Feast Your Eyes On The Old London Bridge

There’s been many bridges that have spanned the river towards the East of The City. But none can ever quite live up to the Medieval Wonder of the World; Old London Bridge.

Built between 1176 and 1209, it was the first to be built in stone and masterminded by Peter of Colechurch.

Detail from Claes Von Visscher of London Bridge c.1616 (Wikimedia Creative Commons)

To say it must’ve been astonishing to London onlookers is something of an understatement. It had 19 huge arches, leap-frogging across the churning river and by the 1400s there were 200 houses built along it.

Thankfully, you don’t just have to imagine it. You can actually feast your eyes on the Old London Bridge inside a City of London church; St Magnus the Martyr.

St Magnus the Martyr

The church on this site was built 1128-33 to cater for the ever increasing population and bustle around the old wooden bridge in the 12th century.

Old London Bridge

The present church however, only dates from the mid 17th century, rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London.

But, as ever, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Inside the church you’ll find an exquisite model of the Old London Bridge as it would’ve looked in the 15th century.

The model was completed by David T. Aggett in 1987. Post surgery he took up the epic project – with the help of tens of cardboard boxes –  to aid his recovery. An ex policeman (more on that later) and member of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers, the church has long been associated with that company. So when the Museum of London turned their nose up at the model, St Magnus stepped in to house it!

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A Closer Look

Old London Bridge

What makes the model so exciting is the addition of over 900 figures along the bridge, vividly recreating the bustle of Londoners going about their daily lives.

Old London Bridge

All of human life could’ve been found on the bridge;  wealthy merchants and noblemen rubbing shoulders with street sellers and ne’er do wells.

There’s even a King! King Henry V is shown on horseback riding along the bridge…

Old London Bridge

The eagle-eyed among you will be able to spot one thing amiss though, a contemporary policeman relaxing amidst his 15th century city dwellers. This is intact David making a cameo – after all that effort you would include yourself wouldn’t you?!

Old London Bridge
Unusual City Churches

Old London Bridge Features

As well as the Londoners, architectural features of the Old London Bridge can also be appreciated. For instance there was a chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket (handily en route for those taking a pilgrimage to Canterbury).

Old London Bridge

There was also a threatening gatehouse with a drawbridge. This acted to allow tall ships through, but also as a defence.

Old London Bridge

It’s also bedecked with the traditional London welcome; heads of criminals and traitors on spikes!

Old London Bridge

Interestingly the bridge is so much wider than our current London Bridge (opened in the 1970s) so the toll gate here would’ve been roughly where the South side of London Bridge ends today.

The other difference of course is that the current London bridge is around 100 feet upstream of the Old London Bridge.

But for those that want to experience the traditional route, walking under the porch of St Magnus would’ve been the pedestrian entrance to the Old London Bridge from when the church was rebuilt until 1831 when the bridge was demolished.

Old London Bridge

London Bridge with The Monument and St Magnus the Martyr by JMW Turner c.1794-5 Image from Tate.

Old London Bridge

And there’s a final bit of London history that shouldn’t be missed. The section of Roman wharf, dating from around 75AD that was found at nearby Fish Hill Street in 1931.

Old London Bridge

It just serves as evidence of the many layers of history under our feet!

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Old London Bridge

9 Comments

  • Kim J

    Reply

    I just wanted to thank you for this article and all the others. I’ve been reading your blogs for almost a year now and it has truly enhanced my visit to London. I saw things I never would have noticed before by looking up. Thank you.

    September 19, 2018 at 4:53 pm
  • Peter Colchurch

    Reply

    Are you sure it was much wider? I really don’t think that can be right.

    October 24, 2018 at 1:00 pm
    • PC – Possibly etymological confusion between ‘wider [and narrower]’ vis a vis’ longer [and shorter]’ . . . the old bridge was much ‘narrower’ than later rebuilds.
      An earlier Act Of Parliament decreed the houses be removed and the bridge widened to cope with the stirrings of the Industrial Revolutions, this was accomplished by 1760, Progress on the works was reported to the House of Commons,by an Overseer of the Bridge House Estate – my namesake!. He was later to be selected as City of London Rembrancer, a life time position.
      For more on about Old London Bridge, input ‘London Bridge Peter Roberts’,
      .

      February 3, 2019 at 2:16 am
  • Bill Rowe

    Reply

    When is the church of St Magnus the martyr open?
    I would like to see the Old London Bridge model.
    Thanks

    July 28, 2020 at 7:46 pm
  • Merl Stuart

    Reply

    This is fascinating, thank you so much for the very interesting and informative article, I only realised recently that there were
    houses on the bridge and just love the model. The Museum of London was definitely the loser in this deal!

    August 19, 2020 at 4:27 pm
  • I can’t say this was an inspiration for the river-spanning RiverArch building I and a U.K. engineer worked on to cross New York City’s East River: http://bit.ly/Riverarch, because we started that over 5 years ago, and I just now found out about this old “version” of river-housing today. But it’s glorious nonetheless, and portrays the kind of community spirit that I would hope for our building, should it ever get approved. Media coverage too: http://bit.ly/BroadsheetRA1

    August 3, 2022 at 2:27 pm

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