The Waterloo Bridge in London, Spanning Nearly 200 Years of History

View of the old Waterloo Bridge from Whitehall stairs, John Constable, 18 June 1817

View of the old Waterloo Bridge from Whitehall stairs, John Constable, 18 June 1817

Crowds attend the opening of Waterloo Bridge on 18th June 1817

Crowds attend the opening of Waterloo Bridge on 18th June 1817

Waterloo Bridge is a road and foot traffic bridge crossing the River Thames in London, England, between Blackfriars Bridge and Hungerford Bridge. The name of the bridge is in memory of the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Thanks to its location at a strategic bend in the river, the views of London (Westminster, the South Bank and London Eye to the west, the City of London and Canary Wharf to the east) from the bridge are widely held to be the finest from any spot at ground level.

First Bridge
The first bridge on the site was designed in 1809-10 by John Rennie for the Strand Bridge Company and opened in 1817 as a toll bridge. The granite bridge had nine arches, each of 120 feet (36.6 m) span, separated by double Grecian-Doric stone columns and was 2,456 feet (748.6 m) long, including approaches. Before its opening it was known as ‘Strand Bridge.’ During the 1840s the bridge gained a reputation as a popular place for suicide attempts. In 1841, the American daredevil Samuel Gilbert Scott was killed while performing an act in which he hung by a rope from a scaffold on the bridge. In 1844 Thomas Hood wrote the poem The Bridge of Sighs about the suicide of a prostitute there. Paintings of the bridge were created by the French Impressionist Claude Monet and the English Romantic, John Constable. The bridge was nationalised in 1878 and given to the Metropolitan Board of Works, who removed the toll from it.
Michael Faraday tried in 1832 to measure the potential difference between each side of the bridge caused by the ebbing salt water flowing through the Earth’s magnetic field.

View of the old Waterloo Bridge from Whitehall stairs, John Constable, 18 June 1817

View of the old Waterloo Bridge from Whitehall stairs, John Constable, 18 June 1817

From 1884, serious problems were found in Rennie’s bridge piers, after scour from the increased river flow after Old London Bridge was demolished damaged their foundations. By the 1920s the problems had increased, with settlement at pier five necessitating closure of the whole bridge while some heavy superstructure was removed and temporary reinforcements put in place.

Second Bridge
London County Council decided to demolish the bridge and replace it with a new structure designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The engineers were Ernest Buckton and John Cuerel of Rendel Palmer & Tritton. However Scott, by his own admission, was no engineer and his design, with reinforced concrete beams under the footways, leaving the road to be supported by transverse slabs, was difficult to implement. The pairs of spans on each side of the river were supported by beams continuous over their piers, and these were cantilevered out at their ends to support the centre span and the short approach slabs at the banks. The beams were shaped “to look as much like arches as…beams can.” They were clad in Portland stone from the South West of England; the stone cleans itself whenever it rains. To guard against the possibility of further subsidence from scour, each pier was given a number of jacks which can be used to level the structure.

The new crossing was partially opened on Tuesday 11 March 1942 and completed in 1945. The new bridge was the only Thames bridge to have been damaged by German bombers during World War II. The building contractor was Peter Lind & Company Limited. It is frequently asserted that the work force was largely female, and it is sometimes referred to as “the ladies’ bridge.”

Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, was assassinated on Waterloo Bridge by agents of the Bulgarian secret police assisted by the KGB.

Reuse of the Original Stones
Granite stones from the original bridge were subsequently “presented to various parts of the British world to further historic links in the British Commonwealth of Nations.” Two of these stones are in Canberra, the capital city of Australia, sited between the parallel spans of the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, one of two major crossings of Lake Burley Griffin in the heart of the city. Stones from the bridge were used to build a monument in Wellington, New Zealand, to Paddy the Wanderer, a dog that roamed the wharves from 1928 to 1939 and was befriended by seamen, watersiders, Harbour Board workers and taxi drivers. The monument includes a bronze likeness of Paddy and drinking bowls for dogs.

The south end of the bridge is the area known as The South Bank and includes the Royal Festival Hall, Waterloo station, Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Royal National Theatre, and the National Film Theatre (directly beneath the bridge).

In the 1950s the National Film Theatre (a legacy from the Festival of Britain) was built directly underneath Waterloo Bridge. In the 1980s the award winning Museum of the Moving Image was also built directly underneath the bridge and became perhaps the only museum in the world to have stalactites (from water leaking through the Bridge) growing within it.

The north end passes above the Victoria Embankment where the road joins the Strand and Aldwych alongside Somerset House. This end previously housed the southern portal of the Kingsway Tramway Subway until the late 1950s. The entire bridge was given Grade II* listed structure protection in 1981.

The nearest London Underground station is Waterloo. London Waterloo is also a National Rail station.

Cultural Associations
Robert E. Sherwood’s 1930 play, Waterloo Bridge, about a soldier who falls in love and marries a woman he meets on the bridge during an air raid in World War I, was made into films released in 1931, 1940 and 1956. The 1940 film starred Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor.

After the Lunch, a poem by Wendy Cope about two lovers parting on Waterloo Bridge, now forms the lyric of the song Waterloo Bridge by Jools Holland and Louise Marshall.

A scene in the BBC series Sherlock episode The Great Game takes place beneath the bridge’s northern side, where members of Sherlock’s homeless network congregate.

Waterloo Bridge features in the 2013 short film ‘On The Bridge’ starring Dean Lennox Kelly and Christopher Tester, based on a true story about a man who meets a soldier on Waterloo Bridge one night who wants to jump into the River Thames.

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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