In the second half of the 18th Century my family lived at One London Bridge – the first house and shop you came to as you entered the City of London from the Southwark end. One of the things which I find incredibly sad about the family diaries from the 18th and 19th Centuries is the story of Francis Hall (the younger of two sons which my 4xgreat grandfather had by his first wife). After all, he never really wanted to be a shopkeeper – he was never trained as a haberdasher like his father and elder brother, and was only drafted in to the family business at Number One London Bridge when brother William got bored with the retail trade and deserted the shop for the freedom of being a silk-man. That was in the 1790’s.
Francis stepped into the breach without complaint. His life wasn’t easy – his first wife died in 1799 shortly after giving birth to a son. Her previous pregnancies had resulted in three live births (all three of them boys and all three of them dying within a couple of months) and a pair of stillborn twins. She was just 28 at the time of her death, which resulted from complications linked to the birth, but the latest child, another boy, somehow survived.
Bringing up a tiny infant while trying to run the business must have been a daunting task for the newly widowed Francis – it doesn’t bear thinking about! In practice he married again fairly soon afterwards, but never had any more children.
From the moment when he became an owner of the business (jointly with father Richard, who took no part in the running of the shop, but who paid all the bills and pocketed half the profits) Francis knew that he was in charge of an asset which had a declining value as the lease ran out. Richard had originally signed a 61 year lease from the Corporation of London at an annual rent of just under £28. It would inevitably expire on Christmas Day 1826, at which point Francis would have to move out and surrender possession to the Landlord. He must have felt the clock ticking every day, especially after his father died in 1801 leaving him the business. He would know full well that he would be 68 years old when the lease expired – and he would be losing not just his business but the home he had lived in since he was twelve years old as well.
There was something else looming over Francis – the knowledge that all he had worked for, all he had done, was likely to be pulled down as soon as the lease was up. He would have known that plans had been mooted from the very beginning of the century to pull down the old bridge and put up a new one just upstream… and that the building at One London Bridge would be demolished so that improved access roads could be constructed. Year by year the knife would have been driven home – a competition to find the best design, parliamentary approval, detailed feasibility studies etc.
All the time the old bridge was deteriorating. The Great Arch had been constructed only seventy years earlier but the pillars were all constructed on their original 500 year old foundations and they were beginning to suffer subsidence. Bluntly the bridge was no longer fit for purpose – either for shipping or for pedestrians, let alone for vast numbers of carts carriages and wheeled vehicles, livestock and so on.
In July 1823 Parliament finally authorised work to commence in accordance with the plans prepared by John Rennie. The first pile was driven on March 15th 1824 and a year later, on 15th June, the foundation stone was laid with great ceremony.
All day and every day Francis Hall would have had to contend with the noise and dust of construction work, especially with constant pile driving. It can hardly have been conducive to the business of selling fabrics and general haberdashery! To add to his misfortunes his second wife died in July 1825. By then his son had grown up and left home, so Francis would have been alone in the house in those final years.
The warehouse premises next door to Number One were pulled down, and Francis would have had a grandstand view from his living room window of the coffer dam being built to his right, and the excavation for a grand flight of steps leading to the water’s edge, immediately in front of him. The old bridge to the left was still in use, but shored up in places with wooden boards to try and stop any more masonry falling into the river.
The excellent map by Greenwood dated 1827 shows the two bridges side by side, and I have highlighted in red the building where Francis would have watched the unfolding picture.
The stone blocks for the new bridge were cut and the arches laid out on the Isle of Dogs, and then lettered and numbered before being brought to the site and lowered into place. Everywhere cranes and derricks were loading and unloading, while stone-masons hammered away. Men swarmed over the scaffolding like ants.
December 1826 must have been especially poignant for Francis as he found buyers for his remaining stock within the trade, and began plans for moving out. Maybe he over-did the furniture shifting. Or maybe he simply was heart-broken to be leaving – either way, the lease expired on Christmas Day, and Francis, whose birthday it was on Boxing Day, expired immediately afterwards.
This painting from 1827 looking at the Northern bank of the river from the Southwark side, shows the old bridge on the right, and is looking straight at the site of One London Bridge, It is low tide and the starlings supporting the pillars of the old bridge are exposed. The parapet above the fifth arch is shored up, and the subsidence in the old arches is clearly visible. Standing above the line of the parapet can be seen a number of the cupulas, designed to give shelter and protection to pedestrians, mentioned below.
Francis never saw the New Bridge being formally opened on the 1st of August, 1831, in the presence of His Majesty King William IV. The picture above (courtesy of the Tate) shows the opening ceremony with the old bridge in the background – demolition could not start in earnest until the new structure was fully operational
He never got to see the old bridge being pulled down arch by arch, and the old starlings, used to protect the foundations, being excavated and removed. Today very few pieces of stonework remain – although there are a couple of the old cupolas to be found in Victoria Park.
What is especially interesting is the incredibly detailed record of the works as they progressed, drawn by a young man called Edward William Cooke. He started his drawings in 1826 when he was fifteen. Guildhall Library holds 69 of these drawings: according to their site they were presented in 1872 by Alderman Sir David Salomons, a close friend of Cooke. Twelve of the drawings were later selected for engraving and publication in 1833 under the title ‘Views of the Old and New London Bridge’
Here is his picture of the demolition of one of the pillars to the Great Arch:
Within a few years no trace remained of the old bridge, and the old family shop at Number One passed into history. But I do rather like this 1870 painting of the Rennie bridge, looking towards where the family ran their business for over 60 years. It is shown courtesy of the Atkinson Grimshaw website at http://www.johnatkinsongrimshaw.org :