Tag Archives: London Bridge

London Bridge Waterworks (1582)

An engineering drawing of the water wheel

On this day, December 24th,  in 1582, the Dutchman Pieter Maritz’s London Bridge Waterworks began supplying fresh water from the Thames to private houses in the City of London.  His rather rickety-looking apparatus actually worked well, and indeed, in the original demonstration to City officials, forced a jet over the spire of the church of St Magnus the Martyr!   It was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but thereafter replaced by his grandson, and  it continued in use, after a fashion, until the early nineteenth century.

An eighteenth-century paiting of Old London Bridge showing the water wheel

Some of the many executions in Tudor and Stuart London

Site of Tyburn Tree.JPG

On this day in 1541, according to the account given by Charles Wriothesley in his “Chronicle of England during the Reigns of the Tudors …”:

The Executions of Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham

“Culpeper [Thomas Culpeper, Gentleman of the Privy Chamber] and Dereham [Francis Dereham, Secretary to Henry VIII’s fifth wife Catherine Howard] were drawn from the Tower of London to Tyburn, and there Culpeper, after an exhortation made to the people to pray for him, he standing on the ground by the gallows, kneeled down and had his head stricken off; and then Dereham was hanged, membered, bowelled, headed, and quartered [for high treason against the King’s majesty in misdemeanour with the Queen].  Culpeper’s body buried at St Pulchre’s church by Newgate, their heads set on London Bridge”.

Also on this day in 1541, according to Wriothesley:

“Rafe Egerton, … one of my Lord Chancellor’s servants, and … Thomas Herman, sometime servant with Fleetwood, one of my Lord Chancellor’s gentlemen, were drawn from the Tower … to Tyburn, and there hanged and quartered for counterfeiting the King’s Great Seal”.

The Execution of John Roberts

And on this day in 1610, the Roman Catholic Priest – and since 1970 Saint – John Roberts was taken to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn for contravening the “Act Forbidding Priests to Minister in England”.  In the event, the crowd, who revered him for the work he had done among them during an outbreak of  the plague in 1603, saw to it that he died by hanging and was spared  the suffering of drawing  and quartering.  What could be  salvaged of his body was taken to the Benedictine priory he had founded at Douai in northern France.  One of his finger bones is preserved as a holy relic in Tyburn Convent.

London’s “Little Ice Age” and the Great “Frost Fairs”

The Frozen Thames in 1677

On this day in 1434 a severe frost set in in London that was to last until the February of the following year, and the Thames froze over.

Further records indicate that in all the river froze  over  nearly forty  times between 1142 and 1895, and that it became the site of impromptu “Frost Fairs” in 1564-65, 1683-84, 1715-16, 1739-40, 1788-89 and 1813-14.

Frost Fair on the Thames at Temple Steps (1684).jpg

In 1683-84 an entire street of stalls was set up on the frozen river, together with a press printing souvenir papers, one of which, entitled “A Winter Wonder of the Thames Frozen Over with Remarks on the Resort thereon” asked “ … [W]ho’d believe to see revived there in January, Bartholomew Fair?”.  The ice was evidently so thick that it was even possible to roast an ox on it!    In 1788-89, there was, according to the all-knowing Encyclopaedia of London, “one continual scene of merriment and jollity” on the frozen river from Redriff to  as far up as  Putney.

Frost Fair in 1814.jpg

And in 1813-14, thousands  attended the greatest fair of the nineteenth  century, although only after navigating a gap in the ice created by temporarily unemployed watermen, who demanded a fee of twopence for their assistance!  Then, in 1831, the  demolition of the Old London Bridge, which had  nineteen arches, and the construction of the new one, which only had five, allowed  the rate of flow of the river  to increase to the extent that it became  much less susceptible to freezing  over.

Readers interested in further details are referred to The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys (Union Books, 2007), and Frost Fairs on the Frozen Thames by Nicholas Reed (Lilburne Press, 2002).

Henry V’s triumphal return to London after Agincourt (1415)

The Look and Learn version of events.jpg

Image courtesy of “Look and Learn” (www.lookandlearn.com)

On this day in 1415 took place Henry V’s triumphal return to  London after his famous  victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt on October 25th.  An anonymous author wrote the following eye-witness account:

“[T]he citizens went out to meet the king at the brow of Blackheath, … the mayor and … aldermen in scarlet, and the … lesser citizens in red cloaks with red-and-white party-coloured hoods, to the number of about 20000 … . And when the king came through the midst of them … and the citizens had given glory and honour to God, and congratulations to the king … the citizens rode before him towards the city, and the king followed … .

