When three thousand people died on London Bridge

IMG_6737London 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.

 

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Houses of Parliament burnt down in massive blaze

On the 16th October, 1834, the old Houses of Parliament were completely destroyed by a huge fire. It took several days to extinguish an inferno that engulfed ancient medieval halls, Georgian houses and most of the palace of Westminster. Westminster Hall – a vast space dating back to the Norman period – was only saved because of the wind direction. But the House of Commons and House of Lords were no more. The centre of government was a smouldering ruin.

Houses of Parliament burn down in 1834
Houses of Parliament burn down in 1834

The reason for the fire was something typically archaic in such a venerable British institution. Incredibly, a primitive system of accounting was still being used by the Exchequer in the nineteenth century that involved digging notches into long pieces of wood called “tallies”. The author Charles Dickens mocked this ridiculous practice saying it was no better than the way Robinson Crusoe had “kept his calendar on the desert island”.

Even under George III (reigned from 1760 to 1820), somebody had asked whether it was time for the state’s finances to be kept using pen, paper, ink and pencils instead of pieces of wood. Finally, in 1826, the tallies were abolished. From now on, no more notches in sticks! However, that left a lot of bits of wood lying around – centuries of them in fact. They were of no use whatsoever and probably never had been. So it was decided to gradually burn the lot.

A stove was used in the House of Lords. A labourer called Joshua Cross was hired to shovel the wood in though it turned out he wasn’t properly supervised in this task by the Clerk of Works. As a result, the raging fire in the stove extended to nearby wood panelling and in no time the whole House of Lords was on fire including a fine tapestry of the Spanish Armada being defeated.

Nearby was St Stephen’s chapel, which had been rebuilt between 1320 and 1352 and under Edward VI became the House of Commons. It was in this chamber that Oliver Cromwell had dismissed parliament. And now it was also consigned to the flames. Thousands watched in awe at the spreading orange glow. The very floorboards that had been trodden by great political figures such as Pitt, Fox, Burke and Canning were incinerated. And all because of a daft form of accounting that had never been of any real use.

Sir Walter Raleigh catches fire in Islington

Sir Walter Raleigh – swashbuckling adventurer under Queen Elizabeth I (or Queen Bess if you prefer) – and Islington don’t exactly sit together in your mind. But Raleigh and other Elizabethans loved popping over to the village of Islington to take the air. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, its dairies would become famous for their creams, custards, cakes and gooseberry fools. But in the sixteenth century – the time of Raleigh – it was archery practice on the fields and just admiring the views over the green valley of Holloway and on to Highgate hill. The view has changed a bit since then!

Raleigh's old house converted into the Pied Bull Inn shortly before demolition
Raleigh’s old house converted into the Pied Bull Inn shortly before demolition

The Tudors took to building country homes in the area decorated with oak panels and stained-glass windows. Raleigh, worn out by long voyages of discovery and returning with tobacco to poison his fellow Englishmen, took up residence with gusto. His house was still standing in 1830 by which time it had become the Pied Bull Inn, behind what was then called Frederick Street. There is a very silly story about Raleigh smoking tobacco that I found in an Edwardian history of London:

Sitting one day in a deep meditation with a pipe in his mouth, he inadvertently called to his man (servant) to bring him a tankard of small ale. The fellow, coming into the room, threw all the liquor into his master’s face and running downstairs bawled out: Fire! Fire! Sir Walter has studied till his head is on fire and the smoke bursts out of his head and nose! 

An unusual case of somebody spontaneously combusting due to too much thinking. Pictures depicting this incident used to appear over tobacconist shops. A stained-glass window in Raleigh’s house was bordered with images of sea-horses and parrots plus tobacco leaves. Years later, the pioneer of the filthy habit would be executed for treason. He allegedly took two pipes with him to the Tower of London, his prison, to have a good puff before the big event.

Terrible accident at St Mary-le-Strand

This is the story of a terrible accident that occurred because of shoddy building work on a church that still stands in central London to this day. But first we must go back three hundred years to the tragic day in question.

St Mary-le-Strand is the church that appears to be stuck in the middle of the road near Kings college and Somerset House. In fact, it’s been referred to as St Mary-in-the-way. This place of worship was designed by the architect James Gibbs and was one of fifty churches ordered to be built during the reign of Queen Anne.

The first stone was laid by Gibbs on the 25th February, 1714 and the whole thing was completed in three and a half years. But it was only consecrated for use by worshippers on the 1st January, 1723.

St Mary-le-Strand - killer church!
St Mary-le-Strand – killer church!

Nobody doubted the skill and craft of Gibbs’ work and it stood proud throughout the eighteenth century. But then in 1802, crowds had gathered in the Strand to celebrate peace between France and Britain agreed at the Treaty of Amiens – after a long period of war between the two countries. A man stood on the roof of the church and leaned on one of the many stone urns to watch the heralds marching past announcing the peace treaty. Incredibly, the large urn suddenly fell into the street below.

Three young men were killed. One died instantly as the urn fell on his head. Another was so badly wounded that he died on the way to hospital. While the third died two days afterwards. A young woman was also seriously injured and others suffered cuts and bruises. The two hundred pound urn had bounced off the side of the church taking another piece of masonry with it and when it hit the pavement, it buried itself about a foot into the flagstones.

The poor man on the roof fainted but was still arrested. However, he was discharged when it was found that Gibbs’ workmen a hundred years before had been a bit shoddy. The urn should have been fixed to the roof by an iron spike but instead there was just a wooden pole. That had rotted away over time and it was no surprise that a killer urn tipped into the street below.

A collision with the Prince of Wales

Prince of Wales and future George IV
Prince of Wales and future George IV

Another story from London in 1783 involved a surgeon from Kensington called Mr Thomson.

In the spring of that year he was riding on his horse from Knightsbridge when he collided with another mounted gentlemen.

Both of them were thrown “quite a distance” from their steeds. So imagine the medic’s horror to discover that he’d just collided with the Prince of Wales.

That is the future George IV.

The prince was unhurt and Thomson was only lightly bruised.