London Bridge is falling down… So says an old nursery rhyme. The city’s oldest bridge has certainly had a turbulent history. But it was just over seven 750 years ago that London Bridge witnessed a horrific calamity not equalled since.
Today’s 1970s bridge is a bog standard affair. Big road bridge, wide pavements, minimal number of spans. Rewind to the medieval period and in 1212, Londoners were gazing in awe at the first stone bridge to cross the Thames. It had taken 30 years to build but what a feast for the eyes!
Made up of about twenty arches that forced the river to gush like a torrent through them. It was a triumph of 13th century engineering. And on top were houses, shops and water wheels with a hustle and bustle of people all day long.
The stone bridge had replaced an earlier timber bridge that had come to grief in a fire that had swept through London in the year 1136. A man called Peter of Colechurch was tasked with constructing a new bridge that would be more resistant to fire. Some accounts claim he diverted the river Thames to achieve this medieval architectural miracle – though many doubt this was possible to any significant scale.
Along the bridge, Londoners built shops and houses, water wheels and even a chapel. The city was confident it now had a link to the southern shore that was indestructible. How wrong they were. Fire was an ever present threat in a city made largely of wood. And even though the bridge itself was stone, the houses being thrown up along its span were of brick, wood and highly combustible thatched roofs.
On the 12th July, 1212, a fire broke out on the Southwark side of the new bridge. It crept along to the old church of St Mary Overie. Soon it had consumed the area we now call Borough Market. Londoners from the north side of the river moved on to the bridge to either help or just gawp. Unfortunately for them, cinders or sparks ignited the very combustible roofs of houses on the London side of the bridge.
You get the picture? People on London Bridge were now caught between a fire at both ends. And none of them could swim. Plus there’s no fire brigade to speak of. And the bridge is jam-packed with houses and other buildings. Smoke is swirling around and panic sets in. There’s a grim choice: stay on the bridge and get burnt alive or jump in the river, which is gushing through the small arches.
Some Londoners with boats tried to rescue people but it was all to little avail. According to John Stow, a historian of the city writing 350 years later, the bodies of three thousand partly burnt people were found while many were completely incinerated or swept away by the river. Some historians doubt this figure and think it was lower. But there’s little doubt this was a major calamity and remembered for many centuries afterwards.