Southwark Bridge turns 100

Katherine Johnston (03 June, 2021)

'While not nearly as famous as its neighbours, London and Tower Bridge, this rather undervalued London landmark celebrates a special anniversary this week'

45039Southwark Bridge, 'the iron bridge' (image courtesy of City of London Corporation Bridge House Estates Committee)

Sandwiched between the functional Cannon Street Rail and Millennium Bridge (the Wobbly one!) stands Southwark Bridge.  While not nearly as famous as its neighbours, London and Tower Bridge, this rather undervalued London landmark celebrates a special anniversary this week: its centenary, writes Neil Crossfield…

An earlier bridge, designed and built by John Rennie, had opened in 1811.  This mainly cast-iron structure was a triumph of engineering in its day and is mentioned by Dickens in both ‘Little Dorrit’ and ‘Our Mutual Friend’.

However, it was never a success, partly because those crossing were required to pay a toll, and nearby London and Blackfriars Bridges were toll free.

Facing financial ruin, the original Southwark Bridge Company first rented and then sold it to the Bridge House Estate in 1866.

This organisation traces its origins back to 1097, when a tax was raised to help repair London Bridge.  It continues to look after the bridges in the City of London to this day.

By the beginning of the 20th century the old bridge was no longer fit for purpose as it was only 42ft wide and its steep gradient made it difficult for horses to pull fully laden carts over it.

Eventually, the Bridge House Estate proposed that a new wider bridge be built.  Designed by architect Ernest George and civil engineer Basil Mott, the new structure incorporated five steel arches, supported by granite piers.

These arches were designed to line up with those on nearby London and Blackfriars bridges making it easier for boats to navigate the Thames.

Erection began in 1913, with the work being carried out by William Arrol & Co, a famous engineering firm which had also built the Forth Bridge, Tower Bridge and the huge gantry at Harland and Wolff in Belfast, used in the construction of the RMS Titanic.

Although building continued throughout the First World War, progress was slow, hindered by the lack of materials and manpower.

During construction the bridge was closed to vehicles, but temporary pedestrian footpaths were kept open throughout the whole project.

After the war finished, traffic congestion in the City again became a great problem, which resulted in a concerted effort to finish the bridge, it being one of the first major public works to be resumed after cessation of hostilities.

The final cost, borne entirely by the Bridge House Trust, was some £375,000.  The bridge was now 12ft wider and 7ft lower in the centre, making it far easier for horses to manage the crossing.

The Sphere – June 11 1921

King George V officially opened the new bridge on June 6, 1921.  The royal carriage drove through the streets from Buckingham Palace accompanied by a troop of the 2nd Life Guards.  Large enthusiastic crowds had gathered along the route.

Newspapers at the time reported that the King wore the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet and the Queen was attired in a costume of silver grey.

Flags and bunting adorned the bridge as the royal party entered its northern approach in Queen Street, where a large marquee had been erected.

On arrival, the King was met by the Lord Mayor of London, the Bishop of Southwark and many other dignitaries and presented with a large 15-carat gold key.

The King then made a speech in which he pronounced that ‘civilisation meant communication’ and suggested that anything which assisted the free movement of trade within the City and the London Metropolitan area would have benefits for the whole country and the wider Empire.

He also noted that ‘everyday, more than a million people have to be brought into this famous square mile and be taken out of it again’.

The Port of London was still extremely important to the British economy at this time and Southwark’s many wharves and warehouses would have played a crucial role in its day-to-day operations.

After the speeches the monarch, somewhat bizarrely, used the golden key to press an electrical switch which caused a small barrier to open on the northside of the bridge.

The King and Queen then became the first people to drive over the bridge in a vehicle.  A Pathe’ newsreel filmed on the day reveals that even then the City of London was far richer than its Southwark neighbour as the gates on the south side of the bridge are seen being opened manually by two burly police officers!

The procession continued across the bridge until the royal carriage arrived at St Saviour’s library on the corner of Union Street and Southwark Bridge Road, where the King was given printed addresses by the Mayor of Southwark and the Warden of the Great Account.

The procession then made its way back to Buckingham Palace, via the Borough to St George’s Circus and then over Westminster Bridge.

Though this was a grand affair, it does not appear that the spectacle of the opening did much to encourage people to use the bridge and rectify the traffic problem.

Just a few months later in September 1921, The Herald reported that there was still little traffic using the new bridge.  Its correspondent noted that while the other bridges were busy, most of the people using Southwark Bridge were sightseers.

Cab drivers and carters complained that the location of the bridge was out of the way and getting through the City was still a problem.

LCC trams ran over the bridge from at least 1923 but still the bridge remained underused.  In 1941 the northern approach of the bridge sustained severe bomb damage which necessitated the use of a temporary prefabricated ‘Hamilton’ bridge until this was removed in 1955.

It was designated a Grade II listed building in 1995 and underwent a major restoration project in 2009.  Although it is still the least used Bridge over the Thames, this rather elegant structure is looking good for a centenarian and no doubt will continue to link the Borough of Southwark with the City of London for many years to come.

Illustrated London News – June 11 1921


And some interesting facts…

Southwark Bridge will light up this weekend to mark its 100 year anniversary.

Throughout June 4-6 the bridge will be bathed in pulsing white light.

Giles Shilson, chairman of the City of London Corporation’s Bridge House Estates Committee, said: “It may not have the history of London Bridge or the glamour of Tower Bridge, but for the past century Southwark Bridge has played a vital but unsung role in carrying generations of Londoners across the Thames into and out of the City.

