PortCities London

Bridging the Thames

The first London Bridge

The Roman bridge

London Bridge and the river as seen from the top of the Monument.
View full size imageLondon Bridge and the river, as seen from the top of the Monument. © NMM
The first London Bridge was a wooden structure built by the Romans. It stood a little to the east of the present London Bridge. Here, the Thames was narrow enough to bridge, but still deep enough to handle large vessels.

As with all wooden structures, it is likely that many parts of the bridge were damaged and renewed over the centuries.

The bridge destroyed 

The bridge was certainly destroyed in 1014, when King Ethelred and his ally King Olaf of Norway attacked the Danes who were occupying London. Olaf's forces destroyed the bridge and stormed the Danish stronghold at Sudvirke (Southwark) across the river.

Olaf's feat was celebrated by the Norse poet Ottar Svarte:

'London Bridge is broken down. --
Gold is won, and bright renown.
Shields resounding,
War-horns sounding,
Hild is shouting in the din!
Arrows singing,
Mail-coats ringing --
Odin makes our Olaf win!'

It is likely that this event was the basis for the famous nursery rhyme London Bridge is falling down, which appeared many centuries later.

The bridge was rebuilt after this, only to be destroyed at least twice more - by a gale in 1091 and by a fire in 1136.

The first stone bridge

The South East prospect of London from the Tower to London Bridge, 1746.
View full size imageThe South East prospect of London, 1746. © NMM

The first stone London Bridge was begun in 1176. It remained in use until 1832.

Until the middle of the 18th century, it was the City's only permanent link with the south bank of the Thames.

Old London Bridge, with river craft and warehouses.
View full size imageOld London Bridge, with river craft and warehouses, by Edward Cooke. © NMM

The bridge was repaired many times, and served London well for over 650 years.

Inevitably, it was unable to cope with London's growing traffic. By the end of the 18th century, it was clear that a new bridge was needed.


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