Today (November 6) in London History – the aviary on Blackfriars Bridge

Queen Victoria opened Blackfriars Bridge on November 6th, 1869. 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.

November 6th, 1869. Busy day for Her Majesty. Two important London openings. Holborn Viaduct and the new Blackfriars Bridge.

It might have taken her mind, momentarily, off her great loss, the death of her beloved husband and consort, Prince Albert, nearly eight years previously.

What she won’t have liked one bit was that she was hissed by the public, who’d had enough of her gloominess and her effectively withdrawing from her public duties for nearly a decade. It’s been said that she finally came out of mourning on this day, to open Holborn Viaduct and the new Blackfriars Bridge.

It’s the bridge I want to concentrate on in this podcast.

It was the second Blackfriars Bridge. The first one had been opened in 1769, exactly a hundred years previously. That first Blackfriars Bridge was originally named the William Pitt Bridge, after the Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder. But the official name never took hold, the bridge there was always known as Blackfriars Bridge.

That first Blackfriars Bridge was the third bridge across the Thames. So for 85 per cent of its history – seventeen and a half centuries – London had just one bridge. In effect, London Bridge. The first one put up by the Romans, approximately where today’s London Bridge stands. And then we don’t know how many rebuilt London bridges over the next millennium or so. And then the big one – the famous London Bridge – on its nineteen arches, with houses and shops and two chapels – came along in 1209. It – the famous mediaeval London Bridge – lasted for six centuries. It was taken down and replaced in the 1830s. Replaced by the Rennie bridge it’s sometimes called. John Rennie was the master bridge builder. He was to bridges what Christopher Wren was to churches. That penultimate London Bridge – the Rennie Bridge – is of course now in Lake Haversu in Arizona. And here in London, we’ve got, today, the “new” – well, fairly new, it dates from the early 1970s – London Bridge.

Anyway, so, yes, for seventeen and a half centuries – 85 per cent of London’s history – London has to make do with just one bridge.

Finally, in 1750 we get a second bridge – the first Westminster Bridge. And then 19 years later, a third bridge – the first Blackfriars Bridge.

And that brings us to this day in London History, November 6th, 1869 – Queen Victoria opening the new Blackfriars Bridge, the Blackfriars Bridge that’s still with us today.

It’s the westernmost of the four City of London Bridge. Well five or even more City of London Bridges if in your bridge count you tab up the railway bridges and the pedestrian Millennium Bridge.

And for my money, Blackfriars Bridge is the most interesting of the four City of London bridges. It’s seen its share of history. It was from Blackfriars Bridge that Signor Calvi – the Vatican Banker – was found hanging on June 17th, 1982. His death was ruled a murder. An unsolved murder. There was a push to neatly tidy it up by having it declared a suicide. But that wouldn’t wash. Signor Roberto Calvi was 62 years old. He wasn’t fit. He wasn’t in good health. He would have had to somehow, hand over hand, supporting his full weight, make his way a good many yards out to the underspan strut he was found hanging from. And then somehow affix the rope. You’re trying to tell me – tell the public – he did that while hanging by one hand? Got the rope around the strut. Knotted it. And then affixed the noose around his neck. That’d be a well-nigh impossible job for a world-class athlete at the peak of his fitness. No, the Vatican banker was murdered. And it is to this day, an unsolved murder. You think about it, affixing that noose would have been a very tricky, a hard job of work for his killers. And how did they get him out to the noose? Was he somehow hoisted up from a boat underneath the bridge? Or was it low tide – did they work from some sort of ladder contraption on the low tide foreshore? Was Signor Calvi unconscious? Or bound and gagged and presumably struggling? And the gag and the bindings removed – how did they do that, how did they get up there to do that – after he swung? It’s all very mysterious.

What’s not mysterious – but no less fascinating – is the position of the bridge. And here I’m going to effectively do some guiding. The Thames today is tidal for about seventy miles. Fifty miles from the estuary up to London. And then another 20 miles to Teddington.

But in Roman times the tide ended here. Which is why – well, it’s one of the most important reasons – London is where it is. As good as Roman engineering was, they were not capable of sinking bridge piles in a powerfully tidal river. The tide playing itself out here, this was the first point upstream where it was practicable to bridge the Thames. And Blackfriars bridge – well, where Blackfriars Bridge stands – that was the precise point where the tide played itself out. In effect, on the downstream side of the bridge you had, in Roman times, at full tide, salt water. Sea water. And on the upstream side, fresh water. 

And so we come to the payoff. This is the guiding bit. This is a classic example of why you go with a guide, of the guide seeing more than you see, pointing something out that you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. Or understood.

You’re down there, take a look at the ‘aviary’ high up on the piers of Blackfriars Bridge. By aviary I mean the carved stone birds cresting the top of those bridge supports. On the downstream side of the bridge they’re sea birds. On the upstream side they’re freshwater birds. Those birds – and how they are positioned – crystallise the matter for us. They are on their respective sides of the bridge because this was the point at which the tide played itself out. 

And a Today in London recommendation? Well, you’ll go over that territory – get some of that history – see some of those things on our Along the Thames Pub Walk.

And a tip to top up the tip – get there a bit early. The meeting point, I mean. The walk meets just outside the exit of Blackfriars Station. Get there a bit early and go into the pub over the way, The Blackfriar. You won’t be sorry you did. It’s the finest art nouveu pub in the world. The decor – the art – inside and outside – is thrilling. The word’s not too strong. That’s not hyperbole. The Blackfriar is thrilling. A visual and historical feast. 

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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