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.