Pontoon to bridge: How the Romans trumped the Thames

By caroline mcdonald on 30 Jun 2014


If, as Cassius Dio would have us believe, the Romans managed to get war elephants across the Thames, then building a bridge over it must have been a piece of cake…

Following the invasion of AD 43, a Thames crossing was vital to the Romans to consolidate their territorial gains to the north and south of the river and to keep supplies moving efficiently from the Kent coast and along the growing network of roads as the Roman army pushed out further into Britain.

The area that the Romans chose to place this crossing was a true ‘Goldilocks’ site. The underlying topography of what would become Southwark and the City of London provided firm, raised ground on each bank at a narrow point along the river, making it ‘just right’ for bridging. There were other advantages to be exploited; this area was at the limit of the tidal head of the Thames meaning that there was deep water to accommodate boats and ships which travelled along a river that provided direct access inland from the North Sea.

It is no wonder that the crossing’s site at the centre of a travel and supply network, in a newly created province ripe for exploitation, attracted people from across the empire. In less than five years the bustling boom town of Londinium had sprung up around it.

The first crossing was probably a temporary arrangement of ferries or a pontoon style floating bridge but evidence of wooden structures from what was the Roman waterfront (further in land from where the Thames is today) suggests there was a semi-permanent bridge crossing the Thames (on a line from what is now Fish Street Hill) around AD 50, sited about 60 metres east of where London Bridge stands today.

It is not clear if the tempestuous events of AD 60 and Boudica’s destruction of Londinium also resulted in the demise of this bridge, though destruction evidence from Southwark suggests Boudica and her army at least used it! The subsequent rebuilding of Londinium and reassertion of unhindered travel and trade could not have happened without a crossing and, if the bridge had been destroyed, there may have been a fall back to ferries or a pontoon as the city recovered.

Evidence of a wooden pier at Pudding Lane suggests there was a more substantial temporary crossing built between AD 85-90 until a permanent bridge, possibly with masonry piers and a drawbridge section, was constructed between AD 90-120 back on the line of the original structure.

This bridge would go on to survive for over 200 years until a dwindling population coupled with economic decline and political instability created conditions where the maintenance of a bridge was probably the least of Londinium’s worries. As the city was abandoned the bridge which had once been the pivot point of the Province of Britannia was left to rot. London Bridge had fallen down and archaeological evidence suggests it would be around 600 years until it was built up again.

You can read more about the history of the early bridge in London Bridge: 2000 Years of River Crossing where this information is sourced from on MOLA’s websiteBridge is at the Museum of London Docklands between 27 June – 2 November 2014. 


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