When they arrived at the … bridge … there placed on the top of the tower was  an enormous figure, with … the keys of the city hanging from a staff in his … hand … .

… And when they reached the … aqueduct in Cornhill they found the tower hidden under a scarlet cloth stretched in the form of a tent, on spears hidden under the cloth.  Surrounding … were the arms of St George, St Edward, St Edmund and of England, … inset with this pious legend: ‘Since the king hopes in the Lord and in the mercy of the highest, he shall not be moved’.  Under a covering was a band of venerable white-haired prophets, … who released, when the king came by, sparrows and other small birds in great cloud as a …  thanksgiving to God for the victory He had given …, while [they] sang in a sweet voice … [a] psalm … .

Then they went on to the tower of the conduit at the entrance to Cheapside which was decked with an awning of green … and erected to resemble a building.

… And when they came to the [Eleanor] cross in Cheapside … it was hidden by a beautiful castle of wood … .

… And when they came to the tower the conduit at the exit to Cheapside towards St Paul’s, … above the tower was stretched a canopy sky-blue in colour … and the top … was adorned by an archangel in shining gold … .  Below … was a figure of majesty represented by a sun darting out flashing rays … .

… Such was the dense throng of people in Cheapside … that a bigger or more impressive crowd had never gathered before in London.

But the king himself went along, amidst … the citizens, dressed in a purple robe, not with a haughty look and a pompous train … but with a serious countenance and a reverend pace accompanied by only a few of his most faithful servants; following him, guarded by knights, were the captured dukes, counts and the marshal.   From his silent face and … sober pace it could be inferred that the king … was giving thanks and glory to God alone and not to man.  And when he had visited the sanctuary of SS Peter and Paul, he rode away to his palace of Westminster, escorted by his citizens”.

The “Sheep Drive” over London Bridge

Sheep Drive 2015

Today is the day of  the annual “Sheep Drive”  over London Bridge, with Freemen of the City of London ceremonially exercising their historical right, dating back to the Middle Ages,  to drive sheep over the bridge without payment of a toll.  Nowadays, the ceremony, which is organised by the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, also serves to raise money for charitable causes.

The Great Fire of London (Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, 1666)


On this fateful day in 1666, Samuel Pepys in his diary:

“ …  Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire … in the City.  So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown, and went to her window; and thought it to be … far enough off,   and so went to bed again … .  … By and by Jane comes and tells me that … the fire …  is now burning all down Fish Street, by London Bridge.  So I made myself ready … and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places … ; and … did see the houses at  that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side of the end of the bridge … .  So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant … , who tells me that it begun … In the King’s bakers in Pudding-lane, and hath burned  St Magnus’s church and most … of Fish-street already.  So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat and … there saw a lamentable fire.   …  Every body endeavouring to remove their goods, and …  bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one … stairs, by the waterside, to another.   … Having staid, and in an hour’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and … the wind mighty high and driving it into the City, and everything, after so long a drought, proving combustible … : I to White Hall, … and did tell the King [Charles II] … what I saw; and that, unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down [to create fire-breaks], nothing could stop the fire.  The King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor [the singularly ineffectual Thomas Bloodworth]” and command him to … pull down  [houses].  At last met my Lord Mayor … .  To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman ‘Lord, what can I do?  I am spent: people will not obey me.  I have been pulling down   houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it’”.

And John Evelyn wrote:

“This fatal night … began that deplorable fire, neere Fish-streete … : … I … with my Wife & Sonn … went to the bank side in Southwark, where we beheld that dismal spectacle, the whole Citty in dreadfull flames … and … consumed … from the bridge … down to the three Cranes, & so returned exceedingly astonishd, what would become of the rest”.


Nonsuch House

London Bridge / Nonsuch Hs

Image courtesy of “Look and Learn” (www.lookandlearn.com)

On this day in 1577, the first stone was laid for the foundation of Nonsuch House on Old London Bridge, which stood until 1757, when it was demolished to allow for the widening of the road.  The original construction of the House, which took two years to complete, was remarkable for the amount of pre-fabrication involved, with sections manufactured in Holland and shipped across the North Sea packed flat for assembly on site.  And also for the quality of the craftsmanship employed, it even being said that all the sections fitted together with wooden pegs, and without a single nail. The completed House, with its gaudy paintwork, intricately carved carapace, and ornate cupolas, was  one of the wonders of its age. Fortunately, it stood just long enough, albeit apparently in a state of some disrepair, to be immortalised in a Canaletto drawing of circa 1750, now in the British Museum. Unfortunately, we know very little of its nearly two-hundred year history – not even who its occupants were!


