Today (June 6) in London History – “opened with a golden key”

King George V opened Southwark Bridge on June 6, 1921. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.


Pretty stylish way of arriving on the scene. It was opened by the King with a golden key.

The date is today – June 6th.

The year is 1921.

The occasion is the opening of the new Southwark Bridge.

George V and Queen Mary had been driven to the City in a four-horse open carriage, complete with two postilions and two footmen. Two postilions and two footmen doubling the normal quotient and that in itself a statement calculated to impress. And, needless to say, the carriage was the centrepiece of an entourage. Correction: a cavalcade. The language draws some exacting distinctions about these matters.

Just for fun let’s take a little trip up the linguistic social scale.

A carriage is sometimes called a team, as in “horse and team”. A carriage with its horse is a rig. An elegant horse-drawn carriage with its retinue of servants is an equipage. A carriage together with the horses, harness and attendants is a turnout or setout. A procession of carriages is a cavalcade.

So there you are, now you know. Just like that you’re a connoisseur of some of the finer points of the social world of carriages.

Anyway, the royal cavalcade made its way to the City. And through the City to the northern end of the new bridge. Where a temporary pavilion of amber and purple awaited them. There was some speechifying. The King said the new bridge was a noteworthy addition to the architectural features of the City. He said, “our ancestors, for many centuries could rest content with one bridge, because they regarded the river, not as a barrier, but as the main highway of the city.

And then the moment everyone was waiting for – the whole point of the exercise – the King opened a mahogany box with a golden key. The which action immediately raised the twin arms of a barrier. And the bridge was open. The King and Queen drove across the bridge and after receiving addresses in Southwark, they returned to Buckingham Palace by way of of the Borough and Westminster Bridge. According to the newspaper accounts of the event, their majesties were heartily welcomed by the people all along the route. Anything else, yes, we learn from the press coverage that “by the King’s own wish, Southwark Bridge retains its old name.” You can read between the lines there – clearly there must have been talk about renaming the bridge the George V bridge. Southwark Bridge is the least notable of the four City of London Bridges  – I often describe it as the Cinderella of the four of them – so maybe his Majesty thought, “pretty ho hum, nothing special about that new bridge, we don’t particularly want our name associated with it.”

Bit of historical background. The new bridge was – is – the second Southwark Bridge. The first one came along in 1819. Work on this one was begun in 1913. But World War I played havoc with the schedule. In 1917 work on it stopped entirely and wasn’t resumed until the war was over. The price tag: £375,000. These days you can’t build a garden shed in London for £375,000.

And apropos that price tag, here’s your takeaway nugget for this Today in London History podcast. The new Southwark Bridge was built without expense to ratepayers. The tab was picked up by the Bridge House Estates Trust. 

Now, first of all, a spot of translation for any of my American compatriots who are listening: Ratepayers is the British term for people who pay local rates. Local taxes, in other words. Americans would say property taxes.

Aside here: this has given me an idea. I’m going to start working into the weave of the London Walks podcast output bits and bobs of “translation”. Sometimes just straight-up words: how, for example, learning to hear the word “London” is the first faltering step anyone takes towards becoming a Londoner. In that same vein, one of these days I’ll do a wrap, a piece on London’s bridges generally.

But the words “rates” and “ratepayers” aren’t the bullseye on this particular target. No, the bullseye here is that term “Bridge House Estates Trust.” Here’s the story. This is your takeaway nugget. For the longest time London had just one bridge. Where the Romans bridged it initially. And then, in the late 11th century, early 12th century along comes the famous London Bridge, with its 19 arches and two chapels and houses and shops. In fact, London doesn’t get a second bridge until 1750 when the first Westminster bridge comes along. Even that – so London, this – is complicated. Some people would say old Putney Bridge, which came along in 1729, was the second London Bridge. I hold out against that. London hadn’t got out anywhere near Putney in the early 18th century. Putney was a country village, a riverside country village. So the first Westminster Bridge, which came along in 1750, gets my vote as the second bridge in the London area. And today London has well over 30 bridges. But for the 17 and a half centuries of its existence – 85 per cent of its history – it just had the one bridge. The famous London Bridge was regarded as one of the wonders of the world. It was one of three dominating London structures. Can you guess the other two? One of them still stands. That’s right, the Tower of London. The other dominating structure was Old St. Paul’s, which in fact was a much bigger building than present-day St Paul’s.

Anyway, Londoners were very proud of London Bridge. As I said, they regarded it as one of the wonders of the world. And they were well aware of how vitally important it was to London’s prosperity. So it became a London custom that when a Londoner died he’d leave a bit of money – sometimes quite a bit of money – to London Bridge. Over the centuries you’re talking about millions of Londoners, millions of bequests, some large, some small. And this fund just grew and grew. It earned interest. The interest compounded. They made investments. They own a lot of income-producing City of London property. Well, you get the idea. Today the fund is worth over £1.5 billion pounds. In 2019 it earned just over £43 million pounds. 

So by careful management of the Bridge House Estates Trust they’re able to build, repair and maintain the City of London Bridges. Namely Tower Bridge, London Bridge, Southwark Bridge and Blackfriars. And, yes, they recently took over ownership and maintenance of the pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge.

They don’t have to tap into the public purse – don’t have to hit up the rate-payers – to pay for those bridges. The Bridge House Estates Trust – it’s a good story. A good takeaway nugget to anchor this Today in London History Podcast.

Now, as for a Today in London recommendation. Well, has to be Tower Bridge, doesn’t it. The Tower Bridge experience. Essentially it’s the on-site Museum of Tower Bridge. As they say on their marquee, it’s a chance to see inside London’s defining landmark. The whole shebang: from the high-level walkways to the magnificent Victorian Engine Rooms. 

You’ve been listening – on this day of days – to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The small, time-honoured, family-owned, fiercely independent London walking tour company that is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative and that famously – and uniquely – fronts its walks with accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… well, you get the idea. As that journalist 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: Guides who 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 luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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