north end a small settlement sprang up. And took root. Oh my God, did it take root. That settlement was called Londinium. Twenty centuries later we know it as our town, London, the greatest city on earth. 

The successors of that Roman military pontoon bridge culminated, twelve centuries later, in the famous London Bridge, on its nineteen arches, with its houses and two chapels and traitors’ heads on stakes, like pins in a pincushion at the far end of the bridge, the gatehouse on the Southwark side of the bridge. And then another five centuries flow by before London finally gets a second bridge. Westminster Bridge – the first Westminster Bridge – the bridge we pay homage to on this day, January 29th, because January 29th, 1739 was the day Lord Pembroke laid the first stone of Westminster Bridge. The centuries-long courtship was finally over. The bride was on her way down the aisle.

Why did it take so long? In one word, money. In two words, vested interests. And who were the vested interests: London, as in the City Corporation. The powers that be in London – well, the powers that were in late 17th century and early 18th century London. London was, remember, a mile or so downstream. And London had a monopoly. It had the only bridge. London Bridge led from London. And to London. You wanted to go over the water by bridge – you had no choice – you had to go to London. To London Bridge. And of course that monopoly – all that traffic – brought no end of business, no end of commercial activity, no end of wealth to London. London didn’t want to see a significant fraction of that wealth take wing. Didn’t want to see it head upstream to Westminster. So that monopoly was one vested interest. There were two others. First, Thames watermen. They had a monopoly as well. Especially upstream, where there was no bridge. A bridge there was going to suck a lot of business away from them. Sort of like black cab drivers today suddenly being told there’s a new kid on the block named Uber and they’re going to have to share the market with that new punk. 

Third vested interest was the Archbishop of Canterbury. There was a horse ferry that operated where Lambeth Bridge is today. To this day, the approach street to Lambeth Bridge is called Horseferry Road. The Archbishop of Canterbury was the Man –– the horse ferry was his nice little earner – because where it tied up on the south side of the Thames was a landing on the Lambeth Palace shore. No question about it, a new bridge just yards away from the Archbishop’s Horseferry operation would bleed it white. So, for sure, the Archbishop of Canterbury was the third vested interest that said, “a second bridge, a bridge across the Thames in the Westminster area – over my dead body.”

The City Corporation of London, Thames Watermen, the Archbishop of Canterbury – those are powerful opponents individually, let alone in concert. 

For nearly a century they succeeded in slamming the door in the face of the new bridge’s proponents. As compelling as the case was for the new bridge. The status quo was bad news for everybody. You were upstream, up Westminster way, and you wanted to cross by bridge, you had to go all the way to London. Or way out of town to the West, to Fulham. There was a bridge there. Putney Bridge. It’s thought of as a London bridge today but it wasn’t then, it was a long way away, five miles away from Westminster. So that was it bridge-wise. Otherwise, it was a Thames ferryman or the horse ferry. That second bridge – Westminster Bridge – there was a crying need for it. But those powerful opponents had dug in their heels. Took nearly a century to overcome their opposition. Nearly a century – and lots of money. In the end they bought out the vested interests. The compensation payout for the Thames ferrymen was £25,000. Big money. Millions in today’s dosh. And the Archbishop of Canterbury – considering there was just one of him as opposed to flotillas of Thames Watermen – did even better. They wet the
Archbishop’s beak to the tune of £21,000.

And that brings us to the good guys. Well, one good guy in particular. Henry Herbert, the ninth Earl of Pembroke and the sixth Earl of Montgomery. 

The ninth earl of Pembroke and the sixth Earl of Montgomery. 

That kind of thing sets my American head spinning. The first Earl of Pembroke would have been Henry Herbert’s  

great great great great great great grandfather. That’s six greats in case you lost count, which you almost certainly did. 

Henry Herbert, the ninth earl, our January 29th, 1739 Westminster Bridge man, will have been carrying all of about a third of one per cent of his great great great great great great grandfather’s genetic make-up. Farthest back I was able to get was the 2nd Earl of Pembroke, who was born in 1130 and whose full name was, wait for it, Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare, called Strongbow, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke. Imagine being one-third of one per cent of a Strongbow. A wood shaving in other words. 

The ninth Earl of Pembroke. I put my ancestral claim to fame up against that and I feel like a street dog that’s wandered into Crufts. How’s mine go? My bio on the London Walks guides’ page used to begin, “David – the Seigneur of this favoured realm – broods over wordsbreeds enthusiasms and is quote “unmanageable”.*

Quote because I was once called that – “unmanageable” – by a boss in my annual Employee Review. Have treasured it ever since. Anyway, the asterisk took the reader to this information, on which I’ve always prided myself no end. Until I came across the Ninth Earl of Pembroke.

The capsule bio reads: 

*Unmanageable. He (me, David) blames his gene pool, especially the contribution made to it by an American vice president in the dark backward and abysm of time. Yes, that vice president: the notorious bankrupt and womanizer who spread his seed across two continents; who wed, at 77, a 58-year-old former prostitute who had become the richest woman in America (she divorced him less than a year later on the grounds of his infidelity*); a notorious bankrupt and womaniser who was tried for treason.

And those were just his misdemeanours. 

The word infidelity had a second asterisk, like an undeserved Good Conduct medal. 

  • Asterisk now about David’s ancestor’s infidelity. It wasn’t exactly good riddance: he (David’s ancestor, Vice President Aaron Burr) made off with $13,000 very good reasons of hers – the former prostitute who’d become the richest woman in America – 13,000 very good reasons for having him up for larceny as well as infidelity. And it goes without saying, he went through the 13,000 reasons like a dose of salts.
  • The 13,000 reasons were of course dollars. Be getting on for half a million today. Getting shot of my ancestor for half a million, that would have been a bargain.

But I digress. Henry Herbert, the ninth Earl of Pembroke and fourth Earl of Montgomery is our man today. He was the driving force behind our bridge, Westminster bridge. London’s second bridge. Given that the ninth Earl was George II’s first lord of the bedchamber and Groom of the Stool, he was probably glad to get out in the fresh air at every opportunity.

Which he did. He was a tireless promoter of the bridge. He laid the first stone on this day in 1739. And the last one (of the main structure) in 1747. In fact, the last of his 120 attendances at meetings of the bridge commissioners was on the morning of his death. 

What a battle it was, getting that bridge. And he sure took his knocks. When a pier subsided in 1747, the ninth earl was lampooned in a ballad called, The Downfall of Westminster Bridge, or my Lord in the Suds. The ninth earl died in January 1750. His bridge opened 11 months later. I think we’ll probably be there for the opening day. For lots of reasons, not the least of which is the greatest London poem ever was composed upon Westminster Bridge. 

Good night from London. Or if you prefer, and especially if wherever you are right now, doth wear the beauty of the morning, Good Morning, from London. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *