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Bridging the Thames

Introduction
The first London Bridge
Rennie's London Bridge
The window into the port
Tower Bridge
A symbol of London
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Rennie's London Bridge

New bridges to the west

By the beginning of the 19th century, London was growing at an unprecedented rate, and its links with the south bank of the Thames were clearly no longer adequate. Several proposals for a new London Bridge were considered, including a bold design from Thomas Telford, but the matter was shelved.

The Vauxhall Iron Bridge.
View full size imageThe original Vauxhall Bridge (1816). © NMM
In the meantime, several new bridges were built to the west. The first to open after the end of the Napoleonic Wars was James Walker's iron Vauxhall Bridge (originally called the Regent's Bridge), completed in 1816.

A medal commemorating John Rennie (1761-1821).
View full size imageA medal commemorating John Rennie (1761-1821). © NMM
Vauxhall Bridge should have been built by John Rennie, one of the finest civil engineers of the era.

He had started a bridge in Vauxhall in 1811, but Walker's design was preferred as the cheaper option.

Old Waterloo Bridge from the South Bank, by W.L. Wyllie.
View full size imageOld Waterloo Bridge from the South Bank, by W.L. Wyllie. © NMM

Despite this setback, Rennie completed two other bridges in London.

These were Waterloo Bridge, opened in 1817, and Southwark Bridge, opened two years later. 

  

Building Rennie's bridge

Stone for New London Bridge on the wharf, Isle of Dogs.
View full size imageStone for New London Bridge. © NMM
Rennie was the obvious man to build the new London Bridge. He prepared a design for a massive bridge of five arches, which required huge quantities of stone.

Lighters used for lifting the centres of the New London Bridge.
View full size imageLighters used for lifting the centres of the New London Bridge. © NMM
Unfortunately, he died in 1821, before the work had begun. Happily for London, his son (also John Rennie) built the bridge to his designs.

Work began in 1824, and took seven years to complete.

 

The opening 

The opening of the new London Bridge.
View full size imageThe opening of the new London Bridge. © NMM
Rennie's fine bridge was opened with all the usual pomp on 1 August 1831, with King William IV and Queen Adelaide presiding over the event.

Demolition of Old London Bridge.
View full size imageDemolition of Old London Bridge. © NMM
As the City (and London as a whole) was so dependent on the Old London Bridge, it was not demolished until January 1832, five months after Rennie's bridge had opened. 

London Bridge and Southwark Cathedral.
View full size imageLondon Bridge and Southwark Cathedral, by W.L. Wyllie. © NMM

Rennie's bridge was a total success. It allowed a far greater volume of traffic to cross the river, and was a huge improvement on the old London Bridge.

Although it was functional and built to the highest standards of the time, it was also a very attractive structure.

It became a favourite subject for London's artists, particularly William Wyllie, who painted it many times.


   

The bridge under threat

People and carriages crossing London Bridge at night.
View full size imagePeople and carriages crossing London Bridge at night, by W.L. Wyllie. © NMM

Despite the success of Rennie's bridge, it eventually failed to cope with the demands made upon it.

Not even Rennie could have imagined how rapidly London's traffic would grow.

Despite the building of many other bridges to the west (and Tower Bridge to the east), London Bridge became busier all the time.

   

London Bridge (from the City).
View full size imageLondon Bridge (from the City). © NMM
By the end of the 19th century, the bridge could no longer cope with the volume of traffic. It was widened in 1902.

 

 

The bridge replaced

By the 1960s, the traffic was too great for Rennie's bridge. As it could not be widened again, it was dismantled and replaced with a functional bridge, opened in 1972. However, the bridge lives on - it was re-erected in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

 


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