Survey of London: Volume 23, Lambeth: South Bank and Vauxhall. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1951.
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CHAPTER 17 - WESTMINSTER BRIDGE
Suggestions for a bridge across the river at Westminster were mooted soon after the Restoration but were vigorously resisted by the citizens of London, and it is significant that in granting a loan of £100,000 to King Charles II in 1664 they took the opportunity to express their thanks to him for preventing “the new bridge proposed to be built over the river of Thames betwixt Lambeth and Westminster, which, as is conceived, would have been of dangerous consequence to the state of this City.” (fn. 93) The objections of the City were fully set out in a document of 1722, when the project was again under discussion, the main points being the loss of custom to the watermen and to the City markets and the danger of the navigation of the river being impeded. (fn. 147)
Westminster was growing rapidly at the beginning of the 18th century and the inconvenience of having to cross the river by boat or to make the long detour to the south side of the river by London Bridge was increasingly felt by its inhabitants. In 1735, when a Bill for a bridge at Westminster was introduced into Parliament, the City could no longer uphold its objections and the Bill became law in the following year. (fn. 148)
The Act appointed a number of influential persons as commissioners and provided for £625,000 to be raised by a lottery by the sale of £5 tickets from which £100,000 was to be paid to the commissioners. Three amending Acts were needed before the bridge was finished and three lotteries were held. £197,500 was raised by this means and the remainder of the total cost of the bridge, £380,500, was granted by Parliament so that the bridge was opened free of toll. (fn. 93)
The bridge was designed by Charles Labelye, a naturalised Swiss engineer and architect. His employment provoked the anger of English architects, the most violent expression of which was in a pamphlet by Batty Langley entitled survey of Westminster Bridge as 'tis now sinking into ruin, published in 1748, in which he referred to Labelye as Mr. Self-Sufficient, and depicted him hanging from a gibbet under one of the arches of the bridge. (fn. 149) (fn. n1)
Andrews Jelfe and Samuel Tufnell were employed as master masons and James King as master carpenter. (fn. 150)
The original plan was to build a wooden superstructure on stone piers, but in 1739 the commissioners decided to have a bridge built entirely of stone. The foundations were laid in caissons, the first time this method of building had been employed on a large scale. (fn. 96) Cavities were dug in the bed of the river for the reception of the caissons, but the piers were built directly on to the soil and not on piles. (fn. 151) It was perhaps because of this that in 1747, when the bridge was almost complete, the sixth pier from the Westminster end subsided 16 inches, causing the adjoining arches to crack, with the result that they had to be rebuilt.
Westminster Bridge was opened on 18th November, 1750. The Gentleman's Magazine described it as “a very great ornament to our metropolis, and will be looked on with pleasure or envy by all foreigners. The surprising echo in the arches, brings much company with French horns to entertain themselves under it in summer; and with the upper part, for an agreeable airing, none of the publick walks or gardens can stand in competition.” Other writers took a less cheerful view, suggesting that the recesses in the form of alcoves over each pier, designed for shelter in bad weather, might be used by robbers and cut-throats who, if it were not for the special guard of 12 watchmen and the high balustrades, might set on unwary travellers and push their bodies into the river. (fn. 93)
The bridge was built of Portland stone. A contemporary manuscript description of it runs: “This magnificent structure is 1,223 feet in length, and above 300 feet longer than London Bridge. The Footway on each side; 7 feet—Horse Road 30 feet wide. There are 13 large and two smaller arches, all semi-circular. The breadth of the two middle piers, is 17 feet at the springing of the arches, and contain 3,000 cubic feet, or near 200 tons of solid stone, and the others on each side, regularly decrease, one foot in breadth. The Center arch is 76 feet wide, and the others decrease 4 feet in width, on each side, The caisson or wooden case, in which the first pier was built, contained 150 loads of timber. The last stone was laid in November, 1747—eleven years and nine months, from the beginning of the construction.” (fn. 150)
From 1810 onwards, but more particularly after the removal of old London Bridge in 1831 increased the scour of the river, Westminster Bridge began to show signs of decay. Select Committees enquired into the matter in 1844, 1846, and 1850, and in 1851 a Commission was appointed by the Treasury to consider the most convenient site for a new bridge and the best mode of construction to be adopted. (fn. 152)
The new bridge was designed by Thomas Page in consultation with Sir Charles Barry. (fn. 153) It was begun in 1854 and opened on 24th May, 1862. To save the erection of a temporary bridge the first half of the new bridge was built upstream of the old and put into use before the second half was built on the site of the old bridge. The cost, £400,000, was defrayed partly by funds in the hands of the Westminster Bridge Commissioners and partly by parliamentary grant. (fn. 152)
The present bridge is of Gothic design, which accords with the Houses of Parliament. The elegance of its delicate proportions is enhanced by the gentle convexity of outline from bank to bank. The bridge is simple in detail and has seven spans of which the central is 130 feet wide. The subsidiary spans are of 125 and 115 feet with those adjacent to the abutments of 100 feet.
The downstream parapet coincides on plan with the equivalent parapet on the old bridge, though with a 58 foot roadway and 13 foot footpaths at each side, the present bridge is of almost twice the width.
The spans are semi-elliptical in shape and spring from piers which are faced by cutwaters of graceful form. Standing upon the cutwaters are short semi-octagonal pillars with moulded plinths and caps. The pillars finish flush with the parapets and, like the facing stones of the piers, are built in grey Cornish granite. The traceried spandrels above the outer ribs, as well as the other ribs supporting each span, are of cast-iron, as are the parapets, which are pierced by trefoils, and the lamp standards above each pier. The abutments at each bank are faced with Portland stone which was reworked from materials salved when the old bridge was demolished. (fn. n1) There are coats of arms in the arch spandrels, and panels on the roadway side of the four centre piers containing the arms of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.