Old London Bridge: A bridge too far?

By jackie keily on 5 Jul 2014


What do you do with a bridge when you no longer need or want it and want to replace it with a newer model? We all know how the Americans bought Rennie’s London Bridge in 1967 and shipped it off to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, but what about old London Bridge, the bridge that Rennie’s bridge replaced? By the time it was demolished in 1832 the old medieval bridge, built under the direction of Peter of Colechurch in the late 12th to early 13th century, had been much modified, most significantly in 1757-62 when the central pier and all the buildings along it were demolished and the bridge itself widened. It was also re-faced with Portland stone blocks and given a balustrade. Following the full demolition some seventy years later, much of this 18th century stonework was sold off for re-use elsewhere.

In a wonderful book on the history of London Bridge there is a review of the many places in the south-east of England where fragments of the bridge ended up – from Herne Bay to Hackney and beyond! But smaller, more portable souvenirs were also made and a number of these have come into the collections of the Museum of London. The most fascinating of these has to be a small wooden casket with a hinged lid with a brass plaque engraved: ‘This sarcophagus is part of an oak pile that was put down in the foundation of Old London Bridge c 1176 by the engineer a priest named PETER and contains a Glass Coffin with a part of his bones that were found in his tomb by the late John Smeaton Esq Civil Engineer when clearing away the Old Bridge in 1832. Peter died and was buried in one of the piers 1205’.

Inside is a small glass box with a brass plaque inscribed: ‘Remains of Peter the Engineer of OLD LONDON BRIDGE who died in 1205’. And inside this small glass box are some small fragments of bone. In 1997 the box was opened. Five of the bone fragments were large enough to be identified and the result was even more bizarre – they were a mix of human, animal and bird bones: one was from the proximal end of an adult humerus (upper arm, shoulder end), possibly from a male; three were goose bones and one was from the rib of a cow-sized animal. So what was going on?!

Peter was the chaplain of St Mary Colechurch in the City of London and was responsible for the building of the bridge. He died in 1205, four years before his bridge was finished and his body was interred in the chapel of St Thomas the Martyr (Thomas Becket) which stood on the large central pier of the bridge. We don’t know the exact nature of Peter’s role in the building of the bridge, but he was certainly warden of the works (in charge of the project), chief fundraiser and also steward of the brotherhood who were set up to care for the upkeep of the bridge.

The chapel was demolished during the repairs of 1757-62 and the pier it was built on was destroyed when the bridge was pulled down in 1832. During demolition of the pier the chapel’s undercroft was discovered and within it the bones of an adult. Whether these were the bones of Peter of Colechurch or not, we will never know. What happened next is a bit of a mystery: according to some records the workmen dismantling the pier threw the bones into the river, although a small number of bones supposedly of Peter were sold at auction that year.

Where the bones in our collection come from we don’t know but we do know that there was evidently a thriving market for souvenirs of the old bridge: the collections contain a number of snuff boxes and other memorabilia made from fragments of wood allegedly from the old London Bridge.

You can see a model of Old (medieval) London Bridge in the ‘Thames Highway‘ gallery at the Museum of London Docklands. Bridge is an art exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands showing artists’ responses to the city’s iconic structures.

4 thoughts on “Old London Bridge: A bridge too far?

  1. Jean Noble says:

    My father (H M Barnes) was a keen photographer who lived and worked in London all his life. He told me that when Rennie’s London Bridge was being demolished crowds used to stand near the ‘rubble’ to watch the event. He was amongst them taking photographs frequently. One day he bent down and pocketed a small piece of the masonry which I still have. So Lake Havasu City does not have the whole of Rennie’s London Bridge! My father’s London photographs are now in theLondon Metropolitan Archives.

  2. Peter Roberts says:

    The auction referred to above by Ms Kelly was held by “Mr Sotheby and Son, Wellington Street, the Strand, on Wednesday, December 5th 1832 and the following day at Twelve o’Clock”.

    The sale was the effects of Mr William Knight, Assistant Architect to Mr John Rennie Jnr, and Member of the Society of Antiquaries, who oversaw the demolition of the old London Bridge.
    It was he who was presented with bones discovered by his workman engaged in the demolition together with timber from which, it is said Knight wished to make a casket to present to King William IV. Unfortunately he died before this was achieved.