Saint Olav(e)

On this day in 1030, the Norwegian King Olav II was killed fighting the Danish Vikings at the Battle of Stiklestad.  A year later, he was canonised by the  English Bishop of Selsey, Grimkell or Grimketel (the local canonisation was later confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1164).

2 - Nidaros Cathedral (Trondheim).JPG

In the later Middle Ages, Olav’s tomb, in the most northerly cathedral in Christendom, in Nidaros [Trondheim], became an important pilgrimage site, and the centre of a widespread “cult of Olav”.

5 - Relief of St Olav, church of St Olave Hart Street

Interestingly, a  number of churches in and around the City of London are  dedicated to St Olav(e),  including  St Olave Hart Street (pictured, above) …

5 - Memento mori, St Olave Silver Street.JPG

… St Nicholas Olave, St Olave Jewry and St Olave Silver Street (pictured, above) in the City …

4 - Mosaic of St Olave, site of former church of St Olave Southwark

… St Olave in Southwark …

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…  and St Olave in Rotherhithe.

This is because, in 1014, Olav Haraldsson, as he then was, was an ally of the Saxon English, under Ethelred “The Unready”, in their fight against the against the Viking Danish, under Cnut, and he helped relieve  Saxon London from Viking occupation  (albeit only temporarily).

According to the “Olaf Sagas”, he destroyed the Saxon incarnation of London Bridge, and the Viking army assembled on it poised to attack, by pulling it down with ropes tied to his long-boats.

The  court poet Ottar Svarte wrote, in the eleventh century, and Snorri Sturluson rewrote, in the thirteenth:

“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!”

Many believe this to be the origin of the much-loved nursery-rhyme “London Bridge is falling down”.


The Great Fire of 1212


On this day in 1212, there was a great fire in Southwark that reportedly killed thousands of people, many of them trapped on London Bridge.  According to a near-contemporary account:

“An exceeding great multitude of people passing the Bridge, either to extinguish or quench it, or else to gaze at and behold it, suddenly the north part, by blowing of the south wind, was also set on fire, and the people which were even now passing the Bridge, perceiving the same, would have returned, but were stopped by the fire.”

The fire badly damaged the recently-built bridge, leaving it only partially usable for years afterwards, and necessitating a partial rebuild.  It also damaged  Southwark Cathedral, necessitating a partial rebuild.


Some of the masonry  used in the rebuilding of the cathedral  was salvaged from the fire debris and shows signs of fire damage.


The execution of Sir Thomas More (1535)

3 - Holbein's portrait of More

On this day in 1535, the former Lord Chancellor, also lawyer, humanist, social philosopher, author (of “Utopia”) and “Man for All Seasons” Sir, now Saint,  Thomas More was beheaded on  Tower Hill  for High Treason,  for refusing to take an oath acknowledging the King, Henry VIII, rather than the Pope, as the Supreme Head of the Church in England (being  “the king’s good servant, but God’s first”).

His son-in-law William Roper wrote of the event:

“And soe was he brought by Mr Lievetenaunt out of the Towre, and thence led towards the place of execution, where goinge upp the Scaffold, which was so weake that it was readie to fall, he sayde … ‘I pray you, I pray you, Mr Lievetenaunt, see me safe upp, and for my cominge downe let mee shift for my selfe’.  Then desired he all the people thereaboutes to pray for him, and to beare witnesse with him, that he should suffer death in and for the faith of the holie Catholique Church, which done hee kneeled downe, and after his prayers sayed, hee turned to the executioner, and with a cheerful Countenance spake unto him, ‘Plucke up thy spirittes, man, and be not affrayed to do thine office … ’.  Soe passed Sir Thomas Moore out of this world to God … ”.

More’s  headless corpse was buried in an unmarked grave in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London.  His head was put on a pike on London Bridge.  It was later retrieved by his daughter Meg Roper, the wife of William, and buried in the Roper family vault in the church of St Dunstan in Canterbury.

1 - Plaque marking site of More's birthplace on Milk Street

2 - Plaque marking site of More's execution on Tower Hill.jpg

There are plaques in the City marking the sites of More’s birth on Milk Street and of his death on Tower Hill.

4 - Statue of More on Carey Street

5 - Statue of More outside Chelsea Old Church

6 - Memorial to More in Chelsea Old Church.JPG

There are  also statues of him to the west of the City, one on Carey Street just off Chancery Lane, and another outside Chelsea Old Church; and a  memorial to him inside Chelsea Old Church.

7 - The rebuilt Crosby Hall in Chelsea.JPG

Crosby Hall, where he lived between 1523-4, was moved from its past location in Bishopsgate to its present one opposite Chelsea Old Church in 1910.