This is another postcard from our family archive. It was put into the letterbox late on the evening of August 17th, 1905; but it wasn’t stamped by the Post Office until just after midnight – 12:15am on August 18th. GBB informs Mrs Roebuck in Doncaster: “We have been over this bridge tonight Red Bus, Going on nicely. Kings X 11.30 GBB”.
Curious … why did GBB mention the red bus?; and where had he been?
I’m pretty sure he mentioned the red bus because it was something very new. The London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) had started running motorised bus services only three years previously. Thomas Tilling started using them in 1904. Prior to that, London buses were horse-drawn.
As GBB was on his way to catch a late night train from King’s Cross station, he’d presumably been south of the river. I wondered what number bus he had travelled on: but I discovered that London buses weren’t numbered until 1906. But what had enticed him down to London – what would have made him travel the 170 odd miles from Doncaster to south London?
I wonder if he was a cricket fan? The Daily News for August 17th includes a very detailed report on the last day of the final Test Match between England and Australia, which took place south of the Thames at the Kennington Oval. The match was drawn but England won the series 2-0. Interestingly, Test matches only lasted three days back then. According to Wikipedia, “In 1905 England’s captain Stanley Jackson not only won the series 2–0, but also won the toss in all five matches and headed both the batting and the bowling averages”. At 48-4 and 103-5, the last day was a bit worrisome for England until the arrival at the crease of two northerners, Tyldesley and Spooner, both Lancashire players, who put the match out of Australia’s reach.
Despite this, if he was present I suspect GBB would have been less than impressed by the pair, given the rivalry between Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Built in the 1830s, the bridge was the busiest place in London by the end of the nineteenth century, with on average 900 vehicles and some 8,000 pedestrians crossing it each hour. The level of traffic meant that it had to be widened by thirteen feet; the works began in 1902 and lasted for some two years, with steel cantilever sections being used to support stone corbels. It seems to me that the new width was taken up largely, if not solely, by new pavements. It was quite a complex process, as shown in the following postcards.
There have been many “London” bridges in history; the earliest were wooden constructions, the first dating back to Roman times.The last wooden bridge was built in 1163. The first stone bridge was completed in the reign of King John, the work having taken thirty-three years to complete.
This image of the London landscape produced in 1616 by Claes Van Visscher shows Old London Bridge with Southwark Cathedral in the foreground and the spiked heads of executed criminals (circled) above the Southwark gatehouse (the tradition of displaying heads on pikes on the bridge lasted for over 350 years).
“Old London Bridge” survived numerous fires and structural failures – often caused by the weight of the many dwellings built on it – and was in place for over 600 years. But it was finally demolished in 1831, to be replaced by a bridge built largely of granite, designed by John Rennie.
This was the London Bridge crossed by GBB in 1905 – but it’s no longer there … Unfortunately, the weight of the granite, coupled with the immense amount of traffic being carried, resulted in the bridge slowly sinking, meaning it became dangerously unstable. Nonetheless, it remained in place until 1967, when it was sold to Robert P. McCulloch of McCulloch Oil for some US$2.5 million. The bridge was carefully demolished, each of its stones numbered and catalogued.
The structure was re-assembled in Lake Havasu City, in Arizona, where it has become a major tourist attraction, second only in popularity to the Grand Canyon.
There were rumours at the time that McCulloch thought he was buying Tower Bridge, which is perhaps more famous and visually striking, but this has always been vehemently denied by his spokespeople. Having said that, many people do confuse the two, as illustrated here:
The nursery rhyme, London Bridge Is Falling Down, has been speculatively connected to several of the bridge’s historic collapses.
Rennie’s Old London Bridge is a prominent landmark in T.S. Eliot‘s masterpiece The Waste Land, wherein he compares the shuffling commuters across London Bridge to the hell-bound souls of Dante‘s Limbo.
In literature, probably the most famous poem about a London bridge is Lines Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, by William Wordsworth, written on September 3rd, 1802. The only slightly odd aspect of the piece is that the poet doesn’t actually mention the bridge!
Earth has not anything to show more fair;
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty;
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open to the fields, and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is beating still!
Picture credit: numbered London Bridge stone: Steve Skarg