June 23, 1934 was the day they started to demolish “the noblest bridge in the world.” This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.
London Walks connecting.
London Walks here with your daily London fix.
Story time. History time.
I told this story in print 14 years ago. And, yes, I tell it from time to time when I’m out guiding in the area. Anyway, fourteen years on I’ve got a date and a couple of figures to add to it.
The story – at least in part – is the end of Waterloo Bridge.
And the date is today, 88 years ago.
June 23, 1934. That was the day the demolition of the bridge began in earnest.
The death sentence for the beautiful old bridge had been handed down on June 19th.
The L.C.C. had approved recommendations for the demolition of the old bridge. And the erection of the new one – the one we’ve got today. At a cost of £47,853. Sounds derisory – but of course 88 years ago £48,000 was a lot of money.
Those last few days of the bridge, it was almost a deathbed scene. Put me in mind of Emily Dickinson’s great poem, I heard a Fly buzz – when I died.
Yes, here’s your poem for June 23rd.
Goes like this.
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
Anyway, that death bed scene provided plenty of photo opportunities for the politicians.
On June 20th the leader of the L.C.C. and the Chairman of the Finance Committee ceremonially removed the first stone. It was like switching off the life support system. It was a coping stone. From the north end – the Strand end of the bridge. Weighed nearly a ton. The council leaders – the cameras clicking – operated a hand crane to remove the stone. One image was captioned, The Demolition of Waterloo Bridge. Mr Herbert Morrison – he was the leader of the L.C.C., the London County Council, London’s government – Mr Herbert Morrison writes his name on the scroll of history by making the first move in the destruction of a great artistic monument. The photo shows Morrison, a thoughtful cigarette clenched between his lips, taking a hammer and chisel to the bridge. Two days later it was closed to traffic. And the next day, this day, June 23rd, demolition began in earnest.
Now I don’t know if you heard it, but that caption planted a pretty good clue. It described Waterloo Bridge as a great artistic monument. The famous Italian sculptor Antonio Canova described it as “the noblest bridge in the world, worth a visit from the remotest corner of the world.” It had been designed by John Rennie, the master bridge builder. Rennie was to London bridges what Wren was to London churches. It was built in the years 1811 to 1817. Originally it was going to be known as the Strand Bridge. But it was officially opened on the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and well, it was pretty much always on the cards that the name was going to be changed to Waterloo.
Anyway, it has a cameo role in the London Walks book. The first chapter – it’s called Thamesis – is the cornerstone of the book. It’s much the longest chapter. It’s a big sweeping survey of London’s history in relation to its mighty river. When I’m guiding I sometimes make the point that London’s history is so rich that guides are almost always seeing in double or treble or quadruple vision.
In this instance, when most people look at Waterloo Bridge they see one bridge. I look at it I see four bridges. In the passage I tried to get my readers to see those four bridges, four bridges in one bridge. In short, see Waterloo Bridge with my eyes.
Actually, I lead into that moment in the chapter with a mention of Tower Bridge. It’s just a brief moment in a big long sweep of a chapter, so I’m going to read it. Aside here: I’ve had people tell me, when I read it I can hear you can guiding. Apparently I write the way I guide. That’s all right by me if it’s all right by my walkers and indeed readers.
Here are those five short paragraphs. The four bridges that I see when everybody else sees just one. Goes like this.
And a Today in London recommendation. Has to be a trip to Somerset House, the last of the great palaces lining the north bank of the Thames. St Petersburg on Thames I call it. Go to Somerset House to see the Courtauld Gallery, one of the world’s great art collections. But before you go into the Courtauld make your way across the courtyard to the river terrace. Sip a coffee, look out over the Thames. And look out at Waterloo Bridge. It’s right there. You could almost reach out and touch. Sit there, sip your coffee and take some satisfaction in seeing four bridges when everybody else is seeing just one.
[Here I read the selection from the Thamesis chapter of London Walks, London Stories]
You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from www.walks.com – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just the right size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.
And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.
That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you can’t get world-class guides – let alone accomplished, distinguished professionals.
It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for.
Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a blockbuster question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do what you have to do to attract and keep elite, all-star guides. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason we’ve got a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality – it’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished professionals:
barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”
And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.
And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good Londoning one and all. See ya tomorrow.