Lambeth Bridges: 1862 and 1932 (Part 1)


It is surprising to note that for 600 years, until 1750, London only had one bridge: London Bridge. Mind you, it was a really good one, lined on both sides with buildings and shops and even a chapel.

In  the 1700ís, London existed between two distinct separate geographical areas; the City of London in the east, (as seen in the above picture), which was the centre of commerce, and The City of Westminster in the west, which was the centre of government. These had originally been entirely separate, with fields of cows grazing between them, but by now, there was a bustling spread of new developments between them. A bridge was badly needed at Westminster and the first one was finally built in 1750.

Here is a very beautiful painting of it by Canaletto, newly completed. A summerís day in 1750; we can almost smell the water.

On the right we can see the pre-Victorian Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) and Westminster Abbey. In the distance we can see Lambeth Palace and St Mary-at-Lambeth Church on the left bank of the Thames, but no Lambeth Bridge, of course.

So, put on some summer clothes, take a deep breath, step though the computer screen, and stroll down the south bank of the Thames, past the bridge to Lambeth on that sunny afternoon in 1750.

If we inspect the map below, we can clearly see that it is still just a village - a few narrow streets clustering by the riverbank and then just fields. Check this print of Lambeth Palace 1781. The exact point of view is shown by the yellow arrow on the map. Street names like 'Paradise Row' and 'Pleasant Place' make sense, when later on they make no sense at all.

There has been a horse ferry across the river at this point for centuries, from Horse Ferry Lane in Lambeth to Horseferry Road in Westminster. It's near where the Roman Road Watling Street used to ford a shallower and wider Thames. The ferry could accommodate a coach and six horses. (In 1656 the ferry sank with Oliver Cromwell on board, and his coach was lost).

The horse ferry is still there in 1750 but it could not compete with the bridge and had to close a few years later.

At the riverside at the top of the map we see Lambeth Stairs. Below is a picture of St-Mary-at-Lambeth and, descending into the river, Lambeth Stairs, on a nice day in the late 1700ís; birds wheeling in the sky above; we can just make out the arches of Westminster Bridge in the distance:

The 1800ís were a period of rapid expansion. New bridges sprung up across the Thames almost every year, including some arising from the new mania, railways. The countryside at Kennington and Vauxhall was ruthlessly exploited and developed. The railway swathed right through Lambeth with 192 arches. A toll bridge was built at Vauxhall in 1815, about a mile to the south on our map. It was the first iron bridge over the Thames.

It was also a period of rapid expansion for the Partletons; the first record of a Partleton in Lambeth is the wedding of Benjamin (1799-1843) at St Mary-at-Lambeth Church in 1822. Though he's a house painter, he's come over from the parish of St James, north of the river, to live in Lambeth, probably for a job - there's a factory on every street corner in Lambeth. In 1822 he probably used the boat crossing occasionally as an alternative to Westminster bridge.

By the 1850's we find dozens of Partletons living in crowded, unhealthy conditions in a grim, industrialised Lambeth which would have been unrecognisable 100 years earlier. But the residents still donít have any immediate means of crossing the river other than by boat.

Finally, In 1860, an Act of Parliament sanctioned the building of a bridge (against fierce opposition from the Guild of Watermen) and by 1862, the first Lambeth Bridge is constructed. It is a suspension bridge, charging a toll:

Here's an unusual view of it: stereoscopic. Sit with your face about a foot from the screen and cross your eyes to combine the two images. If you do it right, you'll see the bridge in 3D, just as they did in 1862. Step into their shoes...

And here's another stereoscopic view... who is that fellow leaning on the bridge on that sunny day?

It looks great in the above picture but when we see it from another angle, we can see that it is very poorly conceived right from the start. What were they thinking of?

Observe how narrow it is, with steep approaches at both ends; it was avoided whenever possible by horse-drawn traffic, being unsuitable for the poor horses who had to drag their loads up the slope. Consequently, it soon became used almost exclusively by pedestrians. By 1879 it is an economic disaster, and has to be adopted by the Metropolitan Board of Works to keep it going. The tolls are dropped, and inspections reveal that it is already severely corroded. In the picture above (1903), we see the toll booth at the left, already out of use for 24 years.

The bridge continues to be difficult and expensive to maintain, and with safety concerns, a decision is made in the 1920ís to replace it.

But this page has gone on long enough, so click below to see the story of the new bridge.

 Click here to continue to Part 2

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