History

Our origins can be traced back over 800 years to the building of the first stone bridge over the Thames.

Bridges across London

The River Thames has played a major part in the history of London. It has provided both wealth and opportunity by allowing the City to become a major port with links to Europe and the world. But to Londoners the Thames has also acted as a physical barrier, dividing north and south London to this day.

As a result, getting across the Thames has always been vital to London’s prosperity and for centuries London’s citizens had made gifts of land and money to “God and the Bridge”. This was because the Church encouraged the building of bridges and this activity was so important it was perceived to be an act of piety – a commitment to God which should be supported by the giving of alms.

Back in 1097, William Rufus, second son of William the Conqueror, raised a special tax to help repair the wooden London Bridge. In 1176, during the reign of Henry II, Peter de Colechurch, a priest and head of the Fraternity of the Brethren of London Bridge, began building the first stone bridge across the River Thames. That bridge, with its 19 arches, was completed 33 years later in 1209, six years before King John signed the Magna Carta further along the Thames at Runnymede. There can be no doubt that the new bridge was well built and maintained as it lasted for some 600 years.

By the end of the 13th century the shops and houses adorning Peter de Colechurch’s new stone London Bridge were beginning to generate not only increased cross-river trade, but also increased taxes, rents and bequests. A significant fund began to accumulate and it was administered from a building on the south side of the bridge called Bridge House, with the fund becoming known as the Bridge House Estates. This fund was eventually to come under the stewardship of the City of London Corporation which manages it to this day.

Over the centuries the fund prospered mightily through strong and thrifty administration of the ever increasing property assets both in the City and the surrounding countryside. The Bridgemasters maximised income from a great variety of sources including, for example: “receiving tolls on carts passing over the Bridge, tolls from ships passing under the Bridge and fines for unlawful fishing from the Bridge”.

In relatively recent years the charity built Blackfriars Bridge, purchased Southwark Bridge and, just over a century ago, constructed Tower Bridge. London Bridge itself has also been rebuilt twice. Finally in February 2002, the Trust took over the ownership and maintenance of the new pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge, which spans the Thames between St Paul’s and Bankside.

The City Bridge Trust

For centuries, the City of London Corporation as the Trustee of the Bridge House Estates was only permitted to utilise the income of the fund for expenditure on its bridges. This included the maintenance of existing bridges, building or acquiring additional bridges, or replacing bridges when they became unfit for purpose. In addition, if one of the bridges happened to collapse or was damaged the charity would be required to rebuild it out of its own resources with no assistance from public funds, and this meant that a healthy reserve had to be maintained.

However, such was the level of funds generated that in the later years of the 20th Century a cy-près scheme evolved which allowed the objects of the fund to be widened. This enabled any surplus monies to be applied to other charitable purposes benefiting Greater London. Importantly, this applies only after setting aside adequate provision for the Trust’s primary purpose, which remains the provision and maintenance of the five bridges. The City Bridge Trust first began awarding grants in September 1995 and since then it has awarded over 7,000 grants totalling £1/3 billion across London.

The Bridge Mark

BridgemarkThis mark has been the identifying emblem for the Bridge House Estates Trust for many centuries. It is likely that the mark as we know it today was designed by a famous seventeenth century surveyor, William Leybourn, who is thought to have adapted a similar mark drawn against plots owned by Bridge House Estates on an earlier plan of St George’s Fields. It is still visible on several of the five bridges.

Further information

If you would like to learn more about the history of London, including our bridges, the Museum of London, which is based in the City, provides a comprehensive history of the capital, from prehistoric times to the present day.

The Museum of London Docklands has a fascinating scale model of the medieval Old London Bridge. 

Tower Bridge Exhibition is open to the public and offers spectacular views across London from its walkways, which also include an exhibition on the history of Tower Bridge and its construction. As part of Bridge House Estates, all profits generated by the Exhibition come back into the charity and form part of our grantmaking funds.

Finally, there are a number of books available on the history of the Thames and its bridges. Some of these are available through the Museum of London, or in the local history section of any major book retailer.