Today (November 17) in London History – it was 1,750 years acoming

It took 1,750 years but London finally got a second bridge across the Thames. 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.

At no little risk of belabouring the obvious, I love my job. I love being a London Walks guide.

I love the problem-solving aspects of it. It’s like being a detective. You’re looking for clues. You find them you have to figure them out. What do they show us? What are they pointing to? What do they mean? How do you put them together?

I love the way you can see what’s not there by paying due regard to what is there.

And all of that is in addition to the achingly obvious good stuff about being a guide – the fact that every tour is different, the fact that you’re outside – there’s fresh air and gentle exercise. The fact that the material is intrinsically interesting, the fact that a walking tour is a shared, social experience and you get to meet a lot of bright, fun, interesting people. What’s not to like.

But the detective business of seeing the unseen by seeing what’s there… let’s do a little bit with that. It’s 2 pm on Thursday afternoon and we’re outside exit 4 of Westminster Underground Station. I’m just starting my Old Westminster Walk.

And before we’ve moved off even a yard there’s a ton of stuff to look at. A lot of point-outs. A lot of them are world famous, very familiar. But, again, part of the art of this craft is making the familiar new. So, sure, I do that with, for example, Big Ben and the Speaker’s House. As well as showing you the stuff you wouldn’t see off your own bat. The Division Bell, for example. Or the position of the Ayrton light. Or the relative heights of Victoria Tower and the Queen Elizabeth II Tower and what that height differential tells us.

But what about something that you wouldn’t clock in a million years unless you had a guide there to open it up to view. When I say, for example, “during the 19th century, Parliament Street, just here, was constructed to connect with Westminster Bridge. In its day it was the widest street in London.” And why was that? Here’s why. The width of the street is telling us how important Westminster Bridge was. 

Similarly, we can look at the paucity of vessels in the Thames – see what’s there today – see what’s not there – lots of boats, that’s what’s not there – and by seeing what’s not there we can see what was there a couple of hundred years ago. Hundreds and hundreds of boats.

And why was that? Because for 85 per cent of London’s history – seventeen and a half centuries – there was just one bridge across the Thames. London Bridge. Then in 1750 we finally get a second bridge. The first Westminster bridge.  So just one bridge – and then just two bridges – the obverse side of that coin is lots of boats. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Because people had to get across the river. As well as go up and down on the river. When the Victoria Embankment wasn’t there, there was no street running along parallel to the Thames on the north side. Today the Embankment – the street – takes almost all of that traffic. 150 years ago that traffic was moving along on water – the Thames – not tarmac.

And seeing what’s not there – precious little river traffic, almost no boats – we’re able to see what was there, not just the hundreds of boats, but also the answer to a very good Why? London question. Why did it take such a long time to get a second bridge across the Thames? And I’ll tell you right now, we’re on this subject today because today, November 17th, 1750, was the grand opening of the first Westminster Bridge. London’s second bridge, come along seventeen and a half centuries after the Romans founded the place. Well, one very good reason it took forever for London to get a second bridge was all of those boats. And those boatmen. 

It was their livelihood – or at least a big chunk of it – that was going to go down the tubes if London got a second bridge. 

The bridge was fiercely, indeed violently resisted. The work was constantly sabotaged by the watermen. They said the bridge “would be pernicious to Navigation, detrimental to trade and likely to ruin thousands of families.”

And it wasn’t just ordinary Thames watermen who were resistant. The next bridge upstream from Westminster Bridge is Lambeth Bridge. You cross Lambeth bridge from the Lambeth side the road that leads off the bridge is Horseferry Road. The name’s a giveaway, isn’t it. So there was a thriving, prosperous business there that was for the knacker’s yard if a bridge went up in the immediate neighbourhood. And it wasn’t just a ferryman who was going to lose out. On the other side – the Lambeth side – of Lambeth Bridge is Lambeth Palace, the palatial London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. And sure enough, the Archbishop had a finger in that ferryman’s enterprise. A bridge would cost the Archbishop dearly. 

And the Archbishop of Canterbury – the head of the church of England – being opposed to a bridge, that’s powerful opposition, opposition that’s got a lot of serious clout. 

In the end, though, progress won out. Admittedly at a price. The boatmen had to be bought out. They were given compensation money with which to set themselves up in a new trade. And what about the dent in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s revenues? Good question. I drew a blank when I tried to shed some light on that one. I wouldn’t be surprised though if the Archbishop got to wet his beak. It was the way the game was played. It still is the way it’s played. It’s just more sophisticated now. 

What else? Well, it’s useful to compare it with today’s bridge, which went up in 1863. It has seven arches. Here’s the most trivial piece of London trivia I know. Westminster Bridge is the only bridge in London – and there are now, in the Greater London area, more than 30 road bridges over the Thames. Anyway, Westminster Bridge is the only bridge in London with seven arches. And inevitably they’ve been dubbed the Monday arch, the Tuesday arch and so on. Though I have to confess, I don’t know which side of the bridge is the start of the week.

Anyway, let’s get to that opening on November 17th, 1750. It was at midnight – there’s some drama for you. There were drums and trumpet blasts. Cannon were fired. It was initially opened for foot passengers and horses. But there was a problem. So people turned out – got onto the bridge – the crowd couldn’t move. To the delight of the watermen. They made one final killing rowing people across the river – there was no crossing on the bridge because of the massed crowd.

Anything else? Yes, even nature got in on the act – at least in the construction of the bridge. In the winter of 1739-1740 – shortly after they started constructing the bridge – the Thames froze. Happily the piers already built survived that test. And then when it was nearing completion, in February and March of 1750, there were two mild earthquakes. Who knew? Yes, London does occasionally get an earthquake. Mild ones. Anyway, the new bridge withstood that test as well.

And for a final point, Wordsworth’s sonnet – arguably the famous poem ever written about London – was, as its ungainly title tells us, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge.” The poem gives us a wonderful view of the city – basically what Wordsworth saw.

And the fun thing to know is that we believe Wordsworth composed the poem from the top of a coach. Why? Because a seven-foot-high parapet wall obscured the city. Had Wordsworth and his sister been sitting inside the coach, all they would have seen was wall. They would not have been able to see

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

And on that wonderful note, howzabout a Today in London recommendation?

Instead of making the achingly obvious recommendation – a ride on the London Eye – here’s a better tip. Make your way up to Pall Mall. To the Philip Mould gallery. It’s my favourite private art gallery in London. You’ll see why when you go there. And I’d double down on that now because of their special exhibition. It’s called Without Hands. It’s the art of Sarah Biffen. Sarah Biffen lived and painted in the nineteenth century. She painted after she learned how to do so with the brush in her mouth. You see, Sarah Biffen was born without arms and legs.

Her paintings – they range from miniatures to still lifes to normal-size portraits – aren’t the work of a quote-unquote handicapped person. They’re artistic perfection. And in the circumstances, they’re a miracle. You should see it. You won’t be sorry. The show runs until December 21st.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – 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 cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished 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 searching 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 whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. 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 people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… 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. See ya tomorrow.

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