Engineering the City of London #1: Master Gordon Masterton

“What have the Romans ever done for us?”

One of the answers to that question would be “London”. There is very little archaeological evidence of any settlements inside the modern City’s footprint from the Stone Age, Bronze Age or Iron Age. The first large settlement is about 50 AD, probably as a supply base for the Roman military machine.

Roman London
Roman London approx 400 AD (The City of London. Buildings of England. Bradley and Pevsner. 1997)

The location had ready access to the river for transportation to Rome or Gaul, and upriver too. What clinched Londinium as the chosen site was driven by an infrastructure opportunity – it was the best place to build a crossing point of the Thames connecting the road networks of the south and south east, with those heading north. The bridge was the main artery into London from the south which made it a major hub rather than a local settlement.

The Roman Empire was a civil-military complex and civilian trade and military security went hand in hand. Roads and the bridge were built for rapid movement of legions and their supplies, as well as facilitating economic activity to allow people to acquire enough wealth to pay taxes to sustain the military, the roads, the water supply, public buildings, etc.  It was a highly organised complex system with a strong governance structure.

A shock to Roman power

Despite that, in 60 AD Boudicca overturned the system and took and destroyed a number of Roman settlements, London included, with huge loss of life. Rebuilding began after the threat was dealt with, and sizeable buildings constructed like the amphitheatre on the site of what is now our Guildhall. Despite the external threat, and no doubt the memory of Boudicca, a stone wall around London wasn’t begun until about 140 years later. The desire to have a strong, defensive wall must have existed but perhaps held back by affordability. London needed to demonstrate maturity and strategic importance to justify the expense to Rome.

After the Romans left Britain in about 410 AD, it seems to have been abandoned by their successors, whether Britons, Saxons or Danes. When Rome repatriated the legions and governor, they also took with them the capacity to organise. Cities are complex systems – especially a Roman city compared to any others of the time. They need public roads and buildings to be maintained, supplies of food and water, and to have law and order to impose taxes to pay for public officials and labour to manage the public realm. That would need an organised system of state and military. Without that, the city was a machine that no one left behind knew how to operate or hadn’t the resource to do so. Some may have tried, until creaks in the system appeared, like water quality, or control of rats, making it unhealthy and unsafe to be inside the walls.

The return of a city  

King Alfred, with something approaching Rome’s organisational capabilities, made the City habitable again.

Saxon London
London approx 1050 AD (The City of London. Buildings of England. Bradley and Pevsner. 1997)

A bridge was built again around 1000 AD. Some say these early crossings might have been pontoon bridges, doubtful given London’s tidal range. They were probably fixed timber deck spans supported by piers on short piles and grillages.

The Normans displaced the Saxons after 1066 and made London a key base – the White Tower and two other strongholds were built within the City walls. St Paul’s and the Guildhall were rebuilt, with an explosion of parish churches. The hospitals were outside the walls – St Bart’s & St Mary’s Bethlehem (Bedlam) for the unsound of mind. The two main military orders were also outside the walls – the Templars to the west and the Order of St John to the north.

Medieval London
Mediæval London approx 1500 (City of London: Buildings of England. Bradley and Pevsner. 1997.

The first great health disaster

The transforming experience of 14th Century London was the Black Death in 1348. Europe is believed to have lost 40% to 60% of its population. A city like London will probably have been well above the national average.

One economic consequence was an increase in the cost of labour. The guilds, the organisers of skilled labour, had enough wealth behind them to rebuild Guildhall in early 15th century.

Temple Church Chancel 1220-40

And one of many exemplars of how skilled and talented the builders and master-builders were in the Norman period is Temple Church Chancel, evidence of the return to London of an advanced, sophisticated civilisation.


The Mediæval Infrastructure Builders

Who were these mediaeval builders? Nine Livery companies probably accounted for most of the skills necessary to create the infrastructure to support trade and commerce – the Carpenters, Masons, Plumbers, Tylers and Bricklayers, Joiners and Ceilers, Plaisterers, Glaziers and Painters of Glass, Paviors, & Blacksmiths. These were the infrastructure builders, the equivalent of today’s engineers, surveyors, and architects. With wealth, the Livery grew in influence and the 12th Century saw London’s first Mayor, Sir Henry FitzAlan.

The Great Fire and the Great Reconstruction

The Great Fire of London destroyed about 80 % of the City of London in 1666. Stone buildings like Guildhall survived, except for its roof. 30% of the houses on London Bridge were lost but the bridge survived.

Once again, the infrastructure of London had to be rebuilt. Wren’s first grand plan was never followed through but a programme of rebuilding over 30 or 40 years ensued. Four City of London surveyors including Robert Hooke –of Hooke’s Law of elasticity fame – and Edward Jerman, son of a Past Master Carpenter, were also active in the reconstruction. For much more on Robert Hooke, download Past Master David Scahill’s Warden’s lecture – ‘If Stones Could Speak’.

London continued to be improved in the 18th Century.

London Bridge 1757
Detail from London Bridge before the alteration in 1757 by Samuel Scott

All the houses were taken off London Bridge, and in 1760 the second bridge into the City, Blackfriars Bridge, was opened.

Detail from Blackfriars Bridge 1762 by William Marlow

Designed by the 27-year-old Robert Mylne, scion of a long line of Scottish masons and architects, it was undermined by scour 100 years later when the river flow pattern changed after the removal of old London Bridge.

(to be continued in Engineering the City of London #2)

[Adapted by the Master, Gordon Masterton from his Engineering Soiree talk to the Company by ‘Zoom’ on 28th April 2020.]

Image credits:

London 1: The City of London. Buildings of England. Bradley and Pevsner. 1997,_London,_UK_-_Diliff.jpg

William Marlow: Blackfriar’s Bridge & St Paul’s. City of London Corporation, ArtUK Creative Commons (CC BY-NC)