I recently came across two stone alcoves which were formerly part of the old London Bridge (demolished in 1831) in an unexpected place – Victoria Park, Hackney.
Old London bridge was built in 1176 and crossed the River Thames from the City of London – in those days within the boundaries of Middlesex – to Southwark on the South Bank of The Thames. Before the building of medieval London Bridge it is thought that there had been other bridges on or near this site built by the Romans, Alfred the Great – King of Wessex (as part of his redevelopment of London in his system of burhs – fortifications) and William the Conqueror.
Until the opening of Putney Bridge in 1729, London Bridge was the only road crossing downstream from Kingston-Upon-Thames. The bridge was dedicated by King Henry II to his friend and later opponent, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury who was born in Cheapside.
In Tudor times a large community existed on the bridge which was lined with over 200 buildings – some over 6 stories high – including shops, houses, a chapel, a public latrine and a 4 storey building known as Nonsuch House (the earliest recorded prefabricated building constructed in the Netherlands, dismantled and shipped to the UK). The bridge itself was quite narrow and often became clogged with coaches, wagons, lifestock and pedestrians. Crossing the bridge could take as long as one hour.
Old London Bridge had 19 arches and a drawbridge at each end to allow tall ships to pass through.
The entrance to the bridge was known as Traitors Gate. In those days, heads of traitors were impaled on spikes on south side as a deterrent to others. Sir William Wallace (Scottish Patriot), Thomas Moore, Thomas Cromwell (Henry VIII’s ministers) and Guy Fawkes (Gunpowder plotter) were amongst those more famous names who ended up on the spikes. Skulls were found in the mud below when the bridge was pulled down.
There were a number of hazards for those living and crossing the bridge, not least fire. In 1212 sparks from a fire at the Southwark end started a fire at the north end. Many people drowned in an attempting to escape by jumping into rescue boats – sinking many in the process. It is believed that around 3,000 people died.
The alcoves were added to the bridge at around 1762 during a widening project.
If you look in the alcoves you’ll see the following inscription:
“This alcove which stood on Old London Bridge was presented to Her Majesty by Benjamin Dixon, Esqre. JP, for the use of the public and was placed here by order of the Right Honourable W. Cowper, First Commissioner Her Majesty’s Works and Public Buildings, 1860.”
One of the alcolves
These days the alcoves serve as a useful shelter from the elements and a place to watch the world go by as they would most likely have done during their heyday.