Westminster Bridge Defies a King and the Church

The original Westminster Bridge crossed by Wordsworth and as painted by Canaletto
The original Westminster Bridge crossed by Wordsworth and as painted by Canaletto

by Ray Setterfield

May 24, 1862 — The Archbishop of Canterbury – head of the Church in England – probably prayed there would never be a bridge across the River Thames at Westminster. Cynics said this was because he was receiving a steady income from the horse ferry which he owned, running from Lambeth on one side of the river to Westminster on the other.

But he was not alone. Up to the end of the 17th Century most traffic moved up and down on the river rather than by road. River transport was big business and the men who plied their trade on boats and ferries had a lot to lose from the construction of new bridges.

They were backed by the Corporation of London which did not want trade moving to the fringes of London, but claimed its main objections were the loss of custom to the watermen and to the City markets and the danger of the navigation of the river being impeded.

One of the claims was that if the watermen lost their jobs there would be fewer readily available seamen for the navy if England went to war.

The arguments raged on until in 1664 a major proposal for a bridge was made to the King's Privy Council and to the Lord Mayor. City businesses then played their ace card and bribed King Charles II to scrap the proposal.

Officially, it was an interest-free loan, but however the transaction was described the effect was that the building of Westminster Bridge would not take place for nearly 100 years.

However, over time various people continued to press for such a bridge until in 1721 petitions went to Parliament. There was the same opposition as before but in the end the case was won and permission to build the bridge finally received Royal Approval on 20 May 1736, when George II was on the throne. Work began in 1738 and the bridge was opened on 18 November 1750.

The watermen received £25,000 in compensation for loss of business and the Archbishop of Canterbury went away with £21,025 – huge sums of money in those days.

Sadly, within 100 years the bridge was subsiding badly and was costing a fortune in maintenance. It had to be replaced and a new bridge – the one still in use today – was opened on 24 May 1862.

Before that, “Daffodils” poet William Wordsworth penned his memorable poem not so much about the old bridge itself, but the view from it.

With his sister, Dorothy, he was on his way to France and had to catch an early-morning ferry from Dover.

She wrote in her journal in 1802: “We left London on Saturday morning at half past 5 or 6, the 31st July [and] we mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross. It was a beautiful morning. The City, St Pauls, with the River & a multitude of little Boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge.

“The houses were not overhung by their [usual] cloud of smoke & they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of one of nature's own grand Spectacles.”

Brother William could not resist composing a poem about it, which became one of his most famous and popular works:

“Upon Westminster 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 unto 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 lying still!

Published: May 20, 2019

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