London’s ‘unsung bridge’ lights up to mark its 100th birthday

It has survived a bombing during the Blitz, witnessed tragedy on the Thames and appeared in a Harry Potter film... this weekend one of London’s unsung bridges marks its 100th birthday.

Unlike most centenarians, Southwark Bridge won’t get a telegram from the Queen, but it did receive a royal christening, opened amid pomp and ceremony by King George V on 6 June 1921.

Every evening this weekend, the bridge – which replaced an earlier, 19th century iron bridge on the same site – will be specially bathed in pulsing white light to mark its anniversary.

The crossing is one of five City bridges maintained by the City of London Corporation’s Bridge House Estates charitable trust, originally set up in 1097 to maintain old London Bridge.

Chairman of the City of London Corporation’s Bridge House Estates Board, Giles Shilson, said:

“It may not have the history of London Bridge or the glamour of Tower Bridge, but for the past century Southwark Bridge has played a vital but unsung role in carrying generations of Londoners across the Thames into and out of the City.

“For nearly 1,000 years, Bridge House Estates has been bridging the gap for Londoners – both literally and, more recently, in terms of our work tackling social disadvantage and economic divides across the capital.

“We work 365 days a year to keep our five bridges in good shape – at no cost to the taxpayer – while our charity funding arm, City Bridge Trust, gives out over £25 million a year to projects supporting some of the most vulnerable people across the capital.”

Work on the new steel arch bridge began in 1913 but its completion was delayed due to World War One. It was built from Bridge House Estates funds at a cost of £375,000 – around half the cost of the original Iron Bridge built through private subscription a century earlier.

The special lighting of the bridge will be visible from 9.30pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening. To mark the centenary, a 100-second lighting cycle will repeat 100 times.

Southwark Bridge through the ages

- The new Southwark Bridge was opened by King George V, who used a golden key to open temporary barriers before driving across in a horse-drawn carriage, on Monday, 6 June 1921

- The five-arch bridge steel bridge was designed by architect Sir Ernest George and engineer Sir Basil Mott, and replaced an earlier three-arch iron bridge by John Rennie, opened in 1819

- The old bridge was labelled ‘the curse of the carman (cart driver) and the ruin of his horses’ because of its narrow approaches and steep gradient

- Five people were injured in an explosion on the old bridge in 1895, thought to have been caused by a discarded match or sparks from a horse’s shoe igniting gas from a leaking pipe

- The new bridge suffered serious damage during an air raid in 1941 and was not fully repaired until 1955 with access maintained by means of two temporary structures

- The old bridge was mentioned by Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend and Little Dorrit, while its successor appears in 1964 film classic Mary Poppins and in 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in which Harry and friends are seen flying towards the bridge on broomsticks.

- The bridge is 800ft long with a surface area of around 46,000 sq ft – the equivalent to around three and a half Olympic swimming pools

- It was given a £2.5 million facelift in 2011, when more than 1,000 tonnes of abrasive material was used to blast it back to its bare metal framework, before 13,000 litres of paint were used to repaint it in its original colours – yellow and its own special shade of ‘Southwark Green’

A right royal opening

The opening of the new bridge in 1921 was described by Donald Maxwell, a reporter for The Graphic, who bribed a workman to let him onto the roof of a nearby warehouse to get a good view:

He wrote: “A burst of music floats across the river. The King has arrived, and is receiving an address from the hands of the Lord Mayor. Then he opens the gates with a golden key. A fanfare of trumpets and the Bishop of Southwark pronounces a benediction.

“The bridge is empty save for policemen standing to attention at intervals on either side of the roadway. The crowd at the Southwark end is silent and alert. But the river, with its lighters floating on the tide, can wait for no man, and the life of the Thames below is as active as usual. Indeed, one lighterman, who is having a struggle with the wind, is referring to the new structure unlovingly.

“A rider in red, and then the King and Queen drive over the bridge and a loud ovation greets them from the densely packed streets of the Surrey side. Other carriages follow, and at last public traffic commences. The first over is a taxi, and the King’s highway is open to all sorts and conditions of men.”

Pictures and video

- Lord Mayor boat – Lord Mayor William Russell joins Paul Monaghan, the City Corporation’s Assistant Director of Engineering, for a boat inspection of the underside of the bridge ahead of its lighting up this weekend (City of London Corporation)

- Southwark Bridge bomb damage – Firefighters hose down buildings on the north side of the bridge following a bombing raid in 1941 (London Metropolitan Archives)

- Southwark Bridge 1969 – view under the arches in 1969 (London Metropolitan Archives)

- Illustrated Police News - Feb 9 1895 – depiction of a gas explosion on old Southwark Bridge

- The Graphic - June 11 1921 – newspaper coverage of the royal opening of the new bridge

- Southwark Bridge 1/ 2 - Southwark Bridge today (City of London Corporation)

A video showing the royal opening of the bridge is at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Od5tDhImf1Q (British Pathe)

Note – more pictures and historical background are available on request.

Notes to editors

The City of London Corporation is the governing body of the Square Mile, dedicated to a vibrant and thriving City, supporting a diverse and sustainable London within a globally-successful UK – www.cityoflondon.gov.uk

The City Corporation is the sole trustee of Bridge Houses Estates, founded in 1097 to maintain London Bridge, and Members of its Court of Common Council form the Bridge House Estates Board.

Bridge House Estates is still responsible for maintaining Tower, London, Southwark, Millennium and Blackfriars Bridges, and its charity funding arm City Bridge Trust – founded in 1995 – gives out over £25 million a year to good causes across the capital – www.citybridgetrust.org.uk

Tim Fletcher | Media officer – public services

City of London Corporation

07738 862229 | tim.fletcher@cityoflondon.gov.uk