The Thames has over two hundred bridges crossing it, which is remarkable given that for much of its history, there was just the one – London Bridge. One of the most interesting of these bridges is perhaps Waterloo Bridge. It may not be the most glamorous looking, but in this week’s quick installment of “Love Letters To London”, I shall explain why I’m particularly fond of it.
The original Waterloo Bridge (known as the Strand Bridge before completion) was built on this stretch of the river, now situated between Blackfriars Bridge and Hungerford Bridge, in 1817, opened as a toll bridge. Its history remains chequered, as during the 1840s, it had become a popular destination for suicide attempts, a reputation that seems to have tragically lingered. In 1878, the toll booth was removed, and people could pass freely across, but in the 1920s, the bridge closed – the structure was becoming increasingly dangerous.
Demolished, plans were afoot to rebuild it, with new technologies to make it safer and longer-lasting. It was also clad in Portland stone, which has the remarkable ability to clean itself when it rains. Despite the start of World War II, the bridge was partly opened in 1942, and completely in 1945, although it holds the dubious distinction of being the only bridge in London damaged by bombs during the Blitz.
It also holds another remarkable distinction – one far less dubious – in that it was built primarily by women. With men all at war, the work force was mostly female and so it has gained the sometimes title of The Ladies’ Bridge in honour of the women who worked on it. My girlfriend likes to acknowledge also the fact that it remains the only London bridge to have been completed on time and under budget.
History, however, seems to have largely obscured this fact. Despite an announcement being made at its completion that thanked all the men who worked hard on its construction, it seems that generally women’s displacement from history in this area was because the records were lost, and not through malice or sexism, but one does wonder.
The most thrilling aspect of the 370 metre bridge to me though lies beneath it, rather than on it. Under its final arch on the Southbank sits a book market, one of the most delightful in the country, if not the world. Because they’re sheltered by the bridge, come rain or shine the outdoor book market is open for business, selling second hand and antique books of every genre imaginable. I’ve picked up so many bargains over the years, as well as discovering some genuine treasures.
So that’s Waterloo Bridge, a quick run down of one of the Thames’s many crossings. I daresay more will be forthcoming – we’ve got a lot of time and plenty to get through.