Wednesday 2 July 2014

H is for Hammersmith Bridge ...

There are a lot of bridges over the Thames these days, but it wasn't always like that. Way back when the Romans rocked into town we didn't have a single bridge to boast about. Nada, zilch we scored a big fat zero in the how-many-bridges-do-you-have stakes. And the crafty old Romans with their love for bridges (viaducts, aqueducts, every-other-sort-of-ducts) weren't having any of this marching round the country to get to the other side nonsense. So they set about building our very first bridge, which was the earliest precursor to Old London Bridge.

That first bridge went through many incarnations. It was probably destroyed by a very angry Boudicca when she went on the warpath with the rotten Romans, but then it was later rebuilt by them. It fell into disuse after the Romans blew town as the Saxons wanted a nice clear river boundary between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex, and they were keen not to suffer any midnight incursions across some pesky bridge. Finally a very penitent Henry II realised how handy it would be to be able to just nip across to the south bank without having to swim or sail or risk life and limb on the existing rickety old wooden bridge. He was feeling very hangdog about his part in the sad demise of Thomas Becket and so in 1176 he set about building a nice strong stone bridge across the river to make amends. He even put a rather splendid chapel in the middle dedicated to Becket as a holy martyr.  It was a bit of a titanic struggle what with the tides and everything, but they succeeded in building 19 irregular stone pillars across the river, spanned by a sturdy bridge which had a draw bridge section to allow tall ships to go through.

Old London Bridge was always busy, and before long people cottoned on to the fact that there was the potential for some prime retail space along its deck: just think of the footfall passing by outside. So by the fourteenth century they'd built 100 shops across the bridge and even added a multiple seated public loo. The Tudors carried on building so that, by the time of Elizabeth I, there were hundreds of buildings across the bridge, some of which were 6 or 7 stories high and overhung the central carriageway along which the traffic passed. This long dark tunnel of a carriageway was only four metres wide, and had to carry traffic in both directions. The result was a great big Tudor bottleneck. It could easily take an hour to get across. And if you'd decided to avoid the queues and take a boat you'd have been bonkers. The 19 pillars obstructed the tidal flow of the water, with the result that there was a difference of about 5 feet in the water levels on either side of the bridge, creating rapids. Shooting these rapids was a death-defying thrill for the watermen that claimed multiple lives every year.

By 1800 there were three bridges: London Bridge, Westminster and Blackfriars. There were eighteenth century wooden bridges at Putney and Battersea, but those areas had not yet been absorbed by the metropolis, and were not included in the tally of London's bridges. Traffic volumes were very high. On one day in July 1811 a staggering 90,000 pedestrians, 5,500 vehicles and 764 horse-riders crossed London Bridge alone. As people had to pay tolls everyone saw the lucrative money-making potential in bridge-building. Added to which in the nineteenth century London grew like Topsy in all directions. In 1800 London's population was probably just a smidgen larger than that of Paris, but by 1900 it was two and a half times greater. London had become the largest city that the world had ever seen. And this was the stimulus for more bridge-building.

The original bridge at Hammersmith,  built in the 1820s as the city expanded in all directions, was the first suspension bridge to have been built in London.  Sadly it was unable to cope with the juggernaut of London's growing traffic and had to be replaced. Each year it was a cause for special concern as it filled with spectators during the Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race.

On 6th April, 1870 between 11,000 and 12,000 spectators filled the bridge to watch the 27th Boat Race, causing the bridge's owners to have heart palpitations; there were grave concerns that it would not be able to carry that weight of human traffic. Happily the Light Blues triumphed that year and the bridge did not collapse.

A temporary bridge was opened in 1884 and they set to work building the present bridge on the same foundations as the original. It was opened by the Prince of Wales on 11th June, 1887.

This new Hammersmith Bridge was designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who also designed London's sewerage system, one of the greatest infrastructure innovations of the age, which helped save the Thames from chronic pollution and, in the process, defeated the scourge of cholera.

The IRA have tried to blow up the bridge on three separate occasions. Their first attempt was on Wednesday 29th March, 1939. Maurice Childs, a lady's hairdresser from Chiswick, was walking home across the bridge in the early hours of the morning when he came upon an abandoned suitcase from which he saw sparks and smoke escaping. On closer examination, Childs realised that it was a bomb, picked it up and hurled it into the water. It exploded as it hit the Thames sending a 60 foot tsunami to deluge the river banks. A second explosion detonated moments later causing some relatively minor structural damage to the Western span of the bridge, which the authorities were able to repair.

Today the bridge enjoys grade II Listed Buildings protected status.

If you'd like to go on a walk and enjoy the bridge I've written about the Boat Race Walk, which takes you along the Thames Tow Path on the Surrey and Middlesex shores between Hammersmith Bridge and Barnes Bridge. Watch out for the super pubs along the way.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

As shared on the Alphabet Project


  1. What a fascinating post. I've crossed the bridges in London many times, but I have just realised how little I knew about the history of them :) #alphabetphoto

  2. Thank you, Sara. Glad you found it interesting. All the best, Bonny

  3. Lovely bridge, I wasn't aware of the history behind it although I do vaguely remember one of the bombing attempts

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Alison. All the best, Bonny

  5. What a fascinating post Bonny. I never knew this despite living in London for years. Great to hear about and I love that first photo, just fabulous. Thanks for sharing with #alphabetphoto