To God and the Bridge

On the occasional times that I’m persuaded to go Sarf of The River my first thought has to be; which bridge should I use?

Knowledge students are told that because the Thames meanders on its journey through the city, the nearest bridge lies on the shortest route, and without giving it a second thought on who built or maintains that particular crossing we drivers just – well drive across it.

[S]o when reading David Long’s fascinating book Tunnels, Towers & Temples: London’s 100 Strangest Places, I was intrigued to find that five of London’s bridges are administered and financed from a building on the South Bank appropriately named Bridge House.

The first major crossing, London Bridge, was started in 1176, to replace the existing rickety wooden bridge nearby. It was funded from donations ‘to God and the Bridge’ as the church at the time encouraged cross river traffic, indeed the builders one Peter de Colechurch was a priest and head of the Fraternity of the Brethren on London Bridge. One must question the churches’ motive as land on the South Bank was owned by the Bishop of Winchester, who later would benefit from revenues derived from prostitutes who were known as Winchester Geese.

When London Bridge was completed some 33 years later the rental income generated from the shops and houses above its 19 stone arches, along with tolls and fines on making the crossing, and in addition to the numerous bequests, amounted to a sizeable sum.

Its assets enabled the purchase of an area of land around Borough High Street and parts of the riverbank that became known as the Bridge House Estate. The income from these assets enabled the construction of Blackfriars Bridge in 1869, Tower Bridge in 1881 and the purchase of Southwark Bridge. The Trust has now assumed control of the Millennium Bridge, but only after the famous wobble was rectified. The Trust has financed two replacements for London Bridge (1831 and 1972) and two replacements for Southwark Bridge (1819 and 1921).

With an estimated £500 million in its coffers, with a least £35 million added each year, the question needs to be asked; why has Boris Johnson cancelled the proposed East London Crossing?

The construction of a bridge between Beckton and Thamesmead would ease the damaging traffic on Tower Bridge and reduce traffic jams in South East London. And how can it be that in a city the size of London, with its growing East and South East population we have only four crossings downriver from Tower Bridge? Rotherhithe was built for horse and carts, in fact its double bend was designed to prevent horses seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and bolting for it. Blackwall Tunnel needs years of overnight maintenance and Woolwich Free Ferry which opened in 1889 hardly eases traffic congestion at all. The next river crossing is some 30 miles to the east at Dartford River Crossing.

The construction of a new toll bridge might help revive the tradition of a donation which was last made in 1675 of ‘To God and the Bridge’.

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