David Madden is the author of more than 10 novels, including The Suicide’s Wife and Sharpshooter: A Novel of the Civil War. His latest book, London Bridge in Plague and Fire, brings to life the Old London Bridge, which began construction in 1176 and was eventually dismantled in 1834. In the novel, a young poet who lives on the bridge uses his imagination to resurrect the bridge’s architect and the life of the bridge itself, which was one of the wonders of the world.
Madden bought over a thousand books for research on the novel, learning many fascinating details about the bridge along the way. Here, he shares a few fun facts with readers.
What architectural gem (including forgotten gems!) would you like to bring to life in fiction?
Fascinating trivia about Old London Bridge
by David Madden
• London Bridge was like a little village. By 1600 almost 300 shops had been built right on the bridge, above each of which rose a very narrow house of four-to-five stories high. Only 12 feet wide, the roadway was dangerously clogged with wagons, carts, coaches and foot-traffic.
• Above the Great Stone Gate near the Southwark side, the severed heads of executed criminals and traitors, sometimes as many as 30, were stuck on pikes above the Great Stone Gateway to Southwark.
• Petty thieves and gossiping women were exposed in a locked cage on the bridge.
• Spanning two thousand years, London Bridge evolved through many fragile wooden forms until it became the first bridge built of stone in England since the Roman invaders evacuated.
• The master-builder, a priest named Peter de Colechurch, began erecting the bridge in 1176.
• 33 years in the making, Father Peter’s stone version of the ancient bridge soon became one of the wonders of the world. It stood for almost 800 years—the only bridge over the Thames River until Westminster Bridge was erected in 1750.
• People shopped on the bridge for gloves, stockings, necklaces, linen, silk, salt, hats, shoes, fruits and vegetables, among many other items. Over each shop hung a decoratively distinctive sign.
• Bridge-crossers passed children singing “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” People who taught that still universally famous song to the children on the bridge did not know its gruesome origin—a pagan ritual in which a young virgin girl was sealed up alive in the pier at the foot of a bridge to appease the gods.
• Much of British history, and thus world history, crossed that bridge during numerous wars, storms, great frosts, fires and plagues. The last great London plague happened in 1665, and a year later the last great London Fire destroyed most of the old city. Neither seriously affected the bridge.
• Almost midway, on two of the 19 piers, Father Peter built a chapel to honor Archbishop Thomas a Becket, murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Peter died before completion of the chapel, five years before completion of the bridge itself.
• Water wheels at the London bridge-head and mill wheels at the Southwark bridge-foot set up a great racket and vibrations.
• Daredevil young men and watermen in long narrow boats shot the rapids between the piers, which were erected quite close to each other.
• After prayers in Becket Chapel, Chaucer’s pilgrims setting out upon the road to Canterbury made a last London stop at Bear Tavern at the bridge-foot.
• For all practical purposes, ancient London Bridge was dismantled in 1834, but for all imaginative possibilities, I hope it becomes resurrected in each person who looks at the many old drawings of it online and reads about it in my book: the only novel set upon old London Bridge.
For a taste of the novel, read “Thomas Becket’s Bones Are Missing,” a short story adapted from the book and published in the Sewanee Review in 2006. London Bridge in Plague and Fire is on sale now.