A tour of Old London Bridge
I have set this particular etching circa 1600.
It looks towards the East side of the bridge.
Towards the Southwark end we see the Great Stone Gate complete with the infamous traitors’ heads on poles designed to serve as a deterrant although actually recorded as seeming to be more of a tourist attraction.
At both ends of the bridge there were water wheels serving two mills. The South end mill, with its wheel in one of the arches, drove the waterworks – London’s first supply of pumped water from the Thames, while at the other end four water wheels, built a few feet away from the bridge upon the bases of a few of the arches (known as starlings), served the cornmill that was provided for the poorer citizens to grind their own corn at a moderate charge.
Towards the middle we have the incredibly ornate building known then as Nonesuch House – literally ‘no-other-such-house’. It was actually a prefabricated building that had been shipped over in sections from Holland, where it had originally been built. Its construction spanned two years, commencing in 1577. It is recorded that it was fitted together with only wooden pegs, without the use of a single nail – such was the immense precision in its design. It was decorated heavily with ornate woodcarvings and onion shaped cupolas and was apparently painted in brilliant colours. It stood for almost two hundred years but was in quite a state of decay when it was finally demolished in the eighteenth century along with all the rest of the houses on the bridge.
There had been a chapel in the middle of the bridge originating from the late twelfth century. This was dedicated to Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and a native Londoner. It had become the setting off point of the pilgrimage to his Canterbury shrine – where he had been murdered. In 1538 Henry VIII ordered all representations of the saint be defaced and later in 1549 it was stripped and allowed fall into decay, eventually turned in to a grocer’s shop. It is recorded that there was originally an entrance above the starling on which it stood. It seems that wherrymen and fishermen would tie their boats up and enter this way – a convenient access for them visit daily to seek a blessing on their day’s work. In this etching it is unrecognisable as a chapel with makeshift scaffolding built around it.
A major fire in 1633 destroyed most of the houses featured at the Northern end of the bridge. It is written that “On the 13th day of February, between eleven and twelve at night, there happened in the house of one Briggs, a needlemaker near St Magnus Church, at the North end of the Bridge, by the carelessness of a maid-servant setting a tub of hot sea-coal ashes under a pair of stairs, a sad and lamentable fire, which consumed all of the buildings before eight of the clock the next morning” There was an extreme scarcity of water as the Thames was almost frozen over at the time. Forty two premises were recorded as destroyed including: eight haberdashers, six hosiers, one shoemaker, five hatters, three silk mercers, one male milliner, two glovers, two mercers, one distiller of strong waters, one girdler, one linen draper, two woolen drapers, one salter, two grocers, one scrivener, one pin maker, one clerk and the curate of St. Magnus the Martyr. As the majority of these buildings were not replaced any time soon, the gap in the bridge prevented the Great fire in 1666 from spreading on to the bridge.