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.

 

The horror of the Great Plague of London

I’ve been on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs documentary series talking about the scandals that have enveloped various kings in history. This was the programme on Charles II and his less than gallant handling of the Great Plague in London. Basically, he fled the city as thousands of Londoners perished of the bubonic plague – a truly grim way to go!

Curious facts about Trafalgar Square

You can’t miss Trafalgar Square – in the very heart of London’s west end. But it’s a relatively new addition to the city and the area was once very different – quite seedy in fact. So here are a few things you may not know about Trafalgar Square:

Mews
The Royal Mews

Royal stables – the northern part of what is now Trafalgar Square were actually the royal stables, dating back to King Edward I. Basically, take as your starting point the National Gallery, tear it down in your mind and put up stables with horses and falcons instead. This kind of makes sense because the “Royal Mews” would  have been in close proximity to the sprawling medieval palace of Whitehall nearby. The crown owned the land and so converting it to a public square was pretty straight forward.

StMartinsMap1871-1056A workhouse – it may seem incredible now but on the site of the National Portrait Gallery, just off the square, there was a large workhouse for the poor from the 17th century until 1871 when it was demolished to allow for an extension to the National Gallery. If you look at the map, you can see that the workhouse was just behind the gallery. It gained a dreadful reputation for overcrowding and insanitary conditions. Ventilation was very poor and there was an absence of toilets. A guide to London I have from 1804 states that people could pay to go and gawp at the inmates – rather tasteless!

Gordon
Gordon – not where he used to be

Gordon of Khartoum – General Gordon was a hero to the Victorian public. He had earned a reputation for military valour fighting for the British Empire in China. And he was then sent to Sudan where a messianic figure nicknamed the “Mad Mahdi” was leading an uprising against colonial rule. Gordon overreached himself in trying to put dow the rebellion and was killed by rebels in the city of Khartoum. A statue of him was put up in Trafalgar Square in the 1880s but quietly removed to the Embankment in 1953.

St Martin’s in the Fields – an early 18th century church built by the architect James Gibbs. It pre-dates Trafalgar Square by over a hundred years. So when the Victorians started clearing away old buildings to create this huge public space, they considered removing the steps up to the church to make more room for traffic. It was even suggested that the pillared portico at the front of the church should be taken down and re-erected round the back!

“Bloody Sunday” – When you say Bloody Sunday now, people are more likely to think of events in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. But the original Bloody Sunday was a workers demonstration on 13 November, 1877 in Trafalgar Square that ended up as a running battle between the police and trade unionists, socialists and Fenians. I was in Trafalgar Square as a journalist in 1990 when the poll tax demonstration descended into violent rioting – a scene I shall never forget.

Royalist beats up journalists in Fleet Street

Sir Roger L’Estrange hated journalists.

He’d been a royalist all his life (born in 1616) and fought with King Charles I during the English Civil War. When the king lost and Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, L’Estrange was sentenced to death as a spy and conspirator and thrown into Newgate prison. Not enjoying his time behind bars in squalid conditions, L’Estrange escaped, fled to Holland, only to return with the Restoration of King Charles II. Now it was time for revenge against all those who had supported Cromwell. Especially journalists.

Fleet Street
Fleet Street in the 18th century – note the heads on display over Temple Bar

The centre of British journalism was Fleet Street with its many little alleyways. In the taverns, coffee houses and printing works of this great thoroughfare, writers expressed themselves a little too freely for L’Estrange’s royalist tastes. Many scribblers had been parliamentarians and against kingly autocracy. They wanted to write what they thought and that often meant mocking or criticising the monarch and his retinue.

In 1663, L’Estrange issued a pamphlet with the ominous title: Considerations and Proposals in order to Regulate the Press together with Divers Instances of Treasons and Seditious Pamphlets proving the Necessity thereof.” Ironically, for a man who hated writers – L’Estrange was a prolific writer himself, though always in defence of royal privilege. In this pamphlet, he argued for the harshest penalties for everybody involved in producing treasonous material. That not only meant journalists but “letter founders, the smiths and joiners that work upon the presses, with the stitchers, binders, stationers, hawkers, Mercury women, pedlars, ballad-singers, posts, carriers, hackney coachmen, boatmen and mariners” (sic). Nobody left out then!

Tyburn gallows
An execution at Tyburn

He was made official press censor. In his new role, L’Estrange abolished all newspapers except two – which he happened to own. The Intelligencer – “started for the satisfaction and information of the people” – and the News. But of course Fleet Street wasn’t just going to roll over and die in the face of L’Estrange. So he had to enforce the dire penalties he’d threatened. One victim of this royalist bigot was the owner of a printing press in Cloth Fair. His name was Twyne and he’d be made an example of to all journalists thinking life could go on as before.

With four burly men, L’Estrange kicked in Twyne’s door. They found writings that advocated the popular will – and you can imagine what L’Estrange thought about that! Twyne soon found himself before Lord Chief Justice Hyde at the Old Bailey who shouted: “Tie him up executioner!”  And added rather unpleasantly:

I speak it from my soul that we have the greatest happiness in the world in enjoying what we do under so gracious and good a king, and you Twyne, in the rancour of your heart, thus to abuse him deserve no mercy.

He was then sentenced to be hanged but cut down before he was dead, his entrails burnt “before your eyes” and his head and chopped up body to be “disposed of at the pleasure of the king’s majesty”. And so it was that L’Estrange got to have Twyne executed horribly at Tyburn and his body parts displayed at Ludgate, Aldersgate and elsewhere.

L’Estrange, sad to say, led a long life. Though he fell out with King William III and this old Tory lived long enough to see the Whig party, which he detested for its lack of devotion to the king, grow stronger. As a former journalist myself, I’d say that L’Estrange was an object lesson in why we should defend a free press with our dying breath. Though hopefully, it will never come to that!

The Knights Templar, the Nazis and a rebellious noble

What Geoffrey de Mandeville looked like before the Nazi bombs
What Geoffrey de Mandeville looked like before the Nazi bombs

Geoffrey de Mandeville – first Earl of Essex – had a rocky life and a bloody death.

Being a noble in the early 12th century meant keeping your head above water during a period sometimes called the ‘great anarchy’.

In the year 1135, king Henry I died. His cousin Stephen declared himself the new king but the late king’s daughter Matilda had different ideas. Taking Stephen on with her own army, the two parties engulfed England in a vicious civil war.

To protect his lands and social position, Geoffrey rather treacherously swapped sides on more than one occasion. When Stephen eventually prevailed against Matilda, he arrested the earl who was forced to surrender his castles. Furious with his treatment by the king, Geoffrey launched a rebellion. For a year, he holed up in the marshes of East Anglia – reduced to becoming a bandit.

Eventually, the king’s forces surrounded the troublesome earl and he was shot through with arrows. A traitor to his king and rejected by the church for raiding Ramsey Abbey – Geoffrey’s body couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground.

In fact, nobody knew what to do with his remains. Until the Knights Templar stepped in. They took his carcass to their London headquarters in a lead coffin and hung it from the branches of an apple tree. That way it was in their protection without being placed in the ground.

What Geoffrey looks like today
What Geoffrey looks like today

At some point, a burial was made possible and his son arranged for an effigy of his father to be placed in the Templar church. It can still be seen today. But it’s taken a bit of a bashing.

Up until the 10th March, 1941, the effigy was in almost pristine condition. But this was the Second World War and the Blitz meant Nazi bombs were raining down on the city. One exploded in the circular church bringing the roof crashing down on top of the effigy. As you can see – he took quite a pounding.

Even in death – Geoffrey has had a rough time.