London Bridge: PM Richard Groome

Past Master Richard’s interest in the story of London Bridge had a great deal of personal affinity; his father Leonard (one of our Founding Members) had been the City of London’s project engineer for the latest bridge, and Richard had assisted as a teenager in putting old London Bridge stones into crates to send to America.

The first bridge, almost certainly Roman, was succeeded by the Peter de Colechurch stone bridge of 1209, which would stand for over 600 years despite a water level difference across the bridge of up to 5 feet for most of its life. Peter de Colechurch died before the bridge was finished, was interred in the bridge chapel, and thrown in the river (as ashes) by accident in 1830. This bridge was just 12 feet wide and the only way into central London for 530 years, so it was able to charge lucrative tolls and despite this was frequently very congested. These tolls were the foundation of the Bridge House Estates Fund, which not only paid for 75% of the new London Bridge in 1973 and a substantial part of the new Millennium Bridge, but also maintains all of the City’s bridges today and gives charitable donations to various causes.

The bridge for a time was the site for executed heads to be displayed, starting with William Wallace (Braveheart). One of the first ever pre-fabricated houses was built on the bridge. It had frequent fires and damage was caused by winter ice build-up particularly in the 1600 to 1800 period. Eventually however, and with Blackfriars Bridge, Southwark Bridge and Westminster Bridge now rivalling London Bridge’s previous monopoly on tolls, the bridge became so dilapidated that it had to be replaced, and a design competition was launched. The most exciting design was Thomas Telford’s single span iron bridge, but it required a great deal of land at each end, and the first iron bridge in Shropshire was then only 20 years old, so the technology was still fairly new. The winning design was that of John Rennie, although, like Peter de Colechurch before him, he would also die before the bridge had been completed. John Rennie’s bridge weighed 130,000 tonnes, largely granite, and would stand for 142 years; this is the bridge that was sold to the USA.

Old and new London Bridge
Old and new London Bridge
London Bridge under construction
London Bridge under construction approx 1970

The inventor of the chain saw, Robert P McCulloch, built a new resort at Lake Havasu, Arizona complete with a new river channel specially for London Bridge, although it was actually only the outer stonework of the Rennie bridge used as cladding of a new earthquake resistant prestressed concrete bridge. The McCulloch Corporation knew that they weren’t buying Tower Bridge, despite rumours to the contrary. The sale of this bridge provided the rest of the funds for the new London bridge construction.

London bridge stone at Lake Havasu
London bridge stone at Lake Havasu
London Bridge cladding in Lake Havasu City
London Bridge cladding in Lake Havasu City

Even though the new bridge was constructed around the old, at no time in the execution of the works was the traffic or the pedestrians stopped – in contrast to the current works on Hammersmith Bridge!

New London Bridge
New London Bridge

Richard Groome
Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Engineers

(based on his talk to the Worshipful Company of Engineers of 27th October 2020)

Images: Leonard Groome