Rediscovering Old London Bridge

In anticipation of the first comprehensive history of the houses on the medieval London Bridge, historian Dorian Gerhold gives us the first look.

From specially commissioned reconstructions to brand new discoveries about medieval London, find out what our newest publication has in store below!

The bridge which served London from 1209 to 1831 was one of London’s most extraordinary structures. Almost the entire bridge was lined on both sides with dwellings of four or five storeys, and occasionally more, housing over 500 people perched above the Thames. Several books have been written about the bridge, but we have never known much about what the houses were like and who lived there.

Detail from one of the reconstruction drawings, showing a house on the middle east part of the bridge in about 1650.

I realised almost by accident that that gap could be filled. While researching something else I had found several clues leading to possible new evidence. A Chancery suit made clear that measurements had been taken of many of the bridge houses just before the major rebuilding of the 1680s. Perhaps they had survived somewhere. And I had found two leases of bridge houses which included detailed measurements made in the 1650s. Perhaps similar information was available for other houses. Measurements in feet and inches may not sound immediately exciting, but they would make it possible to plot the houses on a map, and possibly to learn more about how they had developed – perhaps even to discover what they were like when first built. Soon I was hooked, especially once I realised that there were also boxes of papers from the committee that managed the houses which had never been used by researchers.

The 1680s measurements did indeed turn up among those boxes of papers. Unexpectedly, they included not only the widths and depths of the houses but the dimensions of their ‘cross buildings’ over the roadway and also of the roadway itself, which was wider than previously thought. As for the leases, these were still held by the legal department at the Guildhall, and the only publicly-available list was compiled in 1787, but that was enough, and the department kindly allowed me to see them. This produced another surprise: almost all the leases from 1606 to 1660 included a detailed list of rooms with dimensions, so almost every house on the bridge was covered at least once, including those at the northern end destroyed by fire in 1633. The leases showed me what the houses were like, including some unexpected features, such as kitchens on the second floor and cross buildings (over the roadway) at first-floor level.

“What the new evidence revealed exceeded my wildest expectations, and gathering it and turning the results into a book was an exciting process.”

The base map used for plotting the houses was another fortunate discovery. An engineer had made a detailed survey in 1746 of the piers and the ‘starlings’ which protected them, and a copy of his map had been sent to the Earl of Pembroke and had found its way into the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. Once the roadway and houses were added to that map, it was clear that the houses received little support from the bridge itself but instead depended on the piers, which extended well beyond the bridge itself, and on large beams laid between the piers parallel to the bridge. The houses could therefore be much deeper than was previously believed.

John Norden’s view of the east side of the bridge in 1597-98. It is reasonably accurate, but shows only the backs of the houses.

Once the dimensions of each house plot were known, it was possible to trace them back through the rentals as far as 1358, noting when plots were merged or split. This led to another entirely unexpected discovery. Although the sizes of house plots in the seventeenth century seemed almost random, when first laid out around 1209 they had a standard width of between 10 and 11 feet. With that information it was possible to commission a reconstruction drawing showing the bridge and houses as first built. It was also possible to reconstruct what the street and the interiors of houses were like.

Other documents provided information about who lived on the bridge at different dates. Virtually all were shopkeepers and their families, and the typical bridge occupant was a haberdasher. What the new evidence revealed exceeded my wildest expectations, and gathering it and turning the results into a book was an exciting process. I am delighted that a new edition of the book is being made available by Oxbow Books.

London Bridge and Its Houses, c. 1209-1761
By Dorian Gerhold

London Bridge lined with houses from end to end was one of the most extraordinary structures ever seen in London. This book uses plentiful newly-discovered evidence, including detailed descriptions of nearly every house, to tell the story of the bridge and its houses and inhabitants. With the new information it is possible to reconstruct the plan of the bridge and houses in the seventeenth century, to trace the history of each house back through rentals and a survey to 1358, revealing the original layout, to date most of the houses which appear in later views, and to show how the houses and their occupants changed during five and half centuries. The book includes five newly-commissioned reconstruction drawings showing what we now know about the bridge and its houses.

Dr Dorian Gerhold is an independent historian, and was formerly a House of Commons Clerk. He has written about carriers and stage-coaches, industrial history, Westminster Hall, London’s suburban villas, urban cartography, Chancery records and Putney (where he lives). He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Society of Antiquaries, and a member of the Council of the London Topographical Society.

Oxbow Books | 9781789257519 | Hardback | £29.99
Pre-Publication Offer: £23.99
Available from Oxbow Books