As a child growing up in east London in the 1960s going ‘over the water’ was a rare event. For me the River Thames was a ‘great divide’ that separated me physically and psychologically from an area of London I had no reason to visit. Bridges bore no significance and appeared to stretch from my side of the river into the great unknown.
The ‘great divide ‘experienced by generations of north and south Londoners was largely due to the fact that, until 1750, London had only one bridge – London Bridge – linking north and south London. The erection of Westminster Bridge that year initiated a phase of bridge building that not only showcased the country’s engineering pre-eminence but also reflected its growing commercial power. New bridges straddling the Thames linked to new roads, created a free -flowing route for trade and production vital for the expanding economy.
But, whilst trade flourished over the bridges, transforming the commercial relationship between north and south, Londoners themselves found it more difficult to breach the psychological ‘great divide’ of the River Thames. The communities of north and south remained divided. The two tribes spoke and dressed differently and competitiveness and even hostilities remained entrenched.
By the late 19th century South London, still relatively unknown to those living north of the Thames, remained a victim of ‘urban discrimination’ with a rather dubious reputation based on its ‘stink’ industries such as the tanneries, glue factories and breweries and its historic association with prostitution, rough taverns and pleasure gardens. It was a place of offensive smells not only of industry but also of poverty. Whilst east London, an equally ‘poor area’ benefited from its proximity to the energetic City ‘where things happened’ the south remained isolated and neglected.
Rather than bridging the divide between Londoners the city’s new bridges often reinforced the contrast between those living north and south of the River. In 1911 a London reporter remarked that to pass over London Bridge was to cross ‘that natural dividing line of peoples’ whilst, in the 1930s, AA Jackson noted in Semi-detached London ‘it was rare for a Londoner to cross the river’ because it remained ‘foreign territory.’
For me such comments are rather familiar. Even as an adult, despite the pleasures of the 21st century South Bank, going ‘over the water’ remains a huge psychological barrier I find difficult to cross.