London River Thames crossings, bridges and tunnels through time

A recent post about Havering riverside touched on the Three Crowns at Rainham marsh, and the fact there was a ferry across the River Thames a long time ago. As I was aware that the RSPB also had a site on the Rainham marsh, near to Wennington, and close to Aveley; I felt a first trip here would be of interest. I was also interested to see if I could find the Three Crowns.

The RSPB site is spectacular, and very well worth a visit. It has a huge visitor centre and many hives for viewing the wildlife. I was fortunate to see a kingfisher feeding nearby, a kestrel looking for prey and a marsh frog that sounded like a duck! I was very impressed with my visit. I was also interested in the trains which seemed to go past, and then disappeared from view after crossing underneath the Dartford crossing (the M25). It turns out that these trains, well some of them, are the Eurostar from Waterloo, which travels via Stratford international, through Dagenham, the marshes, under the M25 and then via a three kilometre Thames tunnel under the River Thames, travels down into Kent and via Ebbsfleet, Ashford International and the Channel Tunnel to France and Belguim.

I now turn my sites onto the actual crossings of the River Thames through history; and in particular the London bridge which for a long period of time, until at least 1750 was the only land crossing of the River Thames. It has been rebuilt many times in its history, the modern bridge being opened about 1973, as the older bridge was sold off to the Americans in 1968, and now lives in Arizona. This bridge was built between 1824 and 1831 and considerable design was necessitated to avoid steep inclines on the northern side of the bridge.

London bridge a design in 1827 showing difficulties with steep ascents

The Mirror of Literature, amusement and instruction –  May 1827 :

“In a very early part of our work, it will be remembered, we gave a design of the New London Bridge, and having subsequently collected much information in relation to this important undertaking, we have still another grand point left, on which are founded the subsequent remarks. It has been proved, that on the completion of the New Bridge, it will be impossible to effect an ascent for a heavily laden vehicle, unless a level street be formed, as represented in the above engraving. Mr. Peter Jeffery, who has projected the important alteration, has favoured us with the following observations, and first very minutely describes the illustration we give of the new street. This view represents a continuation of the new bridge, crossing Upper Thames street by an archway. An approach to Fish street hill is also shown by a curved road leading from the north land arch of the new bridge, and passing by the front of Saint Magnus church. Owing to its curvature, this road has a longer and easier descent than can be obtained by means of a road made in a straight line from the new bridge to Fish street hill. In the act of parliament for building the new bridge, a power is given to purchase the following houses, viz. Nos. 121 to 128, in Upper Thames street, Nos. 1 and 2, on the south side of Lower Thames street, also Fresh wharf, Nos. 119 to 127, on the north side of Lower Thames street, Nos. 23 to 28, on the west side, and Nos 30 to 33, on the east side, of Fish street hill.

Such are purchases which have been deemed necessary for raising the foot of Fish street hill four feet, that the ascent to the bridge may be rendered easier; yet it rests to be objected after all, that this ascent will be as much as twenty one feet in a length of two hundred and thirty; for the centre of the new bridge is about twenty seven feet above the level of Thames street, whilst the land arch of that bridge is about twenty five feet above such level; consequently, after having raised the foot of Fish street hill four feet, according to the plan in progress, the ascent to the land arch of the new bridge will become twenty one feet.

And if all the valuable houses before mentioned should be removed, the steepness would still be such that wagon* heavily laden could scarcely be able to ascend the bridge; wherefore it may prove requisite to purchase additional houses as well in Fish street hill, as in Upper and Lower Thames streets; in other words, it must be recollected that Fish street hill cannot be farther raised without Upper and Lower Thames streets being similarly raised towards the foot of that hill. Moreover it may be doubted if the intended approach to the new bridge can be made commodious in this way, or indeed in any other which does not include land stretching north, rather than cast and west.

The proposition therefore becomes, that none of the houses on Fish street hill and in Upper and Lower Thames streets ought to be removed, excepting those of Messrs. Jones and Co. in Upper Thames street, immediately facing the new bridge; for the money required to buy the property from Upper Thames street to Cannon street will not be more than the cost of purchasing and clearing away the houses already enumerated in Upper and Lower Thames streets and Fish street hill; which is to say, that the proposed level street can generally traverse retired thoroughfares, in which is much vacant ground, and where the present buildings are of inferior value. Pursuing the line from the new bridge to Cannon street, near Miles’s lane, by one from Cannon street to Cornhill, the proposed level street will pass through the present post office, which is crown property, and by giving a double frontage to such part of that office as is not wanted for carrying the proposed level street into effect, the crown may neither gain nor lose, that is, pecuniarily. It will also be proper to purchase and remove two or three houses at the north east corner of Great East cheap, that wagons, as well as heavy carriages of any description, coming from Gracechurch street and going to the Borough, may, in order to avoid the descent of Fish street hill and ascent of the new bridge, turn towards Cannon street, and proceed on the proposed level street.

Let it be observed here, that formerly Saint Magnus church and church yard were detached, whereas now they become attached. This communication can be accomplished by making an embankment of the river from the foot of the new bridge to Fresh wharf. The expense of which will be but trifling, and the object gained be of great importance.

And if a boat stairs should be made, not immediately at the east side of the new bridge, which place would become objectionable from being a great thoroughfare, but at the west end of Saint Magnus church yard, which would be more convenient, and might serve as a landing place for passengers, and wharf for steamboats. Luggage could be housed in the vaults fronting the Thames, conveyed under shelter to Thames street, and forwarded to order, and not incommode the passing above.

A boat stairs at the west side of the new bridge must be peculiarly objectionable to the Fishmongers’ Company, whose liverymen may find that fish is not the only article that comes from Billingsgate. Or shall not the Fishmongers’ Company, upon rebuilding their hall, prefix a handsome edifice of modern architecture, as well as raised on arches, to afford a finer prospect, as having a spacious terrace adorning the new bridge, and inviting the public to enjoy a healthful promenade. New Fishmongers’ Hall, besides, may have a side entrance on a level with the new bridge.

Thus does the proposed level street appear essential, whilst other considerations seem to recommend it for adoption. It must suffice to mention also the increasing population of Surrey and Kent, the actual want of a direct line of communication with the Mansion House, Bank of England, Royal Exchange, Stock Exchange, and Lloyd’s Coffee House.”

Apparently, the second bridge was the Westminster bridge which was opened in November, 1750 although possibly existed by 1740; and much to the annoyance of the watermen who earned their revenue from taking passengers across the river. It is not until you view an early map of 1746 London map that it is apparent the distances between these two bridges!


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