For centuries London Bridge was
the only crossing in central London, the next bridge upstream
was many miles away at Kingston.
The only crossing at this point
was by the 'Lambeth Horseferry' but this took a long time
and could be risky when the tides were fast.
During the reign of Elizabeth
I several attempts were made to pass an Act authorising a
bridge at Westminster but the City always objected.
However, in 1734 Charles Labelye, a Swiss engineer submitted
his plans and in 1736 the Earl of Pembroke and his followers
were granted their Act. This empowered them to hold
a lottery to raise money for the new structure, which became
known as the 'Bridge of Fools'.
The foundation stone for the
first pier was laid in 1739 by the Earl of Pembroke. Cast-iron
caissons were driven into the river bed by an engine invented
by M. Valoue, a Swiss watchmaker. Building work hampered by
financial problems and the harsh winters as well as wars in
Europe, sabotage by the watermen, accidents and a small earthquake.
Later cracks appeared in the masonry and in 1747 stones from
the fifth arch fell into the Thames.
The Earl of Pembroke died shortly
before Westminster Bridge was opened in 1750. Labelye,
worn out by the ten years of work and worries, retired to
the South of France, where he died in 1781.
The bridge was 1,038 feet long
and 44 ft wide.The bridge, which tended to sway on its foundations,
was never fully trusted. When the old London Bridge
was removed in 1831 the scour of the river upstream undermined
the foundations of Westminster Bridge and it became dangerous.
In 1836 James Walker began piecemeal reconstruction of the
structure over 10 years to complete and when complete he joined
Charles Barry, George Rennie and Thomas Page in submitting
designs for a replacement bridge.
In 1854 work began on a new bridge,
the seven-arch wrought-iron bridge is overall 827 ft long
and 84 ft wide. Opened in May 1862, Westminster Bridge
is painted predominately green for the Commons benches of
the Houses of Parliament, Lambeth Bridge is painted red for
the benches of the Lord's.
It was the construction of Westminster Bridge that started
the development of the South Bank. Westminster Bridge
is now the oldest bridge in use in London and, apart from
the repair of a few cracked ribs in 1924, it has had needed
very little repair since it opened almost 150 years ago.