London Bridge is falling down Falling down, falling down London Bridge is falling down My fair lady
This was the nursery rhyme I sang as a child, often sung in a round, and the words at the time meant little to me. While researching the history of London Bridge and find myself wondering how relevant is a nursery rhyme as a historical source.
The opening line implies London Bridge (not to be confused with the iconic Tower Bridge which was built at the end of the 19th Century), which up until the mid-18th Century was the only bridge crossing the River Thames, is falling apart and in a state of disrepair.
Build it up with iron bars...
Build it up with gold and silver
How will be saved? With iron bars, gold and silver? None of these, obviously. The rhyme probably didn’t originate in London as there are many similar rhymes across Europe and each was adapted for its own context.
There’s the Viking theory, that the rhyme is the destruction of London Bridge by a Viking king Olaf in 1014. The Norse version has some familiar lines, London Bridge is broken down. It’s not a plausible origin though, given that there were numerous wooden bridges that came and went in succession, none of them were famous. What about the fires that damaged the Old London Bridge in 1633? This fits with the time when the rhyme was first referenced in print, around 1636. Repairs were never made to the damaged houses on the bridge, which was a good thing, since the gap acted as a firebreak when the more famous 1666 Great Fire of London destroyed the northern side of the city, but never crossed the river.
Who is the fair lady? Could it be the Virgin Mary, whose birthday is supposed to be the same date the Viking’s attacked the bridge. What about Matilda, the wife of Henry I, who built a series of bridges on a road connecting London to Colchester, or perhaps another Queen, Eleanor, Henry III’s wife, who was pelted with eggs while at the bridge by unhappy Londoners. Who knows, they’re all good stories. However facts about London Bridge aren’t based on a childish rhyme but more solid sources. Here are a few!
London didn’t exist until a bridge was built. There were causeways and fords at low tides, but until the Romans arrived, there was just a small settlement. The first bridge was probably a pontoon, a wooden structure. There’s no record of it though. But there had to be a bridge because roads led in and out of London, and Roman Londinium grew. After the Romans left, London went into decline. Other than the theory about Olaf’s Viking destruction, the first contemporary account of a Saxon bridge is about 1016. Then what follows is a bridge in constant state of ‘fallen down’ and being replaced. King William I built one, replaced by William II, then fire destroyed it in 1136, and the bridge was rebuilt by King Stephen. In wood of course.
Then comes Old London Bridge, which was built at enormous cost on the orders of a penitent Henry I who murdered is friend Thomas Becket. A priest, Peter of Colechurch, was responsible for the foundations, the first great stone bridge in Britain. It took three others, including a French monk, to finally bring the bridge to completion in 1209. The new stone bridge had a chapel on it dedicated to Saint Thomas Becket.
Houses were built on the bridge and the rent supplemented the tolls. There were nineteen arches, a wooden drawbridge, and the houses, which were slim, as they were only about a few feet wide on either side of the bridge. In 1212, a fire destroyed many of the houses, killing an estimated 3000 people. The houses were rebuilt quickly because the rents were needed. By 1500s there were 140 houses, up to four to five storeys high. They were shops too, as it was a busy trading street. The chapel, rebuilt a few times, was still there, and the drawbridge. So were the heads of traitors impaled on spikes, a tradition begun with William Wallace’s head in 1305. By the late 1500s there were waterwheels to grind corn, public latrines, and more fires. During the Great Fire of 1666, the water wheels were destroyed, and the pumps had no water to help fight the fire.
The burnt houses were rebuilt, the roadway widened. Traffic was told to keep right in 1670, and keep left in 1722, which might be the reason we still use keep left while driving in the UK. More fires destroyed houses in 1725, and eventually they were all demolished, ending 550 years of occupation. The loss of the housing paved the way for a ‘new’ London Bridge, designed by John Rennie, and it was completed in 1831. The Old London Bridge was demolished.
But the newer bridge started to sink, an inch every eight years, and it needed replacing again. That Rennie London Bridge was sold (not Tower Bridge, as some believe), and bought by an American oil tycoon, and it was taken apart, transported via Panama Canal to California, and then Arizona, to be rebuilt at Lake Havasu City in 1971.
As for the modern London Bridge, it is exactly where the previously dismantled one existed, and well, it’s not exactly eye-catching, but it shouldn’t fall down, and as it happens, other than damage caused by fires, London Bridge never did fall down.