“For nearly 1,000 years, Bridge House Estates has been bridging the gap for Londoners – both literally and, more recently, in terms of our work tackling social disadvantage and economic divides across the capital.

“We work 365 days a year to keep our five bridges in good shape – at no cost to the taxpayer – while our charity funding arm, City Bridge Trust, gives out over £25 million a year to projects supporting some of the most vulnerable people across the capital.”


Southwark Bridge in numbers

The original Southwark Bridge, built by John Rennie, was a three-span cast iron bridge, the centre span of which, at 240 ft across, was said to be the widest ever built. It was constructed from 6,000 tons of iron from Rotherham, South Yorkshire and boasted a 29ft wide roadway with 6ft 9 ins footways on either side, compared to the 35ft roadway and 10ft footpaths of its successor.

The new bridge, designed by architect Sir Ernest George and engineer Sir Basil Mott, was constructed from steel, with five arches, to align with the bridges on either side – Blackfriars Bridge and Cannon Street Railway Bridge – easing passage for river traffic.

The present day bridge is 800ft long, with spans of between 123ft and 141ft. The surface area of the bridge covers around 46,000 sq ft, the equivalent area to around three and a half Olympic swimming pools.

The bridge was given a £2.5 million facelift by Bridge House Estates in 2011, when more than 1,000 tonnes of abrasive material was used to blast the bridge back to its bare metal framework, before 13,000 litres of paint were used to repaint it in its original colours, yellow and – its own special shade and one you won’t find in B&Q – Southwark Green.

Southwark Bridge in verse

In somewhat more flowery language than that used by its modern-day namesake, The Sun newspaper of 1819 paid this rhyming tribute to the original Southwark Bridge, a ‘stupendous structure’ which, it said, ‘appears almost to float in air’:


“The Gods, to visit Man, in times of old,

“From Heav’n in flaming chariots downward roll’d,

“But now the visit is returned by Man,

“He treads ethereal height on iron span,

“Where none before but airy sylphs could fly,

“Now rears the Southwark Bridge its head on high.

“Old Thames looks up to view the lofty flight,

“And see the structure pierce the realm of light,

“While shadows fall upon his silvery stream,

“That ne’er before had lost the day’s bright beam.”


Blasts, bombs and tragedy

Both Southwark bridges have seen their fair share of drama including, little remembered today, a gas explosion at the southern end of the old bridge shortly before 2pm on Friday, 1 February 1895. The Illustrated London News noted ‘the utmost consternation and alarm was caused’ to the hundreds of foot passengers crossing, while ‘the horses attached to omnibuses and other vehicles became affrighted’.

The Penny Illustrated Paper reported: “The explosion was preceded by rumbling, and then after the terrific report (series of explosions), the covers of the manholes and the paving flags were lifted to a considerable distance and broken in pieces.”

Five people were injured but mercifully none killed. The cause was suspected to be a discarded match or sparks from a horse’s shoe igniting gas from a leaking pipe. One of those thrown into the air by the blast, James Price, successfully sued the South Metropolitan Gas Company for negligence, and received £12 in damages.

During World War Two, new Southwark Bridge did not escape unscathed as London took a pounding from the Luftwaffe, sustaining serious damage at its northern end during a raid in 1941. It would be fourteen years before the bridge was fully repaired, with two temporary structures bridging the gap in the meantime, raising the gradient to ‘assume the appearance of a hump’, reminiscent of the old bridge’s days as ‘the curse of the carman’.

Perhaps the darkest moment in the history of Southwark Bridge came in the early hours of Sunday, 20 August 1989 when 51 people lost their lives after the pleasure boat Marchioness sank after being struck twice by the dredger Bowbelle, shortly after passing under the bridge.


The Sphere – April 9 1955

Digging up history

In Tudor and Stuart times, Southwark was a den of sin, home to such nefarious activities as bear-baiting, prostitution and unlicensed acting, and traces of two of its famed former theatres emerged from the ancient soil in the late 1980s.

Excavations beneath the car park of Anchor Terrace, in Park Street, revealed the site of Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre, which the southern approach road to the modern Southwark Bridge passes over. The larger portion of its footprint remains buried but a reconstructed Globe was built around 200 yards away and opened in 1997.

Nearby, the site of the Rose Theatre – which also staged works by Shakespeare and other luminaries such as Christopher Marlowe – was due to vanish under an office block but a campaign led by 20th century acting giants including Lord Olivier and Ian McKellen saved it for posterity, and it survives, as a reborn theatre venue, in the bowels of the new building.

Construction work on the new Southwark Bridge had itself unveiled archaeological finds of a more recent vintage when, in January 1915, workmen discovered on the river bed the foundation stone tablet from the old bridge, dating from almost a century earlier when, it read, work had begun ‘at the glorious termination of the longest and most expensive war in which the nation has ever been engaged’.

That proved to be a premature boast, as shortly after the tablet was inscribed, Napoleon escaped from exile in Elba and it took the Battle of Waterloo to finish him off. Also discovered was a glass bottle, encased in concrete, containing 15 gold, silver and copper coins dating from 1797 to 1815.

Southwark Bridge in popular culture

The old bridge, referred to as ‘the Iron Bridge’, is mentioned by Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend and Little Dorrit. Its successor features in the classic 1964 film version of Mary Poppins and in 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in which Harry and members of the order are seen flying towards the bridge on broomsticks.


All images courtesy of the City of London Corporation’s Bridge House Estates Committee


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