    Amongst Mr Knights effects listed on page 17 of the catalogue[price 3d] are;

    “Lot 410, James 1 and Charles 1 Farthing Tokens, Tradesmen’s Halfpence and Farthing [tokens], and some ancient lead counters”. Hammer price 10/6d, buyer ‘Young’.

    “Lot 413, A Penny of Wulfred, Archbishop of Canterbury, [listed as] ‘very rare'”,
    fetched £4 1s 0d, also ‘Young’.

    “Lot 418, Henry VIII Half Sovereign, annulet mintmark, fine”, made £4, buyer’WB’.

    Page 18

    “Miscellaneous Antiquities found on removing Old London Bridge, and in Crooked Lane”:

    “Lot 421 An Antique Ring [with the Virgin and Child engraved] in gold”, made £4, buyer ‘WB’.

    “Lot 422 Ditto [with the Figure of a Saint] ditto ” made £3 9s 0d, buyer ‘WB’

    “Lot 423 Ditto [in Silver]with the Letter A in the centre” made 8s, buyer ‘Knight’ – a family member?

    Lots 426/7/8 and 9 were all described as ” A beautiful carved Box, made of the Wood from the “Sleepers” of the Ancient Bridge, an engraved inscription inside”
    Lot 430 Two ditto smaller.

    Lot 426 made £2 19s, buyer ‘Bohn – could be ‘Bolin’, but ‘i’ not dotted! The others made £1 6s, £1 13s, £1 11s, and £2 12s, respectively.

    Lot 431 ditto with silver plate on the lid made £2 17s.

    Lot 432 to 435A/B comprised 15 similar multiple boxes[without silver plate] averaged £1.

    The important item in question is listed as:

    “Lot 443, The Lower Jaw, and three other Bones, of PETER OF COLECHURCH, the ORIGINAL ARCHITECT of LONDON BRIDGE, found on removing the foundation of the Ancient Chapel”, made 7s, buyer ‘Cotton’.

    Cotton also paid 13s, for “Various Specimens of Old Piles from the London Bridge”!

    Other thoughts.

    The original Chapel worship area was for people entering at the Bridge level, but a dry ‘cellar’ existed – a lower chamber accessed by a stone staircase, and I believe it is beneath the steps that Peters body had been placed, possibly by clerics anxious to avoid desecration during the dissolution, and being below street level would also have avoided ‘interference’ during the 1760 bridge widening.

    The ‘cellar’, later became a storeroom for Wholesale Stationer residents for much of their stock up to 1760, when the properties above street were demolished, the population dispersed and the aforementioned widening,.

    There is the possibility that earlier in the 18th century, when William Baldwin, Haberdasher, [born on the bridge, and the then resident] repaired the worn steps to the low level storeroom. That the remains had been discovered and carefully replaced afterwards.

    Knights membership of the Society of Antiquaries, suggested that it’s members might be interested in acquiring items from his collection, and be amongst the bidders at the Sale.
    From the Society I found they had two members named Cotton, tho’ only one fitted the date parameters ……. the search goes on.

    When I visited the Museum of London and queried the ‘box of bones’ purporting to be those of Colechurch, I learned from the Archivist that they had checked and found none were human, neither was he able to identify the ‘well meaning’ donator.

    NB Photocopies of Mr Sotheby’s auction list are obtainable from the Bodleian.

  3. Peter Roberts says:

    The ‘Rennie’ London Bridge of 1832, is the one that parts of were sold to Mr McCullogh, in 1968 and now ‘face’ the Bridge in Havasu City, Arizona.

    However the 1973 Bridge now encases the remainder of that Bridge, and the steps that Charles Dickens knew, and wrote of – Nancy’s Steps – in his ‘Oliver Twist’ story are still THERE! What an attraction THEY could, and should be!!

    An original plan to house a London Bridge Museum in a ‘football pitch’ sized space beneath London Bridge road surface[which includes those steps], unfortunately came to nought.
    That Museum now exists in, and courtesy of, the ‘London Bridge Experience’ Tooley Street. Many of the items displayed are loaned courtesy of Valery Jackson, of the Ephemera Society.

    Museum Entry should be free[on request – access and directions from their bar].

  4. Peter Roberts says:

    Incidentally John Smeaton, Civil Engineer, had nothing to do with Old or New London Bridge – he died in October 1792 in Leeds, Yorkshire.

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